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Two Gentelmen of Verona: Essays and Questions

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1. How does Two Gentlemen of Verona foreshadow themes and devices in later Shakespearean comedies?


In Act 4 and again in Act 5, the action in Two Gentlemen of Verona moves from the city to the country; it is in the forest between Milan and Mantua that the plot gets unraveled and harmony prevails before the characters head back for the city. This is a common device in Shakespeare’s comedies. The action moves from the corrupt world of the city or the court, in which insoluble problems arise and behavior is less than ideal, to the simpler, less harsh world of the country or forest, in which qualities such as forgiveness and truth may flourish. Shakespeare was to develop this device most fully in As You Like It. For example, the speech in praise of country life given by Duke Senior in Act 2 scene 1 of As You Like It, after he has been exiled from the court to the forest, is strikingly similar to the speech the exiled Valentine gives at the beginning of Act 4, scene 4 of Two Gentlemen, which includes the lines, “This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods, / I better brook than flourishing people towns.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another play that possesses this structure of movement from court to country and then back again.


The disguised heroine is another technique employed in Two Gentlemen which is repeated in As  You Like It. In the former play, Julia disguises herself as a man in order to travel to Milan to find Proteus; in As You Like It, Rosalind disguises herself as a man in order to flee the court and go to the forest. A disguised heroine is also featured in Twelfth Night, in which Viola disguises herself as a man and seeks employment at the house of Count Orsino. Orsino employs her as his page (just as Proteus  employs the disguised Julia as his page) and sends her to deliver his messages to Olivia, the lady he loves. This is similar to the way Proteus sends Julia to deliver a message to Silvia.


The theme of male friendship, so important to Two Gentlemen, is also a theme in The Merchant of Venice, in which the two friends are Antonio and Bassanio. Wooing a lady on behalf of another, as Proteus promises to do for Thurio, occurs also in Much Ado About Nothing.


Almost without exception, these themes and devices are used by Shakespeare more skillfully in the later plays; their presence in the early Two Gentlemen resembles seeds that will later become, in the  mature plays, fully grown plants.


2. What role do the comic characters play and how do they illuminate the theme of love?


The main comic character is Launce, Proteus’s servant, along with Speed, Valentine’s man. There are several comic moments in which Launce reveals his selfless love for his dog Crab, but these are not mere diversions from the main action. Launce’s love for his dog  may well be the best example of love in the play. Launce is grief-stricken at the thought of leaving his dog behind when he has to go with Proteus to Milan. He loves his dog so much that he even takes the blame himself when the dog misbehaves. Once when Crab stole a pudding, it was Launce who allowed himself to be put in the stocks (a form of punishment in Elizabethan times) for the crime, rather than blaming the dog, which would have meant that Crab would have been put down. One wonders whether Valentine or Proteus would have been prepared to go to such lengths to show their love for their ladies. These comic moments thus serve as ironic commentary on the attitudes to love, full of high-flown words but not always backed up by deeds, of the aristocratic characters. Launce and Speed both observe the antics of their masters in the area of love and are not impressed. The scene in which Launce discusses with Speed his love for the milkmaid (Act 3, scene 1) also serves as an ironic contrast to the romantic, idealist attitudes to love expressed by the aristocrats. Launce is much more realistic. He is aware of both the vices and virtues of his woman, and even writes out a list of them. She can brew a good beer, she can sew and knit, but she talks in her sleep, has no teeth and is rather slow-witted. In contrast, Proteus and Valentine are so infatuated with their loves that they can only see their virtues, not their faults. It is Launce who has the more balanced, down-to-earth approach.


3. What are some of the problems with the final scene in the play? Could it be staged successfully?


By the time the final scene arrives, Shakespeare has set himself a considerable problem. In order to propel the plot, he has had one of his two “gentlemen” behave like a scoundrel, betraying his long-time friend Valentine many times over, not to mention discarding his first love, Julia. Proteus reaches his nadir about one-third into the last scene. Furious at not getting his way, he is about to rape Silvia, before Valentine steps forward in the nick of time to stop him.


