Introduction: Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is often euphemistically referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘early plays’. This phrase attempts to account for its relative immaturity; aesthetically and dramaturgically it is considered by many to be inferior to the ‘later plays’. The actual date of writing is not certain, but the first record we have of it is from Mere’s Palladis Tamia, published in 1598. Edward Malone proposed that it is the first work that Shakespeare ever wrote for the stage. Another theory, initially put forward by Clifford Leech, suggests that the play was composed in stages, accounting for some of the textual inconsistencies.
Borrowing from the Portuguese story of Felix and Felismena, the plot focuses on two friends, Valentine and Proteus. Each leaves home and travels from Verona to Milan. Proteus leaves behind his beloved Julia, having exchanged with her rings and promises of “true constancy”. On arriving in Milan, Proteus discovers that Valentine has fallen in love with the Duke’s daughter Silvia and that they have planned to secretly elope together. Unfortunately, Proteus also falls for Silvia, declaring that “the remembrance of my former love / Is by a newer object quite forgotten”. He decides to do whatever it takes to win her for himself. The ensuing drama concerns itself with the limits of male friendship and the foolishness of lovers. The action comes to a climax in one of the most controversial scenes in the canon of Shakespeare’s writing. Many of the most famous performances have gained their notoriety because of the way that they have creatively navigated it, prompting Stanley Well’s comment that the play “has succeeded best when subjected to adaptation”. In the depths of the forest, Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, uttering the infamous line “I’ll force thee yield to my desire”. However, moments later he is reconciled to Valentine, who, despite being fully aware of what his friend has done, seems to offer him Silvia: “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”. The play closes with Proteus and Julia happily reunited, and a decree that both they and Valentine and Silvia shall be married on the same day, sharing “one feast, one house, one mutual happiness”.
Although the popular opinion is that this is one of Shakespeare’s least accomplished plays, it has enjoyed a rich stage history. Notably, Peter Hall chose it has his first production as artistic director of the RSC in 1960, and John Barton directed another important RSC production in 1981. The play has been set in almost every imaginable era – the medieval, the renaissance, the music-hall 1930s, the rock-and-roll 1950s, the fashion-obsessed 1990s – and is not always confined to Verona and Milan. It attracted further attention after being featured in the Academy Award-winning film Shakespeare in Love (1998), despite never being explicitly named. The play is regularly admired for its spirited comedy. And for the fact that one of the characters is a dog.
Contributed by Rachel Thorpe