Shakespeare 2022: Two Gentlemen of Verona

This is the third post in a year-long series in which, week by week, I’m reading the complete works of William Shakespeare, more or less in chronological order. In my previous post, I wrote about The Comedy of Errors.

Harold Bloom dismissed this one as a “rather lame comedy” and I can’t really chide him for it. The best I can do is point out that Bloom made that comment to draw a contrast between Two Gentlemen of Verona and the more skilfully comedic Comedy of Errors, though he didn’t note that this play was probably written several years prior to one (ca. 1589?). It’s possible that this was in fact the first play Shakespeare ever wrote, and it’s also possible that he kept it in his desk drawer until he’d already staged several others and found himself unexpectedly commissioned to produce new work. What is a young playwright to do in such a situation? You could try to write something original at speed — or else dust off something already written. Two Gentlemen of Verona may be the result of the latter course of action.

Like The Comedy of Errors, it, too, occasionally shimmers with fine dialogue. However, since the best lines share some common imagery even though they belong to two different characters, even these bright spots suggest to me a writer who is notably less skilled than the writer of the Comedy. Here’s a snippet from Proteus, in a soliloquy in Act 2:

Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
Is it mine, or Valentine’s 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.

Heat and fire and, a few lines later in the same soliloquy, “’Tis but her picture I have yet beheld, / And that hath dazzled my reason’s light.” But it is Julia herself who carries the imagery of the flame into her own response to Lucetta, right at the very end of Act 2. Lucetta tries to console her: “I do not seek to quench your love’s hot fire, / But qualify the fire’s extreme rage, / Lest it should burn above the bounds of reason.” Julia, for her part, will have none of it:

The more thou damm’st it up, the more it burns.
The current that with gentle murmur glides,
Thou know’st, being stopp’d, impatiently doth rage;
But when is fair course is not hindered,
He makes sweet music with the enamell’ed stones,
Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge
He overtaketh in his pilgrimage,
And so by many winding nooks he strays
With willing sport to the wild ocean.

But these sorts of flourishes are few and far between. While I wouldn’t go quite so far as to denigrate Two Gentlemen as “lame,” I would say that the low stakes and the misbegotten misogyny of an attempted rape towards the end — a dire lapse of empathy on Shakespeare’s part — feel to me like the early efforts of a writer who doesn’t yet know how to hone his work, to make it consequential, to give it an emotional and dramatic intelligence to match the sophistication of its rhetoric. I’d also point out, however, that it does contain the seed of a concern that will blossom into something profoundly consequential in plays like Richard II (via Bolingbroke) and Othello (via Cassio), when Valentine lets slip this minor lament:

And why not death rather than living torment?
To die is to be banish’d from myself…

Why not, indeed? You can have a character ask that question simply as a proxy for an outpouring of anguish, or you can have a character ask it and strive assiduously to answer it — to truly take up a contemplative position from which to distinguish the social death of exile from the literal death of the body. If there’s a difference between Shakespeare’s juvenilia and Shakespeare’s mature work, it may well be the difference between those two approaches to this one issue which finds its first expression in this otherwise maligned play.

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