The Two Gentlemen of Verona appeared to Ben Jonson to be a curious mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of competence and ineptness. He commented that Shakespeare had his characters traveling by sea from one inland town to another; that Proteus, after he has seen Silvia, mentions that he has seen only her picture. Such somewhat picayunish faults most probably occurred because, as Jonson observed, Shakespeare took the plot of his play from a contemporary novel which he "sometimes remember'd and sometimes forgot." William Hazlitt noted that the play contains no more than the bare outlines of the original novel; the play was written in high poetical spirit, with a "careless grace and felicity" which mark it for his.
Logan Pearsall Smith noted that the play shows the beginnings of Shakespeare's "gift of the magic phrase." The earliest plays and poems show that Shakespeare's gift was an acquired rather than a natural skill; they are couched, for the most part, in the poetic diction that was the ordinary language of the time. However, such lines in Two Gentlemen as "The uncertain glory of an April day" foreshadow the poetic heights the author was to reach—he is beginning, here, to be Shakespeare.
In this play Shakespeare exploits the potential of character to a large degree; the play contains perhaps the largest collection of odd human beings he was ever to bring together in a single play. Written as a court comedy for a select audience, it is an experiment in contemporary satire, containing linguistic affectations and topical allusions in reference to current fads, fashions and cults.
Two Gentlemen is Shakespeare's first romantic comedy. While it cannot stand with its successors, it will lead to the likes of Twelfth Night. The central concern of the romantic comedies is the stuff of romance--love, youth, and beauty. The plot is always the sameboy meets girl—and the complications arise out of the dramatic fact that "the course of true love never did run smooth." The world of romantic comedy is one in which the improbable looks probable; in which dark moments always pass; in which danger, grief and evil are known to be transitory; and in which there is the constant reassurance that all will be well in the end. It is a world in which, for example, a merchant's ships, after having been reported lost at sea, finally return home safe and sound. It has no specific locality—it is not just Verona, or Belmont, or Illyria--indeed, it is a world rather of atmosphere, of climate, of attitude, of mood; in it, realities are changed into a golden lovely, lyrical neo-reality in which the events of romantic comedy may come to pass.
The characters in Shakespeare's romantic comedy may be roughly divided into the upstairs world and the downstairs world—a schism most effectively used in Twelfth Night, in which the activities of the servants burlesque and color the activities of the principals in the romance. Shakespeare's most striking character creations in Two Gentlemen are in the upstairs world—specifically, the romantic protagonists. Julia, Silvia, Proteus, and Valentine are indicative of certain trends in character types which Shakespeare was to develop more fully in later plays.
The heroine of the play is Julia. Although she is not as fully realized a character as Silvia, she is the center of the dramatic action, and Silvia is the complication, the obstacle to the course of true love—although doubtless an utterly captivating obstacle; Silvia precedes such magnificent romantic heroines as Portia and Rosalind, who are more sharply individualized and fully realized than she. Julia is the prototype of the "disdainful lady" to which the Elizabethan sonnet cycles were almost universally addressed. Julia is utterly delightful when she tears the letter from Proteus for the benefit of her maid, Lucetta, only to later fit the scraps together again.
Shakespeare's romantic heroines never fail to get their men. However, such comments as Rosalind's about Orlando in As You Like It, "I found him under an oak, like a dropped acorn," denote their essential disrespect for their men, and make one wonder whether such men are really worth the getting. Certainly the virtues of men such as Claudio in Measure for Measure and Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well are none too numerous. (Both are unregenerate heels and Bertram a liar as well.) Proteus is not too impressive as a man, and his reformation is not as convincing as it might be. But he is young, and, moreover, this is the world of romantic comedy. Furthermore, Silvia's beauty is such as might well make a better man commit the threefold perjury of which Proteus accuses himself.
Valentine's is a secondary role, created to complement and balance the hero's. While he may be a better man than Proteus, he is not as interesting. This sort of complementary part is one Shakespeare used a great deal. A lover is depicted with a friend, talking of his love; in balance, Shakespeare creates the scenes of high comedy in this and other romantic comedies that show the heroine and a friend discussing the virtues and faults of the various eligible men in the play.
Launce, with his disrespectful dog, is the first in a line of professional fools which Shakespeare found indispensable to the world of romantic comedy. Launce foreshadows Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Touchstone in As You Like It, and, perhaps the greatest of them all, Feste in Twelfth Night. The quality of their humor is so far removed from that of, say The Comedy of Errors, that Launce is to the Dromios as blood is to beet juice.
While Julia is perhaps a less striking character than Silvia, it may be with some surprise that one learns she and Proteus are actually the protagonists of the play. There is some confusion as to whether the play concerns the separation of friends or the abandonment and subsequent reclamation of lovers. A doubleness of Shakespeare's interest in these two areas causes an uncertainty of focus which does little more than confuse an audience. The complexity of the denouement foreshadows even more intricate endings in the later comedies, but the dual interest, the shiftings of emphases throughout the play, make it perhaps more confusing than it need be, and detract from the overall quality of what is otherwise an excellently conceived and executed romantic comedy. Perhaps it is best to merely accept Valentine's pronouncement as the play concludes: "One feast, one house, one mutual happiness."