(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The first of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been generally disparaged by critics and seldom produced for the stage; the fantastic plot reversals and uneven characterization seem to many a first attempt to dramatize themes that find fuller and better expression in many of Shakespeare's later plays. Robert Ornstein (1986) has claimed that many of the elements that Shakespeare explored in The Two Gentlemen of Verona appear more successfully in The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labour's Lost. Critics such as Kurt Schlueter (1990) have tried to enumerate the sources Shakespeare used—including Montemayor's Diana and Boccaccio's "Titus and Gisippus"—to emphasize the variety of influences Shakespeare drew on to create the play.

Some modern critics have tried to explore the unlikely plot elements by examining Shakespeare's characterization. John P. Cutts (1968), for instance, has found Proteus and Valentine's treatment of Julia and Silvia a consequence of their unwillingness to confront the self-interest that underlies their conduct. Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (1980) have viewed Proteus as a nearly metaphorical representation of change, which they claim is apparent in the character's soliloquies. Frederick Kiefer (1986) has stressed the importance of letter-writing to the character changes and plot reversals that take place throughout the play.

Many critics have focused on Shakespeare's treatment of desire and gender in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. J. L. Simmons (1993) has argued that the play is "traversed and thwarted by anxieties of 'coming out,'" and involves the overcoming of male friendship in the production of heterosexual desire. Mimetic desire has also become an important topic of recent Shakespearean criticism; René Girard (1989) has explored mimetic desire and the role it plays in Valentine's incitement of Proteus' love for Silvia. The issue of desire is further complicated by the intercession of Julia in disguise, as a servant boy helping Proteus to woo Silvia. Michael Shapiro (1994) has claimed that Shakespeare's handling of the gender reversal is groundbreaking and recurs in his later works. He also notes that such a reversal lends insight to Renaissance sexual politics and finds that Julia's dramatic authority is established in large part by a self-conscious appeal to masculine tropes.

The friendship between Valentine and Proteus and their love for Silvia and Julia forms a main theme in the play. This dramatization of the relationship between male-male friendship and heterosexual love has led to varying interpretations: Ruth Morse (1983) has considered Shakespeare to be dramatizing the tension between the two, William Rossky (1982) interpreted the play to be a burlesque of Renaissance attitudes on the subject, and W. Thomas MacCary (1985) viewed the play as a unification of the homoerotic model of love with the heterosexual model adopted by Shakespeare's contemporaries. Conflicting interpretations of the play and the amount of recent criticism have shown The Two Gentlemen of Verona to be not only important to understanding the elements of plot and characterization that recur in later plays, but also prove the play to be an interesting exploration of themes such as the production of desire and gender identity, and the relationship between love and friendship.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Two Gentlemen of Verona," in Shakespeare 's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 48-62.

[In this essay, Ornstein surveys the characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and compares the play with Shakespeare's other comedies.]

Unlike Errors and Love's Labor's, which are frequently and successfully staged today, Two Gentlemen is not often produced and very rarely to critical acclaim. The play is interesting enough to hold an audience's interest despite an unaccountably silly final scene, but not if directors lack confidence in its artistic qualities or reduce its characters to clichès Silvia often seems to step out of a pre-Raphaelite painting; almost invariably she is golden-haired, ethereal, and pensive. Julia strides forth as quintessential Elizabethan ingenue—sprightly, winsome, remorselessly girlish in doublet and hose.

Proteus and Valentine usually appear as all-purpose Elizabethan gallants who are almost indistinguishable from one another in their romantic posturings. Where the low comedy of Love 's Labor's is often a trial, the low comedy of Two Gentlemen often seems its crowning glory on stage because Launce and Speed steal every scene they are in and make their supposed betters look like cardboard figures.

