As the play begins, Valentine is preparing to leave Verona for Milan so as to broaden his horizons. He begs his best friend, Proteus, to come with him, but Proteus is in love with Julia, and refuses to leave. Disappointed, Valentine bids Proteus farewell and goes on alone. Meanwhile, Julia is discussing Proteus with her maid, Lucetta, who tells Julia that she thinks Proteus is fond of her. Julia, however, acts coyly, embarrassed to admit that she likes him. Lucetta then produces a letter; she will not say who gave it to her, but teases Julia that it was Valentine’s servant, Speed, who brought it from Proteus.
Julia, still unwilling to reveal her love in front of Lucetta, angrily tears up the letter. She sends Lucetta away, but then, realising her own rashness, she picks up the fragments of letter and kisses them, trying to piece them back together. Meanwhile, Proteus’ father has decided that Proteus should travel to Milan and join Valentine. He orders that Proteus must leave the next day, prompting a tearful farewell with Julia, to whom Proteus swears eternal love. The two exchange rings and vows and Proteus promises to return as soon as he can.
In Milan, Proteus finds Valentine in love with the Duke’s daughter Silvia. Despite Julia’s love, Proteus falls instantly in love with Silvia and vows to win her. Unaware of Proteus’ feelings, Valentine tells him that the Duke wants Silvia to marry the foppish but wealthy Thurio, against her wishes. Because the Duke suspects that his daughter and Valentine are in love, he locks her nightly in a tower, to which he keeps the only key. However, Valentine tells Proteus that he plans to free her by means of a corded ladder, and together, they will elope.
Proteus immediately informs the Duke, who subsequently captures and banishes Valentine. While wandering outside Milan, Valentine runs afoul of a band of outlaws, who claim they are also exiled gentlemen. Valentine lies, saying he was banished for killing a man in a fair fight, and the outlaws elect him their leader. Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus by William Holman Hunt (1851) Meanwhile, in Verona, Julia decides to join her lover in Milan. She convinces Lucetta to dress her in boy’s clothes and help her fix her hair so she will not be harmed on the journey.
Once in Milan, Julia quickly discovers Proteus’ love for Silvia, watching him attempt to serenade her. She contrives to become his page – a youth named Sebastian – until she can decide upon a course of action. Proteus sends Sebastian to Silvia with a gift of the same ring that Julia gave to him before he left Verona, but Julia discovers that Silvia scorns Proteus’ affections and is disgusted that he would forget about his love back home, i. e. Julia herself. Silvia deeply mourns the loss of Valentine, who Proteus has told her is rumoured dead.
Not persuaded of Valentine’s death, Silvia determines to flee the city with the help of Eglamour, a former suitor to Julia. They escape into the forest but when they are confronted by the outlaws, Eglamour flees and Silvia is taken captive. The outlaws head to their leader (Valentine), but on the way, they encounter Proteus and Julia (still disguised as Sebastian). Proteus rescues Silvia, and then pursues her deeper into the forest. Secretly observed by Valentine, Proteus attempts to persuade Silvia that he loves her, but she rejects his advances.
Proteus insinuates that he will rape her (“I’ll force thee yield to my desire”), but at this point, Valentine intervenes and denounces Proteus. Horrified at what has happened, Proteus vows that the hate Valentine feels for him is nothing compared to the hate he feels for himself. Convinced that Proteus’ repentance is genuine, Valentine forgives him and seems to offer Silvia to him. At this point, overwhelmed, Julia faints, revealing her true identity. Upon seeing her, Proteus suddenly remembers his love for her and vows fidelity to her once again. The Duke and Thurio arrive, and Thurio claims Silvia as his.
Valentine then warns Thurio that if he makes one move toward her, he will kill him. Terrified, Thurio renounces Silvia. The Duke, impressed by Valentine’s actions, approves his and Silvia’s love, and consents to their marriage. The two couples are happily united, and the Duke pardons the outlaws, telling them they may return to Milan Perhaps the most critically discussed issue in the play is the sequence, bizarre by modern Western European standards, in Act 5, Scene 4 in which Valentine seems to ‘give’ Silvia to Proteus as a sign of his friendship.
For many years, the general critical consensus on this issue was that the incident revealed an inherent misogyny in the text. For example, Hilary Spurling wrote in 1970, “Valentine is so overcome by Proteus’ apology] that he promptly offers to hand over his beloved to the man who, not three minutes before, had meant to rape her. Modern scholarship however is much more divided about Valentine’s actions at the end of the play, with some critics arguing that he does not offer to give Silvia to Proteus at all. The ambiguity lies in the line “All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee” (5. . 83).
Many critics (such as Stanley Wells for example) interpret this to mean that Valentine is indeed handing Silvia over to her would-be rapist, but another school of thought suggests that Valentine simply means “I will love you Proteus] with as much love as I love Silvia,” thus reconciling the dichotomy of friendship and love as depicted elsewhere in the play. This is certainly how Jeffrey Masten, for example, sees it, arguing that the play as a whole “reveals not the opposition of male friendship and Petrarchan love but rather their interdependence.
As such, the final scene “stages the play’s ultimate collaboration of male friendship and its incorporation of the plot we would label “heterosexual. This is also how Roger Warren interprets the final scene. Warren cites a number of productions of the play as evidence for this argument, including Robin Phillips’ Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production at the Aldwych Theatre in 1970, where Valentine kisses Silvia, makes his offer and then kisses Proteus. Another production cited by Warren is Edward Hall’s in 1998, at the Swan Theatre.
