A Play for All Reasons: Why academics love to talk about The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Once, when I disagreed with the Artistic Director of Curtain Theatre about the meaning of a passage from Twelfth Night, she smiled an enigmatic smile and said “Yes, academics love that passage.” She looked at me with a certain amount of empathy and after a few loaded moments she said, “But I have to make it work on stage.”

She was right of course. I had been thinking of that passage (“Make me a willow cabin at your gate” from Twelfth Night Act 1,5.) the way one might think of a poem on the page, letting the subtleties and contradictions unpick themselves slowly from the printer’s ink and take time to reach their crescendo of meaning. Of course one of the problems is, for the Director, that that passage, comes and goes in an actor’s breath.

There are plenty of such passages in Shakespeare, and not only do academics love to work on the plays that have such language in them, we also love to work on plays that aren’t altogether well-behaved when the stage director wishes them to be. In the Shakespeare canon we have several: Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well (with which Two Gentlemen has a lot in common) Troilus and Cressida, and of course that favorite of academics, literati and the peddlers of polysemous porn, Hamlet. For one reason or another those plays contain problems of plot or moral compass that cannot be side-stepped but are difficult to deal with.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s extant plays, offers us both the poetry and the problem. The problem is that one of the main characters becomes so obsessed with the object of his desire that he tries to force himself upon her; and though he is stopped in time by his friend and others around him, the script does not really know how to manage the denouement. The theme, which for many historic commentators was thought to be the supremacy of friendship over love, cannot carry the weight of the action. One reason that it cannot is that the strongest and most enduring language spoken in the play is not about friendship at all, but about love and desire, and a great deal of it is spoken not by the male characters but by the women.

Let’s start with the language, which greets us from the moment the play opens and throws us into the middle of a festival of lyric poetry. Proteus in particular draws on the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. The sonnet form was invented by the 14th century Italian poet Francesca Petrarca, was introduced to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey in the early 16th century, and was developed in 16th Century England by Sir Philip Sidney (Astrophil and Stella), Edmund Spenser (Amoretti)  and of course Shakespeare. Proteus also draws on the Latin poet Ovid’s theme of metamorphosis, which in Shakespeare’s time, and since, has been a major source for poetry, drama and thematic plagiarism. Chaucer and Shakespeare both came up with wonderful translations, and in the modern period we have Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and my favorite, the Canadian philosopher-poet Ann Carson.

One of the most important features of the Petrarchan tradition is that it draws from the medieval theory of courtly love (developed by Andreas Capellanus in De Arte Honeste Amandi) in which an unattached young man of poetic inclination courts a married woman who encourages, then rejects, his suit. He writes her poems full of yearning and desire, and his erotic sensibility is caught between the extremes of ice and fire. There is an assumption on the man’s part that the more emphatically he states his love (by which he really means desire) the less resistance he will meet.

Both Valentine (in his tentative and clumsy way) and Proteus (with his tendency to over-confidence) are enamored in their different ways with the poetic hyperbole of courtly and Petrarchan love. Valentine puts it succinctly:

To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans;
Coy looks with heart-sore sighs; one fading moment’s mirth
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights:
If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labour won. (1,1,28-32)

Of course Proteus claims to be in love at the beginning of the play. But his love for Julia  has little or no substance; hers for him is far more real. His elevated feelings are swiftly blown away. Which is not really surprising since it seems that he has in fact spent very little time with Julia, and their main communication – a source of comedy later on – has been by letter. His experience so far is not about Julia herself. Nothing that Proteus says about Julia tells us anything about her as a woman:

He after honour hunts, I after love:
He leaves his friends to dignify them more,
I leave myself, my friends and all, for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought. (1,1,63-69)

So Julia, as Ovid would have it, has metamorphosed Proteus, though it seems more likely that Proteus has metamorphosed himself and hung it on her. His take is a very abstract or ephemeral one: neglect, time, counsel, musing, thought. Valentine’s servant, Speed, whom Proteus has charged with delivering his letter to Julia, has a far more concrete and practical understanding:

