In Fair Verona

Next week, I’ll be leading a seminar on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, so, in preparation, I went to see the RSC’s production. It was the first time I’ve seen the play in performance; it’s also the first time in 33 years that the play has been performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (though it has played at the RSC’s Swan Theatre). The performance I saw was captioned, so the text was shown on screens pretty much directly in my eye-line. This meant I found myself both watching and reading the play; helpful, given that I needed to reread the play, but a slightly different viewing experience, I am sure. I can’t resist reading surtitles: why is that? Perhaps there’s a sense that, if I ignore them, I’m missing out? Maybe I just have too short an attention span. Anyway, I’m grateful to the captions for the excellent description of Sir Thurio’s song as ‘in the style of the Smiths’ Morrissey’ (though I wasn’t sure that it was a good impersonation; Morrissey fans may provide insight here).

As I was half-watching and half-reading I may have been made increasingly aware of the connections between Two Gents and Shakespeare’s other plays. In his brilliant chronological catalogue of Renaissance drama, Martin Wiggins lists 1594 as the date of Two Gents first performance. The next play Shakespeare wrote, according to this chronology, was Romeo and Juliet, in 1595, and in the same year, he also wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In terms of thematic connections, this makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that Romeo and Juliet is also set in Verona, it’s that Romeo, like Valentine, wants to gain access to his forbidden lover by climbing through her chamber window; it’s that the name Friar Laurence is used in both plays (he’s a character in Romeo, but just a name in Two Gents); it’s that both plays suggest to us the precariousness of that which we call comedy. The final lines of Two Gents even seem to anticipate those of the later play. Two Gents ends like this:

That done, our day of marriage shall be yours,
One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.

Romeo and Juliet begins like this:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

Valentine gestures towards a kind of unity, though it is a unity which can seem forced and unstable (as it did in this production). The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet starts with disharmony between households, though the play ultimately leads to what seems to be a sombre unity: the households join together to mourn the deaths of their beloved. The plays, like, it should be said, many others of the period, discover problems at every turn, which is why the term ‘problem play’, sometimes used in relation to Two Gents is itself so problematic. What might be an unproblematic play? A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which surely draws on Two Gents – both plays pun endlessly on the proximity of love and hate, as, in fact, does Romeo and Juliet – is less frequently thought of as problematic, even though, in many ways, it’s a dark and unsettling play.

One of the things which modern commentators have found so unsettling about Two Gents is that Valentine appears to offer Silvia to Proteus, the man who, moments earlier, was ready to rape her. Valentine, reconciling with his repentant friend, says ‘All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee’. I didn’t actually feel that this production was particularly interested in addressing this line as a problematic moment: it seemed to me to be a rhetorical gesture, rather than an amorous invitation, as it were. Instead, to my mind, Valentine and Silvia emerge as mutually happy, both having remained emotionally faithful to each other throughout the play. There are potential problems here, of course. Valentine has turned capriciously from putting a gun to Proteus’ head to trying to tie things together neatly and his final lines surely misjudge the tone of the ending. But the attention, rather, is on Julia and Proteus, who may, or may not, attempt to repair their damaged relationship. At the end, Silvia and Valentine leave the stage together, to the tune of what the surtitles describe as ‘poignant clarinet music’, but Julia and Proteus remain apart. They make a move towards each other, but the lights are down long before they meet.

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