Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

These blogs were originally posted on my personal blog in 2012 when USP directed The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsommer Nights Dreame for UnSeam'd Shakespeare Company. I think they represent my feelings and thoughts about the play.

As I set out to direct The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one characteristic of the play becomes undeniable: this is not one of Shakespeare’s better plays.  However, it is better than usually given credit for.

The play is obscured by attempts to improve upon it or by digging for deeper meanings than the play contains.  The characters themselves are treated either much more loftily than written, or not given the respect they deserve.  Violence and homosexual overtones are added making the plot and action more implausible than it already is to modern sensibilities.  These improvements still often leave the audience unsatisfied.

The play was not meant to disappoint, but to entertain.  Shakespeare wrote the play by the dramatic rules governing comedy.  When he wrote this play he had not yet the tools to break the rules as he would later.  Modern critics believe that Shakespeare hatched fully developed in his powers and it is the playwright of Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello that they credit, or fault, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  We cannot blame William Shakespeare of the late 1580’s for not being the playwright he would later become.

Any writing on The Two Gentlemen of Verona must begin with its conclusion, probably the most criticized and problematic element of the play.  When taken as the only acceptable outcome given the style and rules Shakespeare followed in its construction, the ending is logical and believable.  The conclusion is awkward enough to our modern sensibilities and expectations, but it is truthful to the world of the play and in no way violates the rules.

The end of the play begins with the attempted rape of Silvia by Proteus. 

Proteus            Nay, if gentle spirit of moving words
                        Can no way change you to a milder forme;
                        Ile woo you like a Souldier, at armes end,
                        And love you ‘gainst the nature of Love: force ye.

Silvia               Oh heaven.

Proteus            Ile force thee yeeld to my desire.

This is all that is given us textually, because Valentine, who was listening nearby immediately jumps into the scene.  But what is he breaking up? 

The line, ‘Ile woo you like a Souldier, at armes end,’ can be taken a couple of ways.  Either Proteus could mean: ‘I will love you at the end of a weapon,’ or ‘I will lay my hands upon you.’  Given the imagery of ‘Souldier’ and the different meanings of the word ‘armes,’ either could be acceptable and a valid point for the use of violence in this scene.  However, Silvia’s response is: ‘Oh heaven.’ (emphasis mine).  There is no exclamation.  Given everything that has happened in the play up to this point: Proteus’ use of guile instead of force in his dealings, Silvia’s ability to handle men with her charms, the fact that they are not alone – Julia (dressed as Sebastian) is present; all of these factors, when reinforced by strong characterizations by the actors, go to alleviate any possible danger in the exchange.  If anything Proteus is biting off more than he can chew, and it is quite plausible that the ‘armes end’ that Proteus’ speaks of are Silvia’s and she may actually be holding him at bay.

Also within the rules of the comedy, there must be reconciliation.  Valentine must discover Proteus’ betrayal and he must forgive him.  For that reason, Proteus must make a big show, believable or not, for Valentine to witness.  Modern interpretations make more out of this attempted rape in an attempt to make the play more exciting than it is, but by doing so what comes after is hindered and made awkward.

Only 15 lines later comes this exchange:

Proteus            My shame and guilt confounds me:
                        Forgive me Valentine: if hearty sorrow
                        Be a sufficient Ransome for offence,
                        I tender’t heere: I doe as truly suffer,
                        As ere I did commit.

Valentine         Then I am paid:
                        And once again, I doe receive thee honest;
                        Who by Repentance is not satisfied,
                        Is nor of heaven, nor earth; for these are pleas’d:
                        By Penitence th’Eternalls wrath’s appeas’d:
                        And that my love may appeare plaine and free,
                        All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee.

In making the rape dangerous, this forgiveness becomes impossible to accept.  Nothing in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is dangerous.  From the outset of this comedy we know that the friends will end friends, that the lovers will be together, and protagonists’ reputations will be intact.  The introduction of a real danger shatters this, and should be avoided for the unity of the piece.

On the heels of Valentine’s forgiveness comes the most troubling line in the play: ‘All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee.’  Much of what people feel about The Two Gentlemen of Verona hinge on the interpretation of this line.  What are we supposed to think?

Many believe that the line is a show of absolute sacrifice on behalf of Valentine to prove that his friendship with Proteus has been thoroughly healed.  Here male friendship is paramount in the range of human emotion and the throwing aside of one’s hard-earned beloved is seen as a fitting demonstration of this ideal.  Is this what happens?

