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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

William Shakespeare

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Summary

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Critics are not certain of the precise year in which The Two Gentlemen of Verona was written. Some historians believe that the play was begun in 1592 and hastily finished later in 1593 for a specific performance date. This theory of a two-step writing process would explain the seeming addition of the characters Launce and Crab and the inconsistent references to Milan and Verona as the setting, and to Silvia's father, who is at times called the Duke and at others the Emperor. The first historical mention of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is in 1598, though the presence of certain theatrical techniques and themes in the play suggests that it was a precursor to other early works such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Some believe The Two Gentlemen of Verona may be Shakespeare's first play. At any rate, it is clearly one of his least accomplished.

While the date of the play's composition may be uncertain, its literary ancestors are not. The most significant source for the play is the story of Felix and Felismena, in Portuguese writer Jorge de Montemayor's work Diana. Shakespeare may have either read Diana in a French translation or seen a version of it performed in court in 1585. In the original play, Silvia's equivalent is killed off and Valentine does not exist. Shakespeare changed these aspects to create a happier, more symmetrical ending. Additionally, authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Francis Bacon, John Lyly, and George Peele had undertaken similar debates between romantic love and male friendship prior to Shakespeare's own bout with the subject in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

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