The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2
Or, “Upon a homely object, Love can wink”
For a while, I was a bit unsure about the “The” in the title. Valentine and Proteus are basically children, untraveled and inexperienced. “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, sans definite article, sounds like the title of a satire. It hits the “Gentlemen” in an almost sarcastic way, making clear how ultimately minor these two schmucks happen to be.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, on the other hands, sounds almost mythic, like the title of a fairy tale or a parable. Leading with the “The”, I felt, promises more plot than the play was ready to deliver. After all, not much happens in Act 1. Yes, in a traditional five act structure, Act 1 is for setting the scene, while Acts 2 and 3 deliver the conflict and rising action, but how much action could there be with these two yahoos as protagonists?
Turns out, I needed have worried. This act has everything: unexpected twists, dramatic character arcs, casual racism, and a dog. Shakespeare’s making a solid play for the “The”.
We find ourselves at the start of Act 2 in Padua, where Valentine, our erstwhile traveling bachelor, and Sylvia, daughter of the Emperduke, are falling head over heels for each other. Sylvia is beautiful, witty, and a terrible flirt. Mind you, when I say “terrible flirt”, I do not mean to imply that she flirts often or indiscriminately. Rather, I mean that her flirting technique is terrible.
Imagine you were the daughter of a rich, important politico. Furthermore, imagine you develop a crush on one of his staff. Let’s name him (or her — no judgments here) Val, for simplicity’s sake. How do you go about letting Val know of your feelings? The most obvious way, apparently, is to tell Val that you have a crush on someone, and to conscript Val to write a love letter, in your name, to that anonymous someone.
Now, because Val loves you, and cannot say no to you, he (or she) writes the letter. And yet it breaks his (or her) heart! So he (or she) writes the letter half-heartedly, and when you ask for the letter the next day, you are told that it made Val unhappy to write. How should you respond to this?
Would you be happy, as it is an admission from your crush that said crush returns your feelings? No, silly, of course not. Rather, you throw a small tantrum, and tell Val that maybe next time (because this plan is going so well you want to try it again) you hope that he (or she) will try harder to write a better letter. Then you give the letter back to Val and leave.
End imaginative play here. Being Sylvia is confusing.
Speed, Valentine’s servant, understands immediately what is going on. His name, after all, is Speed. Yet it takes the remainder of Scene 1 for Speed to get Valentine to realize that the letter was intended for him. And what does Valentine say when he finally realizes the truth, that the love of his life returns his favor? Basically, nothing.
Herself hath taught her love himself to write unto her lover.
All this I speak in print, for in print I found it. Why muse you, sir? ’Tis dinnertime.
I have dined.
What is with these characters and dinner? It’s all “love love love” until the dinner bell rings, like some horrible Pavlovian experiment in dating.
In short order, Proteus arrives in Padua. Proteus is introduced to Sylvia, exchanges maybe four lines of pleasantries with her, and is left to catch up with Valentine. Valentine had been so excited about his friend joining him that he spent the early part of Scene 3 singing his praises to the Emperduke. However, once the two are alone together, he falls right back into being an alpha jerkbag to his sad-sack frenemy.
Allow me to paraphrase:
Isn’t my girlfriend the best?
Yup, she’s really great. Beautiful, and smart, and…
No, she’s the best. THE BEST. Better than every other woman in the whole wide world. Say it.
She’s great, but…
I have my own girlfriend whom I think is the best, so…
You are WRONG!!!
Valentine tells his buddy that he and Sylvia plan on eloping that night, as her father would otherwise have her wedded to the boring, wealthy Sir Thurio, and leaves Proteus by himself to monologue. Needless to say, when Proteus decides that he has fallen deeply in love with Sylvia (remember those maybe four lines of pleasantries earlier?), renounces his betrothal to Julia, and intends to betray his friend’s confidence by ratting him out to the Emperduke, I kind of get it. I don’t fully agree with his decision (poor Julia!) but having him break bad like this is a power move. To spend one full act building up sympathy for the Charlie Brown of Verona, only to have him go full villain? That’s a bold choice.
And he really has gone full villain. Witness this piece of casual racism from our newly minted bad guy, tossed off to help describe how much better his new crush is than the fiancée he plans to dump:
And Sylvia — witness heaven that made her fair —
Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope.
I hate him so much.
There’s so much more to say about this act. There’s a comic turn from Proteus’ antisemitic servant Lance and his emotionally stoic dog, Crab. There’s Julia’s not-at-all-insane decision to visit the recently decamped Proteus by traveling to Padua DISGUISED AS A BOY. There’s this wonderful line which the steady march of time has cruelly robbed of its original context:
But you are so without these follies, that these follies are within you and shine through you like the water in an urinal…
I honestly didn’t expect to spend this much time and effort on this play. I was expecting to rush through it so I could more quickly get to Shakepeare’s better ones. I’m just having so much fun. Samuel Johnson wrote that though Shakespeare’s tragedies were great, the comedies were his true works of genius. I always thought that this was an example of eighteenth century critical priorities simply being different than ours. Perhaps Johnson was right. Perhaps I needed to spend more time with the comedies.