It is widely commented on that after Silvia’s utterance of ‘Oh heaven,’ during the attempted rape, she is silent for the rest of the play.  Why?  If she is given to Proteus as a token of supreme friendship, it is supposed that she is passively accepting of her fate, or that she is angered into silence.  The audience is not given an insight into what she is thinking because as soon as Valentine says this line, Julia (still disguised as Sebastian) faints, and the next 36 lines are devoted to the discovery of her true identity and the happy reunion and reconciliation of her and Proteus.  Silvia does not break this moment with any sign of protestation, nor does she say anything when Valentine declares his love for her, openly defying her father the Duke and Thurio, nor anything when her father consents.  Already in the play she has demonstrated that she is willing to defy her father, spurn the advances of unwanted suitors and run away risking her life to be with Valentine.  Silvia is no wilting flower, bowing to the whims of men.  But in this interpretation of the line, the entirety of her character’s actions have been forgotten, and she is made a complacent mute.

It has been suggested that ‘All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee,’ is meant to say that ‘all the love that was for Silvia, I give to thee as well.’  This interpretation still begs the question: why is Silvia silent?  At this point, she has been reunited with Valentine, in the next she is witnessing Julia and Proteus together (as she has been advocating for), she sees Valentine stand up to Thurio and the Duke and ultimately gets what she wants: to marry Valentine.  What words can express such happiness?

Any anger, spite or vengefulness at her situation at the conclusion of the play violates the laws of the comedy.  It puts a strain on the plausibility of the action, and Shakespeare strains his audience enough with the devices he uses to reach the pre-destined happy ending.  Modern directors and critics should not add more.

Homosexual overtones are often added to The Two Gentlemen of Verona to absolutely no purpose whatsoever.  Harold Bloom says of Valentine that he ‘becomes worth consideration only when we take his perverseness seriously, since it appears to go considerably beyond a mere repressed bisexuality.’  It would be a feat for Mr. Bloom to show any example of bisexuality in Valentine, or indeed any character in the play, or to demonstrate anything even approaching perversity in the text.  Yes, Valentine and Proteus have a strong filial affection for each other, but there is no hint of attraction.  Their conversations revolve around their travels and being in love with women.

Could all this talk of travel and women cover deeply repressed homosexuality?  Yes, if the play were written by Tenneessee Williams, but it is not.  It is written by an Elizabethan playwright who did not write psychology, but only action for the stage.

The only chance here for any homoerotic themes or action is when Julia arrives disguised as Sebastian.  Unlike Viola in Twelfth Night, she does not make half-veiled advances towards her lover.  She only comments on her situation when she is with strangers or alone on stage with a sympathetic audience.  Unlike Olivia in Twelfth Night, Silvia does not fall in love with the woman dressed in drag.  Unlike Rosalind in As You Like It, Julia does not try to trick Proteus into seeing the girl beneath the boy.  This type of play is out of bounds in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

By making Valentine and Proteus secret wishful lovers, Mr. Bloom and others add a level of complexity to the characters and meaning to the play that does not exist.  Giving sexual tension to Proteus and ‘Sebastian’ would do the same.  It would be just as easy for an American to understand Cricket by applying the rules of Baseball.

As with the homosexuality and violence, some try to find a deep meaning in this admittedly shallow play.  Andrew Dickson thinks ‘The Two Gentlemen seems to ask, at the very least, whether ideals purchased at this kind of price are worth their cost.  Is Valentine’s ideal of friendship worth abandoning the woman he is engaged to marry?  Can Proteus’s [sic] ever be trusted again?’

The Two Gentlemen of Verona asks no such questions.  The play asks nothing of its audience.  This perhaps is the hardest thing to grasp.  We think that this play must be something other than it is because Shakespeare wrote it, but it is not very good.  We must be missing something. 

What is missing is its simplicity.  Valentine is named so because he proves to be a true lover.  Proteus is named so because he is as changeable as his namesake.  The play is a comedy, therefore the friends must remain friends and lovers must be together in the end.  There is a bit with a dog and witty servants.  There is a woman dressing as a boy, outlaws and music.  What else should be expected of a comedy?

The play shows how love changes us.  Proteus changes from a lover to a kind of tyrant.  Valentine, from an adventurer to a lover.  Julia, from a woman to man.  Silvia, from a clever woman to a mute.  The Duke, in his story of love, from an old father to a young man.  The only person who is not changed is Launce, who loves his dog.  Of course, everyone else is turned into a clown by love, and that is Launce’s natural position.  Perhaps it renders him immune.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a play, is what it is.  It is not up to us to make the characters more interesting than they are.  It is not up to us to make the story funnier or more exciting.  It is our job to bring the story that is there to life, not to fight it, but to work with it.  So what is there in the play?

