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.
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...
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