Of Shakespeare's early comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written about 1594, is perhaps the most forgettable. It is so weak, in fact, that some critics think it may have been written as early as 1590 or else that the version we now have is a mangled copy of the real play.
Shakespeare may have used as his source material for the play an unfinished romance, Diana Enamorada, written in Spanish by a Portugal-born poet, Jorge de Montemayor, in 1542. The only difficulty with that suggestion is that the romance was not translated into English until 1598, some four years after The Two Gentlemen of Verona was written. We might speculate that Shakespeare saw the English translation in manuscript or that he saw the French translation, which had appeared in 1578.
Verona, where the play opens, is a city in north-central Italy. It is a favorite setting for Renaissance comedy and was briefly mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew as the home town of Petruchio (see page I-451). It is also the home town of the two friends who are protagonists in this play.
… young Leander …
The play opens with the two gentlemen of Verona on the scene. They are Valentine and Proteus. The latter name is significant. In Greek mythology, Proteus was an infinitely changeable sea deity (see page II-655), and much of the action in this play is produced by the changeable character of the Proteus we now meet.
Valentine and Proteus, it seems, are about to part. Valentine is setting off on his travels, for in Shakespeare's time, a period of travel in youth was considered an essential part of the education of a young man.
Proteus, however, prefers to remain at home in Verona, for he is in love with a young lady and will not leave her. Valentine teases Proteus, saying that the latter is so lovesick that even in praying, he will do so…
… on some shallow story of deep love:
How young Leander crossed the Hellespont.
– Act I, scene i, lines 21-22
The Hellespont (better known today as the Dardanelles) is a narrow strait, about forty miles long, separating Turkey and Greece, and it forms part of the waterway connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. At its narrowest it is only three fourths of a mile wide. On the European side in ancient times was the Greek city of Sestos, where a beautiful young girl, Hero, served as priestess of Aphrodite, according to a tale that was told in antiquity and that has never lost its popularity. On the Asian side, in the Greek city of Abydos, lived a handsome youth named Leander.
Hero and Leander met at a festival and fell instantly in love. Thereafter, every night Leander swam the Hellespont to be with Hero, guided by a light she placed in her window. One stormy night, the light was blown out and Leander lost his way and was drowned. When his dead body was washed ashore, the grief-stricken Hero plunged into the waters to her own death.
The tale is a favorite of Shakespeare's. He mentions it several times.
But Valentine must leave and the two friends cannot talk long. Valentine says:
Once more adieu!
My father at the road
Expects my coming, there to see me shipped.
– Act I, scene i, lines 53-54
Verona isn't a seaport, to be sure. It is sixty-five miles from the sea. Perhaps Valentine means to travel overland to Venice and take ship there; or to travel to the sea by way of the Adige River, on which Verona is located. That depends, of course, on where he is going, and he tells us quickly, for he says to Proteus:
To Milan let me hear from thee by letters
Of thy success in love. ..
– Act I, scene i, lines 57-58
But Milan is not a seaport either (it is seventy-five miles north of Genoa) and cannot be reached directly by sea. One has the vision of Valentine traveling sixty-five miles to Venice, taking ship all around Italy to Genoa, a voyage of about one thousand four hundred miles, and then traveling seventy-five miles overland to Milan.
This is scarcely necessary, since in actual fact Milan is only ninety miles due west of Verona over undoubtedly well-traveled roads. One can argue, of course, that there were ways of traveling from Verona to Milan by inland waterways, but it is much more likely that Shakespeare simply didn't bother checking his geography. Nor need he have really. The audience wouldn't care and the actual cities have nothing to do with the story. It might just as well have been London and Amsterdam with an appropriate sea voyage between.
Attends the Emperor …
With Valentine gone, Proteus turns his attention to his love for Julia, who, it quickly turns out, returns his love fully and is coy only out of maidenly modesty (and, perhaps, design too, to make herself more dearly valued).
And yet Proteus' stay in Verona does not entirely please his father, Antonio, who wants his son educated too. He discusses the matter with Pan-thino, who is listed as his servant in the cast of characters, and Panthino is all in favor of sending Proteus on his travels. He says:
/ think your lordship is not ignorant
How his companion, youthful Valentine,
Attends the Emperor in his royal court.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 25-27
Through the most famous part of its history, in the fifteenth century, Milan was an independent duchy and the Duke of Milan was one of the best-known princes in Italy. There were two famous lines of these dukes, Visconti and Sforza, and indeed it is the Duke of Milan (unnamed) who is an important character in the play. Why, then, this reference to the Em-seror?
To be sure, Milan had an imperial past. In the fourth century it, rather than Rome, was the place of residence of the Roman emperors in the West, and it was from Milan, for instance, that the Roman Emperor Constantine [issued his edict establishing official toleration of Christianity in 313.