Mark Van Doren points out that ‘Friendship is one of the gods here.’  The other god must be Love.  This is a play about two young friends on the cusp of growing up and dealing with these two deities.  Making it about anything else does a disservice to the play.  It may be a harbinger of things to come when compared to the rest of Shakespeare’s cannon, but on the stage The Two Gentlemen of Verona must be allowed to stand on its own.  It may not be one of Shakespeare’s better plays, but it can do that just fine.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. © 1998 Harold Bloom
Dickson, Andrew. The Rough Guide to Shakespeare. © 2005 Andrew Dickson
Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. © 1939 Mark Van Doren

Much is made of Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Some critics believe that he was added later to spice up the unpopular play.  But why go back to add this one character rather then rewrite them all?  More likely Launce was Shakespeare’s most inspired invention in this apprentice play, and it may just be due to the originality of Launce that Shakespeare’s career went further.

The longing for Launce to be a time-traveler is a symptom of a larger sickness often mis-diagnosed inThe Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that is that while there is humor in the play, it is not very funny.  This criticism is wrong-headed and stems from a belief that the lovers are much loftier than they are; that they are older than they are; that because they are capable of such reasoned arguments that they are much more mature than they are.  It is this view, and this characterization on the part of the actors, that the back-and-forths in the text somehow become parlor room tennis matches of wit written by Oscar Wilde.  They are not.  Shakespeare’s verse and rhetorical devices are the vehicles that he uses for expression in all his plays.  Any character at any time is capable of speaking in verse, that does not mean that character is elevated, educated or elite.  At their very cores, Silvia and Julia are maids and Valentine and Proteus are at the age when young men

‘seeke preferment out.
Some to the warres, to try their fortune there;
Some, to discover Islands farre away,
Some, to the studious Universities.’

The characters are young and playful.  They are not standing on opposite sides of the stage, kegs turned out, three quarters to the audience declaring verbal backhands.  There is horseplay, intimacy, alternating shyness and bravado.  They are vibrant and over-the-top in their emotions.  But that is only part of their humor.

The other part is in their behavior.  Yes, Proteus does terrible things to his friends, but always remember that this is comedy, this is farce, and there is never any danger of things ending badly for these characters.  Does that diffuse the drama and remove the tension of the play?  The short answer is: Yes.  But the play is not meant to be dramatic or filled with tension.  Any tension in the play has been imposed upon it and violates the world of the play.  The results are usually unsatisfying productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Think of ‘a very special episode of [insert prime-time sitcom here].’  Everything starts out as expected: stock characters going through the motions, audience laughter punctuating expected jokes, the same conventions being exploited that you saw last week.  Then there is an accident, someone gets hurt in a drunk-driving accident, or a friend has overdosed on cocaine.  They die, and there is an attempt at gravitas at the close, which is without the theme music and laughter that always ends the show.  Then, the cast appears backstage, sitting in folding director chairs to give you a heartfelt message expressing the very real-life dangers that have entered the make-believe world of their characters.  It is all so unbelievable, because it violates your expectations, your assumptions, and the world of the comedy.  The ending is disappointing and unfulfilling.  The next week, the show continues as if nothing happened, because to dwell on the event would be to change the show completely.  This is what happens when tension and danger is added to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and when the characters are treated as something other than they are.

This may be a simplistic view, but this is a simplistic play.  To treat it as anything else hurts the play and bores the audience.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona should not be taken seriously.

As far as Launce is concerned, he is a wonderful creation.  He is often the second favorite in the play, behind his dog Crab.  We will leave Crab alone because we cannot conjecture on what was meant to happen with the unwritten role of the dog.  If it obeys, it is funny.  If it does not listen to its master, it is funny.  Had Launce been an interlopation, and on top of that the crowd favorite that he has become, most likely Shakespeare would have found a better exit for him from the play rather than have him disappear to find Proteus’ dog only never to return.  One expects that had he been added later, or improved upon, he would appear once the lovers had been united to tell us about his adventure with Crab.  Instead he fades away.  The actor who originally played Launce probably also played another important character in the last scene, but even so his absence is not commented on, letting us believe that he should not be missed in the first place.

While entertaining, the servants’ stories are not important to the plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Their absence only becomes worth comment because they are treated more honestly and truthfully than the lovers.  The servants are allowed to be human, physical and emotional, while the lovers are almost always treated as ‘gentlemen and ladies.’  They are allowed to be witty but are restricted from being as humorous as Shakespeare wrote them.  Their actions are treated with more seriousness and gravity than they deserve or is called upon in the script.  When they are given that liberty to be played as written, much of the play falls into place in ways from which it is usually restricted and the humor of the servants no longer eclipses the play.