Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”

For a literary project in 2023, I’m following Matthew Franck’s Shakespeare in a Year Reading Plan. Like many, I have favourite Shakespeare plays that I return to regularly, and I’m lucky enough to live near The Globe in London and so usually see one or two productions a year. But there are some gaps in my knowledge, so it strikes me as a very worthy project. To spur me on to read and reflect, I’ve decided to run a “Shakespeare Notebook” on the blog this year for my scattered reflections–hopefully thinking about the Bard in relation to the historic Protestant tradition which we promote here at Ad Fontes and The Davenant Institute. I intend to blog mainly about the plays, rather than the poetry, but who knows.

First up: The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Franck’s reading plan is mostly chronological, and Two Gentlemen is regarded by many as Shakespeare’s earliest play, so is up first. It’s rarely performed these days, and few folk know it very well. I will confess: I had never read it before this week, but it has been hugely enlightening looking into commentary upon and reception of the play.

Two Gentlemen’s relative obscurity is largely due to its perceived dramatic inferiority, as an earlier work (although it has plenty of elements we’d now regard as “problematic”, such as Proteus attempting to force himself on Silvia toward the end). One of its best scenes involves Crab the dog, which is behind Geoffrey Rush’s classic, dismissive line in Shakespeare in Love: “You see: comedy, love, and a bit with a dog–that’s what they want.” It can seem as if that’s all the play amounts to: a by-the-numbers sort of rom-com, full of elements which we see reappearing in other, better known Shakespearean love stories. It also has perhaps Shakespeare’s most rushed ending, which is saying something.

However, Oxford Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith makes some good points against the assumed early dating in her always illuminating Approaching Shakespeare lectures. Certainly, we shouldn’t let “earliness” be the dominant lens through which we look at the play. There is much to be said for it.

Two things have stuck in my mind above all as I’ve read and reflected on the play. I’ll comment on the first at a little more length, and then the second very briefly.

Eros, Blindness, and Plato

Contrary to my favourite Horrible Histories song, Shakespeare didn’t coin the phrase “love is blind”–but he damn well solidified it. The phrase appears in The Merchant of Venice (“But love is blind and lovers cannot see/The pretty follies that themselves commit”), Henry V (“Yet they do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces”), and in Act 2, Scene 1 of Two Gentlemen (a delightful clip of which you can see here, including the line).

It comes when Valentine, once sceptical of love, is discussing his newfound love for Silvia with his servant Speed:

VALENTINE: I have loved her ever since I saw her; and still I   
see her beautiful. 

SPEED: If you love her, you cannot see her. 

VALENTINE: Why? 

SPEED: Because Love is blind. O, that you had mine eyes; 
or your own eyes had the lights they were wont to   
have when you chid at Sir Proteus for going   
ungartered! 

2.1.53-57

This is a huge theme of the play: does love make one blind, or does it in fact enable true sight? Does it make you a prisoner, or does it set you free? The dialogue returns to this question, and the attendant imagery of sight/blindness and bondage/freedom, again and again.

Depending on your read of the play, “love is blind” may be Shakespeare’s most misunderstood line. I think I buy James Sheldrake’s argument that, in Two Gentlemen, Shakespeare wants us to see that real love in fact enables us to see clearly, and we should be suspicious of any character in Shakespeare who says otherwise. Man’s problem is not love, but rather inconstancy. This, I think, is the thrust of Proteus’ line (and “Proteus”, of course, relates to “protean”, and thus to changeability) when he repents, comes to his senses, and returns to his first beloved, Julia, having been selfishly infatuated with Silvia:

PROTEUS: What is in Silvia’s face but I may spy 
More fresh in Julia’s, with a constant eye? 

5.4.116-117 

True love, then, is sight, not blindness–beholding of a beloved in constancy. This, in turn, put me in mind of Plato’s Phaedrus, which has an immense amount to say about eros and sight, and it it’s in part the similarities with the Phaedrus which make incline me to agree with Sheldrake (and there’s a strong argument to be made that Shakespeare was conversant with Plato).

