DO THOSE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA DESERVE A BETTER FATE?
There's no denying that Two Gentlemen of Verona is deeply flawed play, but does it deserve its status as the dullest sword in Shakespeare's armory? The Merchant of Venice is messy, Henry VI is dull, and there's little that's funny in the so-called comedy of Troilus and Cressida. Yet Two Gentlemen remains the butt of Shakespearean jokes, such as the one in Shakespeare in Love where Queen Elizabeth I falls asleep during a production of the show. Later, she tells Shakespeare the best part of the play was the scene with the dog.
That dog is Crab and he's probably who W.C. Fields was thinking of when he warned actors never to work with animals. Because he will not shed a tear at a family tragedy, he is declared the "sourest natured dog that ever lived". Crab has become so memorable that when Shakespeare on the Sound performed Two Gentlemen in 2014, the New York Times reported on the dog instead. The humans aren't mentioned once. Harold Bloom, meanwhile, said that Two Gentlemen "might merit dismissal were it not partly rescued by the clown Launce...and Launce's dog Crab, who has more personality than anyone else."*
I like Harold Bloom, but his critical eye is often too drawn by the secondary characters - see, for instance, his blind devotion to Falstaff (who I sometimes think deserves less attention than he receives). Bloom is similarly drawn to Launce and has no interest in Valentine, Proteus, or the women who love them. To be sure, they are four characters in search of a better story - but that can be said about many of the people wandering around Shakespeare's world. Portia deserves better than The Merchant of Venice and the Bastard Faulconbridge should be anywhere but the shambling history that is King John.
Proteus loves Julia until he heads off to Milan, where he promptly falls in love with Sylvia. Love at first sight is par for the course in Shakespeare and other plays do it just as badly - compare Proteus' sudden lust for that which strikes Romeo, Olivia, and the entire cast of As You Like It. Sylvia is already being wooed by Proteus' best friend, Valentine. Before you can ask "Oh Sylvia, what is she?", Proteus has betrayed Valentine and had him exiled from Milan.
All this would be tolerable if Proteus was an Iago-like villain who receives his just desserts, but he is one of the title characters and so one of the heroes of the play. He's a gentleman in name only, but then Valentine is no better. Valentine has a low opinion of women, as shown when he tells the Duke of Milan that "a woman sometimes scorns what best contents her" and that "if she do frown, tis not in hate of you, but rather to beget more love in you." In other words, Valentine doesn't think no means no. With this the prevailing philosophy, why shouldn't Proteus try to woo Sylvia against her will?
We could almost forgive Valentine for being a product of his time, but he erases any remaining good will in the final scene. After witnessing Proteus try to force Sylvia to yield to his desire, he forgives the would-be rapist after Proteus delivers a scant four and a half lines of text:
My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine: if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offense,
I tender 't here; I do as truly suffer
As e'er I did commit. (V.iv)
This is surely the least sincere apology in the history of crime but Valentine accepts it, not because he believes Proteus is ashamed but because Valentine himself doesn't really care. He goes on to compound our disgust by offering Sylvia to her attacker: "And, that my love may appear plain and free," he says, "All that was mine in Silvia I give thee." Is it any wonder that the nearby Julia cries "O, me, unhappy" before fainting dead away?
Women in Shakespeare's world are notorious for marrying beneath them but few stoop so low as Julia and Sylvia. Their men are disloyal and yet they marry them just the same. What choice do they have? Sylvia's other suitors are dolts and Julia doesn't seem to have anyone at all. Shakespeare often populates his world with nothing but dull masculine lovers. He seemed to understand the plight of the women of his time: they were expected to marry but more often than not, they were like the voters in the 2016 Presidential Campaign: they select the candidate they hate the least.
It's this rancid ending of Two Gentlemen which has left a bad taste in the mouth of theatre goers for over four hundred years because Proteus and Valentine, like Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well, come to a happy end despite the fact that we'd all like to see them drowned in the Thames. At least with Bertram we can be satisfied with the fact that Helena is as bad as him. Her clever bed trick is nothing more than sexual assault, since she tricks Bertram into thinking he is bedding another woman. There's a disconcerting theme here: Shakespeare often used sexual assault as a punchline, with the notable exception of poor Lavinia who is given the respect (and vengeance) she deserves.
