The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Act II, scenes v-vi
Speed welcomes Launce to Milan. Launce replies that no one can truly feel welcome in a town until someone buys him a shot of liquor at the local tavern. Speed offers to do so, but first inquires after the status of the relationship between Proteus and Julia. Launce confuses Speed, implying through a series of puns that they are simultaneously broken up and engaged. The interchange ends with Launce's traditional dirty joke about how when Proteus is "stand[ing]" well, Julia is happy too. Speed, who is not so speedy at comprehending Launce's jokes replies, "What an ass art thou! I understand thee not" (II.v.19-21). Launce tells Speed to ask Crab if Julia and Proteus are engaged, saying that if the dog talks or wags his tail, the answer is "yes." Speed boasts that his master Valentine has become a "notable lover" (II.v.36). Launce, feigning to have misheard him, replies that he has always known that Valentine was a "notable lubber" (II.v.39). Launce finally convinces Speed to buy him a drink, like a good Christian.
Proteus debates whether or not to pursue his infatuation with Silvia. He says that to stay true to the impulse of love, which previously compelled him to promise himself to Julia, he must betray both Julia and Valentine, and worship Silvia. Prizing his amorous desires over friendship, Proteus devises a plot to snatch Silvia from Valentine's arms while simultaneously gaining favor with her father. He will notify the Duke of Valentine's plans to elope with Silvia; the Duke will then banish Valentine and encourage Thurio, Silvia's family-appointed betrothed, to continue his courting. Proteus plans, however, to trick Thurio out of his path, leaving Silvia with no choice but to love him. His soliloquy ends with the couplet, "Love, lend me wings to make my purpose swift,/As thou hast lent me wit to plot this drift" (II.vi.42-43).
Proteus's weighing of passionate love against devoted friendship situates him in a literary debate already well-established at the time Shakespeare wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales , written at the end of the fourteenth century, the Knight in the "Knight's Tale" learns the painful lesson that blind love must always win over rational friendship. Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote essays purporting that friendship was far more important than the dangerous, ever-changing whims of passionate love. Additionally, Shakespeare would certainly have been familiar with John Lyly's 1591 play, Endymion, in which the protagonist chooses friendship over love, and is rewarded with love as well in the end.
Proteus emerges as the play's villain because of his inability to understand that friendship and love can exist simultaneously. Shakespeare presents a moral vision that progresses past the moral visions of Chaucer and Lyly at times; just as Launce revels in double-talk, Shakespeare envisions a world of doubles. Friendship and love can coexist and complement each other; they do not need to be confined to the black-and-white realm of arbitrary moral decisions. In the development of Proteus' character, Shakespeare both presents his clear dislike for simple-minded moral decision-making and introduces his own morality to rival the morality of his well-established predecessors.
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