Thoughts on Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’

Introduction

You may never have the chance to see a production – stage or film – of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for reasons that I’ll touch upon below.  However, if you like reading the plays, you may enjoy this one, as I do.

I’ve been prompted to make some comments by seeing a production by a South Wales company (Fluellen), which capitalised on the light, comic parts offered by the parts of the witty servants (Lucetta, Speed, and Launce, with his dog), as well as the ridiculous “outlaws” and Thurio.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is centred on the rival claims of (i) male friendship and (ii) heterosexual love.

This conflict is to be found in the literary works cited by editors as sources for the play.  (Norman Sanders refers to these in his 1968 New Penguin edition, pages 8-12).

Other features of the play are:

  1. two (or more) pairs of lovers (compare, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  2. domineering fathers (compare, for example, the Dream)
  3. flight from the city and taking refuge in the countryside (compare, for example, the Dream and As You Like It)
  4. women disguising themselves as men (cf Portia, Nerissa, Rosalind, Viola and Imogen)
  5. the overhearing by one character (or group) of another, who does not know he or she is being observed (of many examples, one is to be found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 4 Scene 3).

The plot

The principal gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who are close friends.  The principal ladies are Julia and Silvia.  From the outset, Julia and Proteus are in love.

Next, Valentine leaves home for the court of Milan.  There, he falls in love with Silvia, and she with him.  Proteus is himself sent to Milan by his father, and Julia and he say their fond farewells.  But, arrived in Milan, Proteus transfers his affections to Silvia and (behind Valentine’s back) attempts to woo her (despite being rebuffed).

Julia misses Proteus: she dresses as a man and makes her way to Milan to find him.

(Julia, indeed, is a particularly strong character.  Norman Sanders describes her as: “the first of those comic heroines of Shakespeare who….impress the audience by their combination of good sense and healthy sensuality” [page 23]).

One at a time, Silvia, Julia and (finally) Valentine discover Proteus’s fickleness and disloyalty to his friend.  There is a climax and a crisis – and a resolution, of sorts.

I’d now like to look at two scenes.

Act 5 Scene 4

This is the final scene.  The trouble with it is this: Valentine not only forgives Proteus his treachery but also offers to give up his own claim to Silvia (without consulting the ladies): “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee,” he declares (New Penguin, line 83).

Julia asserts herself and makes good her claim on Valentine; and the pairings required by the happy ending are restored.  But Proteus looks unpleasant and selfish; and Valentine looks naïve and misguided.

The construction of this scene is faulty: while Julia, Proteus and Valentine are negotiating a settlement, Silvia remains silent, from line 59 to line 174 (the end).

The play ends, then, with a plan for a double marriage – a rather forced happy ending.

Act 4 Scene 2

This scene is touching and effective – perhaps the best in the whole play.

Here, Julia (still in disguise) witnesses Proteus’s serenading of Silvia (ostensibly on behalf of Thurio, but really for himself).

The scene is enhanced by the inclusion of one of Shakespeare’s most famous songs, set to music by many composers (eg Franz Schubert), namely, “Who is Silvia?” [lines 38-52].

In the ensuing dialogue, with the host of the inn where she is staying, Julia vividly conveys her feelings:

HOST 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.  [lines 53-57]

(And the dialogue, with its double meanings, continues.)

Conclusion

The play has not the poise and polish of (say) A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It has defects in its construction and the credibility of certain of its characters, so it poses a challenge to companies that wish to stage it.  However, it contains poetic verse and witty prose, and it is a pleasure to read.  The reader might like to imagine how a good production might deal with its weaknesses and make the most of its strengths.

David R Harries

May 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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