Critics can forgive what is tedious in Love 's Labor's for the sake of its witty heroes and heroines. They are less patient with the defects of Two Gentlemen because none of its characters are as vivid as Berowne or the Princess. Julia rises to poignancy in several scenes; Silvia does not seem to wear well; Proteus is unpleasant and Valentine is coolly observed. One can say that Shakespeare is less engaged in his task of artistic creation in Two Gentlemen than he was in Errors or Love's Labor 's, but that impression may be mistaken. It is not easy to assess a play that offers a very romantic dramatic fable and a very detached point of view. We are likely to smile at the melodrama of Two Gentlemen and ignore the penetrating insight it offers into the psychology of male rivalry and romantic egotism. We may also fail to appreciate the comedy of crossed purposes and cunning machinations in Two Gentlemen because we do not expect to find this kind of ironic plotting in an early comedy, especially one whose heroines are less experienced and wary than the heroines of Errors and Love's Labor's.

Where other romantic heroines seem precociously wise and knowledgeable about the way of the world, Julia and Silvia seem very innocent and therefore vulnerable. At first Julia cannot imagine the possibility that Proteus may stop loving her or find another woman more desirable. If she is not a storybook heroine she is one who has gained her knowledge of men and women from romantic tales; she has at first the blushing modesty and naive ardor of a schoolgirl. Too prim to admit her love of Proteus, she pretends anger at his wooing and tears up his letter, only to piece it together when her maid Lucetta exits. Unable to bear separation from Proteus, she plans to fly to Milan on "love's wings" to be with him; that journey will be for her a pilgrimage to his "divine perfection." Threatened by an enforced marriage to a dolt, Silvia dares to show her preference for Valentine despite her father's glowerings. She is ready to elope with Valentine and to join him in banishment, but she is also given to lecturing Proteus in a relentlessly high-minded and ultimately comic fashion.

Compared to Julia and Silvia, Proteus and Valentine are worldly wise. They are not necessarily more experienced in love but they are much less innocent in attitude and speak knowingly and unpleasantly of the ways men win the hearts of women. Their emotional responses are also more sophisticated than the heroines' and threaded by egotism. They have read sonnet cycles and mastered the literary language of love; they can embroider their speeches with Petrarchan conceits and neoplatonic sophistries. It is ironic that Proteus, who declares himself love's votary, should prove fickle and predatory. It is more ironic that he does not struggle much against such unworthy desire or feel remorse at jilting Julia. As protean in his scruples he is in his romantic desires, he expounds a religion of love that allows him to worship one saint, abandon her for another goddess, and still remain a true believer. He is a bit more sensitive about his betrayal of Valentine's friendship, but he takes comfort in the romanticist's credo that all's fair in love and war. If he were an allegorical figure, his name alone would account for his giddiness of character; but he cannot be caddish by nature and still worthy of Julia's love and Valentine's friendship. If Two Gentlemen is to be a comedy, Proteus must be capable of redemption. He cannot seem morally shapeless; although he falls easily, he must be able to recover his initial nobility.

