Two Gentlemen of Verona

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The brilliance of two modern productions of The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labours Lost has rescued those plays from near oblivion. But the beguiling ways of modern director have, as yet, done nothing to blow the dust from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is probably the probably the least popular of all Shakespeare’s plays. The combination of (1) a complicated plot (2) a remote world, (3) insufficiently realized characterization and (4) a good deal of highly wrought dramatically awkward verse account, to a large extent, for its neglect. In reading, it is tempting to conclude that the neglect is justified. Its general effect is curiously unpleasant. We learn, for example, enough of Proteus to know that he is a faithless libertine whose redemption seems artificial, and even Valentine’s romantic attractiveness has a thin and superficial glitter. The combination of these two characters is in itself, sufficient to produce an irritation of the sensibilities. This is paradoxically increased because Julia has a charm and strength of will. We feel, in a sense, that as a character she is too good for the situation in which she is placed and the companions she is laboured with. She belongs, in essence, to the company of Rosalind and Viola and we wish that she had less priggish challenges to her pleasing femininity.

At the same time there are fugitive pieces of gold among the duller metal of the play. Apart from Julia herself, the character of launce attracts the delighted approval of any audience. Admittedly he has the advantage of acquiring a status for us simply because he is accompanied by a dog. The English mania for the animal that accompanies a master and seems imbued with human characteristics is a well-known phenomenon. This is the only time Shakespeare exploited the possibilities of this mania and the result is to immortalize the dog and, by association, the master as well.

Yet, if we can set aside any pre-disposition to have a compulsive love for the dog, it is possible to see that Launce has qualities admirable and important in themselves. And, in terms of Shakespeare’s later development, Launce, though he may have affiliations with the typical bumpkin characters of The Commedia Dell’Arte, is, in fact, one of the first of Shakespeare’s great natural comics. The line is reach and it includes Bottom and his crew, Gobbo, and the grave-digger in Hamlet. The chief characteristics of these naturals are simple to adumbrate, but complex in their significance and meaning.

It is a truism that they have reached the pages of Shakespeare’s manuscripts largely out of direct experience which has been sifted through the dramatic imagination. Many of them do not exist in any literary source, and even where, as in the case of Launce, the character type may be found in foreign sources and places, their essence is essentially Shakespearean. Their true source is Warwickshire country population he had known as a child, and which, doubtless, he continued to know from time to time in his adulthood. They are lower class – (1) they, usually, have a slow cunning of mind; (2) they treat language like reckless, slightly pompous, but endearing libertines. (3) To the men of more sophisticated caste with whom they have to deal they seem witless and exasperating, but, in fact, they have a remarkable (if paradoxical) ability to live on their wits, with a secretive joy. (4) They always seem to have something in reserve – a piece of basic knowledge, a secret, a crushing anecdote, an ability to wear down the rapiers of sophisticated speech with the broadsword of reckless talk. (5) They are rarely conquered. (6) Their essential quality is their reality, their down-to-earthiness. Like the soil and the seasons, which are their true context, they have an underlying rhythm of spirit, and it is this basic reality which Shakespeare has captured. Launce’s famous speech to his dog is one of the classic set pieces of naturalistic prose in the canon. It has all the knowing, extrovert, confiding and gossipy mind-wandering which is typical, even now, of the Warwickshire countrymen (especially if he knows that they are townsmen to treat with). Launce, like them, is anxious to give us all the evidence for the resolution of some point which eventually gets lost in dissociated advocacy. Launce’s speech becomes a kind of social document – social trivia but in depth. We learn the character of the mother, the father, the maid even while he expatiates upon a dog that unaccountably has no human feelings for him.

There are two features of the speech that requires special emphasis. The first is its superb dramatic value. It is impossible for an actor not to make a success of it, not only because of its verbal humour, but because of its charting of the visual comedy which should accompany it – the cat “wringing her hands”, the shoe, representing variously, the mother and the father, the staff being, “my sister”. If we, in reading the play, begin to doubt the dramatic power that was latent in the young Shakespeare, this speech would give the lie. It proves his total awareness of an actor’s requirements, both verbal and visual.

Secondly, the speech affects not only the experience we have of the play as a whole, but implies something of the nature of Shakespeare’s expanding vision of life. The presence of Launce, and to an extent, of Speed (the more sophisticated, clownish character) provides a welcome antidote to the cloying unsatisfying romanticism of the world which they serve. It is a pleasure to encounter these points where the complicated blindness of the sophisticates becomes irritating. We are drawn back to the practicalities of love and life by such words as these:

“I am but a foole………………….yet ‘tis a woman”
(Act III Sc i 261–67)

after we have shared the wallowing of:
Shee is my-essence………………
……………I flie away from life
(Act III Sc i 182 – 87)

Yet this is more than welcome contrast, and more than comic relief. Such examples figure a deeper kind of relationship between the natural more practical attitude, and the romantic way of love and life.

