Friday, May 17, 2013

Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

In which our heroine/author/international woman of mystery treats The Bard with some irreverence.

The proverbial fly in the ointment of my plan to read Shakespeare's plays in chronological order is that like all writers, before Shakespeare was good, he was relatively bad. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is enjoyable in many places: there are funny bits, and some imagery that's thought provoking, if perhaps a bit heavy-handed. However, the final scene is so horrifying and abrupt that it's a little difficult to remember the good in the play. 

Since this isn't one of Shakespeare's more widely-read plays, I'll run through the plot while offering my commentary. Am I supposed to announce spoiler alerts on works that have been around for 400-odd years? Just in case: Spoiler Alert. 

The play opens with two young men, Proteus and Valentine, saying their goodbyes--Valentine is being sent off to Milan to learn how to do the things gentlemen do (the play doesn't go into this much, but I like to imagine it has to do with how to pick the right codpiece and giant floppy hat). Proteus is staying at home in Verona, which is handy, because he is madly in love with a girl named Julia.

Julia claims to her maid, Lucetta, that she doesn't fancy Proteus in the slightest. However, whenever Lucetta's offstage, Julia starts talking about how much she loves Proteus. Apparently, though, it would be totally unacceptable for anyone to know this--remember how mortifying it was when someone knew who you had a crush on in middle school? The contrast between the show of indifference Julia puts on and the over-the-top feelings of love she expresses when she's alone is pretty hilarious, and also introduces the issue of the importance of appearances. Love is often (ironically) referred to as being blind in the play.

Cut to Valentine in Milan, speaking to his servant, Speed, about how much he loves Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke. There's a lot of word-play, which serves to make it clear that Valentine is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Enter Sylvia. She has previously asked Valentine to write a love-letter for her to an unnamed suitor. Valentine gives it to her, and she gives it back to him and leaves. Speed has to explain to Valentine that the letter was meant for Valentine himself all along. 

Shortly afterwards, Proteus arrives in Milan, having been sent by his father for the same reasons as Valentine: to learn how to gentleman it up (before he left, we saw him exchange vows of true everlasting love with Julia). As soon as the Duke and Sylvia leave Valentine and Proteus alone, Valentine confesses that he's in love with Sylvia. Valentine leaves, and Proteus tells us that, you know what? He's totally in love with Sylvia too. Screw Valentine. Screw Julia. 

Here's a nicely acted video of Proteus' monologue:

I think this serves as a good example of the quality of this play as a whole--it's not bad, but it's not incredibly compelling.

Naturally, Proteus doesn't tell Valentine that he's also "in love" with Sylvia. He's dickish, not stupid. So when Valentine reveals that he and Sylvia are going to elope--Sylvia's engaged to someone else (Thurio), and is far above Sylvia's social station--Proteus turns right around and tells the Duke, Sylvia's father. The Duke then tricks Valentine into revealing his elopement plan, in a scene that would be funny if it weren't a little too dumb. I mentioned Valentine's a bit stupid, right? Right. Valentine is banished, obviously, but hooks up with some outlaws on his way out of Milan. Well, first they try to rob him, then he explains that he's poor, so they ask him to be their leader. Not sure who gave Shakespeare the skinny on how outlaws operate.

With Valentine out of the way, Proteus is free (... sort of) to woo Sylvia for himself. Claiming to be acting for Thurio, the Duke's approved suitor, Proteus serenades Sylvia with the following song:

There's also a video of Dame Janet Baker singing the same song beautifully on YouTube, but I chose this one because it has boyz singing. The music is by Franz Schubert--as far as I can recall, none of Shakespeare's music (excepting the lyrics) has survived. 

