My immediate thought when I started reading this play was it could be called The Two Frat Boys of Verona. After I met the rest of the cast, I regressed the characters even further. This is a great play for a high school drama department. Teen-aged Love and Angst in Verona. In fact, this could be happening one street over from Romeo and Juliet, also set in Verona. Bizarro Romeo and Juliet. There are six good parts for young actors—Valentine and Proteus, the two “gentlemen,” and their servants plus Silvia and Julia, the two unfortunate young women they are involved with and several smaller roles, including a dog. In any case, once I settled down to this being a play about young people, I stopped fussing about the immaturity of the characters and found things to enjoy.
Valentine’s servant is named Speed and for his first entrance he is running late. Just a funny little detail. Proteus’ servant is Launce and he’s the one with the dog whose name is Crab. I have to say I think the last thing two adolescent boys need are servants but that’s the aristocracy for you.
The “gentlemen” Proteus is named after the mythological sea god who was, like water, capable of changing forms. Proteus’ tacking back and forth is what drives the plot. Speed and Launce, along for the sail, lounge on the deck and make funny comments.
Here’s the plot: Valentine and Silvia moon over each other. Proteus and Julia moon over each other but Proteus is also is attached to Valentine in an ambiguous way. Then Proteus starts to swoon over Silvia, possibly as a stand-in for Valentine. Julia hears Proteus singing a love song to Silvia and is heartbroken.
The four of them end up in a forest outside Mantua where Proteus tries to rape Silvia and is intercepted by Valentine who is outraged. Proteus immediately begs forgiveness and Valentine immediately forgives while Silvia remains silent for the rest of the play. Apparently the outrage was the betrayal of Valentine not the attempted assault on Silvia. Julia swoons. When she comes to, the four of them get things sorted, plan a double wedding and have a group hug.
It reads like a half-baked play (and is considered one of Shakespeare’s first) so I don’t know if it warrants some of my comments but it did get me thinking about relationships if only as a way to bring some value (other than comic) to the play.
There are triangles within triangles within The Two Gentlemen of Verona that suggest different kinds of love. The love between the two gentlemen volleys back and forth between the loves the two gentlemen have for the two women. Unaddressed is the love between women: the relationship between Julia and her servant is close and sweet. The friendship between Julia and Silvia is undefined. We are all used to this. Women’s love for women has quietly gone on in all its various forms whether the women were single or married. Men’s love for men has been more public and more strictly monitored in western society. That love and friendship can intermingle has been taken up in TV comedies like Seinfeld and Friends.
Love is an ambiguous business and I think Shakespeare was comfortable with that. I get the feeling he was attracted to whoever he was attracted to regardless of what was between his or her legs. I personally loathe the labels of gay, straight, bi, trans. These partitions are initial gates into a vast field of love where people’s experiences and feelings are remarkably similar and there is room for everyone.
This play includes the poem “Who is Silvia?” which Schubert set to music and which is a famous song in classical vocal literature. I first heard it in the German, sung by (the sublime) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
*Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair and wise is she;
The heavens such grace did lend her,
That she might admiréd be. (IV, ii)
Other lines I liked:
*Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all. (I, ii)
*O! how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day! (I, iii)
*Alas, how love can trifle with itself (IV, iv)
“allycholly” (IV, ii)—a wheedling word for melancholy. Kind of like saying “the blues” on a day that’s not terminally bad, but bad enough.