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the two gentlemen of verona

14 september 2010

Awhile back I figured that if you could read just one Shakespeare play per month – which doesn't seem unreasonable – you could read all of them in three years; and then, by repeating the process, keep reading Shakespeare on a three-year cycle and stay relatively familiar with at least his plays. I tried getting on that treadmill once or twice, with no more success than my attempts at regular Bible reading or stretching exercises. So I can't promise a monthly essay on a different Shakespeare play for the next three years, but I can at least say I've now read three in the past six months, and we'll see where that pace leads.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a rather mechanical play about a very limited set of erotic permutations. Proteus and Valentine are the title gentlemen, two of Shakespeare's many death-do-us-part companions in bro'-hood. Proteus loves Julia, and Valentine is a bit jealous till he travels from Verona to Milan and meets Sylvia. All is going along kind of blandly till Proteus is shipped off to Milan in turn. Till this point the four central characters have barely had one character note among them, but now Proteus takes on a recognizable type: Asshole. He develops a thing for Sylvia, insinuates himself into the good graces of her father, who (apparently being a Duke) banishes Valentine for hitting on Sylvia. Valentine heads for the woods and, naturally, becomes president of the local chapter of outlaws.

Meanwhile Julia disguises herself as a boy (she's seen too many Shakespeare plays), and goes up to Milan, concerned that Proteus never texts her or anything. After some misunderstandings, Sylvia sets out from Milan to find the banished Valentine. Everyone meets in the woods, apologizes and forgives, and lives happily ever after.

Well, it may be an early play, so we'll give our author the benefit of a doubt. "Poor 'prentice-work," I am sure some 18th-century editor said of Two Gentlemen. But there are good moments. The best part for an actor (as often in Shakespeare) isn't one of the romantic leads, but one of the servants, Launce. He has some tedious business with another servant called Speed, but the best scenes in the play are Launce alone on stage except for a dog. His relationship with his dog is the only thing anyone usually remembers about the play. Launce constantly complains about how he suffers for his dog, but goes out of his way to suffer even more: he's clearly modeled on any number of 21st-century American pet owners.

The play's poetry is drab, but its women, by virtue of barely having characters distinct from the play's indistinct men, have a few good lines. Sylvia speaks her mind in the play's woodsy denouement:

Had I been seizèd by a hungry lion,
I would have been a breakfast to the beast
Rather than have false Proteus rescue me. (5.4.33-35)


Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. 1623. Edited by Kurt Schleuter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.