The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Act 5, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

At his camp in the Mantuan woods, Valentine broods over the loss of Sylvia. Fighting is heard offstage, and Valentine hides until he can see who is approaching. Proteus, Sylvia, and the still-disguised Julia enter, having escaped from a fight with the outlaws. Proteus praises his own heroism in saving Sylvia from the bandits, but Sylvia says she would prefer to be eaten by a lion "rather than have false Proteus rescue me." She continues to fault Proteus for his disloyalty to Valentine and Julia. Proteus, growing angry, attempts to "force" Sylvia to "yield to [his] desire," but Valentine arrives and intervenes.

Valentine confronts Proteus and his treachery. Claiming to be overcome with "shame and guilt," Proteus asks Valentine's forgiveness. Valentine not only forgives his friend on the spot but also offers to "give" Sylvia to Proteus as a show of goodwill. Julia faints instantly. Once she revives, she reveals the trick she played with the rings—she takes out the ring Proteus gave her rather than the one she was to deliver to Sylvia. She then reveals her identity and confronts Proteus with his unfaithfulness. Proteus admits the charge and repents. Valentine brings the two lovers' hands together.

At this point Thurio and the Duke join the party, pursued by the outlaws. Valentine welcomes them, but Thurio gets right down to business, demanding Sylvia be released to him. Valentine swears to fight Thurio to the death if he "take but possession of her with a touch," and the cowardly Thurio backs off immediately. The Duke, now seeing clearly the contrast between the two men, forgives Valentine for trying to elope with Sylvia and permits him to marry her. Valentine thanks the Duke and asks for amnesty for his outlaws, who are immediately pardoned. The Duke invites everyone back to Milan for a celebration.

Analysis

This scene, more than any other in the play, has puzzled and divided critics. On one level Valentine's decision to "give" Sylvia to Proteus is a dramatization of the play's sexist premise: that women are to be "given" and "taken" in marriage rather than freely choosing their romantic partners. On another level it seems bizarre for Valentine to relinquish whatever claim he thinks he has on Sylvia to a man who has just threatened to rape her. Equally peculiar is Sylvia's apparent lack of protest at this arrangement. And even more peculiar is that after the women take action to avoid being subjected to the men's romantic bidding, they are placed once again in the situation from which they fled. These questions have led critics to judge the ending as weak.

E.M.W. Tillyard, a notable 20th-century Shakespeare scholar, finds the ending both deeply troubling and awkwardly comical: Valentine's behavior, he writes "revolts our moral sense," and the suddenness of his decision "can only provoke our laughter." The traditional explanation for Valentine's behavior, as Tillyard points out, is that his bond of friendship with Proteus outweighs his romantic tie to Sylvia.

This interpretation, however, is far from universally accepted. For one thing, it's unclear whether Proteus is truly repentant. His character changes rapidly over the course of the play, and his name, as noted, essentially means "shapeshifter." Thus, it's not too much of a stretch to see Proteus as emotionally unstable rather than genuinely sorry for his actions. Perhaps because his change of heart is so sudden and implausible, Proteus—along with the other characters—is quickly whisked offstage in the play's conventional comic ending. The estranged lovers are reconciled, and the Duke, like stubborn fathers in other Shakespeare comedies, now cheerfully steps out of the way for the younger generation.

Also questionable is Julia's reunion with Proteus. Her devotion to him and determination to win him back are evident from the beginning, but her acceptance of him may seem disturbing as he has neither asked for her forgiveness nor done anything to reclaim her love.

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