Sir, I could perceive nothing at all from her;
No, not so much as a ducat for delivering your letter.
And being so hard to me that brought your mind,
I fear she’ll prove as hard to you in telling your mind.
Give her no token but stones; for she’s as hard as steel. (1,1,132-135)

Speed has, in fact, delivered the letter, and in one of the funniest scenes in the play Julia tears it up against the compulsion of her mind and her fingers. Having realized what she has done, she castigates herself for her young girl’s (maiden’s) impetuosity.  In a self-immolating speech that prefigures the violence that will come later in the play she reaches for metaphors that give her emotions a far more concrete and physical reality than Proteus’ abstractions:

Unkind Julia!
As in revenge of thy ingratitude,
I throw thy name against the bruising stones,
Trampling contemptuously on thy disdain. (1,2,109-112)

The crux of the play is the moment when Proteus looks on Sylvia and sees a real woman and feels what for him is the brute force of desire. At that moment everything changes. Sylvia is the daughter of the Duke of Milan, the big apple of Renaissance Italy. When the two friends leave conservative and gentle Verona their purpose is to test their identities on a larger playing field. Milan is sexy, exciting, vibrant. And Sylvia embodies all of that. Valentine, of course, is a bit slow when it comes to Sylvia. There’s true comedy in the scene where he fails to understand that Sylvia has asked him to write a letter to himself; and later when he exposes to Sylvia’s father his plan to climb to her window and take off with her. And in a similar vein he implores Proteus to see Sylvia as he does: “Have I not reason to prefer my own?” says Proteus when Valentine insists he agree that Sylvia should come first. And Valentine replies: “And I will help thee to prefer her too.”

But Proteus is sharp and ready. He has been playing with abstract ideas of love and has attached them to a woman he barely knows. So when he encounters physical desire for Sylvia he begins to lose his reason:

Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
Is it mine, or Valentine’s praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus? (2,4,189-195)

And with his reason he loses his falsely-pillowed love for Julia and his friendship – with all the accoutrements like loyalty, constancy and honor – with Valentine. As the director of this production, Stephen Beecroft, says, the myth of male friendship, a hugely influential driver of British boarding schools and governments for centuries – is exploded in the relationship between Proteus and Valentine.

In a sonnet written during the same period as this play, Shakespeare explores the anatomy of sexual desire, the condition that appears to have taken hold of Proteus. The opening two quatrains are a clear description of his loss of reason:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad… (Sonnet 129)

When Proteus attempts to persuade Sylvia to respond to his desire, ton allow his will to “compass” hers, she says:

My will is this,
That presently you hie you home to bed.
Thou subtle, perjured, false, disloyal man….. (4,2,90-93)

And the language in which “reason” becomes a central motif is not only spoken by Proteus. It is also part of the discourse of Julia and her maid Lucetta, who says when Julia is hell-bent on pursuing Proteus to Milan:

I do not seek to quench your love’s hot fire
But qualify the fire’s extreme rage
Lest it should burn above the bounds of reason. (2,7,21-3)

Lucetta is rather like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and the relationship with Julia is similar. It is interesting to note that in Romeo and Juliet in Act 1, scene 5, Romeo is the Pilgrim (“My lips, two blushing pilgrims”) and Juliet the Saint (“For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch.”) But in Two Gentlemen Julia decides to follow Proteus to Milan and casts herself as the pilgrim, and in this way Two Gentlemen identifies itself absolutely as a Shakespearean play in developing heroines (and their maids) who are strong and resolute and who are actors in their own narrative:

A true-devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps;
Much less shall she that hath Love’s wings to fly,
And when the flight is made to one so dear,
Of such divine perfection, as Sir Proteus. (2,7,9-13)

This, of course, is an exemplary instance of Shakespearean irony at work since Proteus spends the entire play falling from grace – and of course “irony” is also beloved of academics and intellectuals –  and it’s also a complex and subtle inversion of the traditional role-status of men as the active agents and women as the objects. A further delicious complexity is created by Shakespeare here when Julia dresses as a page, not just a man but a servant whose presence does not announce itself, allowing her/him to observe what’s going on, leading to the most emotionally intense scene in the play in which Proteus declares his love to Sylvia as Julia looks on.

