THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Perhaps the first of the Shakespearean comedies, and doubtless the least-performed and least-read, is The Two Gentlemen of Verona (circa 1590?). Even the bardolaters seem embarrassed by the play, and it is not difficult to see why. There are very few memorable lines. (Some exceptions: “Truly, sir, I think you’ll hardly win her” [I:i]; “In love, who respects friend?” [V:iv].) Groan-inducing clichés about love that were commonplace even in Shakespeare’s time: “Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all” [I:ii]; “Love is blind” [II:i]. Inhumanly sudden changes of heart (I will return to this problem below). A parade of puns, all of them halting and limp. Some interesting canine imagery (man is a dog) – the play has more to do with Dog than with God. To summon forth Harold Bloom, little of the “hearing-oneself-speak” that gives depth to Shakespeare’s more human inventions. When the characters do listen to themselves speak, it is strange that they don’t burst into laughter. (One remarkable exception: Act II, Scene 6.)
Valentine and Proteus are the Veronese aristocrats of the title. Valentine is the Lover Boy. Proteus is the rake. Valentine is the constant one. Proteus, as his name implies, is inconstant (“Proteus,” of course, refers to the god of mutability).
Here is the logic of desire in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:
Valentine desires Sylvia, a Milanese lady. Sylvia desires Valentine. Julia, a Veronese lady, desires Proteus because Proteus “despises” Julia [IV:iv]. Proteus no longer desires Julia because Valentine does not desire Julia. Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia.
Let me pause over this final proposition. Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia. Proteus states this clearly:
Is it my mind, or Valentinus’ praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus?
She is fair; and so is Julia that I love–
That I did love, for now my love is thaw’d;
Which like a waxen image ‘gainst a fire
Bears no impression of the thing it was [II:iv].
Julia, his first love in the play, might be a melting wax figure, but so, too, will Sylvia be. Proteus will exchange Sylvia for Julia in the final act of the play and assert that both are equally beautiful, that Sylvia is not more beautiful than Julia. One woman is interchangeable with any other, one woman is exchangeable for any other (according to Proteus). Proteus declares Julia dead not once, but twice–the second time, Julia listens to the man she loves declaring her dead–because of the protean character of (his) desire, the inconstancy of (his) desire. The image that love produces is a melting wax figure or an ice-image dissolving into water [III:2]. If one woman is as good as any another, for Proteus, it is very likely “Valentinus’ praise” that incites Proteus’ desire for Sylvia, not any of Sylvia’s intrinsic qualities.
If anything, the play is suggesting that heterosexuality is a modification of homosexuality, not the other way around.
And what if this were the case? What if homosexuality were not a deviation from the norm of heterosexuality? What if heterosexuality were a deviation from the norm of homosexuality? What if men desired women not because of women’s intrinsic beauty or favour (Shakespearean for “charm”)? What if men desired women because women are desired by other men? What if desire for the beloved were mediated by the desires of others for the beloved?
If this were the case, then hetero-erotic desire would be fundamentally homo-social.
The play concerns the war between Eros (other-sexual desire) and Philia (same-sex friendship), and it is male Philia that wins out in the end.
As the passage cited above suggests, Proteus desires simulations of women more than he desires women in the flesh. In our cyber-culture, Proteus would be a pornography addict. Consider the fact that Proteus is more amorous of Sylvia’s portrait than he is of Sylvia-in-the-Flesh. Consider the fact the Proteus asks for an image of Sylvia – an image to which he can masturbate. Much like Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Sylvia can never be apprehended in her divine nudity. The goddess is impalpable and divinely invisible – what Proteus-Actaeon sees is only the human shape that she assumes. (Shakespeare’s text supports this equation — at one stage, Sylvia is described as the “Queen of the Night,” which is one of Diana’s appellations.)
Not merely is Proteus a rake. We learn early on that he is a blockhead, as well. In his discourse with Valentine’s servant Speed:
“The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the shepherd for food follows not the sheep” [I:i].
Of course, this is a specious argument. The sheep do not follow the shepherd for food. They can eat it from the ground. The shepherd follows the sheep. The shepherd tends the sheep because he wants to shear the sheep, eat the sheep, sell the sheep’s meat, sell the sheep’s wool, or befriend the sheep.
THE SHAKESPEAREAN CIRCUIT
The most remarkable aspect of the play is what I call the “Shakespearean Circuit” or the “Loop of Desire.” It functions in this manner: 1.) A giver gives a gift to the recipient. 2.) The recipient returns the gift to the giver. 3.) The gift is now directed at the giver, not the recipient.
Here is the first instance of the Shakespearean Circuit in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Valentine (very reluctantly) writes a love letter on behalf of Sylvia. The letter, Sylvia tells Valentine, is intended for one of her suitors. Valentine presents the letter to Sylvia. Sylvia returns the letter to Valentine. The letter that Valentine wrote on Sylvia’s behalf is now addressed to Valentine.
This is how the Circuit works in this context: 1.) A lover writes a letter on behalf of his beloved — a letter that is addressed to the beloved’s object of desire. 2.) The beloved returns the letter to the lover. 3.) The letter is, then, addressed to the lover, not to the lover’s rival.
Here is another example of the “Shakespearean Circuit”: Julia gives Proteus a ring. Proteus asks Julia, when she is disguised as a man, to give the ring to Sylvia, which she never does. Julia returns the ring to Proteus. End of circuit.
The Loop of Desire is not endemic to this particular play — one can find the Shakespearean Circuit in much of the dramatist’s work (e.g. The Merry Wives of Windsor). One character gives his desire to another character — and this expression of desire ends up being directed to the giver, not the intended recipient.
I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that the characters of Verona have “inhumanly sudden changes of heart.” Some instances of this:
A band of outlaws accosts Valentine and his page in a forest. Thirty-two lines later — may the reader count them — the outlaws coronate Valentine, making him their king!
Proteus attempts to ravish Sylvia. Valentine frustrates the ravishment before it is accomplished. Twenty-three lines later — may the reader count them — Valentine forgives the would-be rapist and then just as quickly offers him his fiancée!
Even Shakespeare’s idolaters cannot ignore the slipshod construction of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Unless the play is intended as a spoof (and not merely a “comedy” in the Shakespearean sense), it is indefensible. Then again, one of the play’s leitmotifs is metamorphosis, which might also explain why the valiant Sir Eglamour rescues the fair damsel Sylvia and then runs away comically as the bandits come near.
Shakespeare is the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the English literary canon. If one takes The Two Gentlemen of Verona in isolation, one can only conclude that it was written by an unworthy versifier and not by a major poet whose talent exceeds that of Andrew Marvell. Its virtues are meager in comparison with the theatre of the great Scandinavian, Ibsen, and of the great Russian, Chekhov. It is time to explode the myth that Shakespeare was always a great writer, when, in plays such as this, he is an unimaginative, fatuous hack. A poet, yes, but a poet with the soul of an entertainer.
Dr. Joseph Suglia