Two Gentlemen of Verona

Why This Play?:

After all the intensity and researching regarding Richard III, I was ready for something light and quick. I spotted a lovely, dilapidated, slim copy of this play in the library and was instantly sold.  Quick?  Yes.  Light?  Well…we’ll get to that.

I initially thought I had no knowledge of the play before now.  But upon reading, Act 1 scene 2 was immediately familiar.  Had I indeed studied this play before?  Perhaps viewed some forgotten movie version?  It took me a good hour before I could finally recall that I’d performed the scene (as Julia) in a theatre scene showcase my freshman year at UCLA.  Apparently, 18 year old me didn’t find a performance reason enough to read the entire play.  Obviously, I was way to lazy to pursue acting professionally.

Painting of Silvia being rescued by Valentine.  Angelica Kauffman, 1789.  

]What Happens?:

Get ready for a romantic sitcom through the lens of 1580s England!  It’s actually kind of dark towards the end.

Valentine and Proteus are two best buds from childhood, living in Verona.  A big deal is made over all this – male friendship was held as the paragon of relationships in the late 16th century.  Valentine wants to see the world, so he’s off to serve the Duke of Milan.  Proteus is set to stay behind, as he’s intent on wooing a local gal named Julia.  She’s pretty into him too.  Proteus’s daddy gets this idea into his head that his son needs to go see more of the world, so Proteus is sent packing to serve in Milan with Valentine.  He and Julia exchange rings as tokens of fealty before he goes, and they’re both extra sad.  Launce, Proteus’s servant, has to head to Milan as well, and he’s aghast that his dog isn’t more upset at being left by his master.

In the meantime, Valentine is in Milan and has fallen hard for the Duke’s daughter, Silvia.  Silvia likes him too, but Valentine isn’t so quick on the uptake.  His servant Speed rolls his eyes over this.  Proteus arrives in Milan and Valentine confesses his love of Silvia and their plan to elope.  Problem is, Proteus has seen her too and is enamored.  He struggles for about half a second over breaking his vows to Julia and throwing away his friendship with Valentine – all that be damned; he’s going after Silvia.  Speed and Launce head to the alehouse (as they should).  Off in Verona, Julia decides to head to Milan to check in on her love, and disguises herself as a boy to travel alone.

Proteus tells the Duke all about Valentine’s plan to bust Silvia out of her tower to run away to elope.  The Duke confronts Valentine and banishes him from Milan.  He wants his daughter to marry some other guy, Thurio.  Proteus pretends to help Thurio with his wooing, all while trying to get into Silvia’s good graces on his own.  There’s some awesome singing.  Julia makes it to Milan in disguise and comes across Proteus proclaiming his love to Silvia (he claims Julia died).   Silvia’s pretty disgusted with his fickleness and his total lack of friendship to Valentine.  She agrees to give him her portrait as a way to make him leave her alone.  Julia is heartbroken and completely pissed that Proteus tried to gift Silvia the ring she had previously given him.

Valentine and Speed are wandering Italy, and they meet up with a band of outlaws.  Rather than robbing them, the outlaws are completely impressed with Valentine’s gentlemanly demeanor and demand that he become their leader.  He accepts.  Back in Milan, Julia (as “Sebastian”) becomes a page in Proteus’s service and retrieves the promised portrait from Silvia.  They chat, and Silvia is shocked to hear how Proteus has wronged Julia.  Julia sees that Silvia is quality people.  Oh, and somewhere in there is a great bit where Launce fondly rebukes his dog (who’s come to join him in Milan) for peeing on Silvia’s dress.

Silvia flees Milan to go look for Valentine.  The Duke sees she’s missing, and gets all our other players in Milan to go looking for her.  The outlaws capture Silvia.  Proteus and “Sebastian” come along (while Valentine is hiding and watching all), and Proteus tells Silvia he’ll rescue her if she gives his suit some encouragement.  She continues to reject him, and he says he’ll take her by force (um, what??).  Valentine jumps in to challenge Proteus, Proteus pleads for forgiveness, and Valentine grants it.  Seriously, it all practically happens in one breath like that.  Valentine is even on the brink of giving up Silvia all in the name of dudely friendship, when Julia faints.  They find the ring Proteus had given her back in Verona, and her identity is revealed.  The outlaws bust in holding the Duke and Thurio as prisoners.  Their leader Valentine commands the prisoners be released, so the Duke decides that’s reason enough to unbanish Valentine and to let him marry Silvia.  Everyone gets ready to head back to Milan, where it’s assumed the two couples will marry their rightful partners.  Neither lady seems to get much word in edgewise there.

The original theatre poster for the musical from the 1970s.  

