Shakespearing #9 by David Foley
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
There’s a form of Equity contract which allows you not to pay the actors, provided certain other criteria are met. It’s called a “showcase,” the idea being that these productions help actors showcase their talents.
The only two productions I’ve seen of The Two Gentlemen of Verona were showcases, perhaps understandably. It has four easy-to-cast young leads. There are comic parts which offer wonderful opportunities for funnymen. (In one production I saw, a friend made Launce hilarious in his native Tennessee twang.) For the rest, the cast is small, the settings simple, the plot easy to follow, and there are no flying fairies or asses’ heads to test the resources of a small company.
There’s something Shakespeare-Lite about Two Gentlemen. Much of it can be read as a sketch for later[*] plays. According to Riverside, one source for the play was the poem on which Romeo and Juliet is based, and thus we have new love driving out the old “as one nail by strength drives out another,” as Juliet drives out Rosaline, and a banishment speech which sounds like a first run at Romeo’s. (“And why not death, rather than living torment?” says Valentine; “Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say death,” says Romeo.) Silvia and Valentine are an early version of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado, while Julia, disguised as a page to the man she loves, prefigures Viola. And as in Midsummer and As You Like It, everyone runs off to the woods to straighten out the mess.
There’s even an uncomfortable happy ending, like those of Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, in which a woman’s patience is rewarded with marriage to a man who’s been villainously cruel. Sixty lines after Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, he claims Julia as his “wish forever,” though not before Valentine has offered him Silvia to restore their friendship. We can only guess at Silvia’s response to this; she has no lines for the rest of the play.
This may be clumsy or it may be cynical, fitting in with the play’s overall cynicism about love. In one of Shakespeare’s more acid pairings, the parting of Julia and Proteus (“What gone without a word?/Ay, so true love should do: it cannot speak.”) is followed by Launce’s lament about his dog who, at parting, “sheds not a tear, nor speaks a word.” The most consistent imagery in the play revolves around eyes, which love traps or makes blind, and letters, love codified in easily torn entreaties. The very rapidity with which the ending resolves matters suggests that love is light, illusory.
It occurs to me that the man who gave us the phrase “marriage of true minds” was almost Austen-like in his belief that marriage of minds was both deeper and higher than marriage of desire. His most persuasive couples (Kate and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick, Antony and Cleopatra) connect as intellectual equals, whereas Romeo and Juliet is as much about the dangers of love as the dangers of hate.
If love in Shakespeare’s plays is illusory, a card trick, it makes a kind of cynical sense that Proteus and Julia can reunite after all he’s done. But it also says something about the way Shakespeare treats villainy: not as a trait but as a condition. Villainy is something Proteus passes through, and if he can, so can we all. As I’ve noted before, even his more sustained villains reflect back uncomfortably on us.
[*] Always with the caveat that we can’t say for sure which plays were earlier or later.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.