Ponytail Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act III.
Like so many of Shakespeare’s villains (and here perhaps I have Iago uppermost in mind) Proteus is a decent dissimulator, and Act III begins with his breathless betrayal of his best friend.
How does Shakespeare make Proteus credible?
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the summer holidays, but I keep thinking about this play in terms of the classroom, so I had the urge to do a little analysis. Probably the first thing he does is position Proteus as a respectful younger man addressing a senior. This obeisance kicks off his speeches, addressing the Duke as ‘My gracious lord‘ (III.i.4), and is followed by ‘worthy prince‘ (III.i.10) and ‘noble lord‘ (III.i.38). Proteus sets up a conflict between friend / friendship (mentioned 4 times) and duty / concepts of debt (‘duty’ is mentioned twice, and there are two further mentions of some sort of debt owed to the Duke. The debt wins, of course, over friendship …
His speeches are delivered breathlessly, in multi-line sentences where the iambic pentameter is constantly disrupted. The opening sentence is a six-liner, but take a look at this one, a little later:
‘Know, worthy prince, Sir Valentine my friend [10 syll.]
This night intends to steal away your daughter; [11 syll.]
Myself am one made privy to the plot. [10 syll.]
Note the stress, the disruption, in the middle line. And the provocative, emotive verb, ‘steal‘. Which leads me to my final point about this speech. What makes this lie so utterly plausible is that it plays into a nightmare narrative that the Duke has already conceived himself – he buys into something he already half-believes. For, as I’ve already alluded to, who would be an EMP father? Baptista had the devil’s own job parenting Katherina and Bianca, but to develop the links with Othello a bit further, look at Brabantio.
Where the Duke responds:
‘… oftentimes have purposed to forbid
Sir Valentine her company and my court […]
And that thou mayst perceive my fear of this,
Knowing that tender youth is soon suggested,
I nightly lodge her in an upper tower,’ (DUKE: III.i.25-26, 33-35)
Brabantio says, when told that his daughter is being ‘tupped’:
‘This accident is not unlike my dream:
Belief of it oppresses me already.’ (Othello, I.i)
Proteus delivers another urgent six-line exposition of the plan to steal Silvia away before making a sharp exit stage right as Valentine enters stage left. In a play which I think is so far notable for its use of letters and other documents, Valentine shows his naivety by lying a second time to an older man about letters.
If, like me, you’re not a massive fan of the ‘Comedies’, you’ll still enjoy the dark humour that Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony produces. The Duke is able to play the hapless Valentine like a fish, and it is ‘enjoyable’ – with the cringe dial turned up to 11 – to wait for that ‘ohhh, shit!‘ moment (yes, I do annotate like this) when the penny finally drops. For me, that arrived just before the big reveal:
‘Then let me see thy cloak;
I’ll get me one of such another length.’ (DUKE: III.i.132)
There was certainly also some twisted fun in listening to Valentine ‘instructing’ the Duke in the finer arts of love and elopement. It reminded me of a time many years ago when my eldest son recommended me a band he’d discovered that he thought I might like: Pixies. I should have tried harder, perhaps, but couldn’t resist the laughter before I told him I’d seen Pixies play live, twice, almost ten years before he was born. I have made similar mistakes, naturally, but won’t admit to them, at least not today. I’m quite aware that I write this as a dad, a teacher, and a man of -ahem- mature years, far closer to the Duke than to Valentine in years and in cynical outlook. Your mileage may vary on this point, as I believe the kids say …
Previously, I pointed out that although I hadn’t read the play before, I still knew how it ended and what made it controversial. You may not. It’s still worth pausing a moment to examine some of Valentine’s ‘advice’. There’s something a little sinister, certainly from my 21st century viewpoint, about some of it:
‘Take no repulse, whatever she doth say,
For ‘Get you gone’ she doth not mean ‘Away!’ (III.i.100-101)
If ‘no doesn’t really mean no’ for his generation, it’s unacceptable regardless of which century you live in. One good thing that came out of my Catholic upbringing, at least. It’s an extrapolation of Petruccio’s attitude towards Katherina in ‘The Shrew’ and is, perhaps, is one of the reasons why I can’t take to either of our ‘heroes’. Back to those spurious allegations of misogyny I complained about before. In exposing the shocking attitudes of men towards women, the text is as open to a Feminist reading as, say the works of Thomas Hardy. Neither author hated women, though … I won’t have it.
Do you remember the British comedian, Les Dawson? One of his many turns, dimly remembered from my childhood, was to play the piano very badly. My father always says that to do that effectively you must be a decent musician. I’m reminded of this when I read Valentine’s truncated sonnet, and William C Carroll gave me a useful link to the hapless poetry of Orlando in As You Like It. Ditto, perhaps, Benedick’s dreadful efforts in Much Ado, or indeed the ‘poet’ who tries to break up the argument between Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar (IV.iii) – to be able to deliberately write crap, you need to know what ‘good’ looks like. On reflection, it’s something I do a lot I producing ‘model answers’ in my day job. Often, students learn more from something imperfect that they feel comfortable improving …
Some commentators have suggested that one of the things happening here, and generally within the play, is a satiric treatment of the idea of ‘courtly love’. It’s possible, when Valentine instructs Turio in scene ii about the wooing of Silvia: obviously he is looking to undermine his rival.
Again, I’m running out of words. Lance has the measure of what’s going on – it seems to be the lot of the servant to perceive what their master/mistress cannot:
‘I have the wit to think my master is a kind of knave.’ (III.i.259-260)
His exchange with Speed doesn’t quite ‘sing on the page’, as the overt comedy did last time round, but again we have a document which in it’s honesty about Lance‘s love is at once fruity and also reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes …). Sorry, lads, once again I had bigger fish to fry in 1,000 words, which I have again exceeded …
A final chuckle, this time at Proteus‘ expense. He pushes his luck to try and cadge a dinner out of the Duke, but in this, at least, the older man is wise to the younger’s intent:
DUKE: About it gentlemen!
PROTEUS: We’ll wait upon your grace till after supper,
And afterwards determine our proceedings.
DUKE: Even now about it. I will pardon you. (III.ii.94-97)
Our villain isn’t getting it ALL his own way, it seems … 🙂
William C Carroll (ed), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Arden Third Edition (Cengage Learning: London, 2004)