Having decided to leave Verona to seek his fortune in Milan, Valentine takes leave of his friend Proteus, who prefers to stay at home and woo his lover, Julia. Soon afterwards, however, Proteus is ordered by his father to follow Valentine – which he does, after swearing an oath of allegiance to Julia. more...
In Milan, Valentine falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke, and plans to elope with her. Proteus, however, no sooner sets eyes on Silvia than he too becomes besotted with her. Forgetting both his friendship for Valentine and his oath to Julia, he betrays the lovers’ intentions to the Duke, who promptly banishes Valentine.
To assist him in his fruitless attempts to woo Silvia for himself, Proteus then engages the services of a page boy, Sebastian – unaware that this “boy” is in fact the distraught Julia, who has disguised herself in order to follow her faithless lover.
Fleeing the court to escape the equally unwelcome attentions of both Proteus and the suitor chosen for her by her father, Silvia is taken prisoner by a band of outlaws. She is “rescued” by Proteus, who then threatens to take her by force. Fortunately, Valentine intervenes and all the parties are happily reconciled.
Director’s notes by Dean Gabourie
In 1895, the American theatre manager Augustin Daly revived an operatic adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona that had first been presented nearly seventy-five years earlier. George Bernard Shaw, then the theatre critic for The Saturday Review, described the piece as “not exactly a comic opera, though there is plenty of music in it, and not exactly a serpentine dance, though it proceeds under a play of changing colored lights. It is something more old-fashioned than either: to wit, a vaudeville.” more...
When, in the course of my research for this production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I came upon Shaw’s comment, everything that had made Shakespeare’s play a puzzle to me suddenly fell into place.
Critics from Harold Bloom to Isaac Asimov have disdained Two Gentlemen, writing it off as an immature work in which Shakespeare had not quite mastered his craft. The ending, in particular, is troubling to modern commentators, who find it unconvincing at best and misogynist at worst. It is certainly true that this is a youthful work; you can sense the raging hormones in its language, in its pace, in its swings of thought and emotion. But is this a flaw – or a clue to the play’s true nature?
There is, says Touchstone in As You Like It, “much virtue in If” – and there is a very big “If” that should be taken into account when considering The Two Gentlemen of Verona. What if this play was never intended as a romantic comedy in the later Shakespearean manner but as a satire – or, as Shaw put it, a vaudeville? If this is the case, concede the above-mentioned critics, then the satire would go a long way in redeeming the play’s perceived flaws. The Upstart Crow may have been “taking the piss.”
When Shakespeare wrote Two Gentlemen, he was still a young buck eager to make his mark – and what better way to do so than by spoofing contemporary artistic icons? In the play’s opening scene, Valentine teases his friend Proteus with mocking references to Hero and Leander, a tragically romantic poem by the leading playwright of the time, Christopher Marlowe. What if this sets the tone for what follows? Clifford Leach, editor of the Arden edition of the play, has identified more than eighty examples of courtly romances that were popular with theatre audiences at the time, all with happily-ever-after endings. What if Shakespeare’s intention was to riff on that genre – and give it a darkly ironic twist?
A certain skepticism about courtiers and ideals of courtly love is evident in most of Shakespeare’s subsequent work – indeed, he seldom uses the word gentleman without some degree of irony. Might he not, in this early comedy, have set out to question which characters are the “gentlemen”?
Arguably, the purest example of love and friendship in The Two Gentleman of Verona is to be found not among the romantic protagonists but in the relationship between the comic servant Launce and his dog, Crab. Thus does Shakespeare puncture the inflated ideals of literary romance as he takes his characters on the same journey that would still have been relatively fresh in his own experience: the arduous and error-strewn journey we all must take from adolescence to adulthood.
Program notes by Kel Morin-Parsons
Shakespeare is serious business. We study him in school and consider him to represent the pinnacle of poetic expression in English. His influence on our language is so pervasive as to go entirely undetected by many: while most people may have an idea that “To be, or not to be” is owed to him, someone may refer to “gilding the lily” (in fact “paint the lily,” from King John), say that something is “rotten in Denmark” (in fact “rotten in the state of Denmark,” from Hamlet) or complain that something is “Greek to me” (Julius Caesar) and have little idea that Shakespeare gave us those too. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival stands all around us as a tribute to him; scholars write their doctoral theses on him and spend entire careers immersed in his work. In my graduate school days, it was claimed that more books had been written on Hamlet alone than on the Bible. more...
But scholars and others who live with the man and his work in our age often remind us that before he became the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare was a working playwright and actor with a reputation to make and professional rivalries to manage. Other writers such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were already established on the London scene by the time Shakespeare arrived, and in 1592 a pamphlet attributed to the cranky Robert Greene and published shortly after his death famously referred to “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers . . . with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde.” This was an apparently disparaging reference to Shakespeare, with an allusion to the line “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” from his play Henry VI, Part One. He was a man with his way to make in a theatre environment as competitive as any we know today. Festival Production History
The Two Gentlemen of Verona was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays – perhaps his first – and like others in his line of work, then as now, he and his colleagues in the production must have been concerned first and foremost with packing out the house when it debuted. This is perhaps reflected in the economy of the text: Two Gentlemen has the smallest cast of any Shakespeare play and is one of his shortest in terms of number of lines.
The story is straightforward, with a plot that moves briskly, full of performative utterances: Antonio is advised to send his son Proteus to the court of the Duke of Milan to broaden his horizons, and says, “Even with the speediest expedition / I will dispatch him”; Proteus sees Silvia and instantly “the remembrance of my former love / Is by a newer object quite forgotten”; the bandits who set upon Valentine ask him for a quick bio and declare, “This fellow were a king for our wild faction!” “We’ll have him.” Deliberation is not a keynote here. Two Gentlemen also balances its earnest love-plot elements with fine clown scenes involving Launce, Speed and Launce’s dog, Crab; Launce alone is worth the price of admission, with his vaudevillian routines involving ridiculous wordplay. It is, in short, a play designed to hold one’s attention.