By reducing the octet of heroes and heroines in Love's Labor 's to two pairs of lovers, Shakespeare can trace in some detail the emotional and psychological development of Proteus, Julia, and Valentine. At the same time, however, he is content to reduce dramatic setting to a kind of shadowy backdrop against which his romantic fable unfolds. While the proposed academy of Navarre is a literary joke, the court of Navarre is real enough: it has a king, noble lords, retainers, even a pedant, curate, constable, clown, and visiting Spanish fantastico. Similarly, the Ephesus of Errors has imaginary substance: streets, houses, inns, even an abbey with abbess, a quack doctor, merchants, a duke, courtesan, jailer, and jeweler. The Verona and Milan of Two Gentlemen, however, are little more than placenames, or perhaps scenes on a painted cloth. Where Romeo and Juliet are surrounded in Verona by family, friends, servants, and local citizenry, Proteus and Julia are not part of any social milieu either in Verona or Milan.1 Because she is not encumbered by family or friends, Julia is not subject to the pressures that continually weigh on Juliet. She can decide on the spur of the moment to steal away in disguise to Milan, and once there to enter into service as a page to Proteus; she is ready to follow her romantic destiny wherever it leads. Proteus's life is somewhat more complicated in that he must obey his father's command to join Valentine in Milan even though he wishes to stay in Verona with Julia. Yet his father exists only for the brief scene in which he sends Proteus off, and Proteus is victimized by his own cleverness, not by an overbearing father. Unwilling to declare his love of Julia, he protests his desire to join Valentine so convincingly that he is given leave, that is, told to do so—a comic irony prophetic of less amusing ironies to come. Silvia's father, the Duke of Milan, has a bit more substance, but he lacks the reality of Capulet although he plays Capulet's role to Silvia's Juliet. Where Capulet comes alive in his joviality and pride, his affection and blusterings, the Duke is the archetypal tyrannical father of legends and folk tale. Sir Thurio and Sir Eglamour are little more than dramatic speech-heads, and the outlaws Valentine meets are anonymous and indistinguishable one from the other, cutthroats supplied, as it were, by central casting. Only Launce, Proteus's comic servant, has a family history of any note. Though his relatives never appear on stage, they assume an almost Dickensian reality in his account of his farewell to his father, mother, sister, dog, and cat. Indeed, Launce's dog is one of the more vivid personalities in the play because we are privy to the intimate details of his canine existence, including his toilet habits.

The comedy of Launce and his dog is just one of the recurring motifs that lend an architectural unity to the episodic plot of Two Gentlemen. Montemayor's Diana tells of an exchange of letters between the hero, Don Felix/Proteus and the heroine, Diana/Julia, and one between Don Felix and Celia/Silvia, who rejects his wooing. Shakespeare makes the convention of the love letter a source of comedy and a structural device. Where Proteus is too clever for his own good in concocting a story about Julia's letter, she is ingenuous in pretending disinterest in his letter. Silvia is more artful in using the trick of a letter to reveal her love to Valentine, but he is not quick to grasp her intention. The letter motif recurs when the disguised Julia, sent to deliver a love letter from Proteus to Silvia, almost makes the "mistake" of giving her a letter she received from Proteus. The discovery of a letter ruins Valentine's plan to elope with Silvia, and Julia's habit of mixing up letters and rings precipitates the final moral discovery of the play—Proteus's realization of his dastardly behavior. Where Julia has difficulty delivering the correct letter, Launce has difficulty delivering the correct present to Silvia, who refuses to accept Crab as a love token.

Unless a director draws attention to the letter motif by stage business, it is not likely that many in an audience will note its recurrence. The weightier dramatic and moral contrasts in the play are bound to impress, however. Proteus, the avowed votary of love, proves false in his devotion; Valentine, somewhat skeptical of love despite his name, proves a more flamboyant wooer than Proteus. When the skeptical Valentine turns ardent swain, the ardent Proteus turns Machiavellian schemer. By inventing the character of Valentine, Shakespeare makes Proteus's fall doubly shameful because he violates the bond of friendship as well as his vow of love. Yet there is no intimation that Proteus's affection for Valentine is shallow or suspect; on the contrary, theirs is at first the kind of friendship that Renaissance courtesy books idealize. The opening scene of the play shows two youths who have known one another for years and are completely open and trusting with each other. Playing Benvolio to Proteus's Romeo, Valentine would cure him of love-melancholy by persuading him to complete his education as a gentleman. His teasing is always affectionate; he does not deride Proteus's love of Julia even though he thinks that it prevents him from venturing forth and keeps him "living dully sluggardized at home." He can appreciate Proteus's devotion to Julia and hopes that he will love as deeply and truly himself:

But since thou lov'st, love still, and thrive
Even as I would, when I to love begin.


