Two Gentlemen of Verona
This is one of the least well-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and many of those who know it dislike it with a rare intensity. It has a fantastically convoluted and artificial set-up, and a solution that is, by most readers’s standards, grotesque. Almost no age has found the final resolution really appealing. And yet there are a few emotionally resonant scenes at its heart, especially in the fourth act, and a number of thematic connections that remain interesting in spite of all its shortcomings.
Things to consider while reading Two Gentlemen of Verona
Do you find the central emotional unmasking in the third and fourth acts compelling in themselves? Many find that, despite everything else, the unfolding generosity and pathos of “Sebastian” (Julia in disguise) rises to a powerful emotional level.
It’s probably almost a joke since the movie Shakespeare in Love, but here arguably the “bit with a dog” rises to an uncommonly high level. What does it do for the play overall? What are we to make of the relationship of Lance with “man’s best friend”? Does it have some thematic connection to the larger issues of the play?
Despite the fact that this is not among Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, it had a following through the years, both in English and in translation. Schubert wrote a rather popular (German) setting of the song from Act IV (An Sylvia, D. 891).
Two Gentlemen of Verona and what has come before
- The romantic setup here — two men pursuing one woman, while another woman, doggedly and almost pathetically faithful, pursues one of them — is remarkably similar to what we’s seen in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and All’s Well That Ends Well. This is a pretty improbable situation on the face of it. What about it is useful? How does it enable the romantic crises that arise?
- Though it has nothing to do with to Shakespeare, one might still recall the ending of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in which the pirates all turn out to be high-born English nobles, and hence (apparently) all their acts of piracy can be dismissed as trivial pecadillos. In Gilbert and Sullivan, this is of course a satirical reflection on the English class system. Is it meant satirically here too, or is it simply a narrative convenience?
- The situation with the band of brigands is similar to another situation in Cymbeline: we’ll look at this later, but bear it in mind.
- Some of the material that emerges here was basic to Romeo and Juliet (also set in Verona, of course). How does the context shape it differently?
- There is considerable evidence that the core story here was based on a Spanish pastoral romance called Diana Enamorada by Jorge de Montemayor (available in Spanish here). The similarity to other plays suggests a preliminary working-out of some of these ideas. It includes many features that emerge in the play, including the conversation between Julia and Sylvia.
- The story of Titus and Gisippus from Boccaccio’s Decameron may also have figured here, though an English translation of the Decameron was not available until 1603, while it is generally thought that this play predates that.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Faithfulness: what is faithfulness about here?
- Nobility and honorable birth and upbringing: this is examined both in the principal characters and in respect to the team of brigands that Valentine ultimately leads.
- What is the reasonable extent of non-romantic friendship? Does the relationship of Proteus and Valentine justify the forgiveness at the end?
Symmetries in the play
- What do you make of the two rings and their exchange?
- Proteus and Valentine are in many ways diametrically opposed both in name and in character; how are they different and how are they similar? From the dichotomy springs much of the dynamism of the play.
- In similar ways, the two women, Julia and Sylvia, are foils to one another. It probably goes without saying that both women are vastly nobler than either of the men. Are they both mere neutral faithful poles of constancy for comparison with the two gentlemen, or do they differ from each other in any dramatically useful way?
Problems in the play
- The obvious problem with the play from the beginning is the sheer implausibility of the set-up. Do we need to go to such extremes to create the context for the emotional harvest?
- The almost offhand forgiveness of Proteus after his attempted (or at least avowed) rape of Sylvia seems too easy. There are a number of other places in Shakespeare’s corpus (e.g., Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well) that have similar extravagant forgiveness, though usually it’s extended by the wronged party. What do you make of it here? Is it misplaced? Is it valid?
- The final and apparently gratuitous twist in the plot is Valentine’s “assignment” of his claims on the faithful Sylvia to Proteus, who has done virtually everything not to deserve it. Why does he do this? What does it justify or validate? Does Sylvia have any say in such things? If not, why not?
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.