By Cheryl Smith
Imagine that you found the love of your life and your most trusted friend came up with a devious plan to keep the two of you apart. Then imagine that the friend went after your love because he wanted her for himself. Would you consider your friend a hero? A villain? Once you learned of your friend’s betrayal, would you then give him your girlfriend since you knew he so desperately wanted her?
These are the precise questions that Shakespeare asks in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play involves two friends, Valentine and Proteus. Although Proteus is in love with Julia and is aware that Valentine is in love with Silvia, Proteus pursues Silvia by lying, cheating, and causing Valentine’s banishment. In the end, when all is revealed, Valentine speaks the lines “And that my love may appear plain and free, / All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” (5.4.82 83; all references to line numbers are from The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Clifford Leech [Walton-on-Thames Surrey: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1998]), which have perplexed Shakespeare readers for centuries because they cannot understand why Valentine would so freely give away Silvia to Proteus if Proteus is a villain. The question, then, is whether Proteus is a hero or a villain; if Valentine deems him worthy of Silvia, is he actually a hero in the play? Indeed, Proteus is both hero and antihero of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is partly why audiences find his character so difficult.
A hero is, of course, a principal character in a play and is invariably very honorable; an antihero, however, is defined by William Rose Benét as “a protagonist who lacks traditional heroic virtues and noble qualities and is sometimes inept, cowardly, stupid, or dishonest, yet sensitive” (Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia: Fourth Edition [New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1996], 40). Proteus displays both heroic and villainous qualities in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with a definitive shift from hero to antihero. As the story begins, Proteus and Valentine playfully discuss love, with Proteus trying to explain its virtues and Valentine explaining its folly. Clearly, Proteus believes in the value of love and actually wishes it upon his good friend: “Upon some book I love, I’ll pray for thee” (1.1.20). Proteus then confesses his love for Julia, and later when he is forced to leave Verona, Proteus and Julia exchange rings to represent their love and future union.
At this point in the play, audiences cheer for Proteus, anticipate Proteus and Julia’s union, and celebrate in Valentine and Silvia’s love. However, as soon as Proteus sees Silvia and listens to Valentine and Silvia’s marital plans, he disregards his promise to Julia and deceives his friend in order to have Silvia for himself. In his sixty-six line split monologue in 2.4 and 2.6, Proteus ponders over his love for Julia, discards it for Silvia, and sets a plan in motion to banish Valentine from Milan. By the time Proteus speaks the final two lines in his monologue, “Love, lend me wings to make my purpose swift / As thou hast lent me wit to plot this drift” (2.6.42-43), his character has shifted from hero to antihero. From that point until the final moments of the play, Proteus’s actions revolve around securing Silvia for his own.
The character of Proteus clearly presents a problem because audiences have a hard time believing (1) that his love can change so drastically in mere seconds and (2) that he will severely betray a true friend in order to win Silvia. Proteus’s betrayal in The Two Gentlemen of Verona probably contributes to the play’s difficulty, just as Bertram’s unbelievable conversion in All’s Well that Ends Well undoubtedly confuses the play’s viewers. (Bertram marries Helena, but immediately falls in love with Diana; as a result, audiences wonder if Bertram will truly love Helena by the end of the play.) But is Proteus different from Bertram in that he is truly redeemed? He begins as a hero, turns into an antihero, and attempts to convert back to a hero when he says to Valentine, Silvia, and Julia “‘Tis true: O heaven, were man but constant, he were perfect. That one error fills him with faults; makes him run through all the sin; Inconstancy falls off, ere it begins. What is in Silvia’s face, but I may spy more fresh in Julia’s, with constant eye?” (5.4.109 114)
Valentine’s surprising decision to give his lover to his friend should not be looked upon as a choice of friendship over love, but rather as Proteus’s opportunity for redemption. Valentine’s lines open the door for Proteus to complete his arc back to hero. In some respects, his character mimics the familiar comedic pattern from society to wilderness to improved society: His mind begins in a natural society, goes through a wild transformation, and returns to a more “constant” society at the conclusion. But do audiences still doubt Proteus by the final lines of the play?
In order for The Two Gentlemen of Verona to be successfully performed, audiences must believe in both Proteus the hero and Proteus the antihero. Both are essential to the believability of the character as a whole, to the magnanimous gesture by Valentine, to the pursuit of Silvia, and to the love story with Julia. The dual personalities of Proteus are unquestionably a major aspect of the play. But is he truly redeemed by the end, worthy of Julia’s love and Valentine’s friendship? Perhaps the only way to decide is to consider this: If he were your good friend, would you forgive him?