More likely to have influenced Shakespeare's thinking, however, was the fact that in 1535 Milan lost its independence and became part of the wide-spreading dominions of Emperor Charles V (see page II-747). Shakespeare may have associated Milan with the Empire so thoroughly that he spoke of the Emperor when he meant to refer to the situation as it had been a century earlier and speak of the Duke. (Or else the term "Emperor" is just another fault in the mangled copy of the original play on which alone our present version is based.)
And so, impressed by Valentine's success at the court of Milan, Antonio decides to send his son, Proteus, there too, and Proteus, to his chagrin [for he has just learned of Julia's love for him), finds he must go.
Now begin the complications. In Milan Valentine has fallen deeply in love with Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. She is presented as a paragon of beauty and virtue. Also in love with her is Thurio, much inferior to Valentine in looks and character, but who the Duke has destined to be her husband. As for Silvia, there is soon no doubt it is Valentine she loves.
Into this triangle comes Proteus, who has taken an emotional leave of Julia and has exchanged rings with her as tokens of love. As soon as Proteus meets Silvia, however, he demonstrates his right to his name. He changes completely, falling in love with Silvia on the instant, forgetting his Julia, and at once planning to betray his friend.
Valentine intends to use a rope ladder to get to Silvia's window and lope with her. He confides this to Proteus, who promptly passes the information on to the Duke. The Duke therefore confronts Valentine, who is on his way to the elopement, and has no trouble at all in catching him out. In a rage, the Duke banishes Valentine from his court, leaving the field that much clearer for the perfidious Proteus.
… with a codpiece …
Meanwhile, Julia, left behind in Verona by Proteus, can endure her loneliness no longer. She determines to travel to Milan to see him, and to avoid the troubles that might come to an unattended maiden on a voyage such as that, she decides to dress like a man.
This is a convention used by Shakespeare in several of his plays (though first, chronologically, in this one), and to us it carries no conviction at all. The audience is invariably amused that the hero cannot see that under the male clothing a female lies barely concealed, and gains but a poor notion of the hero's powers of observation. However, a convention is a convention (like the one in the movies whereby whenever two lovers in isolation begin a love duet, the sound of an orchestra appears out of nowhere). Besides, in Shakespeare's time female parts were played by boys, and to have a boy-Julia dress up like a man was much more convincing than to have a girl-Julia do so. In fact, it was when the boy-Julia was playing Julia as a girl that he may have been least convincing.
In this play, at any rate, Shakespeare does manage to point out some of the difficulties of trying to switch outward appearances. Julia's maid, Lu-cetta, who disapproves of her mistress' plan, asks coldly how to make the breeches, and when Julia tells her to make them any way she pleases, Lu-cetta answers:
You must needs have them with a codpiece, madam,
– Act II, scene vii, line 53
A codpiece was a baglike affair, covering the opening in the front of the breeches. It was, in effect, a container for the penis and was quite fashionable in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There was a tendency to fill it out with stuffing of one sort or another, partly as protection, and partly to make the organ seem more prominent than it was (much in the way that ladies' brassieres are tampered with in our own times). They might also be decorated or prinked out for the same purpose.
Naturally, the maidenly Julia is shocked at the mention of the object, but Lucetta says:
A round hose, madam, now's not worth a pin,
Unless you have a codpiece to stick pins on.
– Act II, scene vii, lines 55-56
The reference to the codpiece as a pincushion is Lucetta's wry way of saying that Julia will have nothing inside to interfere with that use. It may also be a sardonic reference to men who use so much stuffing that pins may safely be stuck in it Despite Lucetta's discouragement, Julia remains firm in her determination to make the trip.
… from Mantua…
Valentine, traveling sadly away from Milan, falls in with a group of outlaws in a forest through which he is passing. Valentine points out he has no money and pretends he has been banished for having killed a man in a duel.
The fact that he has no money spoils him as a victim; the fact that he has killed a man commends him as a comrade; and the fact that he is handsome seems to have an effect also. The Third Outlaw says:
By the bare scalp of Robin Hood's fat friar,
This fellow were a king for our wild faction!
– Act IV, scene i, lines 36-37
Any mention of outlaws would instantly remind an English audience of Robin Hood, and Shakespeare is usually very responsive to his audience. The "fat friar" is, of course, Friar Tuck, who scarcely needs further words to an American audience either.
The outlaws then introduce themselves to Valentine, for it seems that many of them are gentlemen who have been outlawed for some little prank or other which are common to hot-blooded young men of high birth. As the Second Outlaw says, in what seems to be an aggrieved tone, concerning his own outlawry:
And I from Mantua, for a gentleman
Who, in my mood, I stabbed unto the heart.
– Act IV, scene i, lines 50-51
Mantua was briefly mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew as the home town of the Pedant (see page II-454). It is about twenty-five miles southwest of Verona and in Shakespeare's tune (and for nearly five centuries before) it was an independent duchy.
