PTS 05/028: Et tu, Proteus?

BH betrayal

Ponytail Shakespeare:  The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II.

If The Taming of the Shrew was about disguises, William C Carroll is right in considering The Two Gentlemen as a text about metamorphosis in the tradition of Ovid.

Before we look at these transformations, though, a word on Silvia. It drives me mad every time I hear or read someone preface some ill-informed remark with ‘Shakespeare was …’ More on this at regular intervals, I suspect. But for the moment, let’s take a small nibble at ‘Shakespeare was misogynist.

Being a member of a patriarchal society does not make you misogynist. Silvia in act II is far from an isolated exception in Shakespeare’s canon in being a clever and capable, funny and feisty woman who is more than a match for the inexperienced Valentine. Perhaps in this she’s a prototype Rosalind from As You Like It (a character I always fall in love with when I see the play performed), and the rings she runs round the hapless Orlando  It’s utterly disingenuous  to suggest that Shakespeare hated women; to do so says a lot more about the commentator’s ideology than the playwright’s …

Back to the play.  Experience tells, again: Speed is able to appreciate Sylvia’s wit:

‘O excellent device, was there ever heard a better?
That my master, being scribe, to himself should write the letter? ((II.i.129-130)

and so where our young swain might simply have given up, the older man puts him straight on what is actually happening. We could use him again in a little while.

We might look at the affected changes that the state of being in love brings – the fasting, the sighing, the tears and the insomnia described by Speed and later Valentine. I think there’s a much more interesting, overarching change going on, though – what William C Carroll calls:

‘the fading glories of an honour culture’

It’s something I increasingly picked up on in reading Henry VI – the proxy murder of the Talbots by scheming political rivals was a good example of the erosion of chivalry in a culture of pragmatism and increasingly machiavellian self-interest. So, bearing in mind my self-imposed limit of a thousand-ish words per act, we need to get to Proteus as soon as possible. For me, his act is all about him.

Perhaps, after all, Proteus’s father Antonio was wrong in Act I, and his son simply isn’t ready to join the adult world. The lad’s just as fickle as Romeo. Shakespeare reprises the by-now-familiar foreshadowing device of the foolish/reckless oath (increasingly annotated in my Ardens as the ‘Ohhhhhhh Dear!‘ moment):

‘And when that hour o’erslips me in the day
Wherein I sigh not, Julia, for thy sake.
The next ensuing hour some foul mischance
Torment me for my love’s forgetfulness.’ (II.ii.9-12)

Neither has he learned the basic rules of friendship, in the traditional Ciceronion sense that encompasses a bond stronger than anything else. Rule number one, surely, is that you don’t mess with a friend’s girlfriend or wife. Still applies now, right? Unless of course you are John Terry.

By the time we get to II.iv it seems, to be fair, that Valentine is learning.  He’s certainly able to fence with Turio and come off with at least a draw, if not a narrow win.  interestingly, he calls the older suitor:

‘a kind of chameleon’ (II.iv.25)

It’s the second time the epithet is used in the act, but neither time is it used to describe the change in the aptly-named Proteus (after the ever-changeable Old man of the Sea).  Shakespeare skilfully ratchets up the tension a notch when the Duke responds to Valentine’s lionising description of his erstwhile mate:

‘Beshrew me sir, but if he make this good,

He is as worthy for an empress’ love,

As meet to be an emperor’s counsellor.’  (II.iv.73-75)

My antenna, already wobbling a little, began to vibrate at this point.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that like most people who approach this play, I know what’s about to happen.  And so, one of the real skills of Shakespeare is to make the journey interesting and entertaining.  It’s never, really, about the destination.  He does it wonderfully here.

The scene where Proteus arrives is incredible.  The first thing I noticed is that whereas the chivalric Valentine greets his friend at line 98, it’s line 121 before the greeting is returned.  Proteus doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Valentine’s presence in that time – rather he’s flirting with Sylvia in a way I found eerily and awkwardly reminiscent of this scene in Internal Affairs (1990), where Richard Gere‘s corrupt policeman cops (if you pardon the pun) a feel of a man’s wife under the table whilst discussing a contract killing, and increasingly acts and speaks as if the husband isn’t there. ‘Trust me, I’m a cop’ … ‘Trust me, I’m your best friend.’

Hidden within this distasteful passage I have to say I found a moment of real romantic beauty:

SILVIA:  Servant, you are welcome to a worthless mistress.

PROTEUS:  I’ll die on him that says so but yourself.

SILVIA:  That you are welcome?

PROTEUS:  That you are worthless.  (II.iv.110-113)

This doesn’t go unnoticed, I think – it’s noticeable that these bosom buddies are now addressing each other with the more formal ‘you‘ instead of ‘thou‘:

VALENTINE:  Now tell me:  how do all from whence YOU came?

PROTEUS:  YOUR friends are well and have them much commended.  (II.iv.121)

My emphasis.

The Introduction to my Arden talks about romantic love being anathema to traditional male friendship, and Proteus’s soliloquy makes this clear:

‘Methinks my zeal to Valentine is cold,

And that I love him not as I was won’t.

O, but I love his lady too too much,

And that’s the reason I love him so little.  (II.iv.200-203)

THIS is the kind of dilemma I like to play out in class – it’s absolutely begging for the kind of decisions flowchart I sometimes use for pupils to get into character, discussing options and consequences.  Proteus’ soliloquy in is notable for the way in which he personifies Love as some form of outside agency over whom he has no control.  It’s an easy and cowardly way to avoid responsibility for a decision which, despite his talk, is already made up:

‘Love bade me swear, and Love bids me forswear.’  (

Well, that’s alright then, John Terry – oops, I mean Proteus.  Not your fault at all.  Time to plot a classic betrayal.  To the victor, the spoils, after all.  Proteus’ transformation from chivalric stay-at-home lover to machiavellian bastard is complete.

Except, what about your ‘twinkling star‘, Proteus?  You know, the one who’s been eclipsed by the ‘celestial sun‘ you now worship?  This is a great example of Shakespeare’s skill in writing.  Scene vii absolutely needs to come after Proteus resolves to ditch Julia – if it had come beforehand, the dramatic effect would have been diminished.  No sooner does Proteus ditch Julia than she suddenly decides to take pretty risky measures in her desperation to seem him (another timid girl of the sort that proves Shakespeare’s misogyny, naturally).  Betrayal now becomes a car-crash that we’re going to have to watch through our fingers …

It might be worth pointing out here that again the voice of experience (Lucetta) seems to express doubts about the kind of Proteus we’ll encounter at journey’s end:

‘… never dream on infamy, but go.

If Proteus like your journey when you come,

No matter who’s displeased when you are gone.

I fear me he will scarce be pleased withal.’  (II.vii.64-67)

We’re beautifully set up for two major crises: Valentine’s betrayal and Julia’s realisation that Proteus has ‘traded up’.

A post-script, addressed to poor old Lance and Crab.  II.iii sings on the page, and I imagine off it, too.  I would have loved to spend some time on him in this act … sorry, lads.


William C Carroll (ed), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Arden Third Edition (Cengage Learning:  London, 2004)

The Encyclopaedia Mythica at

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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