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The Two Gentlemen of Verona /

A Modern Perspective: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

By Jeffrey Masten

 . . . they used not only one board, but one bed, one book (if so be it they thought not one too many). . . . [A]ll things went in common between them, which all men accounted commendable.

—John Lyly, Euphues (1579)

Within the space of about thirty lines, the final scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona includes the attempted rape of one of its heroines, her rescue by her male lover, and his forgiveness of the rapist, who also happens to be his best friend. In love with Valentine’s beloved Sylvia, Proteus attempts to rape her; Valentine intervenes and vows never again to trust him. But Proteus begs forgiveness:

My shame and guilt confounds me.

Forgive me, Valentine. If hearty sorrow

Be a sufficient ransom for offense,

I tender ’t here. I do as truly suffer

As e’er I did commit.


And Valentine relents, pronounces himself “satisfied” with Proteus’ “repentance,” and—shockingly, at least to modern eyes—goes on to give the beloved Sylvia back to the repentant rapist from whom he has just saved her: “that my love may appear plain and free, / All that was mine in Sylvia I give thee” (88–89).

This highly charged moment is perhaps the hardest to assimilate or understand from a modern perspective; indeed, it has been a locus of discontent for many of the play’s twentieth-century critics and may be a reason for the play’s apparent unpopularity. Writing early in the twentieth century, Arthur Quiller-Couch famously remarked that “there are, by this time, no gentlemen in Verona.”1 Quiller-Couch’s notion of gentlemanliness is no doubt more Edwardian than Elizabethan, but he nevertheless unwittingly points to at least one of the difficulties facing twentieth-century readers and audiences when he notes that the play is part of a convention “of refining, idealising, exalting [friendship] out of all proportion, or at any rate above the proportion it bears, in our modern minds, either to love between man and woman or to parental love” (p. xv, my emphasis). The resulting scene in the play, he argues, represents “a flaw too unnatural to be charged upon Shakespeare” (p. vii). Quiller-Couch’s terms can both give us insight into what is at stake in this scene and this play for a modern audience and suggest how to read it more clearly from the perspective of the culture within which Shakespeare lived, read, and wrote. For what may seem “unnatural” or “flaw[ed]” from a certain modern perspective is the way the play’s conclusion seems to elevate its central same-sex relationship over male-female marriage. The problem is compounded by the play’s use of the same rhetoric, the same terminology, for same-sex “friendship” and cross-sex “love”; characters of both sexes are interchangeably “friends” and “lovers.”2

Until recently, for many critics the idea that Shakespeare might have written scenes that speak homoeroticism, or might have valued same-sex relations, has seemed incomprehensible; in the case of Two Gentlemen of Verona, a number of solutions have been proposed to absolve him of responsibility in this regard. The play is said to demonstrate that it falls very early in Shakespeare’s writing career (in this view, Shakespeare becomes a well-meaning but clumsy apprentice). Or the play is Shakespeare’s parody of literature in which friendship is portrayed as greater than love (in this view, Shakespeare is intentionally clumsy).3 Or the play’s final scene, “so destructive of the relationships of the characters as they have been developed,” is said to be a part of the Folio text’s “maze of contradictions and inconsistencies” (here, the text is clumsy).4 Quiller-Couch himself argues that Shakespeare originally wrote a “theatrically ineffective” scene that was revised out of the play by an unknown collaborator, who pasted in the scene we now have; nevertheless, Quiller-Couch thinks that the hypothetical scene he imagines Shakespeare first to have penned was “better, because more natural, than the text allows us to know” (p. xix). Others, likewise bothered by the apparent values of the final scene, have also proposed that the text is a collaboration.5

But “naturalness,” to take up Quiller-Couch’s terms again, may well lie in the eye and the century of the beholder; what might seem unnatural or flawed, from a standpoint that assumes the naturalness of heterosexuality as realized in a modern model of companionate marriage, may have been the natural structures of an earlier time and culture.

