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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

William Shakespeare

Act IV, Scenes i-ii

Act III, scenes i-ii

Act IV, scenes iii-iv

Summary

A group of outlaws overtakes the recently banished Valentine and Speed, who are traveling in the forest between Milan and Mantua. Instead of robbing Valentine on the spot, the outlaws listen to his tale of woe. Valentine wisely adds in a few spicy details about slaying a man in a fierce confrontation. The outlaws are much impressed. They ask Valentine if he is fluent in many languages, to which he replies affirmatively. The outlaws, who, like Valentine, are banished gentlemen, tell Valentine that if he refuses to become their leader, they will kill him. Valentine commits himself to leading the outlaws, but only on the condition that the bands do "no outrages/On silly women or poor passengers" (IV.i.69-70).

Meanwhile, back in Milan, Proteus lays his plans to double-cross Thurio. He meets up with Thurio and a band of musicians under Silvia's window. As the musicians begin to play an ode to Silvia, Julia arrives, dressed in a page's clothes and going by the name of Sebastian. Sebastian's host asks why Sebastian appears sad, and Sebastian replies that the musicians are out of tune. The host informs Sebastian that Proteus is so smitten with Silvia that he has ordered Launce to give Crab to her. As the music stops, Proteus shoos Thurio away from the scene, telling Thurio to leave him to plead Thurio's case with Silvia. When Silvia appears at her window, she believes that Proteus has been the one wooing her.

Silvia rebuffs all of Proteus' loving advances, calling him a "perjured, false, disloyal man" (IV.ii.89). She warns him that she will not be swayed by the false vows he used to trick Valentine and Julia. Proteus tells Silvia that his betrothed is dead. Julia, in the shadows, is quite surprised to hear this, but does not speak out. Proteus begs Silvia to give him a picture of her; strangely, he knows that one hangs in her bedchamber. Silvia is loath to give it to him, but stingingly says that since Proteus worships shadows and false shapes, the falsest version of a person (i.e., a picture) would be a fitting idol for him. Julia, after hearing the entire exchange, returns with a heavy heart to the host's lodgings.

Commentary

In Shakespeare's forests, the social norms of courtly life are suspended. Class structure and sexual morals fall away, and characters' social identities change. In the greenwood of A Midsummer Night's Dream , for example, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, falls in love with a mechanic whose head has been transformed into that of an ass. In the forests of The Two Gentleman of Verona, Valentine is reborn a king. This transformation does not involve the social formalities of class and rank; rather, Valentine's intelligence (he speaks many languages), cleverness (he tricks the outlaws with a false tale of bravery), and honorableness (he insists that the outlaws harm no women or poor people) gain him his new social status. Just as he does with the issue of gender, Shakespeare presents an individual whose status does not conform to socially-accepted standards of gentlemanliness, though he exhibits gentlemanly behavior, thus forcing the audience to examine that individual on his own terms.

Modern, gender-based analysis points to Valentine's banishment from society as aligning him with the outlawed Other. After his betrayal by Proteus, Valentine has found a new group of male companions, hiding out in the woods--a place symbolic of the suspension of social rules. The Duke and Proteus have forced Valentine to abandon the world of courtly, heterosexual love for an all-male realm. The homoerotic implications of this relocation to the forest resound through the rest of the text. At the play's conclusion, when faced with the choice of keeping his friendship with Proteus or winning Silvia's hand, Valentine chooses his male companion. Shakespeare would have invoked public condemnation had he espoused a flagrantly homosexual character, a fact that perhaps contributed to the tidy, heterosexuality-affirming (Proteus reunites with Julia, Valentine with Silvia) conclusion of the play. Yet Valentine's favor of his male friend is an important detail in the play's fabric, hinting that Shakespeare felt constrained by the narrow-minded sexual norms of Elizabethan society.

The truly faithful characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona are those on the margins of society--women and those beneath the nobility on the social ladder. Launce is faithful to his master, his dog, and his toothless betrothed. Julia is faithful to Proteus even after she learns of his treachery. Silvia stands up to the Duke, Proteus, and Thurio (the three characters highest up in the play's hierarchy), remaining steadfast in her love of Valentine. Valentine remains loyal to Proteus, and overcomes class barriers in winning Silvia. Critics note that The Two Gentlemen of Verona marks the beginning of Shakespeare's pattern of imbuing his female characters with more sound reasoning than his male characters.

The awkward organization of Act IV, scene ii is a good example of the weakness at staging scenes that plagued Shakespeare's early works. The action freezes on the side of the stage where Thurio, Proteus, and the musicians sing the ode to Silvia. As the music tinkles in the background and Thurio and Proteus stand silent, Julia, on the other side of the stage, laments to the host the fact that she is no longer the object of Proteus' affection. When Proteus begins to woo Silvia, Julia stands by passively, muttering asides to the audience instead of confronting Proteus. The artificial creation of unrealistically separate areas on the stage draws attention to the play's immature staging. At the time he wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare was still more comfortable with the dramatics of lyric poetry for one voice than with the dramatics of theater.

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