In Hall’s version of the scene, after Valentine says the controversial line, Silvia approaches him and takes him by the hand. They remain holding hands for the rest of the play, clearly suggesting that Valentine has not ‘given’ her away. Warren also mentions Leon Rubin’s 1984 Ontario production (where the controversial line was altered to “All my love to Silvia I also give to thee”), David Thacker’s 1991 Swan Theatre production, and the 1983 BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation as supporting the theory that Valentine is not giving Silvia away, but is simply promising to love Proteus as much as he loves Silvia.
Patty S. Derrick also interprets the BBC production in this manner, arguing that “Proteus clearly perceives the offer as a noble gesture of friendship, not an actual offer, because he does not even look towards Silvia but rather falls into an embrace with Valentine” (although Derrick does raise the question that if Valentine is not offering Silvia to Proteus, why does Julia swoon). There are other theories regarding this final scene however.
For example, in his 1990 edition of the play for the New Cambridge Shakespeare, Kurt Schlueter suggests that Valentine is indeed handing Silvia over to Proteus, but the audience is not supposed to take it literally; the incident is farcical, and should be interpreted as such. Schlueter argues that the play provides possible evidence it was written to be performed and viewed primarily by a young audience, and as such, to be staged at university theatres, as opposed to public playhouses.
Such an audience would be more predisposed to accepting the farcical nature of the scene, and more likely to find humorous the absurdity of Valentine’s gift. As such, in Schlueter’s theory, the scene does represent what it appears to represent; Valentine does give Silvia to her would-be rapist, but it is done purely for comic effect. Another theory is provided by William C. Carroll in his 2004 edition for the Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series. Carroll argues, like Schlueter, that Valentine is indeed giving Silvia to Proteus, but unlike Schlueter, Carroll detects no sense of farce.
Instead, he sees the action as a perfectly logical one in terms of the notions of friendship which were prevalent at the time; “the idealisation of male friendship as superior to male-female love (which was considered not romantic or compassionate but merely lustful, hence inferior) performs a project of cultural nostalgia, a stepping back from potentially more threatening social arrangements to a world of order, a world based on a ‘gift’ economy of personal relations among male social equals rather than one based on a newer, less stable economy of emotional and economic risk.
The offer of the woman from one male friend to another would therefore be the highest expression of friendship from one point of view, a low point of psycho-sexual regression from another. As in Schlueter, Carroll here interprets Valentine’s actions as a gift to Proteus, but unlike Schlueter, and more in line with traditional criticism of the play, Carroll also argues that such a gift, as ridiculous as it is, is perfectly understandable when one considers the cultural and social milieu of the play itselLanguage is of primary importance in the play insofar as Valentine and Proteus speak in blank verse, but Launce and Speed speak (for the most part) in prose.
More specifically, the actual content of many of the speeches serve to illustrate the pompousness of Valentine and Proteus’ exalted outlook, and the more realistic and practical outlook of the servants. This is most apparent in Act 3, Scene 1. Valentine has just given a lengthy speech lamenting his banishment and musing on how he cannot possibly survive without Silvia; “Except I be by Silvia in the night/There is no music in the nightingale. /Unless I look on Silvia in the day/There is no day for me to look upon” (ll. 178–181).
However, when Launce enters only a few lines later, he announces that he too is in love, and proceeds to outline, along with Speed, all of his betrothed’s positives; “She brews good ale”; “She can knit”; “She can wash and scour”, and negatives; “She hath a sweet mouth”; “She doth talk in her sleep”; “She is slow in words. ” After weighing his options, Launce decides that the woman’s most important quality is that “she hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults” (ll. 343–344). He announces that her wealth “makes the faults gracious” (l. 56), and chooses for that reason to wed her.
This purely materialistic reasoning, as revealed in the form of language, is in stark contrast to the more spiritual and idealised love espoused by Valentine earlier in the scene. One of the dominant theories as regards the value or importance of Two Gentlemen is that thematically, it represents a ‘trial run’ of sorts, in which Shakespeare deals briefly with themes which he would examine in more detail in later works. E. K. Chambers, for example, argued that the play represents something of a gestation of Shakespeare’s great thematic concerns.
In 1905, he wrote that Two Gentlemen “was Shakespeare’s first essay at originality, at fashioning for himself the outlines of that romantic or tragicomic formula in which so many of his most characteristic dramas were afterwards to be cast. Something which is neither quite tragedy nor quite comedy, something which touches the heights and depths of sentiment and reveals the dark places of the human heart without lingering long enough there to crystallise the painful impression, a love story broken for a moment into passionate chords by absence and inconstancy and intrigue, and then reunited to the music of wedding bells. As such, the play’s primary interest for critics has tended to lie in relation to what it reveals about Shakespeare’s conception of certain themes before he became an accomplished playwright.
A. C. Swinburne, for example, wrote “here is the first dawn of that higher and more tender humour that was never given in such perfection to any man as ultimately to Shakespeare. Similarly, Warwick R. Bond writes “Shakespeare first opens the vein he worked so richly afterwards – the vein of crossed love, of flight and exile under the escort of the generous sentiments; of disguised heroines, and sufferings endured and virtues exhibited under their disguise; and of the Providence, kinder than life, that annuls the errors and forgives the sin. Stanley Wells refers to it as a “dramatic laboratory in which Shakespeare first experimented with the conventions of romantic comedy which he would later treat with a more subtle complexity, but it has its own charm. “