As his name intimates, Valentine is a romantic like Proteus despite his willingness to play the role of devil's advocate. Their discussion of love is filled with echoes of Elizabethan love poetry, as well it should be, because Valentine is like the unnamed friend of Astrophil who chides him for neglecting the claims of honor and ambition. To be in love, Valentine argues, is to buy scorn with groans,

Coy looks with heart-sore sighs; one fading
moment's mirth
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights:
If happ'ly won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labor won;
However—but a folly bought with wit,
Or else a wit by folly vanquished.


This rebuke is far gentler than the one that causes Astrophil to cry out in Sidney's Sonnet 14:

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend;
But with your rhubarb words ye must contend,
To grieve me worse in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-form'd soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?2

Like Astrophil's counselor, Valentine warns Proteus not to let love become his master. Proteus replies:

Yet writers say: as in the sweetest bud
The eating canker dwells, so eating love
Inhabits in the finest wits of all.

Valentine uses the same sonnet imagery to describe the sickness of love:

And writers say: as the most forward bud
Is eaten by the canker ere it blow,
Even so by love the young and tender wit
Is turn'd to folly, blasting in the bud,

Losing his verdure, even in the prime,
And all the fair effects of future hopes.


Although Proteus will not be argued out of love, he does not angrily deny Valentine's premises, for he shares to some extent Valentine's ambivalence about love, an ambivalence that can be found in Elizabethan sonnets that speak of love both as a sublime mystery and an affliction or unmanly dotage.3 The term folly runs through Valentine's admonitions, as does the suggestion that the expense of spirit in love is not worth the fleeting ecstasy it may bring. It is a rose but also a canker that can blast the bud of youth. When Valentine leaves, Proteus admits his own divided "Sidneyan" thoughts:

He after honor hunts, I after love:
He leaves his friends, to dignify them more;
I [leave] myself, my friends, and all, for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphis'd me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.


Although this mood passes, Proteus is nevertheless afraid to tell his father that he loves and would stay in Verona, because the ideal of manhood to which Valentine and his father allude demands travel, study, and honorable accomplishments that win applause from other men.

Montemayor need not explain Don Felix/Proteus's wandering affections because such emotional vagaries are the sine qua non of romantic tales and the least of the trials a heroine must endure. For Shakespeare, however, Proteus's lack of fidelity is a crucial issue, one that deserves extended exposition. He does not attempt to give Proteus much psychological depth or complexity; rather, he implicates Valentine in Proteus's fall in a way that illuminates the nature of male egotism. Like Proteus, Valentine appears at his best in the first scene of the play, in which they are devoted friends. At the court of Milan he proves a sharp-tongued, aggressive rival to Thurio, whom he openly insults and baits. He generously praises Proteus to the Duke as a complete gentlemen, but when Proteus arrives at court, he preens himself on the possession of Silvia's heart. He asks her to confirm Proteus's welcome "with some special favor," and "entertain him / To be my fellow-servant to your ladyship."

Alone with Proteus Valentine speaks of himself as one humbled by love, but his praise of Silvia is arrogant. He would have Proteus agree that Silvia is a heavenly saint, divine, "sovereign to all creatures on the earth" including Julia, who

shall be dignified with this high honor—
To bear my lady's train, lest the base earth
Should from her vesture chance to steal a kiss,
And of so great a favor growing proud,
Disdain to root the summer-swelling flow'r,
And make rough winter everlastingly.


Proteus, who can sympathize with Valentine's rapture, is astonished by this blatant egotism. He asks, "Why, Valentine, what braggadism is this?" Like many sonneteers, Valentine protests that his most extravagant praise is not adequate to his mistress's worth; then he proceeds to describe that worth as his treasure:

Why, man, she is mine own,
And I as rich in having such a jewel
As twenty seas, if all their sand were pearl,
The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold.


While the sentiment is conventional, Valentine's lines become unpleasantly provocative in their dramatic context: they make an envious Proteus eager to win Silvia for himself. Hardly in the grip of irresistible desire, Proteus wonders in soliloquy if it is his eye

or Valentinus' praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression
That makes me reasonless, to reason thus?