Check This Out:

  • There was a musical version of this play that won a Tony for Best Musical in the 70s!  Yet, like the original play, it’s not performed very often.  But trust YouTube to have a couple of numbers available for interested parties.
  • Anyone else remember the Dawson’s Creek episode Two Gentlemen of Capeside?  Big storm, Pacey in peril on a boat, Dawson doing his typical brooding.  Joey = Silvia, of course, but I don’t really see Jen as any parallel to Julia.  (Jack can definitely be a stand-in for the sarcastic Speed, however.)
  • There are no movie versions that I could find, and the play isn’t high in circulation on the theatre circuit.  I did manage to track down some great scenes from an RSC version a year ago.  Check out Thurio serenading Silvia – it’s pretty funny. 
  • The only movie I could even loosely connect with Two Gentlemen of Verona is Shakespeare in Love.  There is a scene where Two Gentlemen is performed in front of Elizabeth I (the glorious Judi Dench), who loves the clown with the dog, but falls asleep during Valentine’s rapturous speech about Silvia (same speech Gwyneth later uses for her audition for Romeo and Juliet).  We learn that “love and a bit with a dog” are what audiences have wanted for hundreds of years!  Now, I have adored this movie since 1998, and my husband has never seen it.  Happily, it’s streaming on Netflix.  I’ll be roping him into watching it this week.

Thoughts and Themes:

  1. The pacing of the show really is like that of a modern sitcom.  The jokes (whether from the clowns or puns from the lovers) read at an allegro tempo.  The first two acts are fast without being hectic – the plot devices are laid out quickly and effectively.  Reading this play (I tend to murmur Shakespeare aloud when reading), I found myself innately pausing where audience laughs would be – it’s that’s built into the meter.  This is most apparent in Act 1, Scene 2 when Lucetta is teasing Julia about her love letter from Proteus, and also in Act 2, Scene 1 when Speed teases Valentine about being in love.  Both instances are set up as rapid and short lines with each character repeating the other’s phrasing and punning on each other’s chosen language, all to be summed up in periodic punch lines.  Pure Elizabethan sitcom, complete with laugh track.
  2. The quick pace that works so well for humor and set up in the beginning is the play’s downfall in the second half.  The action clips along briskly (but not abruptly) throughout Acts 3 and 4, but Act 5 is a whirlwind of Too Much.  Dim but kind Valentine and shrewd Proteus air their problems and resolve them in the course of 3 short speeches!  Valentine gets this great dialogue that rightly and succinctly condemns Proteus for his betrayal of their friendship…and I guess his speech is so good (?) that it INSTANTLY shames Proteus and makes him ask for forgiveness.  He must be awfully sincere in his delivery, because Valentine not only immediately forgives him (??), he even says he’ll even allow Proteus to be with Silvia (?!?!?) all for the sake of restoring their bro-dom.  Before the audience can hear any thoughts Silvia may have in all this, Julia up and faints.  Which is probably the part that makes more sense than anything else in the play’s final scene. 
  3. The term “reason” is used 11 times throughout the play.  In every circumstance, this word is defined more as “sanity” than “an explanation for action”.  It’s used each time to firmly highlight that love makes sense go out the window.  Proteus gives a great speech on this to determine if he will pursue Silvia at the expense of his relationships with Valentine and Julia (II.iv.202-225).  It could have been interesting if this idea was drawn out a bit more throughout the play.  Perhaps that friendship can be the source of reason and should be the guiding force over love.
  4. This is an early example of two very different types of clowns/fools in a single work. Speed lives up to his name.  He spits out lines/jokes and is much more quick-witted than his master.  I imagined a very sarcastic, eye-rolling approach to that role.  Launce is much more a sad clown, lamenting his dog’s lack of love and giving longer speeches to bemoan his problems. Shakespeare explored and refined this dichotomy in later works – a great example being Touchstone/Jacques in As You Like It. 
  5. Silvia and Julia show better friendship to one another than Proteus and Valentine, and they’ve never even officially met!!  Silvia is a solid champion for Julia, and Julia admires her fair play and solidarity with other women.  There is a huge emphasis in this play that urges the importance of friendship and its resulting loyalty and trust over that of romantic relationships.  We’ll see this echoed among women when we get to Midsummer Night’s Dream (Helena’s excellent “Lo, she is one of this confederacy” speech when she thinks her homegirl Hermia is putting her boyfriend before their friendship).

Anyone out there ever seen or studied this work?  I guess since the ending is so problematic, it’s just not as prevalent as other Shakespeare’s works.  Let’s stick with the “love is crazy” theme, shall we?  Next up, Romeo and Juliet!