Historians of sexuality in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England indeed have begun to show that homoerotically charged male bonds were a central aspect of this culture. While pointing out that this was a world that did not seem to divide itself along the either/or model of modern homo/heterosexuality (as an essential identity that one has and is), they have also argued, following the influential thesis of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, for the existence of a set of homoerotic “practices” (along with languages that described and continued to circulate them) in early-modern England. Some of these practices were clearly condemned, including the crime of “sodomy”: the term could apply to virtually any form of nonmarital, nonreproductive sexual relations, was usually associated with blasphemy or relations that crossed lines of social class, and was punishable by death. Other homoerotic practices, like male-male friendship, were condoned, celebrated, and encouraged.6

Male friendship was the subject of countless essays, pictorial representations, conduct books, plays, and prose fictions (like John Lyly’s description of male friendship in the influential Euphues, quoted in the epigraph above). The language of male friendship, theorized and circulated in these texts, pervaded Shakespeare’s culture in a way that may now be difficult for us to grasp—perhaps in part because the misleadingly familiar word “friend” has lost some of the intensity it had for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Richard Brathwait, the author of the seventeenth-century conduct book The English Gentleman, describes friendship as a state “where two hearts are so individually united, as neither from other can well be severed”;7 in the most famous Renaissance essay on the subject (first translated into English in 1603 and republished and cited frequently), Michel de Montaigne writes that friendship

is I wot [= know] not what kind of quintessence of all this commixture [= mingling], which having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and lose itself in his, which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to lose and plunge itself in mine, with a mutual greediness, and with a semblable concurrence [= an altogether similar running together].8

The closeness, intensity, and devotion of male friendship, for Montaigne as for its other Renaissance theorists, is predicated on absolute identicality: friends are “one soul in two bodies, according to the fit definition of Aristotle” (p. 94). Again, in the words of the conduct book, a friend is “nothing else than a second self, and therefore as individuate [= indivisible] as man from himself” (Brathwait, p. 293). Because friendship is defined as a relationship of men equal in age, social class, and all other attributes—a relationship that does not allow for “difference” and “disparity” (Montaigne, p. 92)—Montaigne explicitly excludes the possibility of friendship with women (as well as the ancient Greek model of same-sex pederasty, which assumed a difference of age). Because Montaigne assumes that women are inferior to men, he views male-female friendship as virtually unthinkable and certainly without precedent. Moreover, he implicitly situates friendship in an upper-class, gentlemanly world—as does Brathwait in The English Gentleman (which says as much in its class-marked title). So too Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which devotes one of its books to male friendship, seeks through its allegorical verse “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.”9 Friendship is thus relentlessly “homosocial”10—a relationship structured by sameness (Greek homo-), based in the identicalness of its participants along lines of gender and social class, and predicated on the reproducibility of that homogeneity through imitation and emulation.

As its title emphatically suggests, The Two Gentlemen of Verona stages male friendship within this decidedly class-inflected context. Valentine and Proteus, its title(d) protagonists, begin the play as what we might call gentlemen-under-construction; by play’s end, they have been established as gentlemen (in a way to which we will return). Pantino, the servant of Proteus’ father Antonio, suggests some of the possibilities for the training of young gentlemen, in language that resonates with the gentlemanly conduct books of the period. Some gentlemen, says Pantino,

Put forth their sons to seek preferment out:

Some to the wars to try their fortune there,

Some to discover islands far away,

Some to the studious universities.


Repeating here the advice of yet another gentleman, Antonio’s brother, Pantino advocates travel for Proteus, noting that it “would be great impeachment to his age / In having known no travel in his youth” (16–17). Acknowledging that his son “cannot be a perfect man, / Not being tried and tutored in the world” (21–22), Antonio rejects the possibility of training his son in these exclusively male preserves, but settles on Proteus’ participation in the equally homosocial world of the court:

There shall he practice tilts and tournaments,

Hear sweet discourse, converse with noblemen,

And be in eye of every exercise

Worthy his youth and nobleness of birth.


The imitation and emulation that construct the gentleman—father, uncle, and servant all agree that Proteus must be like the sons of other men and “in eye of every exercise”—recapitulate the identicality that Montaigne’s essay casts as a hallmark of gentlemen’s friendship. Valentine’s speeches recommending Proteus to the Duke at court again make this sameness clear:

I knew him as myself, for from our infancy

We have conversed and spent our hours together[.]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He is complete in feature and in mind,

With all good grace to grace a gentleman.

