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 effective plot device, serving to move the action forward both for comic purpose and tragicomic direction.
Like most other Shakespearean comedies, the main action of The Two Gentlemen of Verona focuses on the contrast and interaction of male and female characters. Jonathan Hall (1995) characterizes this type of involvement in the play as a study of the contrast between male inconstancy and female constancy. According to Hall, the evil of inconstancy is a male failing, and this male changeability is seen by the critic as more than just an unfortunate inclination of the sex. Instead, Hall calls it the source of cultural dislocation in the play, in which the foundations of the patriarchal order are dishonored. The resistance of the female characters to male rhetoric, says Hall, allows the women the power to help restore the men to the truth, just as the women in Love's Labour's Lost do. The female characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, like Shakespeare's other redeeming heroines, combat the threats to the patriarchal order.
A study of contemporary records indicates that The Two Gentlemen of Verona was not successful in performance during Shakespeare's lifetime. In fact, the first record of its performance occurs a century and a half after Shakespeare’s death, when David Garrick, a noted eighteenth-century actor and manager, directed an altered version of the play. In their essay detailing the major productions of the play, Carol J. Carlisle and Patty S. Derrick (1997) note that The Two Gentlemen of Verona has seen more productions in British provincial and American regional theaters than it has on major stages in England or the United States. According to Carlisle and Derrick, although The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a charming play, a production needs to overcome its weaknesses, somehow turning these to advantages in order to stage it effectively. The play's major flaws, note the critics, include a formulaic plot, thinly-drawn characters, and an “absurd” conclusion. The critics point to Shakespeare's method, so notable in later comedies, of balancing romance and humor and note that it has been employed much less skillfully in this early attempt, thus making it difficult to translate the text into theatrical terms. Regardless of the obstacles inherent to the staging of the play, Carlisle and Derrick contend that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is becoming better known in the theater and that it will continue to present a challenge because it demands a significant collaboration between the author and the theater.