The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare.

Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus by William Holman Hunt (1851).

The Two Gentleman of Verona is one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, written somewhere around 1589 - 1593; it may even be Shakespeare's first plays, however the earliest known performance wasn't until 1762 at Drury Lane and even that was a re-written version (the earliest performance that hadn't been re-written was 1784; it was to run for several weeks, however it was closed after one night). It has the shortest cast of characters - there's just seventeen (Shakespeare's largest cast is Henry VI Part II with 67 characters), and even has a dog - Crab.

It's no real surprise that The Two Gentlemen of Verona had little success in its early days: it's not the most exciting of plays. The two gentlemen of the title are the two close friends Valentine and Proteus, and Valentine is leaving Verona to learn a little about the world whilst Proteus will remain. We learn that Proteus is in love with Julia, and his man Speed has just delivered a letter to her. Julia, however, has torn it up, embarrassed in front of her maid Lucetta (Julia quickly regrets this and tries to piece it back together). To make her misery worse Proteus' father Antonio sends Proteus to Milan to join Valentine in his quest for betterment. As he bids goodbye to Julia they express their love for one another and exchange rings as tokens of their love.

Enter Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan with whom Valentine has fallen in love, and with whom Proteus falls in love. When Valentine confides that he and Silvia are to elope, Proteus tells the Duke and Valentine is banished, leaving Silvia for him (to top it off, he tells her Valentine is dead). Julia, meanwhile, has decided to disguise herself as a man (an old favourite for Shakespearean comedies) and head for Milan where she sees Proteus wooing Silvia along with Thurio, his and Valentine's rival. Valentine, meanwhile, is in Mantua and has become, oddly enough, the leader of a group of bandits (they would have killed him otherwise).

Julia, as that played out, arrives in Milan disguised as Sebastian, a page. She gives the ring Proteus had given her to Silvia, whose father wishes her to marry Thurio. With the help of her friend Sir Eglamour she escapes in search of Valentine (not believing he is dead) but is soon in the clutches of the outlaws. The Duke, Proteus, Thurio, and Julia (still disguised as Sebastian) go in search of her. Proteus finds her and rescues her, however Valentine must then rescue her from Proteus, who proclaims "I'll force thee yield to my desire". He does, however, regret this and sincerely apologises, so Valentine offers to give up Silvia apparently to him, however Julia, still disguised, reveals her true identity and Proteus realises his love for her. The Duke comes to realise that Thurio is no match for his Silvia, so as Proteus and Julia will marry, so too will Valentine and Silvia.

Proteus, I suppose, is the 'redemptive' character in the play whose lusts run awry but are eventually guided back to love's true path. It is fairly entertaining, I certainly don't hate it, but what's interesting about it is that is is possibly Shakespeare's first comedy and it seems The Two Gentlemen serves as a formula which will later be perfected in plays such as, in my opinion, A Midsummer Night's Dream: love, confusion, some kind of betrayal or similar, redemption, and reconciliation: as Lysander will observe in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "The course of true love never did run smooth", or as Puck notes, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!". Unlike quite a few of Shakespeare's comedies, I would read this again.

Comments

  1. I should get back to reading his plays but I have Taming of the Shrew up next and I'm just not interested at the moment. Like you, I haven't particularly enjoyed his comedies, which completely surprised me. The tragedy and history plays are much more to my liking. I still don't get the pull of the hidden identity thing; if only I could travel back to Elizabethan England to understand it.

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    1. I liked Taming of the Shrew :)

      Happy to say I only have one comedy left - All's Well that Ends Well, which I may well read in the next fortnight. I love the tragedies, especially Julius Caesar, but oh! the histories! Best plays in the world, Shakespeare's histories :)

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