The Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Stage: Protean Problems and Protean Solutions
by William Shakespeare

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Stage: Protean Problems and Protean Solutions

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Carol J. Carlisle, University of South Carolina
Patty S. Derrick, University of Pittsburgh

In the theater, as in the study, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, possibly Shakespeare's earliest comedy, has traditionally been one of his least popular plays. By our present count, there have been just twenty-four productions of it on the London stage since Shakespeare's time, and seven of these were first seen elsewhere.1 At Stratford-upon-Avon there have been only ten since the annual Festivals began there in 1879. Most of the productions in these two major centers have been in the twentieth century, the greater number in the second half. The play has also been produced three times by the BBC, twice on radio and once on television. In New York, as one would expect, Two Gentlemen has had a much slighter stage history than in London,2 and at the "other Stratford" in Ontario it has had just four productions in a forty-year history. Curiously enough, however, a surprising number of British provincial theaters and American regional or festival companies have been willing, at least once or twice, to tackle the problems of this "flawed but endearing play."3

Two Gentlemen does have its charms, but they are largely offset by its peculiar weaknesses. To evoke its magic, a production must overcome these weaknesses or somehow turn them to advantage. Although the same basic problems have confronted producers of the play in all post-Shakespearean periods, some have loomed larger at one time than at another because of differing social and theatrical conventions, and the solutions that actors and directors have found for them have therefore varied considerably. Since such solutions (or attempted solutions) have influenced interpretation of the play, not singly but in varying combinations, it is best to consider them within the contexts of particular productions. Accordingly, we shall discuss here some salient productions from each period in toto, giving our fullest attention to seminal ones and occasionally mentioning others to illustrate trends.

First, the problems. For the average reader, Two Gentlemen, with its formula-ridden plot, outdated conventions, sketchily drawn characters, and absurd conclusion, is probably too simplistic and too incredible to be very interesting; at the same time, it may have an oddly disturbing effect since the apparent simplicities prove, on examination, too slippery to catch hold of with assurance. This combination of characteristics is not a hopeful one for effective stage production.

The dramatic action of Two Gentlemen is largely illus trative of either faithfulness or disloyalty to the potentially conflicting ideals of heroic friendship and courtly love—impossibly rarefied ideals for everyday human life, as the action demonstrates, yet far better than none at all.4 The concept of ideal friendship, grounded in a medieval blend of classical and scholastic ideas with the lore of blood brotherhood, was prominent in Elizabethan retellings and dramatizations of old tales like Titus and Gisippus, glorifying two men of equal endowments and mutual interests who were so united in love that each became the other's alter ego—a relation that could transcend love between the sexes.5 The ideals and conventions of courtly love, a Renaissance descendant of medieval literature portraying love as an all-consuming power and the lover as humble "servant" to a religiously worshipped lady, were found in the Petrarchan lyrics and the romances of the Renaissance, including Jorge de Montemayor's Diana, the source (direct or indirect) of Shakespeare's Julia-Proteus plot.6 Although love and friendship are ageless, these particular concepts had lost their familiarity before any post-Shakespearean revival of Two Gentlemen; thus, the heroes' language and actions might well seem a little strange to later audiences. But, even within the context of their own world, Valentine and Proteus are hard to take seriously as romantic heroes.

The naive Valentine is (or becomes) a devotee...

(The entire section is 11,754 words.)