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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

William Shakespeare

Act II, scene vii

Act II, scenes v-vi

Act III, scenes i-ii

Summary

Julia asks Lucetta to help her devise a plan to travel to Milan to visit Proteus. Lucetta warns Julia that it is a long and dangerous journey, counseling her to wait for his return. Julia insists that a "true-devoted pilgrim is not weary" (II.vii.9). Lucetta responds that she wants only to ensure that Julia's love does not exceed the bounds of rationality.

Julia reveals that she plans to disguise herself as a boy for the journey, so as to avoid the unwanted advances of lecherous men. She requests that Lucetta design her a costume befitting a high-class page. Julia fears that her reputation will be tarnished if her unladylike behavior is discovered. She believes, however, that Proteus is so pure, sincere, and immaculate that seeing him is worth any risk. Lucetta is skeptical of Proteus' alleged faultlessness, but Julia chides Lucetta, instructing her to love Proteus just as Julia herself does.

Commentary

Lucetta puts forth the idea of rational love as a counter to passionate love. As a servant, she is aware of the practical nature of marriage as social necessity, financial security, and religious sanctification of sexual relations. Because of her low status, she views passionate love as a luxury of characters in romances, and marriage as an arranged business transaction in which the woman's desires are ignored. Her concept of rational love is thus realistic, taking into account, on a grand scale, man's failings, and on a practical scale, the failings inherent in men.

Lucetta's understanding of how maleness functions in society positions her as a foil to Julia. When Julia praises Proteus' oaths, tears, and "instances of infinite... love," Lucetta responds that these words and actions are all "servants to deceitful men," implying that Julia has been fooled by the same tactics that all men use to trick their innocent sweethearts (II.vii.70-72). Lucetta's blunt stance on love accentuates Julia's naïveté, especially when Julia compares her impending journey to Proteus to a pilgrimage, believing the love she shares with him to be pure and immaculate. Lucetta is far more aware of the practical issues of the masculine world: she is suspicious of Proteus' promises, knowing that he is wont to stray. Her insistence that Julia wear a codpiece (a covering for the male genitalia) with her disguise is a crude but nonetheless practical suggestion for a woman hoping to act as freely as a man. It epitomizes Lucetta's understanding that social freedom (in the Elizabethan world) derives from maleness, the most recognizable aspect of which is strong sexuality.

Cross-dressing permeates Shakespeare's work, in both the writing and the performance. On the most fundamental level, women were not permitted to act on the Elizabethan stage, so all female characters were played by men in women's attire. Cross-dressing becomes an important plot device throughout Shakespeare's plays, with one of the most famous examples being that of Viola donning a man's clothes to travel throughout Illyria, in Twelfth Night . By blurring gender lines, Shakespeare confronts his audience with the fact that much of its judgment of male and female behavior is tied to preconceived notions of how each gender should behave, rather than to each character's individual needs and motives. While this tactic may not be novel to a twenty-first-century audience, it unquestionably challenged the way gender roles were perceived in the Elizabethan era.

Throughout Shakespeare's works, the use of disguise offers characters the opportunity to gain access to things normally kept secret from them, such as others' attitudes toward them. Such insight into an unsuspecting individual's mind gives the disguised a power over that individual. Julia, like all of Shakespeare's women, is inherently afforded very little power by Elizabethan society. Pretending to be a man allows Julia access to the male sphere, and enables her to pursue her love in an active, male manner previously unavailable to her.

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