Proteus does not try to convince himself that Silvia is more beautiful than Julia. He knows that he desires her because Valentine adores her and boasts of her love. Abandoning Julia, he pursues Silvia for the same reason Demetrius will abandon Helena and pursue Hermia, who is Lysander's love. It is the thrill of rivalry that sets the price of the women for whom men compete. Proteus's knowledge of his motives is fascinating because he does not pretend to be overwhelmed by passion. He employs neoplatonic sophistry to justify a sober determination to be blinded by Silvia's "perfections":

'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light,
But when I look on her perfections,
There is no reason but I shall be blind.
If I can check my erring love, I will;
If not, to compass her I'll use my skill.


When Proteus next appears, his "struggle" is over. He speaks coolly of his perjured state in lines that are free of anguish. The flatness of his statements leaves no doubt that his excuses are perfunctory. He knows that he should be torn by emotional and moral conflict, but he does not feel that turmoil, and thus his equivocations are as perfunctory as a classroom recitation:

I cannot leave to love, and yet I do;
But there I leave to love where I should love.
Julia I lose, and Valentine I lose:
If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;
If I lose them, thus find I by their loss—
For Valentine, myself; for Julia, Silvia.


Although it is becoming fashionable to interpret Shakespeare's characters by reference to their linguistic idiosyncracies, as if the key to their behavior lay in the speech centers of their brains, Proteus is not duped by his verbal ingenuity any more than the lords of Navarre are duped by the witty paradoxes they use to rationalize their defection from monasticism. Unlike them, he takes no pleasure in his rationalizations, which flatly express his calculating egotism in a torrent of "I's." Julia is also extravagant in her rhetoric in the early scenes of the play; she declares her love of Proteus in literary hyperboles that closely resemble his.4 Making a religion out of her love, she declares that when she rejoins Proteus in Milan, she will rest as "a blessed soul doth in Elysium." She speaks of herself as one who is unable to resist the hot fire of her need for Proteus even as Proteus says he is unable to resist love's commandment to betray Julia and Valentine. It is ironic, of course, that Proteus announces his treachery just before Julia insists upon his sincerity and truth, his inviolable oaths and immaculate thoughts, to the skeptical Lucetta. But Proteus's faithlessness does not make her devotion folly. If her hyperboles are naive, her faith in Proteus recalls the meaning of the romantic ideal that he betrays. We would not have Julia more sober and rational in love; we would have Proteus more worthy of a love that naturally speaks in poetic hyperbole.

The scenes of intrigue in act 3, in which Proteus, the Duke, and Valentine match wits, are not in Montemayor. They are composed by a Shakespeare who has Brooke's Romeus and Juliet immediately in mind and who is probably beginning to think through the design of Romeo and Juliet. In 2.7 Lucetta plays the Nurse to Julia's Juliet, whom she fears will find herself in a fool's paradise. In act 3 Silvia and Valentine play Juliet and Romeo to the Duke's Capulet and Thurio's Paris, and like Juliet and Romeo, they are separated from one another when Valentine is banished from Milan. Or, more correctly, they are not victimized by malicious fortune but by a dissembling Proteus who makes gratitude to the Duke an excuse for revealing their plan to elope. Tactful as well as two-faced, Proteus asks that his role as informer not be revealed to Valentine, who is, after all, his dearest friend; the Duke, a man of some delicacy, promises on his honor to keep secret Proteus's good deed, his "honest care." He also proves that he can be as cunning as Proteus when he undertakes to outwit Valentine. First he pretends to take him into his confidence; he solicits his help in revenging himself on his ungrateful daughter by disinheriting her and marrying again. Asked by the Duke for advice in wooing his lady, Valentine, who just before was breathless in adoration of Silvia, answers like an experienced rouè who knows precisely how to conquer a woman:

Win her with gifts, if she respect not words:
Dumb jewels often in their silent kind
More than quick words do move a woman's mind.


