The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona | Themes


A Man's World

As in many Shakespearean comedies, the women of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are consistently treated as second-class citizens. The sexism is most noticeable in matters of marriage. Sylvia, despite or because of her high rank, lacks the freedom to choose a husband. Julia's attempts to unite with Proteus are thwarted by a concern for her "honor," or reputation for chastity and modesty. The men, meanwhile, have free rein in conducting their love affairs, limited only by their competition with one another and the need for paternal approval. The asymmetry is underscored by the great lengths to which the women must go to pursue their lovers—and, in Sylvia's case, to escape from unsuitable suitors. Julia must disguise herself as a man to travel to Milan. Sylvia, to get away from Proteus and Thurio and reunite with Valentine, must sneak away from Milan—not alone, but under the protection of a man whose honorable conduct and vow of chastity negate sexual threat.

Perhaps the most flagrant instance of such sexism comes at the end of the play, when Valentine "gives" Sylvia to Proteus as a sign of friendship and good will. The gesture casts something of a retrospective shadow over Valentine and Sylvia's previous relationship: the implication is Valentine views Sylvia as a prize to be won by wooing, claimed by elopement, and defended with violence. In courting her this scene troublingly suggests he was not laying the groundwork for a mutual relationship but making an investment in the hope of reaping a rich reward. To all this Sylvia says nothing—perhaps because she is too dumbstruck to reply, perhaps because she realizes she has no real say in her own marital destiny. The Duke, whose treatment of his daughter is somewhere between patronizing and tyrannical—trying to get her to accept Thurio by her own decision and locking her in an inaccessible room at night—disposes of Sylvia almost as casually as a raffle prize. "Take thou thy Sylvia," he declares, "for thou hast deserved her." Valentine, as if to reinforce the Duke's view of Sylvia as property, thanks him for the "gift."

Fidelity and Faithlessness

A related issue is the play's pervasive contrast between loyalty and infidelity, with the female characters and servants typically displaying the former and the noblemen the latter. Julia, the play's paragon of loyalty, leaves behind her home and possessions on a risky journey to another city, where she adopts the identity of a manservant to be close to her beloved. She expects to find Proteus still loyal to her because, after all, he promised to be true (Act 2, Scene 2) and has written repeatedly to tell her how much he misses her (Act 2, Scene 7). Proteus, however, disappoints Julia on every count, having virtually forgotten her in his quest to woo Sylvia. He explains his extinguished emotion as "like a waxen image 'gainst a fire, / Bears no impression of the thing it was." He even, within earshot of the disguised Julia, claims to have received word of her death, thus making him a single man once more. Given all this, her decision to take him back at the end may be puzzling and dissatisfying to a modern reader, but it certainly showcases the depths of her fidelity.

More complicated is the relationship between Valentine and Sylvia, which seems at first to be one of mutual devotion. Sylvia's high-handed façade in Act 2, Scene 1 gradually reveals a deep but guarded fondness for Valentine, and her tendency to call him a "servant" is likely just a form of flirtation tailored to prevent spies from discerning her feelings. It seems fair, in any case, to say Sylvia remains loyal to Valentine in the face of great opposition. Her father, the Duke, wants her to marry the rich but boring Thurio, who will not let up on his clumsy attempts to court her. Proteus, who has gotten Valentine banished to clear his own path to Sylvia, even suggests Valentine has died in an effort to get Sylvia to forget about her exiled fiancé. She not only refuses to believe the lie but also sets out on her own dangerous journey to reunite with Valentine. Notably, she doesn't even know where her banished beau is living or if indeed he is still living. She risks it all—not just her father's approval and her reputation, but also her life—on the mere chance of seeing Valentine again. Valentine, meanwhile, seems to be keeping Sylvia uppermost in his thoughts, but when she finally arrives in the Mantuan woods, he glibly renounces her as a show of kindness to Proteus. Sylvia and Valentine, the play's ending implies, will get married after all, but—like the reconciliation between Proteus and Julia—this aspect of the ending is often viewed as forced and implausible.

Foolish Masters, Wise Servants

A major source of dramatic irony in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the contrast between servants and masters. Sometimes the master/servant antics follow the typical class-based formula. When a goofy or dimwitted errand boy (usually Lance) fails to understand his employer's wishes, hilarity ensues. This kind of mix-up leads, for example, to the debacle in Act 4, Scene 4 where Lance substitutes his own ill-trained mutt for the dainty lapdog Proteus has sent him to deliver. More often, however, it's the servants who are clearheaded and the gentlemen and gentlewomen who have their heads in the clouds. Unhindered by such rarefied notions as true love and courtly romance, the servants are often the first to notice when something is amiss.

Lucetta, Julia's "gentlewoman-in-waiting," illustrates this contrast early on when she warns Julia about trying to hide her love for Proteus: "I see things too, although you judge I wink" (Act 1, Scene 2). Julia, in this scene, has been awkwardly attempting to conceal her complicated feelings toward her admirer, growing angry when a love letter from him arrives at her villa. Unfortunately Julia fails to take advantage of Lucetta's pragmatic, unsentimental perspective. As additional love letters from Milan pour in, she assumes Proteus's "oaths," "tears," and "instances of infinite of love" are sincere. Lucetta, who is not so sure, warns Julia "all these"—meaning all the ways Proteus professes his love—"are servants to deceitful men." Julia, however, trusts her own gullible heart over the advice of her shrewd maidservant. Thus when she journeys to Milan to visit Proteus she is devastated to find him serenading another woman with love poetry. Notably it is only when Julia dons her disguise—temporarily becoming the page Sebastian and thus a servant in her own right—that she starts to see Proteus's behavior with clearer eyes.

Speed, Valentine's manservant, is similarly astute when it comes to diagnosing the signs of lovesickness. In Act 2 Valentine thinks he is playing it cool and keeping his infatuation with Sylvia a closely guarded secret. However, he has begun dropping inadvertent hints: "sigh[ing] like a schoolboy" who has lost his textbook, "weep[ing] like a young wench that has buried her grandam," and abstaining from food as though he were on a diet. These changes in behavior, of which Valentine seems scarcely aware, are clearly noted by Speed, who rattles them off in a list. "Are all these things perceived in me?" Valentine asks incredulously. "They are all," Speed reassures his master, "perceived without you."

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