The Two Gentlemen of Verona is perhaps Shakespeare’s earliest comedy, written before shadows penetrated his comic world to lend it depth and perspective. The play contains many of the themes Shakespeare would later develop in more detail: courtly lovers overcoming obstacles as they race for the altar, lightning changes in affection, a maiden in disguise who must woo another woman on behalf of the man she herself loves, fools who are often wiser than their masters, a forest in which all seem to live more freely and honestly than at court, and a festive ending marked by the promise of marriage at last for two couples in love. The very word “love” in fact, appears more frequently in this comedy than in any other.
Like The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, this play is not to be taken seriously. If we do not ask too much of the story, it will provide its own pleasure. It is a comedy of forgiveness; according to the code of love that infuses the story, love cannot choose its object, and forgiveness is possible because sin is only threatened.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play about the young; no specfically old people appear in it; there is no bitterness, no cynicism, no talk about the past. Rather it is a play about love and friendship. Love between friends is corrupted by love between man and woman. Love between man and woman evaporates utterly and instantly at the sight of a new face. Love between father and daughter is tested, and even unconditional love enters with the uncritical adoration of the dull-witted servant, Launce, for his flea-bitten dog Crab.
Likely the play, written by about 1594, represents the combining of two plots. The “love” plot came from Diana, a fifteenth-century romance, and the “friendship” plot possibly came from the story of Titus and Gisippus, which was available to Shakespeare in a number of forms.
One of the most enduring Renaissance debates was the discussion of whether the love of woman was a sentiment more noble than the platonic friendship that might exist between men. This exalted friendship led one friend to make any sacrifice required, even that of his life, for another. Within this context, Shakespeare was merely employing a literary convention in having Valentine offer Silvia to Proteus, and readers of Elizabethan literature would have understood and accepted the convention . . . at least on the stage.
And the play does work on stage. Although the most neglected of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies (there is no record of performance until 1762 and even then it was staged in a considerably altered form), a number of surefire bits of comic business including disguise and comically stereotyped characters ensure stage success. Letters are delivered and torn up, and rings change hands with the vicissitudes of the love plot. An operatic version in 1857 added the Franz Schubert setting of “Who is Sylvia?”, immortalized as one of the world’s great love lyrics. Most of all, the play gives us Launce and Speed and Crab. Launce’s stand-up comic routine with his shoe and his dog Crab can be delightfully funny stage business. Launce was originally played by Will Kemp, the most famous clown of the Elizabethan theatre, and Kemp’s dog was a trained beast capable of all sorts of vaudeville tricks.
Critics of the play have argued that it shows immaturity, hasty workmanship, and an unsureness of touch, because of its unrealistic ending and the utter improbabilities of the conduct of Proteus and Valentine, not to mention the meekness of Silvia, who, in the first scene, allows herself to be bandied about between the two friends without uttering a protest or a single word of comment. At play’s end, we forgive Proteus when he realizes he does love Julia, a young woman who has somehow managed to remain in love with him all this time, and recognition and resolution of all difficulties brings the play to a happy close.
Even given these criticisms, the central issue of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, friendship and love, is one of man-kind’s universals to which Shakespeare returned frequently and dwelt upon with his unique force and insight.