Friday, June 10, 2016

William Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (c. 1591)


[Image source: . Mark Arends as Proteus in a 2014 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Guardian review. Telegraph review.]

The young Shakespeare, it's fair to say, had some issues around women, if we're to judge from The Taming Of The Shrew (c. 1590?), The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (c. 1591?) and the Dark Lady sonnets of c. 1592. Of course these works and the issues they raise are all very different. In the present case the issue concerns not the female leads Julia and Silvia but the play's willingness to treat Proteus' threat of rape as too lightly resolved. We feel uncomfortable with Valentine's impulsive offer of Silvia to his friend though, of course, the main dramatic point of this is to comically prolong Julia's roller-coaster of emotions. Soon afterwards Valentine is fiercely repelling Thurio from his beloved. I think we had best see Valentine's silly offer as excessive and impulsive to the point of farce, something not to be taken too seriously. Then the play can rattle to its merry close.

There's no getting round the unpleasant but obvious fact that Shakespeare's era didn't see things the way we do. Rapes were the sort of thing that a gentleman might do, like killing a man in a duel or defaulting on gambling debts. These deeds were indisputably wrong but they didn't, in the eyes of society, turn the criminal into a monster; we sense a lack of horror. And the idea of giving up one's claim on a woman to a friend (without regard to her own views), is an even more familiar element in our cultural and deeply sexist past. A year or two later Shakespeare's own The Rape of Lucrece , with its intense examination of the psychology of both rapist and victim, may be said to be one small step on the long journey towards our modern viewpoint. But even in that brilliant poem, we can see that rape is condemned more for damaging a woman's honour (i.e. her value in the eyes of men) than as a violation of a woman's will, body and mind.

[In the theatre, where the play works really well and is as popular now as it ever was, these last-scene discomforts are easily got round and the 2013 Bristol Tobacco Factory production was said to end as a feminist triumph.]


What both Proteus' threat and Valentine's offer have in common is that they are extremely and unreflectingly impulsive. TGV is a study of youthful hormones at the flood. In the women this leads to adventurousness and decision; all for the good, unless you are a concerned parent; in the men it leads to less admirable consequences.  Especially Proteus, of course. His inconstancy leads to staggering betrayals of his bestie and his old love; not to mention the new one whom, in his frustration, he threatens to rape. The situation in which he does so is an isolated wild woodland immediately after violent and triumphant activity in rescuing her from other abductors. His blood is up. As Germaine Greer said, you don't trust men at such times.

In making this statement I'm conscious of the paradox, pointed out by Russell Jackson in the Introduction to the Penguin edition, that the text of TGV is notably lacking in the language of eroticism. This is true, but the language is a very different thing from the fact. In Romeo and Juliet the talk is salaciously dirty, except for Romeo's and Juliet's; the only two characters in the play who are actually in love. Those young lovers, like these ones, are almost prudish in what they say, but are full of what they feel. (There are a number of curious connections between these two plays.)

No surprise, therefore that John Guare's and Galt MacDermot's follow-up to the explosive rock musical Hair was Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971). It ran for over 600 performances on Broadway but was then forgotten; revivals are now becoming more frequent.  Here's a clip from the 2005 Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Kathleen Marshall.


The play's first scene is an important one because it shows us the two male leads together. Valentine, wittily disparaging his lovestruck friend, is off on his travels. His name tells us that he'll soon be lovestruck himself. But the gentle Proteus, who will pray for his friend, and who tries, with only partial success, to defend his commitment to love, interests us more. When Valentine ends the scene between them, Proteus is left to confide to us his distinctly conflicted feelings about the position he's in.

Now there follows a dialogue with Speed, Valentine's man; like any dialogue with Speed, it's full of verbal tangling. The scene feints at the servant and master actually interacting so that the doings of the one affect the story of the other. (The dramatic potential of that idea is abundantly demonstrated in the Comedy of Errors.) But here, Speed turns out to be only teasing; his doubtful competence as a messenger has not prevented Proteus' message from reaching his beloved, albeit indirectly. And in fact Shakespeare doesn't succeed in involving the servants in their masters' stories: they function excellently as commentators, explicitly and implicitly, but they don't affect the action and Shakespeare found no role for them in the last part of the play.

Proteus could be any kind of gentleman here, playing the straight man to Speed. There's a feeling of something held back. His name suggests changeability, and we see the potential. He isn't a formed personality. It's important that both Valentine and Proteus are seen as very young men, adolescents in our terms. The scene needs to be played as straight as can be. The two leads should be seen as largely identical and lacking in definition: as gentlemen and nothing more. The potential of one for comedy and the other for tragedy shouldn't yet be clear-cut.

The "Two Gentlemen" part of the title makes perfect thematic sense."Of Verona" less so. Verona isn't even named in these early scenes, and it has no presence as a distinct place. The title's meaning refers to the later bulk of the play: they are then gentleman "of Verona" precisely because they're now living somewhere else. The title means, as it were, two gentlemen abroad.

[In fact, the text is haphazard about its Italian geography and when it does use the name "Verona" sometimes seems to mean "Milan". Valentine takes a sea-voyage between these two landlocked places. It doesn't inspire confidence in the hypothesis that Shakespeare had travelled to Italy, except in his imagination. (Compare Othello, where Iago and Cassio describe each other as Florentine, each apparently thinking of himself as Venetian  - or anyway not Florentine.)  You get the impression that Shakespeare when composing tossed the Italian place-names about in quite a casual way. For him they belong to the mapless world of romance.]


Go, go, be gone, to save your ship from wreck,
Which cannot perish having thee aboard,
Being destined to a drier death on shore.

Shakespeare makes the same familiar joke in the opening scene of The Tempest, at the opposite end of his stage career.


Julia and Lucetta. Julia's demonstration of the impulsive nature of young love, but here devoid of ill consequences. The idea that when a maid says no she means yes  is slightly disturbing (perhaps this too is part of the young Shakespeare's issues...).


Proteus' father Antonio is indeed somewhat peremptory. His rapid change of mind, and his then peremptory will, are features we will recognize in his son. Taming had its autobiographical material in the strolling midland players of its Induction. We wonder if the Gentlemen likewise contains autobiographical material in the theme of young men travelling for their education; Shakespeare's acquaintances, if not himself.


Valentine, a commenting Speed, and Silvia's device of getting Valentine to compose her love-letter to him. The play's first transformation is that Valentine becomes a lover, like Proteus. This transformation was highly predictable. Valentine's satisfaction ("I have dined") ends the scene in a sunny manner. But we already know that Proteus is on his way to Milan: and what will the highly predictable upshot of that change of place be?


Proteus and Julia, parting. An unexpectedly curt scene. It's surprising to find the contrary Julia of I.2  now so definitely Proteus' beloved; things are moving fast. Proteus' thoughts lead to gloomy presages, and the scene is cut short by Julia's wordless departure. The impression is of an epoch already concluded. But the suffering of the pair is sincere.


Julia, Proteus, Silvia, Valentine

[Image source: Photo by Dave Rossman, from a 2014 University of Houston production. Amelia Fischer as Julia, Kyle Curry as Proteus, Kiara Feliciano as Silvia and Crash Buist as Valentine.]



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