The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Critics past and present have observed that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play fraught with inconsistencies and marred by weak characterization and largely unmotivated reversals. As such the play, which was composed early in Shakespeare's career, has often been regarded as an example of the young playwright's inexperience. Despite the play's reputation as a botched attempt at dramaturgy, many modern critics have found much to be studied and valued in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Howard C. Cole (1989), for example, admits that the play contains many weaknesses, but observes that the combination of the earnest tone of the play and the “adroit burlesque” of the subplot reveals the ideals of love and friendship in a new way.
The ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which contains major reversals of fortune for the play's lovers, has been the subject of much critical discussion. William Rossky (1982) notes that the burlesque of the play's ending is unmatched by any other component of the play. Rossky argues that the play as a whole should be viewed as satire rather than as a failed attempt to dramatize the conventions of Renaissance ethical thought, and maintains that his view of the play is supported by both its comic patterns and by an awareness of Elizabethan attitudes regarding love and friendship. Like Rossky, Margaret Maurer (1989) focuses her analysis of the play on its ending. Maurer asserts that the minor inconsistencies throughout the play have a rhetorical relationship to the play's ending.
Another element of The Two Gentlemen of Verona that has been examined by modern critics is the relationships of the four lovers in the play: Valentine, Silvia, Proteus, and Julia. Claus Bratt Østergaard (1995) points out that the dilemma presented by the play is that in order to have love one must disregard friendship; yet the love one seeks depends on the friendship that has been disclaimed. Silvia and Julia, Østergaard argues, are “displaced representations” of the love between Valentine and Proteus. Østergaard goes on to demonstrate that Silvia and Julia are rivals who compete for love, and that their relationship is acted out through “symbolic representation” in the form of Valentine and Proteus, who are courting the two women. René Girard (1989) examines the relationships among the four lovers in terms of “second-hand” or mimetic desire. Girard demonstrates the significant role Valentine plays in the onset of Proteus's desire for Silvia. This passion, Girard argues, is generated by Proteus's disposition to desire what Valentine desires.
The plot and its reversals also have been the focus of many critical studies. Charles A. Hallett (1996) contends that a disjunction exists between the plot situations and the characters involved in those situations. Hallett further states that Shakespeare created characters within the Renaissance conventions of romantic love, but the play's plot does not enable the characters to behave in accordance with those conventions. Although Hallett views the reversals in the play as not believably motivated, he suggests that Shakespeare in this early play was experimenting with techniques including the 180-degree reversal, and that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is valuable as a document providing early evidence of Shakespeare's exploration of plotting techniques. Similarly, Larry S. Champion (1970) finds the plot reversals to be unsupported by credible motivation, and argues that Shakespeare was primarily interested in exploiting the comic potential of plot situations he knew to be popular with his audience. Champion maintains that Shakespeare's emphasis on plot is further evidenced by both his heavily stylized characterization and hyperbolic rhetoric.
Like Charles A. Hallett, Camille Wells Slights (1993) observes the influence of Renaissance conventions on The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Yet Slights maintains that the play's main theme is an exploration not of the conflict between the ideals of love and friendship, but rather of the Renaissance notion of what is considered the proper behavior of a gentlemen in courtly society. Slights compares the play to contemporary texts on gentlemanly behavior, including Castiglione's The Courtier, and argues that the play presents courtly discourse and eloquence in a positive light, but also demonstrates the fragility of this ideal.