(2.4.62–63, 73–74)

And yet, although the play emphasizes these all-male networks and the identicalness of male friends that seems to accompany them (Valentine announces Proteus as his “second self” here), Two Gentlemen of Verona, as we have already seen, constantly appears to place same-sex and cross-sex relationships in direct competition.11 As the play begins, in the middle of just such a conversation, Valentine is about to depart for the imperial court—leaving his friend, who stays behind for love of Julia. “Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus,” Valentine says,

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.

Were ’t not affection chains thy tender days

To the sweet glances of thy honored love,

I rather would entreat thy company

To see the wonders of the world abroad. . . .


But though the play consistently sets male friendship and male-female love at odds (and this speech only hints at the larger disruptions in the play that culminate in the rape scene), the scene, I would argue, cannot simply be understood as a contest between platonic and erotically charged relationships, for same-sex and cross-sex relations in this play speak a remarkably similar language. Valentine’s phrase “my loving Proteus,” for example, gestures in both directions (Valentine loves Proteus; Proteus loves Julia). And Proteus is “chained” by affection for Julia but equally bound to his male friend, to whom he speaks in similarly affectionate language:

Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu.

Think on thy Proteus when thou haply seest

Some rare noteworthy object in thy travel.

Wish me partaker in thy happiness

When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,

If ever danger do environ thee,

Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers,

For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine.


From its opening conversation, then, the play speaks in the intense, devotional language of male friendship. “Sweet” is used as a term of affection between the friends not only in this speech but also at 2.4.161, and is echoed in the conversation of the male lovers Patroclus and Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (3.3.222). “Sweet Valentine” suggests the resonant historical meaning of that name, “a sweetheart, lover, or special friend” chosen on St. Valentine’s Day (Oxford English Dictionary), and Proteus no sooner speaks than he gives himself (“thy Proteus”) to Valentine. Likewise, Proteus and Valentine’s devotion is associated in the opening lines of the play with an erotic tale of love, that between Hero and Leander. The allusion to this “love-book” works, again, in the direction of both same-sex and cross-sex affection:


And on a love-book [you will] pray for my success?


Upon some book I love I’ll pray for thee.


That’s on some shallow story of deep love,

How young Leander crossed the Hellespont.


That’s a deep story of a deeper love,

For he was more than over shoes in love.


Christopher Marlowe’s erotic narrative Hero and Leander, a poem that Shakespeare seems to have read in manuscript, features both the relationship of its title (Leander attempts the prodigious feat of swimming the Hellespont to be with his beloved Hero) and a significant homoerotic component (the sea-god Neptune attempts to seduce Leander during his journey). Once Hero and Leander was published in 1598, playgoers could hear the two friends, with their playful punning on “deep,” citing this heteroerotic poem at arguably its most homoerotic moment: Leander’s underwater encounter with Neptune and the seductions of the god’s “deep persuading oratory.”12

If the opening scene of the play thus both gestures toward the importance of two kinds of love and puts them in competition, that competition is only heightened by the play’s staging of the friends’ identicalness when Proteus falls for Valentine’s beloved Sylvia. Yet Proteus, in the first of two important speeches attempting to negotiate the competing demands of friendship and love, demonstrates the extent to which again the two speak in identical terms:

Is it mine eye, or Valentine’s praise,

Her true perfection, or my false transgression,

That makes me reasonless to reason thus?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Methinks my zeal to Valentine is cold,

And that I love him not as I was wont.

O, but I love his lady too too much,

And that’s the reason I love him so little.


Even as Proteus has difficulty distinguishing his own feelings from Valentine’s (and thus presents his similarity to Valentine yet again), the speech plays out the contention of two “loves” and turns on the currency of that word in both relationships.

Proteus’ next solo speech (separated from the first by a short comic scene) again compares his loves—“To leave my Julia, shall I be forsworn. / To love fair Sylvia, shall I be forsworn. / To wrong my friend, I shall be much forsworn” (2.6.1–3)—and in its inversion of syntax (shall I/I shall) seems to privilege the demands of friendship. (The point is even stronger in the Folio text of the play, which places question marks after each of the first two lines.) The speech continues to demonstrate the intersecting languages of love and friendship, but it also plays with and puts pressure on the theory of friendship we have seen outlined in Montaigne:

I cannot leave to love, and yet I do.

But there I leave to love where I should love.

Julia I lose, and Valentine I lose;

If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;

If I lose them, thus find I by their loss:

For Valentine, myself; for Julia, Sylvia.

