The Two Gentlemen of Verona
One of Shakespeare's early comedies (written circa 1590-91), The Two Gentlemen of Verona has never been as highly acclaimed as his later romantic and comic works. Considered by most as an apprentice-like romantic comedy, critics perceive the play to be marred by problematic plot development, uneven verse, and an awkward ending. These shortcomings have led many scholars to question both the circumstances of its composition and the authenticity of Shakespeare as its author. Some critics view The Two Gentlemen of Verona as an example of the playwright's early work and point to the flaws in the play as evidence that it was composed when Shakespeare was still a young playwright who had not yet perfected his craft. Other critics contend that the problematic fifth act and ending are proof that the play was hastily completed by Shakespeare to fill a gap in his theater company's repertory schedule. However, there is little evidence that The Two Gentlemen of Verona was ever performed during Shakespeare's lifetime. The main source of the play is Jorge de Montemayor's Spanish romance Diana Enamorada (1559; English translation 1598), a tale of an unfaithful lover and his mistress. Shakespeare followed this and other sources closely, molding the action of the play to explore the themes of love and friendship. While many issues and themes have been addressed in the critical appraisals of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, most commentaries on the play address both the flaws of the play as well as its influence on Shakespeare's later comedies.
As is typical of most Shakespearean comedies, there is a contrast between the idyllic setting of the forest or country versus the worldly and sophisticated environment of the court where Proteus and Valentine begin their educational journey. In contrast to the main characters of Proteus and Valentine, note Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (1980), the characters of Speed and Launce comment on, as well as parody, the situations in which the main characters find themselves. In the course of the play, Proteus and Valentine must finally learn that the well-mannered court of Milan is not an appropriate place for an education, but that true love and real life only exist outside this arena. Settings such as the forest offer reform, a refuge, and a place where innate virtue is recognized and rewarded. According to Felheim and Traci, all these themes, though not as skillfully explored in The Two Gentlemen of Verona as in Shakespeare's later plays, provide the groundwork for many of his later, more successful, romantic comedies.
Since the early twentieth century, study of The Two Gentlemen of Verona has focused heavily on Shakespeare's treatment of the romantic material in the play. Muriel C. Bradbrook (1989) states that the play is built on the conventions of love and friendship, and that Shakespeare used these to explore the moods embodied in the comedy. In her discussion of the setting, Bradbrook calls the play an evocative drama that is more closely related to Shakespeare's final romances, such as The Tempest, rather than to later comedies, despite the fact that The Two Gentlemen of Verona shares its Italian setting with the later comedies. The critic also proposes that the play, which includes a great deal of parody, is founded upon the courtly assumptions of the “game” of love. Frederick Kiefer (1986) examines the role of love letters in the play, characterizing them as experimental theatrical props that serve multiple functions. According to Kiefer, love is connected with reading and writing throughout the play, and the letters are integral to the advancement of the plot, to the revelation of character, and to the evocation of emotions. In fact, Kiefer feels that contrary to the generally held opinion that this play is an apprentice piece, the use of letters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona reveals it as a skillfully composed and thoughtful effort. Kiefer points to the letters in the play as a highly...
(The entire section is 24,410 words.)