Skip to main content
The Two Gentlemen of Verona /

Further Reading: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Abbreviations: TGV=The Two Gentlemen of Verona; MV=The Merchant of Venice; AYL=As You Like It; TN=Twelfth Night; Cym.=Cymbeline

Beadle, Richard. “Crab’s Pedigree.” In English Comedy, ed. Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, pp. 12–35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Beadle traces the history of the “clown-with-dog” act that Shakespeare uses in his pairing of Lance and Crab back to its roots in classical and medieval comedy, while also noting the more immediate influence of sub-literary popular entertainments available to Elizabethans. The author specifically links Crab to Labes (Grabber), the dog arraigned for stealing a cheese in Aristophanes’ The Wasps, and to the solo mime’s performing dog best known from the erotic farce “The Weeping Bitch,” a tale of illicit sex widely disseminated from the twelfth century on (the ironic twist in the case of Crab is that he does not weep). Crab’s pedigree suggests that he is heir to “an ancient line in sexual conquest through farcical deception, the excremental emblem of lust and defilement.”

Beckerman, Bernard. “Shakespeare’s Dramaturgy and Binary Form.” Theatre Journal 33.1 (1981): 5–17.

Using TGV as his test case, Beckerman argues that the binary form of the duet constitutes Shakespeare’s favored dramaturgical unit of scene construction. While 46 percent of the text explicitly calls for two players, Beckerman finds evidence of the binary form in scenes with several characters onstage, thus bringing the total number of duologues to 71 percent of the text. Such disguised duets include trios in which a third figure either remains mute (Pantino in 1.3.46–78) or serves as the audience’s surrogate through choric asides that comment on the actual duet figures (Speed in 2.1.94–144). Even the quintet scene in which three outlaws encounter Valentine and Speed (4.1) is a duet in its presentational structure since the multiple outlaws are virtually interchangeable or “redundant” in their interrogation of Valentine. The binary form also provides a dramaturgical explanation for Sylvia’s silence in the controversial final scene. By keeping Sylvia and Julia mute through the duet between Valentine and Proteus (5.4.63–89) and Sylvia silent through the duet between Proteus and Julia (90–125), Shakespeare “assure[s] concentration of effect” and “maintains presentational focus and the vigor that goes with it.”

Bradbrook, Muriel C. “The Fashioning of a Courtier.” In Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry: A Study of His Earlier Work in Relation to the Poetry of the Time, pp. 141–61, esp. 147–54. London: Chatto and Windus, 1951.

Bradbrook’s examination of TGV in the context of the courtly love tradition and the education of a courtier as found in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier leads her to conclude that the play “is a study of manners rather than of sentiments, of behaviour rather than emotion.” Friendship, the dominant theme, emerges as the more “personal” relationship; love remains the “courtly,” artificial one. The “germ” of the play is found in the exchange (5.4.63–89) between Valentine and Proteus in which Proteus asks for forgiveness and Valentine responds, “Then I am paid.” By releasing Sylvia to Proteus, Valentine demonstrates “in transcendent form” what was for Castiglione “the first and greatest virtue of a gentleman”: namely, the courtly virtue of magnanimity. Sylvia’s silence necessarily follows, for she is simply “the prize.” Recognition of the priority of the friendship code and the fashioning of the perfect gentleman over the tenets of Petrarchan wooing prevents a misunderstanding of the play’s conclusion.

Brooks, Harold F. “Two Clowns in a Comedy (to say nothing of the Dog): Speed, Launce (and Crab) in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Essays and Studies, n.s. 16 (1963): 91–100.