I to myself am dearer than a friend.


Montaigne writes of his friend, “If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering; Because it was he, because it was my self” (p. 92); this formulation demonstrates succinctly how Proteus’ speech uses but inverts the principles of Renaissance friendship. In deciding “I to myself am dearer than a friend,” Proteus double-crosses the friend who is supposed to be “as individuate as man from himself.” Losing that friend, he ostensibly finds himself: “I cannot now prove constant to myself / Without some treachery used to Valentine” (2.6.31–32). But despite all his revisions, Proteus grounds his betrayal of his friend in the language of friendship. Like the previous speech, this one turns on the use of a single word in the languages of both kinds of love: “Valentine I’ll hold an enemy, / Aiming at Sylvia as a sweeter friend” (29–30, my emphasis). This line demonstrates the extent to which love and friendship in Two Gentlemen of Verona are constantly collapsing into and substituting for one another; though they would seem to be most at odds in Proteus’ betrayal of Valentine for Sylvia, even here they cannot be entirely differentiated. Abandoning Valentine (“Sweet Valentine, adieu”), Proteus, in his duplicity, chooses Sylvia as a “sweeter friend”—and thus becomes more like Valentine. And when Valentine is later banished from court, Proteus assures him that he can address his letters to Sylvia to/through him.

The circulation of letters in this play (like the circulation of rings) is complex and significant,13 and contributes to themes we have been examining. We can notice, for example, that several of the letters, though “about” male-female love, trace in their movements the outline of male relations. Early in the play, Julia writes a letter to Proteus, who, interrupted in its reading by his father, says:

                   ’tis a word or two

Of commendations sent from Valentine,

Delivered by a friend that came from him.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . .

There is no news, my lord, but that he writes

How happily he lives, how well beloved

And daily gracèd by the Emperor,

Wishing me with him, partner of his fortune.


The letter from the lover becomes a letter from the loving friend. Delivered by yet another friend, said to be about friendship, and narrated to his father, it leads to Proteus’ following the course of his friend Valentine to court.

The doubling of Valentine at the court is accomplished by letter even before Proteus leaves Verona. In the very next scene, Sylvia causes Valentine to write a letter for her to a “secret, nameless friend of [hers](2.1.105), who is Valentine himself. His servant Speed explains, in a speech that culminates in elaborately doubling rhetoric: “Herself hath taught her love himself to write unto her lover” (2.1.172–73, my emphasis). As Jonathan Goldberg observes, Sylvia “can only speak to her lover if he speaks for her” (p. 72), and we thus see how the structures of letter writing in the play both trace a circuit of relations between men (Valentine writes to himself) and often preclude the speaking/writing of women (in a way that is only too legible in the rape scene). Valentine becomes (to use Speed’s terms) both Sylvia’s “pupil” and her “tutor”; a “spokesman” to and for himself, he is both “scribe” and recipient of a desire that he writes himself—a desire therefore difficult to see as fully “Sylvia’s” (2.1.141, 143, 150). A friend is a second self, and this letter then may be the play’s most witty figuration of the letter as a fundamentally homosocial text: a letter between man.

Thus the larger problem of Two Gentlemen of Verona is its placing of male friendship and male-female love in competition, all the while reluctant either to differentiate or to hierarchize them. (They speak an overlapping language; they can apparently be substituted for and translated into one another; the culture values both.) Its final scene, with which we began, seeks to resolve this dilemma. The crux of Valentine’s speech forgiving Proteus for the attempted rape of Sylvia brings together again the rhetorics of love and friendship:

                            I am paid,

And once again I do receive thee honest.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . .

And that my love may appear plain and free,

All that was mine in Sylvia I give thee.


Valentine’s statement—so extraordinary to modern eyes—demonstrates at this climactic moment the inclusion of cross-sex love within the bonds of male friendship. In this transaction, in exchange for Proteus’ “ransom” of “hearty sorrow” for his transgression, Valentine receives Proteus back as “honest” (meaning “trustworthy,” but also “chaste”). And, in the ambidextrous syntax of the speech’s concluding couplet, he both gives Proteus all that he owns in Sylvia (i.e., he gives Sylvia to Proteus) and transfers all his love in Sylvia to Proteus.

