Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Date: Between 1589 and 1592.

 

First read: In 200…5, I think? At some point in my early 20s I read my Arden Complete Works cover to cover. Then I re-read it in 2011 when I worked on a couple of scenes from it at Mountview.

 

Productions seen: None – just that couple of scenes at drama school.

 

Productions worked on: As above.

 

Edition I’m using: Good old Dover Thrift.

She's just not that into you, Pro

 

Observations:

 

  • I read the play aloud with Mark and Flavia. We noticed that the locations weren’t consistent across the editions – sometimes one of us had Milano and another Verona, sometimes one had Mantua and another Padua. I wish we’d actually noted the differences, but we didn’t… What I can tell you is that I was using the Dover Thrift pictured above, Mark had the Arden Complete Works and Flavia was using the text from shakespeare.mit.edu. Who knows where we were? All we know is that you’re unlikely to miss the tide in any of them. In your face, Oxfordians.
  • While this may or may not be Shakespeare’s first play, it definitely feels early. Not just because of the structural oddities and somewhat underdone characterisation, but because it’s packed with ideas and lines that turn up again in fuller form elsewhere in the canon – the business with the rings, the girl disguised as a boy, the fleeing lovers pursued into the forest, rope ladders a-go-go, even some shady friar with a familiar name doing penance for unspecified sins wandering the woods.
  • Between this and Romeo & Juliet, I get the impression that Elizabethan Mantua was quite the hive of scum and villainy.
  • Holy excessive wordplay, Batman! I’d forgotten how crazy the first few scenes are. It’s a much funnier play than I remembered, but the comedy sits oddly alongside the darkness of Proteus’ journey – to my mind, at least. I know that time changes the way we receive things and that humour changes over the years (the treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, for example, strikes my 21st century sensibilities as ridiculously harsh). However, I struggle to believe that Proteus and Valentine’s reconciliation after the attempted (or at least considered) rape of Silvia is anything other than a rushed ending. It’s an extremely swift wrap-up, and a bit frustrating – Proteus comes across as a budding villain, and a very interesting one at that, yet the moment he’s challenged he does a swift volt-face, apologises and is forgiven. There’s the quality of mercy not only is not strained, it seems to gush from both Valentine and Julia in an unstoppable, ill-advised torrent. Then again, I suppose the same swiftness turns up in things like Measure for Measure, so perhaps it’s more a question of my expectations concerning ambiguous endings.
  • Having recently worked on Coriolanus, I found my attention caught by Proteus’ line in Act II Scene IV, “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”. Check out one of my favourite lines of Aufidius’ from Act IV Scene VII – “One fire drives out one fire: one nail, one nail/Rights by rights falter: strengths by strengths do fail./Come, let’s away. When, Caius, Rome is thine/Thou art the poor’st of all: then shortly art thou mine.”

 

I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in comparing the plays at this stage, since the point is to see what observations are prompted by reading them in this order, so this isn’t a particularly long post. Expect them to increase in length and depth as we continue, and also as I get a sense of what kind of conversations might come up here.

 

Did you read along? Is there anything you’d like to say about this play? Any point I’ve made that you disagree with? Comments are open (they’re moderated, which is sadly necessary for personal reasons, but I’ve no plans to do anything other than approve all contributions to the discussion).

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

7 responses to “Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

  • Dr M. D. Bolsover

    Reblogged this on *the fold of the artist and commented:
    *Jen McGregor’s thoughts-reponses on play no. I: The Two Gentlemen of Verona. …

  • Dr M. D. Bolsover

    *I’m not sure if it’s because I was aware before Jen, Flavia, & I began the read-through that this is early Shakybeard *(this, of course, being a, roughly, chronological read-through of his work), but TGoV definitely felt to me like the work of a young playwright.

    —The play (in the light of some working knowledge of other, later, works) read like a kind of *repository of ideas* … —of material-formulations which S. ‘comes back to’ (mines) in his later work—… the: ‘one nail drives out one nail’ passage, later used (beautifully) in Coriolanus being, perhaps, only the most obvious example. …

    On the page, without visual cues (the obvious ones… like—actors, costume, direction, &c.), I confess I found the proliferation of characters, without much definition or development to distinguish them *(controversial?), quite confusing, though Launce (—in-as the figure of “the fool”) was excellently drawn.