In an essay that is widely regarded as a classic in TGV scholarship, Brooks demonstrates that the low comic characters—Speed, Lance, and Crab—while not essential to the cause-effect needs of plot, contribute to the play’s thematic unity by providing a network of comic parallels that parody the main themes of friendship and love. Speed in his “cut and thrust” with Valentine in 2.1 wittily exposes the “love is blind” theme, while Lance in his self-sacrifice and love for Crab burlesques Valentine’s friendship with Proteus and Julia’s love for him. In a comment that anticipates the full-length argument of Beadle (see above), Brooks finds a parodic link between Proteus as lover and Crab as gift: neither is worthy of Sylvia.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1, pp. 203–68. 1957. Reprint, London: Roudedge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Bullough reprints excerpts from an English translation of Jorge de Montemayor’s 1542 Diana Enamorada (the primary source), Boccaccio’s tale of Titus and Gisippus as found in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governour (a possible source), and several analogues (Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, John Lyly’s Euphues, the Tragaedia von Julio und Hyppolita [trans. Georgina Archer], and F. Scala’s Flavio Tradito). The Boccaccio tale provided both the triangular relationship of two male friends in love with the same woman and the generous act of one man resigning his bride to his friend (the Valentine, Proteus, and Sylvia plot line). The Diana, which afforded Shakespeare the Julia plot in its detailed story of treachery to a former mistress who disguises herself as a male in pursuit of her lost lover, became Shakespeare’s “text-book of amorous entanglements and sentiment.” Shakespeare shows an enormous debt to themes (the conflict between love and friendship), techniques (symmetrical balancing of character), and character types (the waggish servant) made popular by Lyly in his courtly plays. Lance, who shows the influence of the rustic clown type, appears to be Shakespeare’s original invention.

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier (1528). Trans. George Bull. 1967. Reprint, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983. [An abridged translation by Friench Simpson is available through the Milestones of Thought series (1959; reprint, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980).]

The most famous of Renaissance courtesy books, Castiglione’s The Courtier (arranged as a series of conversations spread out over four nights in 1507 at the ducal court of Urbino) is a handbook for the fashioning of the ideal gentleman who would perfectly combine the intellectual, martial, and diplomatic skills of the consummate scholar, soldier, and statesman in worthy service to his lord. The program of education advocated the cultivation of good manners and civil discourse in pursuit of both individual excellence and social harmony. A key doctrine is sprezzatura—the art that (by virtue of its gracefully natural manner) conceals its artifice—often glossed as unself-conscious ease or nonchalance. In TGV, Pantino’s proposal for Proteus’ journey to the court of Milan to learn how to become the “perfect” gentleman (1.3.31–34) articulates the tenets of the courtesy book tradition as exemplified in Castiglione.

Ewbank, Inga Stina. “ ‘Were Man But Constant, He Were Perfect’: Constancy and Consistency in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Shakespearian Comedy, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, pp. 31–57. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14. London: Edward Arnold; New York: Crane, Russak, 1972.

Ewbank discusses TGV’s inconsistencies of plot, character, and language and concludes that both the play’s problems and its “sense of life” inhere in an essential contradiction of language, a medium used to describe genuine feelings and real experiences but one that can also “falsify” what it supposedly describes. A vivid sense of “experience . . . outrun[ning] language” is particularly noticeable in the middle of the play. Relating TGV to Sonnet 40 (“Take All My Love”), Ewbank suggests that the sonnet does a better job of conveying something of how love “really feels” because it “work[s] through and around convention” to capture the human dimension. This dimension is notably absent from the final scene of TGV, whose “real inconsistency . . . is that Shakespeare is trying to use as his raw material what characters say (attitudes) rather than what they are (people).”

Friedman, Michael D. “ ‘To be slow in words is a woman’s only virtue’: Silence and Satire in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Shakespeare and Renaissance Association of West Virginia: Selected Papers 17 (1994): 1–9.

Friedman focuses on Sylvia’s plight in 5.4 in an attempt to construct a feminist performance criticism that allows for a critique of the patriarchal silencing of the comic heroine without sacrificing the comic tone associated with the endings of Shakespeare’s comedies. A sampling of productions reveals a variety of staging possibilities. Instead of either cutting the potentially offensive passages or emphasizing them to expose sexist values, Friedman advocates the use of satirical laughter against the patriarchal attitudes that a feminist production of TGV would criticize. By choosing a gagged but vigorously struggling Sylvia, one of the productions examined serves as a model in exploiting the ending’s potential for satire. The strong visual image of a woman whose silence was involuntary encouraged the audience to laugh at the “ridiculous chauvinism of the men”; the result was a theatrical reconciling of a feminist perspective with the traditional comic closure of marriage.