It is significant that Proteus’ “Forgive me, Valentine” and Valentine’s “I am paid” combine to figure the rape as a transgression against Valentine, not Sylvia. Indeed, this scene of rape, apology, and forgiveness is central to the play’s ongoing project, the construction of Valentine and Proteus as gentlemen. Valentine had earlier been banished from the court by Sylvia’s father for a transgression of the gentlemanly code that is not unlike Proteus’. Valentine’s literally upwardly mobile plot to climb a ladder in order to steal away an upper-class woman against her father’s wishes (even if not against her will) had led to his being labeled, in heavily class-marked rhetoric, a “base intruder, overweening slave” (3.1.161, my emphasis)—no gentleman of Verona. But Valentine’s magnanimity in this final scene makes possible his reinstatement as a gentleman, soon after he has successfully interrupted Proteus’ similar transgression of the gentlemanly code. The Duke announces:

Know, then, I here forget all former griefs,

Cancel all grudge, repeal thee home again,

Plead a new state in thy unrivaled merit,

To which I thus subscribe: Sir Valentine,

Thou art a gentleman, and well derived;

Take thou thy Sylvia, for thou hast deserved her.


By literally granting Valentine a new (e)state—the status of gentleman, a position in the state of gentlemen the Duke rules, and the inheritance of that estate/state through Sylvia—the Duke’s “subscribing” literally writes Valentine back into the male world of the court, restoring him from outlaw status. In an act of naming similar to that performed by the title of the play itself, the Duke here makes Valentine a gentleman, (re)names him “Sir Valentine.”

That Valentine can be decreed “well derived” and declared a gentleman at the end of the play (after he had apparently been one all along, according to the play’s title and text) may suggest the way in which Two Gentlemen of Verona mystifies or sidesteps the increasing tensions in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England over social mobility—over whether gentlemen were born (ancestrally derived) or made. Like the gentlemen’s conduct books, this play was first written, acted, and published during a period of remarkable social mobility, a time when the boundary between gentlemen and common men was increasingly fluid and contested.14 Furthermore, conduct books both describe gentility and enable its replication and proliferation, often among the very members of society from whom the books’ writers sought to distinguish themselves.15 (From the perspective of twentieth-century American culture, which—in theory, at least—subscribes to the idea that merit is based not on birth but on achievement through education and work, this may not seem a controversial idea; for Elizabethans, it was.) Far from shoring up, protecting, and prescribing the behavior of proper gentlemen, conduct books might well produce more of them, or more who aspired to this status. Indeed, Shakespeare himself was probably a beneficiary of this kind of upward mobility: in 1596, possibly with the help of his increasingly prosperous playwright-actor son, Shakespeare’s father acquired a coat of arms that signaled his entrance into the gentry. A number of seventeenth-century title pages list William Shakespeare as a “Gent.”

Seeing the play as a kind of staged conduct book (illustrating the do’s and don’ts of proper gentlemanly behavior) may make sense of an odd moment in 4.1 when Valentine is apprehended by “certain Outlaws” in the forest. “Have you the tongues?” they ask him, eager to know of his ability with languages, and he replies, “My youthful travel therein made me happy.” This convinces the outlaws that “[t]his fellow were a king for our wild faction”; even outlaws in this universe apparently value the humanistic learning of a gentleman (33–37). In the final scene, Valentine’s retraining as a gentleman—presumably demonstrated to the audience’s satisfaction by his having rescued Sylvia and stood up to the coward Thurio—enables him to plead successfully that these men (some of whom turn out to have been gentlemen with transgressions remarkably similar to Valentine’s own) be welcomed back into civil society. They too are “endued with worthy qualities . . . reformèd, civil, full of good, / And fit for great employment” (5.4.165–69). Insofar as the play stages the (re)education, the (re)training of gentlemen and their establishment in positions of power and prestige, we would not want to underestimate the power of this performance itself as a “conduct book” for the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century audiences who witnessed it on stage and page.

The reintegration of the outlaws is part of the sustained restoration of the play’s homosocial power structure, a system no longer seen to be in competition with cross-sex love and marriage but indeed surrounding and underwriting it. Earlier in the scene, following Proteus’ self-recognizing confession of “inconstancy,” Valentine had brought Julia and Proteus back together in a gesture that (through the multiple referents of the word “friend”) had also simultaneously reconstructed the two men’s friendship:

Come, come, a hand from either.

