The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Context

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The Setting: Shakespeare's Italy

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is set in northern Italy, with the main action divided between the cities of Verona and Milan. A few crucial scenes take place in a forest outside Mantua, but the woods—as usual in Shakespeare—are more of a generic "green world" than a real, historical place. As critic John Mullan explains in his article "Shakespeare and Italy" (2016), Shakespeare's contemporaries correctly understood Italy to be a patchwork of different city-states, each with its own "regime and ethos." It was thus natural for Shakespeare to use two such cities to dramatize the notion of separate worlds in which parallel plots could unfold with limited interaction. The modern nation of Italy, with its familiar boot-shaped outline, did not exist until the 19th century.

Some incidental details imply a 16th-century setting for the play: Lance and Julia each casually refer to a "farthingale," a type of reinforced hoop petticoat that fashionable women wore under their skirts in Shakespeare's day. Elsewhere Milan is implied to be under the control of an "emperor" who is also the Duke, an arrangement that began with the accession of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1535. However, such historical details do not have much direct impact on the action, which could take place in almost any highly stratified Renaissance society.

Verona

The play begins in the Italian city of Verona—the hometown of Valentine, Proteus, Julia, and their respective families and servants. Located in northern Italy, about 65 miles inland from Venice, Verona is portrayed by Shakespeare as a sleepy, remote location. To get real culture, his characters imply, one must go to Milan. In reality Verona was a bustling city in Shakespeare's time, though its influence was eclipsed by that of nearby Venice, to which it owed allegiance. The Veronese were particularly well known as pioneering practitioners of Italian Renaissance painting. In modern times Verona is known for its extensive and well-preserved Roman ruins, including a first-century amphitheater still in use as an arts venue.

Critics have sometimes cited The Two Gentlemen of Verona as an example of Shakespeare's limited knowledge of continental geography because sailing from Verona to the inland city of Milan seems to make little sense. However, an elaborate network of rivers and canals crisscrossed northern Italy in Shakespeare's time, and portions of the Verona-Milan trip could easily have been made via such inland waterways. This route, incidentally, is why Lance is ordered to follow his master "with oars" in Act 2, Scene 3. Nobody is ordering him to row over the ocean but simply to follow Proteus's boat up or down river. Yet other details—such as the emphasis on catching the tide at an appropriate time—are either fanciful or inaccurate, for an inland canal does not experience an appreciable tidal effect.

Milan

In contrast to Verona, Milan is portrayed as a center of political and cultural power—the natural place for young and ambitious men of means to start their careers. Critic Benedikt Höttemann, in his monograph Shakespeare and Italy (2011), describes Shakespeare's Milan as "a place of sophistication, suitable for learning the code of courtesy." Nor was this attitude unique to the playwright. In the late 16th century, says Höttemann, Milan was "reputed to be a school of the gentleman ... a school of experience." In other words Milan was widely understood as furnishing just the sort of practical, courtly education Valentine seeks for himself and which Antonio insists on for his son, Proteus.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona the central figure in Milanese politics is the Duke, an absolute ruler who takes an active interest in the lives of his high-ranking subjects. His brand of paternalism, backed by the law of the land, contrasts strongly with the lack of parental authorities in Verona. It's unclear whether Shakespeare had a specific duke in mind, though his standing as duke-emperor seems to identify the Duke as Charles V, who ruled Milan personally from 1535–40 before investing his son Philip II with the ducal title.

Text and Sources

It is difficult to date The Two Gentlemen of Verona with much precision. The play was known to English audiences at least as early as 1598, when it appeared in a list of Shakespeare's works in Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia. This book, subtitled Wit's Treasury, was mainly a collection of proverbs and witty sayings, but it also contained some critical remarks on the contemporary literary scene, including an early and admiring appraisal of Shakespeare. Apart from this single mention, however, no record exists of the play—either in performance or in print—until 1623, when it appears in the First Folio (a publishing format on pages 12 inches wide by 19 inches tall). Although they lack concrete evidence, critics generally consider the play to be among Shakespeare's earliest, a judgment based in large part on the brevity and simplicity of its plot.

No single source supplies the plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in anything like its Shakespearean form. Instead the play seems a patchwork of medieval and early modern stories, and some plot elements, such as the Valentine-Proteus-Sylvia love triangle, are simply too generic to trace to a single point of origin. Several works, most of them published during the 16th century, are frequently mentioned as possible partial sources for the plot, but the Proteus-Valentine rivalry seems to be based closely on The Boke Named the Governour, a 1531 work intended to shape the education of noblemen and other politically influential Englishmen. To illustrate the gentlemanly virtues of friendship and loyalty, author Thomas Elyot includes the tale of two young Roman men, Titus and Gisippus, close friends until their love for the same woman threatens to drive them apart. This tale, in turn, can be traced to the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, who included "Titus and Gisippus" in his story collection The Decameron (c. 1350).

