In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, William Shakespeare is learning the craft of playwriting, with plot elements, characters, and comic situations that will reappear in later plays. The work also mirrors the literary vogues of its time, particularly the popular prose romances of the day—forerunners of the sentimental novel and the twentieth century psychological novel—that trace the turbulence of adolescence and of youth. Some of Shakespeare’s later comedies and his Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597) reflect a similar concern. Himself then the father of a daughter approaching her teens, Shakespeare may have been especially sensitive to the problems of youth.
Proteus and Valentine are Italianates—young gentlemen sent abroad to acquire perfection at a foreign court. Proteus’s name, a common Elizabethan label for the Italianate, further establishes that identification. Critics have made much of the geographical “inaccuracy” of Valentine’s departure for Milan by boat, ignoring the fact that Shakespeare was too well read and too familiar with the geography of Europe not to know that travel from the real Verona to Milan would have to be land. As in his other plays, Shakespeare uses place names for their connotations. Verona was the home of the lovers Romeo and Juliet, Milan the fashion center of Europe and the seat of the imperial court. With this Verona and this Milan he can retain the three worlds of his source, Jorge de Montemayor’s prose romance Diana (c. 1559): the world of lovers subject to parental oversight, the sophisticated world of the court, and the green world of the forest.
In the first world, Proteus, like Felis in Diana and Euphues in John Lyly’s romance of that name (Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, 1578), lives through the wild emotional swings and naïve tentativeness of adolescence, and he submits tamely to his elders. He is in love with love and has an idealized vision of the court, where he hopes to achieve perfection.
In the second world, the world of the court, Proteus is metamorphosed by self-interest and begins to assume poses. His desire for Valentine’s Silvia leads him first to disloyalty to both his friend and to Julia and eventually to outright treachery. At the end, rejected by Silvia after his final pose as a knight errant who rescues her from outlaws, Proteus tries to take Silvia by force. Even the more stable Valentine changes at court, becoming adept at exaggerated expression; perfection for him becomes a matter of rhetorical skill—“A man is no man if with his tongue he cannot win a woman”—and a proficiency in conventional formulas and flattery. In fact, as Peter Lindenbaum pointed out, Valentine’s love affair is a reaction to his court experience.
Some critics have found fault with the way the play ends in the last of these worlds, the green world. Here, outlaws are readily pardoned, Proteus is forgiven his assault on Silvia, and Valentine temporarily resigns his claim on his beloved in favor of Proteus. Though Proteus’s repentance seems sudden, it is plausible because it is preceded by the shock he receives when his villainy is publicly exposed and he recognizes his self-deception. With this recognition, the idealized picture of perfection that the Verona youth envisions for himself—hearing sweet discourse, conversing with noblemen, and being in the eye of every exercise worthy of a nobleman—suddenly gives way to the truth. The court produces this villain, and “shame and guilt confound him.” Proteus recognizes not only his own imperfection but that of all humankind: “were man but constant, he were perfect.”
To Valentine and to the duke also comes discovery. The duke discovers the true nature of his favorite, Thurio, and of the despised “peasant” Valentine, and he learns to look at Valentine with new eyes and to consider him worthy of his...
(The entire section is 972 words.)