Many men have sneered more openly at female vanity, but the cynicism of Valentine's advice deepens as he explains the psychology of feminine coyness. When a woman seems to deny, Valentine says, she does so to invite, because "the fools are mad, if left alone":

Flatter and praise, commend, extol their graces;
Though ne'er so black, say they have angels' faces.
That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,
If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.


This cynicism is not a pose that Valentine must adopt to deceive the Duke.5 It is freely offered in response to the Duke's complaint that his Veronese lady is "nice and coy" and unresponsive to his "aged eloquence." The other side of the coin of romantic idealism, Valentine's patronizing view of women is expressed more darkly when Claudio turns on Hero in Much Ado: that is to say, men make goddesses of unsullied virgins because they must be absolutely unlike the women they can casually bed.

Proteus, who volunteers to slander Valentine on Thurio's behalf, also offers cynical advice on how to win Silvia. He would have Thurio "tangle her desires" with "wailful sonnets" filled with "serviceable vows"—a pretty play on words:

Say that upon the altar of her beauty
You sacrifice your tears, your sighs, your heart;
Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears
Moist it again, and frame some feeling line
That may discover such integrity.

(3.2. 72-76)

Donne, a great visitor of women, could testify to the soundness of this advice, for he writes of purchasing a woman's love with vows, tears, and letters.6

At moments like these the comic ironies of Two Gentlemen are almost as brittle as those of Measure for Measure. Indeed, the machinations in which Proteus, Valentine, and the Duke engage are the kind of ironic plotting more commonly found in Elizabethan tragedy than comedy. Knowing that Valentine intends to steal Silvia away with a "corded ladder," the Duke would have him suggest a device to have access to a lady kept from "resort of men." The too-confident Valentine recommends the kind of ladder he has concealed under his cloak, and is hoist by his own petard when the Duke borrows his cloak, ostensibly to see how it fits, and discovers the ladder and a letter to Silvia about their elopement. Valentine laments his fate in lines that anticipate Romeo's self-pitying complaints in Friar Lawrence's cell. Ever the good friend, Proteus offers sage Lawrencian counsel; he also promises to deliver Valentine's letter "in the milk-white bosom of thy love," a promise that mingles false friendship with barely concealed sexual desire.

For all his cleverness, Valentine cannot see the obvious evidences of Proteus's falseness; it never occurs to him that his dear friend was the only one who knew of his planned elopement and could have betrayed it to the Duke. Launce, however, knows that his "master is a kind of knave." Like Dromio S., he is also adept at parodying the romantic raptures of his master. Swearing that teams of horses will not pluck him from the identity of the woman he loves, he proceeds to tell who she is, and with Speed as his straight man he compiles a mock-Petrarchan catalogue of her excellencies. She is not attractive, chaste, intelligent, or sweet to kiss; on the other hand, she is not talkative, can spin, knit, and brew, and has more wealth than faults. Who could ask for anything more? Immediately after Proteus's extravagant farewell to Julia, Launce enters to describe his tear-drenched farewell to his family, one that was so moving his cat wrang her paws. Unlike Proteus, who sacrifices all to egotism, Launce sacrifices himself to protect his dog Crab, who had the bad manners to piss under the Duke's table. Crab may be a "cruel-hearted" cur, but Launce is a dog's best friend.

Like Launce, Silvia immediately recognizes Proteus's duplicity and rebuffs his wooing with earnest admonitions. Bad luck attends his every attempt to court her: Launce brings her the wrong dog; Julia nearly offers her the wrong letter. The exquisite song with which he serenades her succeeds only in exposing his disloyalty to the disguised Julia. The words of his love song have a significance he could not possibly understand, for they underscore his betrayal of his vow of love. Men may claim that they lie and scheme in pursuit of beauty but the song insists on the oneness of beauty and truth:

Who is Silvia, what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admired be.