In the Phaedrus, Socrates debates with his friend Phaedrus over the merits of a speech given by the sophist Lysias, which argues that it is better for a young man to give sexual favours to an older man who does not love him than to one who does. The speech rests on the fundamental argument that the irrationality and “madness” of the lover is undesirable, and will not benefit the beloved. Phaedrus is taken with the speech, Socrates less so. Eventually, Socrates gives a great speech to the contrary, extolling the obvious benefits which a lover full of eros will endow to his beloved–ultimately, it will be the benefit of the beloved’s soul, and making him more like the gods. This is because the apparent “madness” of the lover is, in fact, something divine. Delving later into a discussion about the nature and structure of the soul, Socrates argues that the lover seems “mad” because the physical beauty of his beloved reminds him of the Goodness and Beauty the lover’s soul once beheld in the realm of the Forms, before being put into a body.

However, despite all the space it takes up, the stuff about homosexual lovers in Phaedrus is, in itself, besides the point of the dialogue (and, for what it’s worth, I think Socrates is at the very least disapproving of homosexuality). Rather, the discussion provides imagery and a framework for the kind of eros Socrates really wants to talk about: eros for the Good. As my colleague Colin Redemer once put it in a class on Plato, Socrates’ message can be boiled down to, “get it up for Reality.” The whole discussion of the homosexual lover and his beloved is a conceit for the Philosopher and his disciples.

Real philosophy, for Plato, is just that: philo-sophy, a love of wisdom. A pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful cannot be had dispassionately–it must be an erotic pursuit, a striving to return to the realm of the Forms where our souls can erotically contemplate the Form of the Good with (to take Proteus’ words) “a constant eye”. Indeed, just as inconstancy is what leads Proteus to take his gaze away from his beloved Julia, so too it is what leads souls, in the myth Socrates tells in the Phaedrus, to fall away from the realm of the Forms, wherein they are pulled down by both their unruly passions and the jostling of others vying for their own look at the Good (which we may perhaps liken to Valentine jostling against Proteus, since it is his love for Silvia which causes Proteus to wonder whether he shouldn’t fall for Silvia as well).

Suffice to say, all this has been transposed into a Christian key by the great tradition of Christian Platonism embodied in the likes of St. Augustine.

Love, then, cannot be done down as simple blindness. If, at base, man’s existence should be a love affair with reality itself, then true love will always be akin to true sight. Shakespeare, Plato, and Augustine all seem to agree here.

A Very Protestant Ending?

As mentioned, the ending of Two Gentlemen is a rushed one, even by Shakespearean standards. In the space of 60 lines, Valentine discovers that Proteus has fallen for Silvia, Proteus attempts to force himself on Silvia, Proteus repents, Valentine forgives him and offers to let him be with Silvia, Julia reveals herself, and Proteus and Julia are reconciled. In the space of another 60 lines, the couples are paired off by the Duke and some Outlaws are pardoned.

Proteus’ apology and restoration are especially problematic to the modern reader, but I’ve no interest in litigating it. But I wonder if there’s something especially Protestant going on here in Valentine’s reference to repentance:

PROTEUS: My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine: if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender 't here; I do as truly suffer
As e'er I did commit. 

VALENTINE: Then I am paid;
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased.
By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased.  

5.4.77-88.

This is fairly speculative, but I do wonder if this is at all animated by the Reformation era distinction of repentance vs. penance.

Several decades prior to Shakespeare’s writing of this play, the early Reformation was driven in part by how Erasmus’ 1516 Greek New Testament made possible the revelation that the Latin Vulgate’s “do penance” was an inadequate translation of the Greek word metanoia. This mistranslation had been used to justify the elaborate Roman penitential system, the excesses of which were the immediate catalyst for the Reformation. In its place, Protestant insisted that “repentance” was a better translation, better capturing the Greek sense of “a new mind”, and removing any idea of appeasement of God’s wrath through penitential works.

It doesn’t seem outlandish to me that this would still be a loaded word in the 1590s, and thus an intentional choice by Shakespeare–and it may go some way to explaining the apparently rushed restoration of Proteus.

*Image Credit: Unsplash.

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