Proteus tries to tell a good story about the way his mind and heart have replaced Julia with Sylvia; he pretends that it’s an easy transition and a light one. But he descends quickly into the language of brutality and violence. “I will forget that Julia is alive / Remembering that my love to her is dead.” (2,6,27-8), he says, then outlines his plot to prevent Valentine from getting Silvia and claiming her for himself. While he speaks a little ruefully of the damage this will do to his friend he nonetheless appears to revel in the competitive prospect:

And Valentin I’ll hold an enemy
Aiming at Silvia as a sweeter friend.
I cannot now prove constant to myself
Without some treachery used to Valentin. (2,6,29-32)

The problem for Proteus here is that the forensic finger points directly to his intention. To use our modern language he shows a mindfulness in both his language and actions that underscores the treachery of his early claims to be both friend and lover. He is self-conscious and aware of what he’s doing. Julia sees this in her disguise as a pageboy and says: “but it hath been the longest night / That e’er I watched, and the most heaviest.” (4,2,135-6)

One of the prime ingredients in the measurement of friendship and love in the 16th century is constancy. In Thomas Elyot’s treatise of 1531, The Book of the Governor, in which he sets out guidance for the upbringing of future statesmen, constancy and loyalty are essential components of honor. And as Proteus becomes more determined in pursuit of Sylvia he recognizes that he has to re-think his own constancy – which, of course, is something that Iago does in Othello:

I cannot now prove constant to myself,
Without some treachery used to Valentine. (2,6,35-39)

One of the most interesting things about Two Gentlemen of Verona is that in her growing awareness of Proteus’ treachery, Julia begins to reflect back his own language to the audience:

And now am I, unhappy messenger,
To plead for that which I would not obtain,
To carry that which I would have refused,
To praise his faith which I would have dispraised.
I am my master’s true-confirmed love;
But cannot be true servant to my master,
Unless I prove false traitor to myself.

Mindfulness and self. A bit like 1970s (or 2020s) California. But Shakespeare’s plays were all over the complexities of identity and truth to self (constancy). I remember the essay I most enjoyed writing as an undergraduate was a response to the statement: “For Shakespeare, character is destiny”. I had recently discovered that the Aristotelean word “hamartia”, which had been translated during the 19th century, in what we now know as the genesis of lit. crit., as “fatal flaw”, actually meant “error in judgment”. So, instead of character being an irreversible outcome of some genetic screw-up, Shakespeare sees that character is who we think we are to the factor of what we do and how we do it. Proteus knows. He acts both through and across his understanding of the world. He succumbs willfully to the driving desires set out in Sonnet 129, past reason hunted….


But the “no sooner had” of the sonnet does not happen. Sylvia and Julia remain consistent and loyal despite everything that Proteus throws at them. As Sylvia says: “I am so far from granting thy request / That I despise thee for thy wrongful suit.” Proteus will not take no for an answer but he does not prevail. When he attempts to pressure Sylvia and is stopped by Valentine, he is suddenly remorseful and shamed. He forgets what he has tried to set in motion as quickly as he forgot Julia and Valentine.

And so we come to the aspect of Two Gentlemen that makes it a problem play, that has led to its being produced perhaps less than it deserves, especially by community theater groups and even by the professional stage; and that’s made it difficult especially for modern readers to engage fully with the play despite the sophistication of its language. That Proteus is driven by the kind of desire that is described in sonnet 129 is consistent with Shakespeare’s treatment of contradictory male characters; his ears perk up when he spies the onset of violence in the language of his characters. This is the Shakespearean universe (or “world view”, as E.M.W. Tillyard called it) we all know and love. But having been held at bay by a resolute and hugely constant Sylvia, Proteus is stopped in his tracks by Valentine and then does an unbelievable volte face that no one in the Shakespeare industry or the theater or the academic community has been able to deal with positively or even neutrally. I said at the beginning of this discussion that the denouement of Two Gentlemen has not been able to handle the narrative at its climax. What I mean is that having developed the eloquent strengths of Julia and Sylvia throughout the play and positioned the audience behind them, especially though Julia’s disguised presence during the middle and later parts of the narrative, the playwright leaves them in silence. Valentine says, shockingly, that his interest in Sylvia he now hands to Proteus, as though she were a piece of property (which in 16th Century England, and indeed for many centuries later, she would have been), but she has no say in the matter.

