Happy 450th, Will!

Just in under the wire. . . .

Two Gentlemen–Enter Julia (1 of 2)

With Proteus left to fear the worst about Julia’s reaction to his letter, our scene shifts to the love object herself, talking about boys in private with her maid Lucetta:


But say, Lucetta, now we are alone,

Wouldst thou then counsel me to fall in love?


Ay, madam, so you stumble not unheedfully.


Of all the fair resort of gentlemen

That every day with parle encounter me,

In thy opinion which is worthiest love?


Please you repeat their names, I’ll show my mind

According to my shallow simple skill.


What think’st thou of the fair Sir Eglamour?


As of a knight well-spoken, neat and fine;

But, were I you, he never should be mine.


What think’st thou of the rich Mercatio?


Well of his wealth; but of himself, so-so.


What think’st thou of the gentle Proteus?


Lord, Lord! to see what folly reigns in us!


How now! What means this passion at his name?


Pardon, dear madam: ’tis a passing shame

That I, unworthy body as I am,

Should censure thus on lovely gentlemen.


Why not on Proteus, as of all the rest?


Then thus: of many good, I think him best.


Your reason?


I have no other but a woman’s reason:

I think him so because I think him so.


And wouldst thou have me cast my love on him?


Ay, if you thought your love not cast away.


Why he, of all the rest, hath never moved me.


Yet he, of all the rest, I think, best loves ye.


His little speaking shows his love but small.


Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.


They do not love that do not show their love.


O, they love least that let men know their love.


I hate to do this for the third consecutive post, but again I have to remark on how this situation recurs in Shakespeare’s later work, and it’s better done. That’s not to say that this passage is bad—it isn’t at all, although the stichomythia comes across a little singsongy. It’s funny, and it moves the story forward, putting Proteus into romantic play. It is even thematically apposite; note how both Julia and Lucetta bring in the term “gentlemen.”

But compare it with Shakespeare’s better-known treatment of the same situation in The Merchant of Venice. There, when we meet the heroine Portia and her maid Nerissa, they are trash-talking the heroine’s suitors like Julia and Lucetta. The passage is very long, and mostly prose, but let’s have the whole thing after the jump:

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Now you can see what I think of Two Gents in a mere 450 words! Of course, that only scratches the surface of what you’ll get as you continue obsessively here.

A Touch of Speed

Valentine’s departure is followed by the appearance of his servant Speed. This tardiness might seem to belie Speed’s name, but there’s a reason for it; he’s been busy delivering a letter from Proteus to Julia. (Commentators have wondered why Proteus doesn’t ask his own servant, Lance; some have taken this as evidence that Lance’s part is a later addition for the clown Will Kemp.)

Speed is the Clever Servant, a stock comedy figure that goes back to the Roman playwright Plautus. In this scene, though, I feel Shakespeare goes way overboard in demonstrating his cleverness. Hearing that Valentine has departed, he reacts: “Twenty to one, then, he is shipped already, / And I have played the sheep in losing him” (1.1.72-73). This play on “ship” and “sheep” touches off a series of (deliberately) labored plays on “sheep” and “shepherd” (with a side trip to that old favorite, “horns”) that goes on for twenty lines and contains not one but two mock syllogisms. Speed might be speaking for the audience—he’s speaking for me—when he says at the end of this logomachy, “Such another proof will make me cry ‘baa’” (91). The problem with this exchange is less that it isn’t very funny as that it stops the action dead at a point where it’s barely begun. Shakespeare certainly has dueling wordsmiths in other plays, but either the wordplay advances the action (as with Samson and Gregory) or comes when the audience and the action can use a break (Dromio of Syracuse’s geographic catalogue of Nell the kitchen wench in The Comedy of Errors). It’s only after all this that Proteus gets to the question that presumably is uppermost in his mind when he lays eyes on Speed, “Gav’st thou my letter to Julia?” (93). Speed then takes another fifty lines before telling Proteus that Julia said nothing when she took the letter, with still more sheep puns (he calls her a “laced mutton,” i.e. a prostitute), and reasonable complaints that neither party has paid him for his pains.

Speed will reappear shortly with Valentine and later with Lance; look out for how he interacts with these different characters.

Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Bromance Boys

Two Gents opens, appropriately, in the middle of a discussion between our bromance buddies. Valentine is about to leave Verona for Milan. He wants Proteus to come with him, but Proteus refuses his entreaties because he is enamored of Julia (you can already see the effect this stuff is having on my style). Valentine attempts to persuade him by lecturing him about the folly of love, but fails, and the friends make their adieux; they won’t see each other until; about halfway through Act II scene iv.

All this is pretty standard bromance stuff, and the irony is broad; even in Shakespeare’s time you could predict that Valentine is being set up to fall in love hard himself. And yet even in this early play, Shakespeare has a couple more twists of the knife in waiting. Consider the following passage, which is all I’m going to quote from this exchange. The story of Hero and Leander derives from myth: Leander so loved Hero that he tried to swim the Hellespont to reach her, only to drown, so he symbolizes the passionate lover in all kinds of ways. Shakespeare scholars love to find allusions to Marlowe, but in this case they are surely right to find one to his poem Hero and Leander.

And on a love–book pray for my success?
Upon some book I love I’ll pray for thee.
That’s on some shallow story of deep love —
How young Leander crossed the Hellespont.
That’s a deep story of a deeper love,
For he was more than over–shoes in love.
’Tis true; for you are over–boots in love
And yet you never swam the Hellespont.
Over the boots? Nay, give me not the boots.
No, I will not, for it boots thee not.
PROTEUS                                    What?
To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans,
Coy looks with heart–sore sighs, one fading
  moment’s mirth
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights.
If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labour won;
However, but a folly bought with wit,
Or else a wit by folly vanquished.
So, by your circumstance, you call me fool.
So, by your circumstance, I fear you’ll prove.