Girard, René. “Love Delights in Praises: Valentine and Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In A Theater of Envy, pp. 8–20. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. (The chapter is a revised version of an essay that first appeared in Philosophy and Literature 13 (1989): 231–47 under the title “Love Delights in Praises: A Reading of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”)

The author examines TGV in accordance with his theory of “mimetic” or “mediated” desire, a concept that explains the concord and discord that occur when friends inclined to imitate each other become rivals by desiring a common object that cannot be shared. In TGV, Proteus desires Sylvia solely because “he is predisposed in favor of whatever Valentine desires,” the key speech being Proteus’ soliloquy at 2.4.202–24. Shakespeare is fascinated by the ambivalence of imitation: “Valentine and Proteus can be friends only by desiring alike and, if they do, they are enemies. Neither one can sacrifice friendship to love or love to friendship without sacrificing what he wants to retain and retaining what he wants to sacrifice.” The offer to relinquish Sylvia to Proteus is Valentine’s attempt to escape from “the mimetic double bind,” but the “search for a compromise” contaminates things that should remain separate: “friendship and Eros, possessiveness and generosity, . . . love and hatred.” The act of renunciation thus “becomes a parody of itself, tinged with the slipperiness of sexual perversion.” Girard posits that mimetic rivalry, which gives TGV its plot, is “the staple” of plays and novels.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Shakespearian Characters: The Generation of Silvia.” In Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts, pp. 68–100, esp. 68–81. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Applying a postmodern “voice as text” theory to a play “spawn[ed]” by Ovidian metamorphoses, Goldberg analyzes the characters in TGV as literal figures “who voice the letters” in which their names are written. Constituted as “surfaces to be read and reread,” the characters find “themselves by citing old saws [and find] each other by exchanging letters, registering loss by tearing words, deforming them as they speak, wooing by [rhetorical] figures.” Since the characters are rooted in literal devices, they are “little more than marks on a page assuming their life.” Sylvia (whose name comes from the Latin silva, or “woods”) is “what her name betokens,” that name being both her destiny (the woods she finally arrives in) and her destination (“both in TGV and the texts it generates”). The passage at 2.1.152–54 holds the key to her generation: “the letter—literally and figuratively.” Likewise, her puzzling silence at the end has already been written in Ovid’s story of Philomela, who, in moving from a father’s court to a threatening forest, became a victim of male desire and lost her human voice. Valentine’s destiny also lies in his name—a valentine is both a lover and a love letter—and it is no accident that Sylvia and Valentine’s first scene together is played around a letter. Responding to the criticism of the characters in TGV as “wooden,” Goldberg counters that their “ ‘woodenness’ (literally) is the most transparent indication of the genealogy of the Shakespearian character,” which in this play is inscribed in “the troping of the silva tradition of pastoral” and in the many allusions to Ovid.

Lindenbaum, Peter. “Education in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 15 (1975): 229–44.

According to Lindenbaum, the central theme of TGV is not the conflict between love and friendship but a moral education that subsumes and ultimately transcends the courtly and social kind usually emphasized by critics. Lindenbaum charts the moral development of both Valentine and Proteus by noting how the iterative word “perfect” and the thematic ideal of “the perfect gentleman” undergo a radical change in the course of the play. From being simply a matter of social grace and courtly manners (1.3.20–34), perfection comes to be understood as a moral state of religious grace and spiritual virtues (5.4.118–23). Integral to this redefinition is the spatial dynamic that shifts from Verona to Milan to the uncivilized wood. While Valentine displays minor failings in Milan, it is Proteus who becomes “Italianate” in the worst Elizabethan sense. The journey from the court to the wood exposes both “gentlemen” as “unaccommodated men” and forces them to recognize their status as representatives of flawed humanity. In keeping with the Christian doctrine of human fallibility, the characters learn that true perfection must be “in harmony with and modeled after divine precept.” For Lindenbaum, both Valentine’s generous offer and Sylvia’s silence in the final scene are necessary for Proteus’ moral redemption. “Silvia is silent . . . because she fully understands what [Valentine] is doing.”

