The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Act 1
Recently, I wrote about bringing your personal baggage to your interpretation and enjoyment of texts. It’s why I re-read: every few years I genuinely believe I approach a text as a different person, changed in infinite, indescribable ways by my experiences.
This is my first time with the Two Gentlemen, though, and I approached this text with some trepidation. It has a reputation – despite being the first play performed at the newly-built Globe – and Dennis Carey‘s reaction on being asked to direct the play was not reassuring:
“I had only just read the play, and was badly shaken. Could the author really be grateful to anyone for preserving this youthful, unfinished, minor exercise?”
A read-through is a read-through, though …
… and I had been pleasantly surprised by the Henry VI plays, even though some sources had warned me to expect some two-dimensional juvenilia. By way of dipping my toe in gradually, I read the first 50 pages of William C Carroll‘s excellent introduction to the Arden Third edition, before the water felt warm enough to risk a plunge.
The play’s opening, if not all of it, feels easier to map to my students’ lives than those perennial favourites, Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet. The situation is little different to what is happening to my year 11 and year 13 classes: you ‘come of age‘, and you have choices to make about your future. This is where Tennyson‘s ‘arch of experience’ comes in. Some, like Proteus, look through the arch and don’t much fancy what they see beyond. The world is a scary place after all, so why not stay within your comfort zone? In fact, I know somebody who trained as a teacher and went straight back back to her old school to teach. She has my pity. As do her students – I think you need life experience to teach life skills to children. Others are fascinated by the gleams from the untravell’d world, like Valentine, and can’t wait to escape the nest. There are inevitable parting of the ways, and it’s also inevitable that when these people meet again, they will find their experiences increasingly divide them, no matter how close they were before. The most painful thing to see is the settled couples beginning to agonise about what University might do to their relationships.
Not going to University until I was a mature student, it’s not hard to see which side of the debate I’m on. Life’s never been quite straightforward, but it has always been interesting. As as a teacher, and a sixth form form tutor, I spend a lot of time trying to convince teenagers to learn from my mistakes, but I realise that there are some things you can only learn by doing.
So I only see a unhappy ending for the Telemachus-like Proteus, staying at home, eschewing the wide world because in his callow confidence he believes he’s found ‘the one’ in Julia. I think we see an example of the couple’s naivety rather than stinginess in their combined failure to properly tip their go-between, Speed, despite his herculean efforts to get some recompense for his pains:
PROTEUS: Beshrew me, but you have a quick wit.
SPEED: And yet it cannot overtake your slow purse. (I.i.121-122)
‘Sir, I could perceive nothing at all from her;
No, not so much as a ducat for delivering your letter..’ (SPEED: I.i.95-96)
His wit, to be fair is dazzling, perhaps TOO dazzling for the young lovers. I feel almost as dizzy as Proteus as he is thrown first one way then another. Let the measly tester he receives as payment teach Speed to play his audience better.
Shakespeare enjoys having sons try to hide letters from their fathers, and letters are a staple of his plays, and perhaps Elizabethan Society – or sections of it at least. In 1HIV Aumerle, unwillingly reveals his part in a plot. In King Lear, Edmund creates a plot against his brother through feigned reluctance to hand his over. Here, Proteus wishes perhaps he’d simply allowed his father to read his letter in the first place, as he unwittingly allows it to become an instrument of his own banishment.
The corresponding letter in this lover’s correspondence is treated like a child’s plaything: torn up, cast to the ground, and then cherished. These are the actions again of an inexperienced teenage lover, wanting to be an adult, but unable to relinquish the child. Julia rues her impetuous behaviour, but seems condemned to repeat it.
‘How churlishly I chid Lucetta hence,
When willingly I would have had her here! (I.ii.60-61)
and, after summoning Lucetta back:
‘O hateful hands, to tear such loving words!
Injurious wasps, to feed on such sweet honey
And kill the bees that yield it with your stings! (I.ii.105-7)
Is there a message in this play, that we can divine from the opening act? Perhaps, it is that no amount of adult advice can replace the experience of making mistakes after all. Valentine is going to make mistakes on his progress. Proteus and Julia are making mistakes already, and generally, the older, wiser, more EXPERIENCED, generation are firmly in charge, and know what’s best.
Pantino sums up what was expected of the son of the aspiring gentleman in the 1590s:
‘… other men, of slender reputation,
Put forth their sons to seek preferment out –
Some to the wars to try their fortunes there;
Some to discover islands far away;
Some to the studious universities.’ (I.iii.6-10)
No staying at home, then:
‘Which would be great impeachment to his age
In having known no travel in his youth.’ (I.iii.15-16)
To which Antonio wholeheartedly agrees:
‘he cannot be a perfect man
Not being tried and tutored in the world.
Experience is by industry achieved
And perfected by the swift course of time.’ (I.iii.20-24)
True enough in 2017, as it was in Shakespeare’s day. It’s grimly funny to see Proteus shoved through the arch of experience and into the wider world. But it’s exactly what the lad needs. A bit like Romeo, in some ways (a character I’ve never taken to) – a kick up the arse should, should do the lad a world of good.
It’s tantalising to imagine whether Shakespeare himself was a Valentine or a Proteus himself as he left his young family to make his fortune. That, of course, we will never know.
Denis Carey in Introductions to Shakespeare, ed. Charles Ede (London: The Folio Society, 1977)
William C Carroll (ed), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Arden Third Edition (Engage Learning: London, 2004)