The dramatist needs to have a happy ending for this comedy, and he appears to want to affirm the ideal of male friendship between his “two gentlemen.” But how is this to be accomplished? The means that Shakespeare chooses is compressed in the extreme. After Proteus is thwarted in his attempt at rape, Valentine gives a twelve-line speech, bitterly reproaching his friend. Proteus then speaks a mere five lines, expressing shame and guilt and asking for forgiveness. In a seven-line speech immediately following this, Valentine not only forgives his friend but offers to let him marry Silvia as well. It all happens so suddenly, so quickly, and is accomplished with such little exploration of the emotions that each character is feeling, the audience may find it unconvincing. It is as if the playwright is merely manipulating his characters towards the desired comic conclusion.


A particular problem occurs for the actors playing  Proteus and Silvia. Proteus must somehow make his complete and sudden repentance convincing in the few words the dramatist gives him. The problem for the actress playing Silvia is even more acute, since Silvia is given no lines at all at this point and says nothing more in the play. It is as if Shakespeare has forgotten she is there. It is a challenge for the actress to wordlessly convey her feelings at the prospect of being handed over to a man who has just tried to rape her, and her presumed relief when this does not happen. Reviews of some notable productions of the play, however, suggest that these problems are not insuperable for skilful actors, who have been able to carry off the scene in a convincing way.


4. How does Shakespeare satirize romantic love?


Shakespeare loses few opportunities in the play to poke fun at romantic love, which is presented as a “mighty lord,” as Valentine puts it (act 2, scene 4, line 136), that can make otherwise sane people behave in a ridiculous manner. At the very beginning of the play, Proteus confesses how his passion for Julia has transformed him. He cannot think of anything else. He shows all the usual signs of a lover, neglecting his studies, wasting his time, ignoring other pursuits, not taking good advice. Love has taken him over, overthrown his reason. He is mocked by his friend Valentine, who seems to have observed the way lovers behave and would prefer not to be part of it: “To be in love—where scorn is bought with groans; / Coy looks with heart-sore sighs; one fading moment’s mirth / With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights” (1.1.29-31). In his view, love is not worth the trouble it causes, but of course he sings a different tune when he falls for Silvia. Just like Proteus, he becomes unrecognizable as his former self. His servant Speed knows immediately that his master is in love from the familiar signs: “first, you have learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms, like a malecontent; to relish a love-song, like a robin-redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas” (2.1.18-26). Romantic love is thus presented as a kind of sickness that needs a cure, a psychological aberration that leads to unusual, unbalanced behavior. Along with the visible outer signs of love come the tendencies, exhibited by Valentine and Proteus alike, to indulge in exaggerated praise of their lady loves, quite divorcing them from flesh-and-blood realities. Valentine calls Silvia a “heavenly saint” (2.4.145), and for Proteus she is a “celestial sun” (2.6.10). All this would be familiar to an Elizabethan audience as part of the way sonneteers wrote of love in the courtly tradition; the lovers strike certain familiar poses and behave in certain ways.  But Shakespeare also begins to explore the darker side of romantic love. The lovers’ behavior may often be amusing to those who observe it, but it can also be downright dangerous, as Proteus’s reckless behavior when he is in the grip of love clearly shows.


5. How are the aristocratic women characters contrasted with the aristocratic men?


Shakespeare’s comedies are often notable for their outstanding female characters, who on many occasions seem more interesting, intelligent and charming than their male counterparts. Two Gentlemen of Verona may be no exception to this, although the two characters Silvia and Julia are not as fully developed as many of Shakespeare’s later heroines. At the beginning both women behave in rather playful, coquettish ways, indicating their romantic interest in their suitors indirectly, taking care not to appear too forward. But they know how to get their way. Silvia has the clever idea of expressing her feelings by asking Valentine to write a love letter on her behalf to a nameless “friend,” who is of course Valentine, but Valentine is not smart enough to realize this and Speed has to explain it to him. It seems clear who is the cleverer partner in this new romance.


When these two women decide to love, they do so constantly and give the impression of possessing much greater maturity than their men. Silvia sticks to Valentine through thick and thin, showing no intention of submitting to her father’s desire that she marry the ludicrous Thurio, and showing great initiative in arranging to follow Valentine into exile so that they might be together. This is a woman who knows her own mind and does not waver. The same applies to Julia, who certainly has good cause to reject Proteus, but she never shows any sign of doing so, even when she is fully informed of his perfidy. Like Silvia, she shows great resourcefulness in disguising herself and following her lover to the city. There is no doubt that she genuinely loves him, unworthy though he might be. It is also notable that while Shakespeare freely satirizes the attitudes of the men in love, he does not satirize the women so bitingly. They seem to love in a deeper, more real way than their infatuated young male lovers. 


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