Here's the kicker: Julia has disguised herself as a boy and run off to Milan to be with Proteus, and hears him sing this to Sylvia. Proteus doesn't know it's her, because we all know if you cut your hair and put on pants, you become completely unrecognizable. Sylvia, upon hearing Valentine, gives him what for:

"Think'st thou I am so shallow, so conceitless,
To be seduced by thy flattery,
That has deceived so many with thy vows?
Return, return, and make thy love amends.
For me, by this pale queen of night I swear,
I am so far from granting thy request
That I despise thee for thy wrongful suit
And by and by intend to chide myself
Even for this time I spend in talking to thee." (4.2.102-110)

You tell 'im, girl.

Being the kind of knows-her-own-mind gal that she is, Sylvia decides to run away to be with Valentine. Unfortunately, she's followed by Proteus (who is followed in turn by Julia). Proteus finds Sylvia and attempts to woo her again. I guess he wasn't paying attention last time. Of course Sylvia rejects him, at which point--get ready for it--Proteus decides to rape her.

Yes. You read that correctly.

Valentine jumps out of the trees and rescues her, but I'm still traumatized.

By Angelica Kauffman. Interesting subject for a woman to paint, I think. 

Valentine berates Proteus, as I hope one would, if one came upon one's best friend about to rape one's true love. Proteus essentially says "MY BAD" and Valentine, in turn, says "It's cool."Julia then reveals her identity to Proteus, who says:

"What is in Sylvia's face but I may spy
More fresh in Julia's, with a constant eye?" (5.4.124-125).

Well, Julia's just as hot as Sylvia, now that he sees her again, so problem solved, right? Well, not quite. Thurio (Sylvia's intended) and the Duke show up. Thurio says Sylvia is supposed to be his, Valentine says he'll fight him for it, the Duke says he likes the balls on Valentine and he can marry Sylvia after all. Valentine says sweet, but he also has to pardon the outlaws he's been kicking it with. The Duke says fair play.

The end.

I'm sure it sounds like I'm oversimplifying things, but please, go ahead and read the last act of the play and tell me if you find it any more satisfying. I'll wait.

... Done? It's not any more satisfying, is it? In fact, it's worse, because you came across this little gem that Valentine utters to Proteus right after Proteus almost raped Sylvia:

"All that was mine in Sylvia I give to thee." (5.4.89)

From what I've gathered from Wikipedia and the critical essay in the copy I'm reading, there are a couple ways to read this. The first is that Valentine is literally offering Sylvia to Proteus. In fact, this line was often left out of theatrical productions, probably so people didn't leave the theatre before the play was actually finished. The other common reading is that Valentine is referring to the love he has for Sylvia--that is, he loves Proteus as much as he loves Sylvia. 

That reading makes a little more sense when bolstered by the argument that one of the play's central themes is the tension between friendship and romantic love. As in all things, there must be a balance. I think that's a legitimate reading, but to me, it doesn't make the play any less disturbing or any better a work of literature. There's a reason this is commonly regarded as one of Shakespeare's worst works and isn't performed as often as many of the others. It may have seemed like I rushed the ending in my summary, but it does actually have that choppy, cropped-together feel. Everything and the kitchen sink is tidied away with so little fuss that it is quite impossibly to believe. Sylvia, who's been a smart, savvy chick in the play thus far, does not have a single line after the attempted rape.

Gotta love the Sylvia-centric irony of this cover. The Folger doesn't have the best notes, but it's all the library had, and my Norton is in a box somewhere.

I have to think even a heavily misogynistic audience wouldn't be too chuffed with the most likable character (smarter than Valentine, less pathetic than Julia, more loyal than Proteus) essentially disappearing from the play. Which brings me to my question for you: if you directing the play, or playing Sylvia, what would you do at the end when Valentine forgives Proteus? How do you read or hear Valentine's words of forgiveness? Personally, I think the only way I could do it is by staring agape at Valentine until the Duke grants him person to marry me, at which point I would sneak off into the woods. 

Copyright, Once Upon a Time


But then again, I'm not an actress. What say ye, people of the internets? And what do YOU think that troublesome line of Valentine's means?

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