Masten, Jeffrey. “Between Gentlemen: Homoeroticism, Collaboration, and the Discourse of Friendship.” In Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama, pp. 28–62, esp. 37–48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Masten’s discussion of TGV derives from his thesis that Shakespeare, like other Renaissance dramatists, “wrote within a paradigm that insistently figured writing as mutual imitation, collaboration, and homoerotic exchange.” In TGV’s emphasis on “the homosocial networks of gentlemanly education through emulation,” Masten observes an interdependence rather than an opposition between male friendship and Petrarchan love, both of which in this play “speak a remarkably similar language.” Noting that Petrarchan sonnets, “though often written to and about women, . . . circulat[ed] between men . . . registering . . . courtiership as courtship,” the author examines the play’s negotiation of the competing demands of friendship and Petrarchan love to illuminate “the collaborative male inscription of a social order; within the play’s collaborative practice, texts and women circulate among gentlemen.” The final scene, in which Valentine stops Proteus’ attempted rape of Sylvia and then surrenders her to Proteus, is both the “most extreme instance of contending Petrarchan love and male friendship and the succinct inscription of their ultimate relation.” In TGV as in the gentlemen’s conduct books of the period, “homoeroticism functions as part of the network of power; it reconstitutes and reflects the homogeneity of the gentlemanly subject.”

Price, Hereward T. “Shakespeare as Critic.” Philological Quarterly 20 (1941): 390–99, esp. 396–99.

According to Price, the only way to make sense of TGV’s strange ending is to read the play as Shakespeare’s mocking exposure of the artifice associated with Renaissance codes of courtly love and friendship. The playwright was particularly “gunning for” the literary convention that established Valentine as the ideal courtly lover and that prioritized friendship between men over the love of man for woman. Shakespeare “wring[s] the last drop of silliness” out of Valentine’s conventionalized behavior in the ridiculous offer of Sylvia to Proteus, “a logical development” of TGV’s overall satiric design. The surrender of Sylvia is sometimes cut in modern productions because the convention Shakespeare was exposing “no longer exists and therefore we do not understand the passage.”

Richman, David. Laughter, Pain, and Wonder: Shakespeare’s Comedies and the Audience in the Theater. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1990.

Drawing on his own experience as a director and on the productions of others, Richman explores how Shakespeare’s comedies in performance evoke a complicated mixture of laughter, pain, and wonder. In the chapters on laughter and pain, he addresses the “farcical analogy” provided by Lance and Crab and Shakespeare’s experimentation with a suffering heroine (Julia) and a figure who feels some internal conflict (Proteus). Richman’s most sustained treatment of the play, however, appears in the chapter on wonder, where he discusses the problematic ending (pp. 150–56). Shakespeare fails to realize the “wonder of miracle” that he intended in Valentine’s magnanimous gesture and Proteus’ repentance because he “still lacks sufficient power” to make credible both the gesture and the remorse. The ending’s difficulties “grow out of the playwright’s exploration, for the first time in drama, of a problem of evil in a context of romance.” The best strategy, therefore, is to play the scene as a parody of romance.

Schlueter, June, ed. “Two Gentlemen of Verona”: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1996.

The first part of this anthology (following an introductory overview of the scholarship and performance history related to TGV) provides eighteen critical commentaries spanning the years 1765 to 1996; the second part is devoted to eleven theater reviews dealing with productions between 1821 and 1991. Besides extracts from Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Algernon Swinburne, Victor Oscar Freeburg, and Bertrand Evans, Schlueter reprints several essays annotated separately in the present “Further Reading” section (Brooks, Ewbank, Friedman, Slights, and Weimann). The remaining critical essays are S. Asa Small’s “The Ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Ralph M. Sargent’s “Sir Thomas Elyot and the Integrity of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Thomas A. Perry’s “Proteus, Wry-Transformed Traveller,” Frederick Kiefer’s “Love Letters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Charles A. Hallett’s “ ‘Metamorphising’ Proteus: Reversal Strategies in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Kathleen Campbell’s “Shakespeare’s Actors as Collaborators: Will Kempe and The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” John Timpane’s “ ‘I am But a Foole, Looke You’: Launce and the Social Functions of Humor,” and Patty S. Derrick’s “Feminine ‘Depth’ on the Nineteenth-Century Stage.” In addition to nineteenth-century productions by Frederick Reynolds and Augustin Daly, the theater reviews cover revivals by Granville-Barker (1904), William Poel (1910), Michael Langham (1956), Robin Phillips (1970), Robin Phillips and David Toguri (1975), Leon Rubin (1984), Charles Newell (1990), and David Thacker (1991). Two assessments, one by Harry Keyishian and the other by Patty S. Derrick, deal with the 1983 BBC TV/Time Life production directed by Don Taylor.

