Hi, I'm Becky, and this is Every Shakespeare Play #4. Thanks for coming. I'm mad at this play so I'll try to keep this review short. Like Proteus's dick.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is generally accepted to have been Shakespeare's first play and it definitely shows, in both good and bad ways. On the upside, a lot of the tropes that are recognizably Shakespearean —- friendship versus romance, cross-dressing ladies, and love making fools of us all —- are on full display in their proto-form here. On the downside: PROTEUS, I HATE YOU, BURN IN HELL.
Let me give you some context for my fury. The play is about the titular gentlemen, BFFs Valentine and Proteus. In the first scene, Valentine is ribbing Proteus about how hard he fell for this lady named Julia. He's being the Mercutio to Proteus' Romeo, asking him to step out of love for a second so he can laugh at himself, but at the same time, knowing it's a futile request. Valentine considers himself immune from moon-eye-tis, and has decided to go abroad to Milan to have adventures in his youth instead. The friends say their goodbyes, and Proteus goes back to exchanging love letters with Julia. They get engaged.
THE PLOT THICKENS when Proteus' dad asks his manservant what he thinks of Proteus' future. The manservant says he should send him to Milan like Valentine, and the dad just goes with it without even asking why. The manservant apparently decides the fate of random family members — one of many loose ends in the play. Proteus is bummed because he has to leave Julia for a while, but he's comforted by the rings they exchange. He's also comforted when he sees Silvia, the new girl Valentine is macking on in Milan. "JULIA WHO!?!?!" he exclaims. And that's the first reason we hate Proteus.
The second reason is that Proteus is such a fartnoggin that he spills Valentine's secret plot to elope with Silvia to her goddamn FATHER, who is the goddamn DUKE. Can you believe that bullcrud? Valentine entrusts this guy, whom he considers his bosom buddy, with the great news that he's seduced an Elizabethan 10. Proteus' response is to rat him out to the highest authority figure on both the personal and political level. And his defense of himself throughout the play is basically, "but I had a boner!" He's the worst. I'd rather open my door to a bag of rabid ninja raccoons than see this asshat standing there.
Valentine? Oh, he's banished. The Duke catches him mid-elopement and he's kicked out of civilized society. Silvia? Heartbroken. Julia? Worried about not hearing from her dirtbag bethrothed. Proteus? TOTALLY FINE WITH HIMSELF. Doesn't feel guilty at all. He just continues trying to get Silvia's pantaloons down, though she tells him numerous times she hates his guts. God, I hate them too. All of his guts.
Things pick up when both Valentine and Julia take a turn for the awesome. Valentine finds acceptance in his exile almost immediately, and becomes the leader of a Robin-Hood-style band of outlaws out in the woods. They elect him to the position because they think he done talk good.
Meanwhile, Julia is sick and tired of waiting around in Verona so she disguises herself as a man and heads for Milan. She discovers Proteus' treachery after becoming an attendant to Silvia. Her love-hate relationship with her mistress, whom she recognizes is innocent but resents nonetheless, is one of the best parts of the play. She's really funny about her inner conflict, but also it's just so pathetically sad. Par example:
Julia: A virtuous gentlewoman, mild and beautiful
I hope my master's suit will be but cold,
Since she respects my mistress' love so much.
Alas, how love can trifle with itself!
Here is her picture: let me see; I think,
If I had such a tire, this face of mine
Were full as lovely as is this of hers:
And yet the painter flatter'd her a little,
Unless I flatter with myself too much.
Her hair is auburn, mine is perfect yellow:
If that be all the difference in his love,
I'll get me such a colour'd periwig.
Her eyes are grey as glass, and so are mine:
Ay, but her forehead's low, and mine's as high.
What should it be that he respects in her
But I can make respective in myself,
If this fond Love were not a blinded god?
Come, shadow, come and take this shadow up,
For 'tis thy rival. O thou senseless form,
Thou shalt be worshipp'd, kiss'd, loved and adored!
And, were there sense in his idolatry,
My substance should be statue in thy stead.
I'll use thee kindly for thy mistress' sake,
That used me so; or else, by Jove I vow,
I should have scratch'd out your unseeing eyes
To make my master out of love with thee!
Unfortunately, Julia doesn't ever come to the obvious conclusion: Proteus is a lying piece of worm anus and doesn't deserve her. When Silvia escapes Milan to search for Valentine, Julia follows Proteus and the Duke in their pursuit. It all comes to a head in Valentine's new forest kingdom (obviously). Proteus is discovered to have been the cause of every bad thing that has happened in the play, and Julia reveals her identity to everyone. Proteus is epically busted at this point, and is forced to face four people whose hearts he used as an outhouse.
And that's when it happens. The worst thing I've ever read in a Shakespeare play. Just...see for yourself:
Julia: Behold her that gave aim to all thy oaths,
And entertain’d them deeply in her heart:
How oft hast thou with perjury cleft the root!
O Proteus! let this habit make thee blush.
Be thou asham’d that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment; if shame live
In a disguise of love. It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.
Proteus. Than men their minds! ’tis true. O heaven! were man
But constant, he were perfect: that one error
Fills him with faults; makes him run through all the sins:
Inconstancy falls off ere it begins.
What is in Silvia’s face, but I may spy
More fresh in Julia’s with a constant eye?
That is probably the most infuriating dodge of responsibility I've ever read. Instead of saying "Oh heaven! were *I* but constant, *I* were perfect: that one error fills *ME* with faults," etc., etc, he phrases it so suddenly all of humanity is to blame for his mind-boggling shortcomings. Then he dumps a little flattery on the end like a shit cherry on a shit Sundae.
You know what's worse? HE TOTALLY GETS AWAY WITH IT. Everybody just forgives him and Valentine suggests they have a double wedding that very day.
Thanks for the' aneurysm, Shakespeare. You really broke my brain with this one.
Grade: D+. The plus is for Crab, the play's dog character. I like dogs. THUS PLUS.
Fun Stuff: Valentine often verbally spars with Thurio, another of Silvia's suitors. These insult wars are great, especially because Thurio is slow-witted. He's constantly like, "hey, I just got that! Eff you, Valentine." Pretty funny gag.
Ultimate Takeaway: You can get away with anything if you just blame human nature for your own fuck-ups. Not recommended as a life strategy, but if you are alright with being some kind of scum-sucking mega-coward, why not let humanity foot all your moral bills? It's the Proteus way.
Personal Request: Never take me to see this play. One way or another, it will result in my arrest.