The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 1
Or, “living dully sluggardized at home”
It was surprising, really, how good it felt to jump into this play. It took Valentine’s opening line — the comfortable iambic rhythm, the punning, boasting wordplay, the cynicism about “love” from a character who very clearly will be head over heels by the end of the third act — and I felt like I was home.
To be clear, this is not a very good play. See above: the cynicism about “love” from a character who very clearly will be head over heels by the end of the third act. Most of the emotional beats are telegraphed, except those that seem to drop in randomly out of the blue. Every servant is mouthy in the exact way one would expect. It reads like a first draft.
Last month I attended a reunion at my alma mater, in celebration of the 21st birthday of the founding of my collegiate a cappella group. I was back in a place I once loved like no other, surrounded by some of my dearest friends, many of whom I’d mostly fallen out of touch with, falling right back into our old selves as if we’d never parted. All the years, the miles, the lives we’ve lived since then, all of it melted away, leaving just the love we had for each other, for singing, for the selves we used to be.
And the new kids! Yes, some of us brought our children, and it was astonishing to meet tiny versions of people I knew when we were tinier (though not that tiny). But there were years and years of younger alumni and current students, none of whom I’d met before that weekend, all of us bound together as family through our common stewardship of this silly a cappella group with a terrible name.
These are the thoughts I cannot escape while reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play feels thrillingly unknown (to me) yet deeply familiar. It is the best kind of nostalgia.
First things first. The characters are awful. Valentine and Proteus, our titular Gentlemen of Verona, might as well be Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau in Swingers. Two best friends, the former the alpha, the latter clearly the beta, one of whom wants to travel the world and party, the other wanting to stay home with his girlfriend. Proteus is such a beta that he doesn’t even get a scene with his own servant; he has to ask Valentine’s servant, Speed, to send a letter to his love, Julia. Then Speed insults him, bests him in a punny wit battle about sheep, and demands money for his troubles. Proteus sucks.
I feel like these “Gentlemen” are children, maybe 16 years old at the upper bound. Proteus’ crush on Julia is way too strong and sudden to be anything but puppy love, and Valentine’s protestations against romantic entanglements are delivered with all the brio of a kid who just read The Fountainhead for the first time.
To be fair, Valentine does get in one sick burn:
So, by your circumstance, you call me fool.
So, by your circumstance, I fear you’ll prove.
Shade! And let us not forget the very first line of the play:
Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus.
Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.
“Cease to persuade”? Does this imply that the play begins in medias res? Have these two idiots been arguing about Love for hours, and we’re only catching the very end of their conversation?
Worse, that’s all there is to know about them. Proteus thinks Love Rulez, and Valentine thinks Love Droolz. They have literally no other character traits. Even their servants’ names reflect this. Valentine, who can’t wait to hit the road, has a servant named Speed. Proteus, who can’t wait to stay at home with his lady love (if you know what I mean), has a servant named Lance (if you know what I mean).
This is really driven home in Scene 2, when Julia asks her servant, Lucetta — what, no pun for the ladies, Shakespeare? — why she prefers Proteus to Julia’s other suitors. Her answer?
I have no other than a woman’s reason:
I think him so because I think him so.
Casual misogyny aside, this is almost a writer’s admission that even his title characters are barely more than plot devices. “He’s a gentlemen, he’s from Verona, he’s in love; what more do you want from me?”
And Julia! There is something seriously wrong with Julia. She begins her single scene in this act claiming not to know who Proteus is, then wishing she had a letter from him, upon receiving which ripping it to pieces in a fit of pique, instantly regretting it and kissing each shredded piece, and finally leaving them in the street to blow away until Lucetta picks them up. This girl is exhausting.
Then there’s this exchange between her and Lucetta, speaking explicitly of Proteus:
His little speaking shows his love but small.
Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.
They do not love that do not show their love.
O, they love least that let men know their love.
I would I knew his mind.
Peruse this paper, madam.
“To Julia.” — Say from whom.
“Say from whom”?!? Whom do you think, Julia? Do you suffer from Memento disease? Are you Dory the fish?
Oh, but wait… Later in the same scene, she regrets sending Lucetta away and considers apologizing for having been so rude to her:
How churlishly I chid Lucetta hence, when willingly I would have had her here!
How angerly I taught my brow to frown, when inward joy enforced my heart to smile!
My penance is to call Lucetta back and ask remission for my folly past.
What ho, Lucetta!
What would your Ladyship?
Is’t near dinner time?
Yep. Dory the fish.
By the end of the act, Valentine has left home to attend either the Emperor or the Duke — Shakespeare can’t seem to settle on who it is Valentine is off to serve, which further adds to the whole “first draft” feel — Julia has written back to Proteus to return her love and secure their engagement, and Proteus’ father has sent Proteus off to the Emperduke to follow Valentine, because a young man should travel a bit before settling down. Finally, a character whose motivations I can get behind.