(4.2. 39-43)

After Proteus, Valentine, and the Duke demonstrate their skill at dissimilation, Julia and Silvia demonstrate their nobility. A child when she left Verona to see her "saint," Julia must either be shattered by the discovery of Proteus's infidelity or learn how to deal with such realities. She faces the crisis of Proteus's faithlessness as Juliet faces her mother and father's importunities after the banishment of Romeo—with a courage and self-possession that allows poignant touches of humor.7 At first her anguish shows and prompts the Host to ask, "How now, / Are you sadder than you were before?

How do you, man? The music likes you not.
Julia. You mistake; the musician likes me not.
Host. Why, my pretty youth?
Julia. He plays false, father.
Host. How, out of tune on the strings?
Julia. Not so; but yet so false that he grieves
my very heart-strings.
Host. You have a quick ear.
Julia. Ay, I would I were deaf; it makes me
have a slow heart.

(4.2. 55-65)

More affecting than her earlier declarations of love, Julia's restraint persuades us that she is stronger than the man who betrays her, strong enough to continue to love and even pity him because he does not know that his shame has been exposed.8 She has the composure to enter into Proteus's service and become his messenger to Silvia just as Viola will serve as Orsino's ambassador of love to Olivia in Twelfth Night.

The proxy wooing scene in Two Gentlemen is almost as memorable as its analogue in Twelfth Night. Like Viola, Julia is determined to be an incompetent wooer; indeed, she very nearly discloses her true identity by giving Silvia the wrong letter to read. She cannot, however, regard her rival as an adversary because Silvia scorns Proteus's suit and speaks feelingly of the woman he has jilted. Thus even though Silvia does not know that she speaks to Julia, the heroines share a moment of intimacy and sympathy that is a vivid contrast to the ugly machinations that preceded it. Like Viola, Julia obliquely reveals the feelings she cannot openly express. She pretends to describe to Silvia how Proteus's jilted love exposed the roses of her cheeks to wind and sun, neglecting herself because her beauty had become meaningless to her.9 Asked how tall Julia was, she answers:

About my stature; for at Pentecost,
When all our pageants of delight were play'd,

Our youth got me to play the woman's part,
And I was trimm'd in Madam Julia's gown,
Which served me as fit, by all men's
As if the garment had been made for me;
Therefore I know she is about my height.
And at that time I made her weep agood,
For I did play a lamentable part.
Madam, 'twas Ariadne passioning
For Theseus' perjury and unjust flight;
Which I so lively acted with my tears
That my poor mistress, moved therewithal,
Wept bitterly; and would I might be dead
If I in thought felt not her very sorrow.

(4.4. 158-72)

After the height of inspiration reached in this scene, the fiasco of the last act of Two Gentlemen is all the more puzzling. It is as if Shakespeare, no longer interested in his play, patches together a denouement that is very close to burlesque. His lack of engagement in working out the plot shows in the flatness of Sir Eglamour, who helps Silvia to flee Milan; he is a literary shadow, a fairytale knight who vowed a life of chastity at the grave of his only love. If Sir Eglamour had more reality as a character he might convince us, despite Proteus and Valentine, that men are capable of nobility in love. But he is as fictitious as the outlaw band Valentine meets in exile. One part mafioso, one part Sigmund Romberg, with just a dash of D'Oyle Carte for comic flavor, they are refreshingly candid about their line of work. Valentine's suave manner does not take them in. When he addresses them as "my friends," they answer, "That's not so, sir; we are your enemies." Ah, but that deferential "sir" suggests a willingness to listen, especially since they find him "a proper man." A more ingenuous hero would have told them the true story of his banishment. Valentine, however, invents a tale that would win any outlaw's heart: namely, that he was exiled for killing a man. Here is a kindred spirit, someone they can trust and admire, although they do wonder that he was banished "for so small a fault." Since confessions are in order, one outlaw says that he was banished for practicing to steal away a lady; another "for a gentlemen / Who in my mood, I stabbed unto the heart"; a third, for "suchlike petty crimes as these." They make Valentine an offer he cannot refuse: either he will stay and be their general, or refuse and die. Since they are sensitive to rebuffs, they would not want him bragging to others that he turned them down. Like Valentine (and Proteus) the outlaws are romantics at heart—they love and hate at first sight.