Its basic themes were classics in Shakespeare’s time and had seen many treatments of substance. The theme of friendship between men, and how it may be threatened by love for women, is familiar in the English tradition from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale; indeed, Shakespeare would later adapt that story with his contemporary John Fletcher for the play The Two Noble Kinsmen. The trope of the male bond and its importance and nobility, however, reaches much farther back into (among others) Greek and Roman traditions, and Shakespeare is true to their classical essence here.
As exalted, and essentially harmless, as romantic love seems to be early in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, its disruptive nature is quickly established. Proteus’s morality and ethics deteriorate at the very sight of Silvia, causing him to abandon all loyalty to Julia and, more importantly, to betray Valentine: “To leave my Julia, shall I be forsworn; / To love fair Silvia, shall I be forsworn; / To wrong my friend, I shall be much forsworn” (emphasis added). Proteus recognizes the wrong in which he stands, and the particular sin of betraying another man ¬– but this does not stop him.
His is a cautionary tale to Shakespeare’s audience on two fronts: not only is he a reminder of what havoc falling in love with a woman can wreak, but he is also clearly possessed of an over-passionate nature that sees him swing from infatuation with Julia (for which the more level-headed Valentine teases him) to infatuation with Silvia. His judgment is poor and his will is weak. Silvia herself berates him, saying, “better have none / Than plural faith which is too much by one: / Thou counterfeit to thy true friend!” To this Proteus replies baldly, “In love / Who respects friend?” Then – in the unwitting presence of Julia herself – Proteus, unable to woo Silvia as he had hoped, threatens to rape her.
The denouement of Two Gentlemen, like the ending of The Taming of the Shrew, has proven difficult for modern audiences. Despite the fact that Julia has managed to travel to Milan alone in the guise of a boy, and Silvia has acted as the uncompromising voice of honesty in the face of Proteus’s sordid betrayals, the women are clearly minimal agents in their own fates as the play draws to a close. Silvia utters not a word in the text after her “O heaven!” upon Proteus’s impending assault, while Julia, who has spent much of her time in Milan lamenting Proteus’s fickleness under her breath, simply berates him for his shameful behaviour and immediately welcomes him back into her arms after he repents.
That welcome, however, can only transpire after Julia is forced to reveal her true identity by Valentine – the greatest model of reason in the play, a man steadfast and honourable even in the face of his unjust exile, remembering even his ruffian friends when his fortunes turn again – who attempts to bequeath his beloved Silvia to Proteus as a mark of their restored friendship, thus provoking Julia to swoon and reveal herself.
The play ends in the way of Shakespearean comedies, with the two couples fully reconciled, blessed by Silvia’s father, the Duke, and on their way to a double wedding. Any unpleasantness is swept aside by Proteus’s apology and his reconciliation not just with Julia but also with Valentine, whose potential rejection has the greatest power to hurt him and whose forgiveness is thus the most valuable. The women are simply tokens of peace, instruments smoothing the way back to the proper social order of which Shakespeare’s comedies are always champions.
We may accept that in almost every time and place before our own the station of women was vastly different from that within our norms, but Two Gentlemen’s conclusion seems to go beyond historical cultural differences. Directors have faced the rapid denouement variously, and it has remained one of the great challenges of staging Two Gentlemen in the postwar period in particular. The ending – indeed, the whole play – may best be viewed from that clever vaudevillian perspective consistently offered by Launce and his companions, for whom the hardships of life are constant but never greater than a strong survival instinct, a sharp tongue and a willingness to forgive and get on with things.
The comic world often corrects those who are foolish, greedy or hasty by threatening them with just deserts that are, in fact, the best things for them, drawing those stray sheep back into the fold. The escapades of young people – young men, in particular – blessed with varying degrees of patience and judgment will, in Shakespeare’s well-regulated comic universe, ultimately come round right, however ill-considered their actions have been.
Kel Morin-Parsons, PhD, is an Ottawa-based actor and former instructor at the University of Ottawa.
DIRECTOR: Michael Langham
DESIGNER: Tanya Moiseiwitsch
Lloyd Bochner as Proteus
Eric House as Valentine
Ann Morrish as Julia
Diana Maddox as Silvia
DIRECTOR: Robin Phillips
DESIGNER: Molly Harris Campbell
Nicholas Pennell as ProteusStephen Russell
Mia Anderson as Julia
Jackie Burroughs as Silvia
Third Stage (now the Tom Patterson Theatre)
DIRECTOR: Leon Rubin
DESIGNER: Pat Flood
David Clark as Proteus
Robert McClure as Valentine
Maggie Huculak as Julia
Michelle Fisk as Silvia
DIRECTOR: Robert Beard
DESIGNER: Brian Jackson
Henry Czerny as Proteus
John Wojda as Valentine
Peggy Coffey as Julia
Kim Horsman as Silvia
Tom Patterson Theatre
DIRECTOR: Marti Maraden
DESIGNER: Debra Hanson
Scott Fisher & Neil Ingram as Proteus
Mervon Mehta as Valentine
Helen Taylor as Julia
Daria Martel as Silvia
DIRECTOR: Richard Rose
DESIGNER: Teresa Przybylski
David Jansen as Proteus
Graham Abbey as Valentine
Melody A. Johnson as Julia
Tamara Bernier as Silvia