… at Pentecost
Meanwhile, Proteus continues to betray everyone in sight. Having abandoned Julia and having treated Valentine most despicably, he is now prepared to double-cross Thurio. Under the pretense of pushing the latter's suit with Silvia, Proteus woos her for himself, singing for her the lovely ballad "Who is Silvia?"
Julia, in her male disguise, has come in time to hear it and understands at once the extent of Proteus' duplicity. She also hears Silvia nobly remain faithful to her Valentine and scorn Proteus as a traitor. Silvia urges Proteus to return to Julia (of whom she has apparently heard).
Silvia plans to flee from Milan and make her way to Valentine, wherever he is, while Julia decides to carry her plan one step further by attempting to gain employment with Proteus as his servant, under the name of Sebastian.
Proteus does indeed employ her and at once uses her as his go-between with Silvia. Sebastian and Silvia fall to discussing Julia, and Silvia wants to know how tall she is. Sebastian says:
About my stature: for, at Pentecost,
When all our pageants of delight were played,
Our youth got me to play the woman's part,
And I was trimmed in Madam Julia's gown,
Which served me as fit, by all men's judgments
As if the garment had been made for me.
– Act IV, scene iv, lines 158-63
Pentecost was originally a Jewish harvest festival ("Shabuoth") celebrated seven weeks after Passover. (The Hebrew word means "weeks.") Its celebration came on the fiftieth day counting from the first day of Passover. For that reason it received the name Pentecost, which is from a Greek word meaning "fiftieth."
Pentecost gamed a special Christian significance because it was on that day, the first celebration after the crucifixion of Jesus, that the apostles received the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in Acts 2:1-4, it says: "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."
Consequently, Pentecost remained an important Christian holiday and was celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter.
Easter and Pentecost were favored times for baptisms, but in England and other parts of northern Europe Pentecost was the more often used because it came in a warmer season of the year (late May or early June). Since the newly baptized generally wore white for a week to signify the new-washed purity of their souls, Pentecost is commonly called Whitsunday ("White Sunday") in England. Some speculate that this is really "Wit Sunday" ("Wisdom Sunday") celebrating the time when spiritual wisdom rained down upon the apostles.
Naturally, Pentecost was a joyous holiday and was celebrated with dances, plays, and other outdoor amusements.
… Ariadne passioning
Julia describes her Pentecost role, saying:
… / did play a lamentable part.
Madam, 'twas Ariadne passioning
For Theseus' perjury and unjust flight,
– Act IV, scene iv, lines 166-68
Julia, in her guise as Sebastian, is thinking of herself, of course, for she is much in Ariadne's position (see page I-31).
… Silvia I give thee
But now the action speeds up bewilderingly.
Silvia flees Milan to seek for Valentine. Her father, the Duke, and also Thurio and Proteus leave in pursuit of her while Julia follows Proteus.
Silvia is captured by the outlaws and is rescued by Proteus, but she still refuses to listen to his protestations of love (which Valentine overhears, so that he learns the truth at last).
The desperate Proteus threatens rape and then, finally, Valentine confronts his false friend. After Valentine's tongue-lashing, Proteus tearfully repents and at once Valentine forgives him. Valentine does more than that, in fact. He says:
… that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.
– Act V, scene iv, lines 82-83
Most critics find it utterly beyond the bounds of reason to suppose that Valentine should on an instant forgive an all-but-unforgivable falseness in his friend and then abandon his love to him as well-to say nothing of the insult offered Silvia in treating her as though she were a sack of wheat to be bartered. Some suspect a corrupt text, an ill-remembered denouement, a cut version.
Any of these possibilities may be so for all we know, and yet it might also be argued that Shakespeare meant it exactly as it stands. There is some reason to suspect that Shakespeare may have had homosexual tendencies (see page I-4), but there are no outright homosexuals in his plays except for Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida (see page I-98), and that was enforced by the Greek tale. Nevertheless, there are a number of cases in the romances in which friendship between males is suspiciously close and in which the language used between them is suspiciously ardent. The case of Valentine and Proteus is one of them and it is just possible to argue that Shakespeare was trying to maintain that affection between males was a higher and stronger emotion than that between the opposite sexes.
When Proteus gives up Silvia after being reproached by Valentine and then asks forgiveness, he is implicitly abandoning the lesser love (female) for the greater (male), and what can Valentine do but reciprocate and hand the lesser love back?
Fortunately for heterosexual sensibilities, this does not happen. When Valentine makes his offer, "Sebastian" swoons. Her true identity is discovered and the repentant Proteus is thus reunited with his ever true Julia.
The Duke and Thurio are also captured by the outlaws and Thurio shows himself to be a coward, while Valentine's bravery is conspicuous. The Duke of Milan therefore consents to have Valentine marry Silvia. Even the outlaws are forgiven and are taken into the employ of the Duke. All is happy as the curtain descends.