It is for this reason that one of our greatest writers in English, George Eliot, who was awaiting a resolution to her own situation in Dover while translating Spinoza’s Ethics and reading Shakespeare’s poetry and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, wrote in her journal that the play “disgusted me more than ever in the final scene where Valentine, on Proteus’ mere begging pardon when he has no longer any hope of gaining his ends, says: “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”! – Silvia standing by.”

Leaving aside the introductions to the plays, one of the great developments in Shakespeare criticism in the last seventy or so years, since the development of academic feminism following the work of women like Kate Millett and Juliet Mitchell and later Catherine Belsey and Isobel Armstrong, has been the widened perspective provided by women as critics, actresses, directors and producers, and editors. We understand all Shakespearean characters much better as a result, not just the women. And we have deepened our understanding of Shakespeare as a writer who embraced and explored the strength and independence of women rather than seeing them merely as muses or objects. Some people understandably call Shakespeare a feminist. I don’t because that was not his purpose or the historical moment of his plays; but there is no doubt that Shakespeare gave voice to women in a way that was not equalled until the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.

But the only book of criticism I could find on this play, June Schlueter’s 1996 Shakespeare Criticism anthology, contains just two essays by women, and only a few essays written after the 1950s. Inga-Stina Ewbank’s 1972 essay, “‘Were Man But Constant, He Were Perfect’: Constancy and Consistency in The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, gives us interesting insights into the corresponding languages of Proteus and Julia, but chooses not to discuss the ending; she did not, I think, have the confidence that later feminist critics would have given her.

I remember an Oxford colleague talking about Two Gents, as he called it to my horror, and saying: “Pity Old Will isn’t alive today. We could take him aside and tell him, I say, old chap, that ending needs a bit of a rewrite.” And of course the old chap who wrote Hamlet or Lear or Twelfth Night might well have obliged. And that is the problem for the Director. Stephen Beecroft has dealt with the problem carefully and with an energy made possible by the Curtain Theatre’s predilection for great music, tomfoolery and dance. And that is something that I, as one of those pesky academics/intellectuals who love the language and the polysemous themes, have not had to deal with. But you know, my passion for digging into Shakespeare’s language and craft has been both surprised and gratified by this play. There are times when analyzing a speech by Julia or Sylvia brings Twelfth Night or Hamlet to mind. Think, for example, about that extraordinary scene in which Julia is looking at the painting of Sylvia:

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! (4,4,197-203)

Her sense of context, her consciousness of self, others and the others of others, is so comprehensive and sharp here that Julia could begin to challenge Olivia or Beatrice as a feminist icon.

The cultural and social status of women and their relationship with men is one of Shakespeare’s favorite themes. So too is the relationship between servant and master. I have merely hinted at it in this discussion. It’s something I hope to write about in another blog. But for the moment I would simply like to encourage you to enjoy the sophisticated and subversive way Shakespeare plays with their dynamics of power. Lucetta is a lady’s maid to Julia yet she has the power to mock, cajole, influence and subvert. Speed is servant to Valentine, yet is the first to get what is going on, for example when Valentine fails to understand that Sylvia has asked him to compose his own love letter. Yet with Proteus Speed meets his match as a wit: their exploration of what it is to be a sheep, socially speaking, is at least equal to the sheep scenes in Comedy of Errors. And Launce veers between his relationship with Crab the dog, and his relationship with the gap between the literal and the metaphoric meanings of words.

These are for another blog. Thank you for reading this.


Peter Bradbury

August, 2022



  1. Quotes from the play are from William Shakespeare, ed. William C. Carroll (2004), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, London & New York, Arden Edition, 3rd series.
  2. Inga-Stina Ewbank’s article was read in June Schlueter (1996), Two Gentlemen of Verona: Critical essays, Shakespeare Criticism Vol.15, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 1645, NY and Londo.