The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Symbols



The most conspicuous symbols in The Two Gentlemen of Verona are the pair of rings exchanged by Proteus and Julia in Act 2, Scene 2. These love tokens, though not quite engagement rings, are meant by the two sweethearts to represent a bond of continuing loyalty as Proteus moves to a new city. Given the rings' great significance, it would be bad enough if Proteus were simply to misplace his ring or sell it for pocket money. Instead he disposes of it in the most heartless way imaginable: giving it away to another woman. In presenting the ring to Sylvia in Act 4, Scene 4, Proteus symbolically cuts his already weakening ties to Julia and invites Sylvia to take her place. Sylvia, already aware of the ring's history, refuses to dishonor Julia by accepting it: "Though his false finger have profaned the ring, / Mine shall not do his Julia so much wrong."

Indeed the gift of the ring backfires in giving Sylvia an unmistakable warning of Proteus's fickle nature. Meanwhile, Julia, as Sebastian, intercepts the ring, collecting it as proof of Proteus's infidelity. By holding onto the ring she takes some of the sting out of Proteus's gesture of abandonment and—though she may not realize it at the time—signals her hope he will eventually come back to his senses. As Julia's later speeches show, she is still very much attached to her unfaithful lover, so it's not unreasonable to suppose she holds onto the ring "for safekeeping," waiting for Proteus to give up his two-timing ways.


The forest, a recurring setting for Shakespearean comedies, has often been discussed as a "green world" far removed from the rules and constraints of ordinary society. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona the forest outside Mantua provides Valentine with a refuge—albeit an involuntary one—after his banishment from the Milanese court. He soon becomes accustomed to this setting and even comes to prefer it to "flourishing peopled" cities like Milan because he can "sit alone, unseen of any, / And to the nightingale's complaining notes / Tune my distresses and record my woes."

In other words Valentine may still be grieving the loss of Sylvia, but the forest gives him the space and solitude to process his feelings. In this respect the woods outside Mantua are similar to the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, which offers plenty of room for banished noblemen to be alone with their thoughts. The forest in Two Gentlemen also resembles later sylvan settings in its use of minor characters as unofficial "stage hands"—figures who, though dramatically unimportant in themselves, help move the major characters and prevent or force interactions between them. The outlaws, who never harm their captives onstage, are like the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, driving city-dwellers deeper into the alternate society of the forest.

Within the Mantuan forest, the normal social order is not simply negated but reversed. In Milan Valentine is upstaged by the wealthy Thurio: Valentine's virtues, talents, and other attractive qualities cannot compete with his rival's extensive lands. The forest outlaws, however, immediately recognize Valentine's admirable traits when they meet him in Act 4, Scene 1 and rate those qualities much higher than does the Duke. They appreciate Valentine's brave spirit, his charisma, and even practical skills like his fluency in multiple languages. Moreover, although they are robbers, they have a much more casual attitude toward money than the Duke, offering to share their treasure with Valentine if he will become their leader. Once Valentine agrees to be their captain, his authority within his realm is as absolute as the Duke's. The outlaws see the Duke as "a prize" to be captured, and perhaps ransomed, but Valentine has the power to order his release.

In Act 5 seemingly the whole of the Milanese court is drawn into the forest, and their relationships to one another are transformed, mostly for the better. In this sense, too, the forest of The Two Gentlemen of Verona resembles those found in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. All three plays use the forest as a way of dissolving some bonds, reforging others, and bringing estranged lovers and family members back together. Proteus is reconciled with Valentine and Julia, both of whom he has betrayed. Sylvia is not only rescued from the violent Proteus but also freed from having to deal with the obnoxious Thurio. The Duke, who enters the forest regarding Thurio as his future son-in-law, has a change of heart when he gets the opportunity to contrast Thurio's cowardice with Valentine's bravery. By leading his characters into the "shadowy" and "unfrequented" forest, Shakespeare gives them an opportunity to see one another in a new light.

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