    As Jen says, the word play is strong with this one, perhaps too energetically so. … —It was sometimes a complaint with Wilde, I found when I was teaching Lit. undergrads, that there were too many (—a feast of) epigrams,… —too much verbal & intellectual dynamism & activity, & perhaps the same can be said here. There is a sort of eager bravado & over-excitement to it.

    Pacing, especially in the later Acts & Scenes, also felt more frantic & ad hoc than later S.

    —a… bravura (?) performance (so to), one already sure of linguistic skill, & wit, though the sexual politics is problematic (especially in the conclusion), & rhythm & pacing need to be cooled & refined.

    *I read an interview with Charlie Kaufman *(—in re. Synecdoche New York, I think it was… God, I do love Kaufman. … ), & he said that, when approaching writing, he always put everything he knew into the work at the time of writing… —That, I think, is what TGoV felt like to me… —a repository of all the (already impressive) ideas, formulations, & linguistic dexterity of a young playwright, only just beginning, perhaps, to hone his craft. …

  • BeeDice

    My thoughts first:

    There is one and only one saving grace to this play, and it is Launce. His “Can nothing speak? Master, shall I strike?” is not just the most honest expression uttered by any of the characters, but the funniest too. While his more humane wit didn’t make my 21st century self laugh any more than the tepid one shared by the four high-class folk, at least in Launce we have a realistic human being. Conversely, the lack of humanity in the remaining cast is precisely why the plot unravels, just as it promises to deliver some sort of grand confrontation with reality, as one of the two Gentlemen (does it matter which?) forgives the other, despite being caught red-handed about to rape his “love” interest. This flies beyond any semblance of reality, that I’m glad Shakespeare doesn’t even try to make the two Gentlement to explain their actions. And I take solace in seeing that at least one of the characters on stage is (literally) dumbfounded enough by whatever the fuck just happened to not speak at all for the rest of the play! And I’ve got to give Shakespeare credit, for making that person, fittingly, be poor Silvia, almost sexually assaulted, just to be married off to the person who forgave her would-be rapist. W.T.F. O_O

    Phew, that was negative! Some cool stuff though: I like how even in the earliest of Shakespeare, we see how the servants have more intelligence and understanding than their masters. I don’t have enough context to know if this was entirely a Shakespearean innovation, but even if it wasn’t, we see this all over his entire output, and it’s cool to see it so early on.

    Now to your post:

    I think it’s fair to call the awful resolution of the plot a “rushed ending”. But I don’t think the four main characters are capable of anything more satisfying. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but their personalities were just too bland. They all spoke similarly, were all pretty haughty, and they didn’t seem to have much motivation behind their actions, other than to move the plot along.

    Speaking of inspirational verses, mine was: “Hope is a lover’s staff.” Great image.

    • Shakespange

      Smart servants are a trope that go way farther back than Shakespeare, to Commedia dell’arte and beyond. Shakespeare certainly has his own “kind” though. He made the character his own and used it often.

  • Shakespange

    Now I’ve finished the read of Two Gents. Act V might be the worst fifth act in Shakespeare. That last scene is a painful waste of not very much potential.

    However, I would praise this play on the succinctness of its plot. It’s very focused on the four main characters without focusing too strongly on time wasting subplots. If only the main plot were better!

  • Pongo Literatii

    “Between this and Romeo & Juliet, I get the impression that Elizabethan Mantua was quite the hive of scum and villainy.”

    I have often wondered about the exotic locations, not least if we accept that WS probably never left the country. I need to look at my uni essays again, as I found some nice secondary source quotations about Italy.

    It occurs to me that all these ‘dreadful’ goings-on are:
    a) safely remote and exotic (and can’t, in an era of severe censorship, be construed as happening in England, of course); and
    b) being performed by Catholics (naturally). What else could we expect from those dreadful mackerel-snappers? Before anyone complains, I was brought up and educated in the Catholic faith.

    It also occurs to me that WS was smarter than, say, Jonson, and thus never imprisoned for offending the boss with his work …

  • Pongo Literatii

    Reblogged this on boarsheadeastcheap and commented:
    I’m a “grow old disgracefully” sort of guy, but some prefer to “live fast, die young”, of course …

    If you’re more Jimi than Jagger, more Buddy Holly than Bruce Springsteen, you might want to tune in to Jen’s blog, where she is looking at a play per week.

    I think she knows her Shakespeare shit …

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