The forest in which the outlaws live has a strange psychological effect on all travelers, for with few exceptions those who enter leave their common sense behind. It is not improbable that all the characters would meet in the forest or that Proteus should rescue Silvia from the outlaws almost in sight of Valentine. It is to be expected that Silvia will again reject Proteus's advances because she denied them before with tight-lipped disapproval. When he had finished his song, she told him to go home to bed:

Thou subtile, perjur'd, false, disloyal man,
Think'st thou I am so shallow, so conceitless,
To be seduced by thy flattery,
That hast deceiv'd so many with thy vows?


In the forest Silvia's earnestness reaches new heights. Proteus, who has rescued her from cutthroats, asks for "one fair look." She replies:

Had I been seized by a hungry lion,
I would have been a breakfast to the beast
Rather than have false Proteus rescue me.


We may smile at such high-mindedness, but Proteus is willing to reduce his request from "one fair look" to "one calm look." Unwilling to negotiate, Silvia continues to harp on his betrayal of Julia and Valentine, and declares that...

(The entire section is 13731 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

John P. Cutts (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," in The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays, Wayne State University Press, 1968, pp. 34-42.

[In the following essay, Cutts examines the lack of self-understanding on the part of the characters in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona.]

The Two Gentlemen of Verona begins to exploit the protean situations love will put man through in his quest for true, unMuscovited, unvizarded, and unshamable love. "Who is Silvia? What is she," the delicious touchstone lyric of the play, is deliberately enigmatical. Who is Silvia? What is she? She is...

(The entire section is 6854 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

René Girard (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Love Delights in Praises: A Reading of The Two Gentleman of Verona" in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, October, 1989, pp. 231-47.

[In this essay, Girard examines the role that mimetic desire plays in the plot, which portrays Proteus losing interest in his former lover, Julia and falling in love with Silvia once he learns of his friend Valentine 's overwhelming desire for this lady. Precisely because the two young men are alike, they are predisposed to want the same things.]


Valentine and Proteus have been friends since their earliest childhood in Verona, and...

(The entire section is 15721 words.)

Love And Friendship

(Shakespearean Criticism)

William Rossky (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Two Gentleman of Verona as Burlesque," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 210-19.

[In the following essay, Rossky views The Two Gentlemen of Verona as a burlesque or satire of Renaissance attitudes toward friendship and love.]

Among the variety of critical approaches which attempt to explain why The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, or seems to our time to be, a Shakespearean failure, the most prevalent is the rationalization that the play is a serious dramatization of conventional Renaissance ethical thought, especially on the supremacy of friendship over...

(The entire section is 17501 words.)

Gender Identity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Michael Shapiro (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Bringing the Page Onstage: The Two Gentlemen of Verona" in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages, The University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 65-92.

[In the following essay, Shapiro examines Shakespeare 's use of cross-gender disguise in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.]

Although heroines in male disguise are a common feature of medieval and Renaissance narratives, Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1593) is one of the earliest English plays to bring the motif onstage.1 It is also the first in which a heroine disguised as a page...

(The entire section is 11429 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Adelman, Janet. "Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies." In Shakespeare's "Rough Magic": Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélla Kahn, pp. 73-103. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Claims that The Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona wrestle with the theme of male bonding and its disruption by women, a theme that reappears in Shakespeare's later tragedies and romances.

Brooks, Charles. "Shakespeare's Heroine Actresses." Shakespeare Jahrbuch 96 (1960): 134-44.

Examines the girl-page character in several of Shakespeare's plays to explore its relevance to contemporary issues of...

(The entire section is 393 words.)