The theme of the play is the power of love and the way in which this power affects, both for good and evil, the will and judgement of those who fall under its spell. Both Valentine and Proteus quite literally are involved in nothing else but the pursuit of love’s dram. They are completely under a spell:

“I have donne penance for contemning love
And made them watchers of mine own heart’s sorrow”
(Act Ii Sc iv 125 – 31)

Valentine is a victim of love’s power, but Proteus more actively challenges and contests its influence, attempting to bend it to his own desires:

“Is it mine, or Valentine’s praise?
If not, to compasse I’ll use my skill
(Act II Sc iv 192-194 and 207-210)

The difference between the active Proteus and the more passive Valentine is emphasized by the power of love and their reaction to it. It is love which acts as a catalyst, showing Valentine to be right-minded, honourable, tactlessly generous, and Proteus to be cunning, dishonourable and selfish. Between these two extremes Silvia and particularly Julia are caught. The former, with something of Bianca’s quiescence in The Taming of the Shrew drifts on tides of happiness and unhappiness which approach her. She makes little attempt to strike out to either shore. Julia. A less passive creature, takes a bearing and is not content to drift.

“Then let me goe, and hinder not my course”
(Act II Sc vii 33)

If Valentine represents love’s passion, Proteus love’s duplicity, then Julia is love’s truth. Like Rosalind and Viola, she knows that there is no easy way to love. She is capable of being deceived by Proteus: “His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles.” She is capable of lyrical sentimentality, and woman-like can bridle up a rival; but she is incapable of merely waiting to let love have its own way with her. By comparison with her and her counterparts in later romantic comedies, the male counterparts lack a sense of being in some creative control of their destinies. They may, like Proteus, indulge in sharp activity to fulfil their ends, but the means and ends are unworthy. They may, like Valentine, have a shrewd theoretical knowledge of the ways of women: “Woman sometimes scorns what best contents her.”, but this knowledge is merely theoretical.

It is in assessing the generative source of women’s will that the implications of the presence of naturals, like Launce, must be taken into consideration. For Shakespeare, true love is Romantic, faithful, and finds its ultimate fulfilment in the order of marriage; but it cannot achieve its fullness without the existence of obstacles and the operations of practicality and activity. Shakespeare finds romantic and faithful love among both men and women – in Valentine, Berowne, Benedick, in Julia, Rosalind, Viola: but only in women does he seem the ability to prove, to test, to activate and make practical what the heart cries for. Julia’s speech when she discovers Proteus’ duplicity is a measure of the ways of love.

“Alas, poor fool, why do I pity him
Unless I prove a false traitor to myself.”
(Act IV, Sc iv 89-101)

In the more general context the “natural” posture of Launce and speed acquires a greater meaning. Speed says to Valentine: “Ay, but hearken, Sir; though the Chameleon love can feed on air, I am one that am nourished by victuals, and would fain have meat,” harshly and crudely distinguishing between appetites. Julia, however, reconciles the appetites which true love activates – she, like the “naturals”, knows the value of accepting “commodity: as a part of the truth of life; but, unlike them, she knows that neither life nor love is fulfilled unless commodity is graced by fidelity, in the giving vein.

This play, of all the early comedies, has upon it the marks of an immature dramatist who shows “promise”. If there were not other possibilities it could, on internal evidence, qualify as the first attempt at playwrighting. This is indicated by the mechanical “parallelism” of the characters and actions – everything being placed in an over-exact relationship. It is clear from this alone that Shakespeare had not yet learnt much about the subtle maneouvering of character and incident. Moreover, the tell-tale signs of urgent shows in the denouement. It rushes to a theatrical conclusion which ignores psychological credibility. Valentine’s offer to give up Sylvia is ludicrous. Proteus’ sudden rectitude is unbelievable. Even Julia’s decision to accept him, after all, strikes as less forgiving than unconvincing.

In a sense the play is a pot-boiling work of a man whose knowledge of both drama and theatre are limited and derivative. He had read Lyly, and from him accepted a mechanical architecture of plot; he knew of the Commedia del Arte and, from it, he took stock characterization. He was aware of courtly romance, and had, perhaps, watched and heard their antics of the young Elizabethan aristocracy – and this gave him his story line.

Yet, the word promising is more significant than “immature”. Inside the young dramatist a vision of the realities of life and love began to glow: the power and meaning of love, the beneficence of a reconciliation of opposites, which this play displays with such obvious assiduousness, had nothing to do with Lyly or Commedia Del Arte. The vivid presence of the natural world (in Launce particularly) had nothing to do with literary sources or antecedents. Both were inherent realities of Shakespeare’s imagination – the skill o f communicating them had still to be perfected. If further proof were needed of “promise” the play of language provides it. For the most part it is a pattern of puns, jests, verbal quips – the paraphernalia of a verbal fancy incited by example and intoxicated by its own deviousness, yet, here and there, the slavish imitativeness gives place to something else; a line or a phrase breaks out of its surrounding tinsel and is real gold. It is correct both for its speaker and for our dramatic expectations:

“Expect I be by Sylvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale.”
(Act III Sc I 178-179)

Above all, it gives promise of the possibility of much richer seams.