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)