Let me be blest to make this happy close.

’Twere pity two such friends should be long foes.


The play concludes in a similar fashion, placing cross-sex joining in the context of same-sex reunion. Though the play’s standard comic ending gestures toward a double marriage, the pairing of male-female couples receives relatively little emphasis. Just as the play had begun with friendly conversation between men, it concludes with an all-male exchange among the Duke, Valentine, and Proteus; by the last lines of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the women in question have virtually disappeared from view. Though Sylvia is not herself violated like Philomela, the mythological victim from Ovid’s Metamorphoses invoked in the figure of the nightingale at the beginning of the scene (5.4.5), her silence nevertheless mirrors Philomela’s literal loss of tongue: Sylvia speaks no lines after the attempted rape. Julia is (silently) present in boy’s clothing.16 Indeed, as if to register the picture of a relentlessly male world all the more completely, Valentine offers up the still-disguised Julia to the unknowing Duke as an object of male-male admiration: “What think you of this page, my lord?”


I think the boy hath grace in him; he blushes.


I warrant you, my lord, more grace than boy.

DUKE  What mean you by that saying?


With Valentine promising the Duke an offstage answer to his dangling question (if not a boy, is the page a man? a woman?), the play ends with Valentine and Proteus conversing about their marriage(s) in lines that only make more ambiguous the question of what or who are being joined in the play’s concluding couplings: “our day of marriage,” Valentine says to his friend, “shall be yours, / One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” (5.4.185–86). Though the play had insistently staged friendship and cross-sex love as mutually exclusive alternatives, friendship between men is restored through (not at the cost of) marriage to women. And, in the persistent unification and mutuality of the play’s final line (recalling Euphues’ “one board, . . . one bed, one book”), the two gentlemen are once again, to quote the gentlemanly conduct book, “no less selfly than sociably united” (Brathwait, frontispiece).

To be sure, the play does stage some resistance to this apparently monolithic conclusion. Proteus’ fluctuations in love and friendship are ridiculed even in his name, for example. There are as well the significant figures of Lance and Speed, the gentlemen’s servants. Speed, arguably the wittiest and shrewdest character in the play, takes a jaundiced view of both male friendship and male-female love. He sees the letters that crisscross the plot of the play not as bearers of crucial emotional information or persuasion but as commodities within a service economy: “Sir, I could perceive nothing at all from her, no, not so much as a ducat for delivering your letter” (1.1.138–39). Lance’s monologues with (to?) his dog Crab likewise refigure and parody both the male-female relations in the play (in a scene of leave-taking, the dog “sheds not a tear nor speaks a word” [2.3.33], just as Julia had taken her leave “without a word” in the previous scene [2.2.17]) and possibly the male friend as second self (“I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. O, the dog is me, and I am myself. Ay, so, so” [2.3.22–24]). Moreover, the play includes Julia, apparently the first cross-dressing, male-initiative-seizing heroine of Shakespeare’s writing career.17 And, in the lyrics of the striking song sung to Sylvia in 4.2, we may even hear a suggestion that she (as enigma and as otherworldly beauty) is not only the object but also the source of the identical desires of the male friends and courtiers: “Who is Sylvia? What is she, / That all our swains commend her?” (4.2.41–42, my emphasis). Still, we should note that the song in context is a complicated homosocial performance (Proteus substitutes for Valentine, while singing for Thurio), to be settled only in the renegotiation of friendship among swains in the final scene.

From a certain modern perspective, then, the ending of the play may not make sense, for we are in the modern scheme generally used to thinking of heterosexuality and homosexuality as mutually exclusive, with each of these terms designating something fundamental about an individual’s identity. But if we assume instead a social system in which marriage (a version of marriage that often subordinates and silences women) and the homoeroticism of male friendship coexist, we can begin to understand what transpires in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Yet to see the possibility of this kind of homoeroticism in the play, to cut it loose from the modern sense of “homosexuality” (and of “heterosexuality” as well), is not necessarily to read a play in which male-male relations have a radical or disruptive edge (as perhaps in Christopher Marlowe’s roughly contemporaneous depiction of intense male friendship in Edward II). As I hope I have made clear, this analysis of friendship seems to provide very little liberatory potential for women in particular (we might want to compare Portia’s position in The Merchant of Venice—another play that puts in tension male friendship and male-female love, worked out in part through a more active ring-bearing, cross-dressed female heroine). The disruption may, nevertheless, come in the critical act of reading from a revised modern perspective—in the act of reading or watching the play at some remove from its characters and the world they enact. The play doesn’t necessarily give us (where “us” includes modern readers who are female and male, straight and gay, and middle-, lower-, and upper-class) a fully recognizable place to identify ourselves. But thinking about its decidedly different configuration of sexual and social relationships—a world in which same-sex and cross-sex relations coexist, a world in which marriage is not the only culturally sanctioned value—may allow us a space for reimagining, through one representation of Shakespeare’s world, our own.