Shapiro, Michael. “Bringing the Page Onstage: The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages, pp. 65–91. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Shapiro analyzes the “theatrical vibrancy” that results from Shakespeare’s versatile use of cross-gendered casting (boys playing girls) and cross-gendered disguise (the female character assuming a male identity) in five plays: TGV, MV, AYL, TN, and Cym. The chapter on TGV focuses on Julia’s disguise as the “cheeky page,” Shakespeare’s innovative use of the precocious boy servant popular in the court comedies of John Lyly. In the interplay of male actor/female character/male disguise, Shapiro observes not a fusion “into a single androgynous entity” but a “vertically layered richness of perception” that allows the audience to experience all three aspects at given moments; see, for example, Julia’s exchanges with Lucetta (2.7.40–56) and with Sylvia (4.4.157–73) in which the male performer reflexively “underscore[s]” his presence in the layered gender identities of Julia/Sebastian. When Julia gives Proteus the wrong ring, it is the character’s “moment of greatest power, a moment when the presentational and mimetic facets of his/her identity, the male actor’s persona and the female character, coalesce to enable the boy heroine to seize control of the play.”

Slights, Camille Wells. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Courtesy Book Tradition.” Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 13–31. Revised and reprinted as “Common Courtesy in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Shakespeare’s Comic Commonwealths, pp. 57–73. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Indebted to the courtesy book tradition, specifically the courtly program of education advocated by Castiglione, TGV is neither an unequivocal endorsement of conventional codes of friendship and love nor a parody of such conventions. An understanding of the Renaissance concern with the formation of the perfect or complete gentleman sheds light on the widely criticized last scene. As a result of the journey to the wood where they are exposed to raw nature and the violence of outlaws, Valentine and Proteus come to the shocking realization that a misguided courtly education, with its emphasis on the superficial, can degenerate into a brutality not all that different from the savagery of the wild. Valentine’s controversial gesture to surrender Sylvia to her would-be rapist offers Proteus a way back to the world of civilized society “where a gentleman’s word is his bond but where gentlemen characteristically communicate through indirection.” Valentine assumes that Proteus will understand and accept the offer. Like Lindenbaum (see above), Slights reads Sylvia’s silence as a sign of her complicity in Valentine’s strategy. For Slights, however, both the gesture and the silence are required for Proteus’ social rather than moral reclamation. TGV, Shakespeare’s contribution to the courtesy book tradition, “presents courtly elegance as a positive value, [but] it also shows us how fragile and easily corrupted this ideal is.”

Weimann, Robert. “Laughing with the Audience: The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Popular Tradition of Comedy.” Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 35–42.

Arguing that Shakespeare favors laughter “with” rather than “at” in his comedies, Weimann draws on the social structure of the Elizabethan popular theater in his examination of three devices that contribute to this type of laughter in TGV: asides to an audience that believes in the speaker’s comic commentary; direct address to an audience in which the speaker becomes “the clowning object and laughing subject of his own mirth and that of the audience”; and disguise, since the “disguised person is usually laughed with, not at.” Speed’s asides in 2.1 in which he mocks the “high-flown” rhetoric of Sylvia and Valentine are examples of the first, Lance’s leave-taking in 2.3 illustrates the second, and Julia’s disguise exemplifies the third. The rapport or “comic concurrence” between audience and actor-character encouraged by these techniques results in “a wider comic vision through which the [play’s] main theme of friendship and courtly love . . . is dramatically controlled and comically evaluated.”