Contradictions and complexities: negative capability in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

It has become a truism that Shakespeare’s plays are rich and complex. That is one of the reasons they have remained at the top of the chart for five centuries, not just in their Elizabethan English originals but in other languages and other artistic media such as opera. But that complexity can often seed confusion in the minds of both audience and actors. Shakespeare appears to say contradictory things about his characters, and they seem to speak and act in several directions at once.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona Proteus appears to us at the beginning as a rather nice if overly abstract and ethereal young man. In the UK we might think of him as the Oxbridge student who will probably become a stockbroker; in the US he’s a frat boy from Yale or Harvard who might become a hedge fund manager and start a silicon company like Uber. He proclaims his love for Julia to his plodding friend Valentine, who’s about to leave the quiet and conservative Verona – a sort of Westchester, perhaps – to learn to play under the tutelage of the duke in the hot, steamy and progressive city of Milan. Valentine is unconvinced by his friend’s elaborate and hyperbolic proclamations and besides, he has more authentic matters to deal with.

But when Proteus sees Sylvia and is overcome with lust his presence crumbles and he re-forms as a predator. His language becomes progressively focused on persuading Sylvia to join him, and he discusses with himself in a kind of meta-transition the consequences of his actions. Yet he never really loses the qualities we first saw in him. He’s not like one of those TV series’ characters who seems charming until his real self emerges and the charming self melts away. No, Proteus remains the abstract and ethereal young man, he’ll probably continue to become  stockbroker, but he takes on the full horror of the effect of lust that Shakespeare unravelled in Sonnet 129 – “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action…” Contradictory tendencies and qualities live together in him, and however we think of the unseemly haste with which Valentine forgives him at the end, and the silencing of the steady and constant Sylvia, it is not surprising that he comes to some version of his senses. This is an early play for Shakespeare and he still had some maturing to do, so he writes as though Proteus has indeed lost the reason that he so frequently talks about. But it is interesting and revealing that as readers and audiences we remain aware of the complexities and multiplicities of this character.

Valentine and Sylvia are relatively unchanged during the play – that is their strength, and as Shakespearean characters it is also their weakness – as are the clowns, whose interactions with each other and the main characters hold mirrors up to the ligaments of gendered power (if you don’t know what I mean by that I’d love to explain). But Proteus and Julia both stay as they are and change very intensely throughout the play, Proteus as I have discussed above, and Julia through her growing awareness of her emerging self which involves another meta-transition: she goes from being the observed (as Proteus’ fantasy object) to the observer. She begins as a rather skittish young woman wholly reliant on her maid (Lucetta) for both her physical and emotional stability. Then, learning that the man she thinks she’s in love with, the man she thinks loves her, has fallen for the immeasurable Sylvia, she focuses her mind and her emotions and becomes an observer of her own self in situ. And so we get, In this early comedy, a scene that’s the match of many of the great scenes from the mature comedies. Dressed as a boy, a page, she watches Proteus ecstatic in the presence of Sylvia. She agrees to act as a messenger from Proteus to Sylvia. And then, in delivering the ironic message, she encounters Sylvia herself and immediately understands her virtue, or should I say quality. And then she examines and explores the whole situation and her contradictory emotions and inclinations in it:

And she shall thank you for’t, if e’er you know her.

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! (4,4)

How do we think about these paradoxes of character, these quandaries of thought and action?

The great English poet John Keats, in December of 1817, was thinking about the same question as he walked home from a Christmas pantomime talking to his friends Browne and Dilke. In a letter later that month to his brothers Tom and George he wrote:

 … several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is a wonderful way of understanding this quality that Shakespeare had in abundance but that he shares with most great writers, composers and artists. For Keats negativity was not the objectionable quality it has become in our positivist century. Keats had been reading Hegel, whose Phenomenology put forward the idea that negation, or negativity, is essential to dialectical thinking.

Keats did not elaborate on the teasing and intuitive idea of ‘negative capability’. However he did continue to think about the way great writers create characters who cannot be bridled by ordinary reins. In a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse in October the following year, he wrote that “the poetical Character is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago (Othello) as an Imogen (Cymbeline). What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.”

We do not have to justify the way Shakespeare builds contradiction and paradox into even the most minor of characters. But it takes a lot of effort to put aside the Western habit of dissecting and seeking a reason or an excuse for everything.

Note: Keats’ letters are worth reading for their own sake as well as for their insights into creativity and art. There are various editions available online, in e-text versions and in bookstores. Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) (Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit) is available in various translations and also online etc. This work provided Karl Marx with a philosophical basis for his radical dialectic.


Peter Bradbury

August 2022

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