Other potential sources include the Spanish pastoral novel The Seven Books of the Diana (1559), English writer John Lyly's Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit (1578), and The Knight's Tale by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century). The Diana, written by Portuguese novelist Jorge de Montemayor, is a Spanish pastoral romance in which a young woman dresses as a man to spy on her beloved, just as Julia does in Act 4 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Euphues, a highly stylized prose romance, narrates a test of male friendship similar to that found in The Governour and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," one of the two dozen stories in Canterbury Tales, offers another example of such a love rivalry, this time between two cousins of knightly rank.

Critical Reception

Contemporary reactions to The Two Gentlemen of Verona have not survived, apart from Francis Meres's broadly favorable mention of the play in 1598. The first substantial criticism, as noted by critic June Schlueter in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Critical Essays (2015), appears in English poet Alexander Pope's 1723 edition of the play. Like many critics of his time, Pope was troubled by the play's seemingly abrupt and incongruous ending in which Valentine attempts to "give up" his beloved Sylvia to the violent and manipulative Proteus. Other 18th-century editors shared Pope's generally negative view of the play, and a few even denied its status as a real Shakespearean work. English writer Samuel Johnson—a hard-to-impress critic who once called Shakespeare's Cymbeline (1623) a piece of "imbecility"—broke ranks with such critics by describing the play as flawed but genuine. The few 19th-century critics to address The Two Gentlemen of Verona were similarly ambivalent, balancing the charms of the play's style against the simplicity of its plot.

For the most part, however, a close critical examination of The Two Gentlemen of Verona would have to wait until the 20th century. Critic June Schlueter describes critics prior to World War II (1939–45) as "ready to acknowledge the poetic and dramatic effectiveness of the play's parts," even as they continued to deem The Two Gentlemen of Verona an "underdeveloped and flawed apprentice work." Like other critics before and since, Shakespeare scholars of this era found the ending bothersome, sometimes dismissing it as a sign of the play's "apprentice" status. Critic E.M.W. Tillyard, whose criticism of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was published posthumously in Shakespeare's Early Comedies (1965), describes the work as "one of the least loved of Shakespeare's comedies." Usually, Tillyard notes, critics assigned the blame to the "morally and dramatically monstrous" final scene, but in his view the inconsistency of Proteus's character is an even bigger problem. After hearing Valentine sing his friend's praises in Act 2, Tillyard suggests, the audience is not prepared for Proteus's act of betrayal.

Since the 1970s critics have been less focused on weighing the merits and faults of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and more interested in understanding its characters. The play's pervasive emphasis on courtship and gender roles has made it an important work for feminist critics, who have explored and critiqued the double standard under which Julia and Sylvia are forced to live. Scholarship since the late 20th century has also emphasized The Two Gentlemen of Verona's status as a work to be performed rather than merely read. A thoughtful stage production, it is sometimes argued, can help offset the play's defects and make sense of its seemingly contradictory elements.

Modern Performances and Adaptations

Such productions are scarce in modern times. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) notes The Two Gentlemen of Verona as "one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and also one of the most rarely performed." The play fits uneasily into the Shakespearean comic canon, offering neither the zany, convoluted plot of The Comedy of Errors (1594) nor the rich character development of the late romances. Yet despite the play's flaws several noteworthy productions have been mounted. Among these is the RSC's own 1970 production directed by Robin Phillips, a modern-dress version whose major characters are sunglass-wearing, poolside-lounging "jet setters." Smaller stagings followed in 1991 and 2004, but the next full-scale RSC performance took place in 2014, directed by Simon Godwin, again with modern dress and a high-society ambience. In the United States an inventive, though not widely publicized, production was mounted by Spark Theater of Denver. It underscored the immaturity of the protagonists by presenting the play as—in the words of reviewer John Moore—"a modern-day bro-down." Set in an American college dormitory, Spark's 2011 adaptation recast Valentine and Proteus as roommates, with beer pong and keg stands taking the place of jousting and courtly intrigue.

Despite its rather spotty stage history, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been the subject of several screen adaptations in various languages, as well as a Tony Award–winning musical (1971). The earliest screen version of note is a Chinese silent film titled A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), an early work by prolific director Bu Wancang. Plum Blossoms borrows the basic plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, including the love rivalry between the two main characters, but it updates the setting to 20th-century Canton. In 1952 the BBC produced the first of its two television adaptations to date, setting the play in 16th-century Italy. The second production, filmed in 1983 as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare, retains the Renaissance setting but makes a few adjustments to the plot.

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