Helena and Bertram deserve each other, Machiavellian plotters that they are, but Julia and Sylvia have done nothing to deserve the fate of being the wives of Proteus and Valentine. And so we have dismissed Two Gentlemen, saving those fans of musicals who recall the 1971 rock opera written by the same crazed Canadian who gave us Hair. Productions are sporadic, which is unfortunate because until the last act, Two Gentlemen of Verona is a harmless, if slightly dark, comedy about man's infidelity to man. It is proto-Shakespeare, containing elements that will be seen in future work. Julia dresses as a boy, prophesying similar acts of cross-dressing by Rosalind, Viola, and Portia; the outlaws of As You Like It are present in the forests outside Verona and the comedy of the warring suitors would reappear in Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. The act of betraying a friend in the office of love would return in Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but in those cases Shakespeare's makes the betrayal palatable by making it either a misunderstanding or the work of sprites. He must have learned his lesson. If you're going to have a man try to sleep with his best friend's girl, you can't rely on a four and a half word speech to ensure your happy end.
Shaw rewrote the last act of Cymbeline and it's likely we need someone just as daring to go to work on the last act of Gentlemen. Playing Proteus as a comic whose threats to Sylvia can't be taken seriously might work and there was a production in the 1960s in which his regret is so intense that, in addition to his four and half line apology, he also tries to shoot himself in the head. These are weak solutions to what is a deep problem with the final scene - but is it any more problematic than the ending of Taming of the Shrew when the poor actress playing Kate has to proclaim her shame that women are so simple? Or The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is carted away to become a Christian while everyone else runs off to get hitched?
I prefer Gentlemen to The Merchant of Venice, which has cursed us far more than Macbeth ever will: it continues to receive more glory than it will ever deserve. Merchant of Venice is three plays shoved into one (the romantic comedy, the courtroom drama, the social tragedy) while Two Gentlemen, for all its flaws, has the benefit of remaining consistent in tone. Until Julia demeans herself by marrying Proteus, she is a perfectly credible heroine - perhaps not a Rosalind or Viola, but definitely more interesting than Cressida or those dullards who populate A Midsummer Night's Dream. Julia, like Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, is a pragmatist, who understands that there's a danger in playing the coquette:
Since maids, in modesty, say 'no' to that
Which they would have the profferer construe 'ay.'
Fie, fie, how wayward is this foolish love
That, like a testy babe, will scratch the nurse
And presently all humbled kiss the rod! (I.ii)
Julia anticipates the final trauma of the play when she realizes early on how dangerous it is to make men accustomed to women who teach theirbrow to frown when "inward joy forced my heart to smile". And so she takes the bold step of pursuing Proteus to Milan. Her great misstep is to maintain loyalty even when she shouldn't: knowing that Proteus is unfaithful, she agrees to woo Sylvia on his behalf (she is in disguise, remember). A similar thing occurs in Twelfth Night, but that slips quickly into farce; here, it allows Julia to explore the complex frenemy emotions she has for another woman who, though a "virtuous gentlewoman", is also her rival.
The endings to both As You Like It and Twelfth Night are forced and rushed, yet those plays have become the gold standard of Shakespearean mirth. It's notable that in those plays there is nothing detestable about the men. A similar thing can be said about all the popular plays, in which the men are either heroes or delicious villains who keep everyone happy by getting punished in the end. Since men are the ones who championed Shakespeare for hundreds of years, this can hardly be a coincidence. Two Gentlemen of Verona makes all men knaves and women look like fools for loving them; few plays in the canon could do more to encourage women to eschew the company of men forever.
We go to the theatre to escape from the world or to see a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be. In our favorite plays, the villains are dispatched, true love conquers all, and if the heroes die, well, at least we can take solace it was a noble death. Even Romeo and Juliet can rest easy knowing their families have stopped their feud by the end of Act V. But in that other Verona, things are a little more true to life. Proteus and Valentine get away with being scoundrels. Sexual assault is ignored and women swallow their rage because it is what society expects them to do. Syliva's silence after her assault is probably the most damning of all. She has no more lines and during all those final moments, we can almost see her straining to hold her tongue. The men around her, like Crab the dog, have witnessed a tragedy and cannot bring themselves to shed a tear.
The real problem is not that Two Gentleman of Verona is a weak play, but that is has been shoved in the wrong category. It may have comical moments, but it is not a comedy and should be slotted in next to All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure as a play that defies an easy description. Those other plays have endings which are happy only to the people on stage; and they, like Two Gentlemen of Verona, present a more complicated version of the world than the sunny one in Shakespeare's more idealistic work.
* Bloom, Harold. "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human". pg 36.