  1. Arthur Quiller-Couch, introduction to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ed. Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, New Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; New York: Macmillan, 1921), p. xiv. Subsequent citations will be parenthetical.
  2. An extended version of the argument in this essay appears in chapter 2 of my Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  3. See Hereward T. Price, “Shakespeare as Critic,” Philological Quarterly 20 (1941): 390–99. Clifford Leech’s introduction to the Arden edition of the play (London: Methuen, 1969) largely concurs with this view (p. lxxiv).
  4. Anne Barton, introduction to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 143.
  5. Recently critics and scholars have been much more willing to see Shakespeare working within the predominantly collaborative context of the Renaissance theater; indeed, his other “two gentlemen” play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613)—a play that may be the other bookend to his career and is remarkably similar in its themes—was certainly written with a collaborator, John Fletcher. But collaboration, a common practice in Shakespeare’s theater, need not be seen as inevitably producing flawed plays; see Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971); Stephen Orgel, “What Is a Text?” in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 83–87; Jeffrey A. Masten, “Beaumont and/or Fletcher: Collaboration and the Interpretation of Renaissance Drama,” ELH 59 (1992): 337–56.
  6. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980). The best essay on sodomy and friendship in this period is historian Alan Bray’s “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 40–61. See also Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982).
  7. Richard Brathwait, The English Gentleman (London: by John Haviland [for] Robert Bostock, 1630), p. 243. Subsequent citations will be parenthetical. The spelling of all early-modern works quoted in this essay has been modernized.
  8. Michel de Montaigne, The Essayes Or Morall, Politike and Millitairie Discourses of Lo: Michaell de Montaigne . . . now done into English, trans. John Florio (London: by Val. Sims for Edward Blount, 1603), p. 93. Subsequent citations to this edition will be parenthetical. For a modern reprint of Florio’s translation, which Shakespeare read, see The Essays of Montaigne, with an introduction by George Saintsbury, 3 vols. (London: David Nutt, 1892; reprint, New York: AMS, 1967).
  9. Edmund Spenser, “A Letter of the Authors Expounding his Whole Intention . . .,” in The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), p. 15. See Ruth Kelso’s extensive bibliography of conduct books, The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1964). Lauren J. Mills, One Soule in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, Ind.: Principia, 1937), surveys the wide expanse of Renaissance friendship literature and its classical precedents.
  10. This influential term was coined by queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick; see Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
  11. I avoid the terms heterosexual and homosexual throughout this essay, for, as David Halperin demonstrates, both terms have only a very recent history and fit poorly with earlier conceptions of sexuality and identity. See Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 17–18.
  12. Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 2.226.
  13. On letters and their significance for determining identity in the play, see Jonathan Goldberg, “Shakespearian Characters: The Generation of Silvia,” in Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts (New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 68–100. Subsequent citations will be parenthetical.
  14. See, for example, Lawrence Stone, “Social Mobility in England, 1500–1700,” Past and Present 33 (1966): 16–55.
  15. This point is made in Frank Whigham’s important book on conduct literature; see especially chapter 1, “Courtesy Literature and Social Change,” in Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 1–31.
  16. This moment, like Julia’s speech on “play[ing] the woman’s part” at 4.4.169–81, gestures toward the actual performance practice in Shakespeare’s theater, where boys played the parts of women. On this, see Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987): 29–41. See also Jonathan Goldberg, “The Transvestite Stage,” chapter 4 of Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 105–43; and Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  17. It may be significant that Julia’s name “Sebastian” (4.4.41)—like Rosalind’s chosen male name “Ganymede” in As You Like It—carries with it a homoerotic allusion here to St. Sebastian. On this, see Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 20, 167.