The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Valentine and his servant Speed have established themselves at the Milanese court, where the Duke (sometimes confusingly called the Emperor) and his daughter Sylvia reside. Valentine has fallen head-over-heels in love with Sylvia, a predicament for which Speed mocks him in a series of witty one-liners and compares his lovesickness to Proteus's, indicating Valentine, too, is "metamorphosed."

Sylvia arrives, and Valentine greets her with self-abasing politeness. She has asked him to write a love letter on behalf of a "secret, nameless friend" of hers, and he now presents her with the finished work. Toying with the anxious and smitten Valentine, Sylvia glances over the letter and hands it back disdainfully. The language, she says, is not moving enough. She exits, leaving Valentine perplexed and disappointed. Speed, however, sees matters more clearly: Sylvia, he suggests, is in love with Valentine but, fearing to be discovered, has made him write a love letter to himself on her behalf. Valentine wonders whether Speed's surmises are correct.

Analysis

This scene establishes the situation at Milan and begins weaving together the principal strands of the plot. Valentine, who ridiculed Proteus for his lovesick antics, has now fallen in love himself. This stroke of dramatic irony will be developed in Act 2, Scene 4 when Proteus arrives in Milan. Fortunately Valentine is sufficiently self-aware to own up to his own rashness in dismissing his friend as a fool. Unfortunately Proteus will prove more limited in his ability to consider and criticize his own actions.

Does Sylvia love Valentine in return? At first the answer seems to be a flat "no." She calls him a "servant" and sets him the awkward, embarrassing task of writing a love letter to a complete stranger. As Speed points out, however, Sylvia is cunning and mischievous; with those traits in mind, the letter ploy might be seen as an elaborate form of flirtation. The theme of foolish masters, wise servants is highlighted in this scene as Speed comments both to his naïve master and to the audience. Of course the observant Speed immediately understands Sylvia is flirting with Valentine who, as the foolish master, can see nothing beyond the literal and obvious. Speed has to explain to him the letter is written for him and from Sylvia—indeed a joke, but one that clearly indicates attraction.

One might then wonder why Sylvia is so indirect in disclosing her affection for Valentine, especially when compared to his own forthright declarations of love. One plausible explanation is her high visibility within the ducal court: her father, who plans to dispose of her in a loveless but profitable marriage, is so overprotective he has her locked up in a tower each night, as the audience later learns. Wary of potential spies, Sylvia may naturally prefer to conduct her love affair in as inconspicuous a manner as possible.

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