The Two Gentlemen of Verona is certainly among the most poorly received of Shakespeare's comedies. Some; parts, especially the comic monologues of Launce, are accomplished, but the play as a whole is unconvincing. It is perhaps best viewed as the work of a young and inexperienced playwright who was only beginning to experiment with comedy, a genre he was to master at a later date.
In the past, some scholars have claimed that the play was simply too bad to have been written by Shakespeare, that at most he may have touched up someone else's feeble effort. Modern criticism holds that the play while an unsuccessful early effort, is nonetheless genuinely Shakespearean. Supporters of this opinion have focused on the young playwright's intelligent application of the literary conventions current in his day as he developed his own approach to comedy, or they have seen the play as at least in part a deliberate parody of these conventions. These two propositions are not mutually exclusive; a parodist may make use of a style for its entertainment value at the same time that he or she subverts it.
The play draws on two literary traditions: the ‘friendship literature' of the Middle Ages; and romantic narrative. 'Friendship literature' told tales of manly companionship, sometimes disrupted by romance but generally restored. The account of the relationship between Valentine and Proteus is an instance of this long-popular plot line. For instance, Valentine's renunciation of Silvia (5.4.82-83), though comically abrupt in context, represents a conventional demonstration of magnanimity that was standard in this tradition.
Romantic narrative derived ultimately from classical roots and was popular throughout the Middle Ages in the form of poetry and prose dealing with courtly love and adventure. Such narratives continued to be written and widely read during the Renaissance; Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia was the best-known English example. This tradition was already familiar in the early Elizabethan theatre. A number of plays written in the 1570s and 1580s share several of its characteristic devices: accounts of travels in several different settings; girls or women, abandoned by lovers, who assume disguises; a cynical villain; a mocking servant who comments on the romantic action; eventual reunion at the close. The audience finds in these exotic settings and stylized characters a life that seems both bolder and finer than its own, governed by values that are impossible in the real world. It is this body of conventions that Shakespeare uses in this play.
In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, lovers are separated through a flagrantly evil act of betrayal. After trials and rigors have been undergone, a happy ending reunites them and villainy is overcome. The promised escape has been provided. However, Shakespeare holds up the stereotype of romantic narrative to good-humored ridicule, especially in the treatment of his hero, Valentine, who is presented throughout as a gullible and foolish young man, a comic and ridiculous hero. When we first see him, he is ridiculing love, and we know, if only from his suggestive name, that his comeuppance surely lies ahead. Valentine's ineptness as a lover is demonstrated, for instance, when he fails to comprehend Silvia's flirtatious letter-writing ploy; when Speed attempts to explain it, he proves too slow-witted to appreciate it.
Valentine's high-flown rhetoric of love, as he recounts his infatuation to Proteus in 2.4, is the voice of exuberant enthusiasm, and he presents a pleasant picture of a young man in the first blush of romance. However, his bubbling account of his planned elopement seems indiscreet at best. Later in the scene, when Proteus reveals his plan to betray his friend, we pity Valentine for the blunder he has unknowingly committed in confiding in this villain, but at the same time, we may chuckle that his effervescent 'braggardism' (2.4.159) was so untimely.
We are not surprised when Valentine steps so neatly into the Duke's trap in 3.1, for his combination of na'i'vete and feigned sophistication seems entirely in character. So does his helplessness once the Duke rages off; he can only bemoan his fate until Proteus bundles him out of town.
We next see Valentine in the wholly comic scene (4.1) of his capture by the Outlaws, who immediately make him the leader of their gang, in what is clearly a broad parody of romantic adventure stories. He rescues Silvia from attempted rape by Proteus, but he is so silly a hero that it does not occur to him to claim his heroine at this obvious climax. In fact, he does not even speak to her for the remainder of the play. Instead, he responds only to his former friend, who is begging forgiveness, and he goes so far as to turn Silvia over to the would-be rapist. This absurd conclusion is prevented only by the quick-witted Julia, who wants Proteus for herself, and Valentine is united with his beloved only by default.
Only two of the characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona anticipate the magical figures of later works. Launce, an early clown, voices the best writing in the play in his monologues concerning his dog, Crab. The general artificiality of the play is countered to a considerable degree by the presence of this commonsensical man. However, Launce has literally nothing whatsoever to do with the plot; he simply provides intermissions, as it were, in the main action. Later, Shakespeare was to integrate his comic characters more fully. Julia, whose best material is in prose, is also something of a foil to Valentine and Proteus. Her pragmatic assumption of control over events begins with her intention to overcome her enforced separation from Proteus by following him to court, and it triumphs when she abandons her disguise and reconquers his love. She clearly foreshadows such later enterprising heroines as Rosalind, in As You Like It, and Viola, in Twelfth Night.
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