This is young Shakespeare pulling out all the stops. The stichomythia (one line per character) is like a tennis match and the wordplay is as sharp. Note particularly lines 25-28, where Valentine and Proteus bat no fewer than four senses of “boots” back and forth (“over-boots” completing the proverbial expression “over-shoes, over-boots”; “Over the boots” apparently meaning literal boots; “give me not the boots” another idiom meaning “don’t make fun of me,” and “boots” meaning “profits” in “it boots thee not”). Note also the sexual innuendoes at Valentine’s lines 28-31 (the “groans” of orgasm in love, the “fading moment’s mirth,” orgasm again, bought with “tedious nights” consumed by jealousy).

Pretty good stuff. But doesn’t it sound somehow like we’ve heard it before? Indeed we have. The verbal Ping-Pong match reminds us Samson and Gregory’s dialogue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, and the innuendo anticipates Mercutio’s (remember his “If love be rough with you, be rough with love / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down”?). So here at the very beginning we see one of the most characteristic features of Two Gents I mentioned: situations and incidents Shakespeare will use to better effect in later plays. And we’ll see another very shortly.

One other point to note. Valentine is going to Milan. He says so (line 57). But to do so he is getting on a ship, when both Milan and Verona are inland. This is the first of a number of confusions, geographical and otherwise, that lead most commentators to conclude that the young Shakespeare was not yet in full control of his material—and that he had no clear idea of Italian geography. If you want these confusions spelled out in great detail, get hold of the Arden Second Edition of the play; the editor, Clifford Leech, lists 41 of them in two separate lists (relating to geography and others).

“I Love You, Man!” Shakespeare’s Bromance

The Male Friendship Tradition

Male-male friendship has always existed. Unfortunately, so has the concept that it is somehow better than male-female friendship—frequently hand in hand (so to speak) with the disturbing claim that male-female and female-female friendship isn’t even possible. Shakespeare’s contemporary Montaigne is currently fashionable, but not, I think, for passages like this from his essay “On Friendship”:

 To compare this brotherly affection with affection for women . . . it cannot be done; nor can we put the love of women in the same category. Its ardor, I confess . . . is more active, more scorching, and more intense. But it is an impetuous and fickle flame, undulating and variable, a fever flame, subject to fits and lulls, that holds us only by one corner. In friendship it is a general and universal warmth, moderate and even, besides, a constant and settled warmth, with nothing bitter and stinging about it. (“On Friendship,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tr. Donald M. Frame, p. 137)

If it’s bad enough to discover that Montaigne is the Billy Crystal of the early modern era—sexual attraction gets in the way of friendship between man and woman—consider his explanation; it’s because women are inferior.

Besides, to tell the truth, the ordinary capacity of women is inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of this sacred bond [of friendship]; nor does their soul seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot. . . . [T]his sex in no instance has yet succeeded in attaining it, and by the common agreement of the ancient schools is excluded from it. (“On Friendship,” p. 138)

From Aristotle onward the idea is that in a true male-male friendship the friends are so close as to be an alter ego, or other self, a thought expressed by many, many later writers. Here is Montaigne again (notice how “wives” comes after “goods” in the following list):

Everything actually being in common between them—wills, thoughts, judgments, goods, wives, children, honor, and life—and their relationship being that of one soul in two bodies, according to Aristotle’s very apt definition, they can neither lend nor give anything to each other. “On Friendship,” p. 141)

The term you’ll see in academic studies “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex and especially between men” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) for close male-male (and female-female) relationships, and spheres in which they are predominant, is “homosocial.” So, for example, the locker room, the military, or the court of James I would be homosocial environments. I think the term is unfortunate. Ever since Freud we are conditioned to think that everything, all the time, is about sex, so the slide into “homosexual” is all too easy. You only have to change three letters. Homosocial environments can be conducive to homosexual conduct, I need hardly say, and there’s surely a sexual undercurrent in many close male-male relationships, but homosociality and homosexuality aren’t necessarily connected. In addition, since there is a controversy about Shakespeare’s sexuality, using “homosocial” in discussions of Shakespeare can convey unwarranted implications. Perhaps by design. For all these reasons, in preference to “homosocial” I’ll use the more recent term “bromance.”

What Is a Bromance?

 As we understand the term today, a bromance is a close male-male friendship relation. (OED: “Intimate and affectionate friendship between men; a relationship between two men which is characterized by this. Also: a film focusing on such a relationship.” It’s amusing that the OED’s first recorded instance, from 2003, is to a use in the Usenet group rec.windsurfing.)

Trolling the Internet brings up examples like Kirk and Spock, Butch and Sundance, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. “Bromance” has also come to replace the term “buddy comedy,” i.e. a comedy revolving around such a relationship, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Apply it specifically to romantic comedies (brom-coms?), and you’ll be able to see why I use it for Two Gentlemen. Proteus and Valentine are prototypical bromance buddies.

The Western Bromantic Tradition

Moreover, the buddies fall in line with a long bromance tradition in Western literature that is a crucial influence on Shakespeare. As noted, the theory of male-male friendship goes back at least to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics; Shakespeare (with Fletcher) will return to it in The Two Noble Kinsmen, which is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. And so on it goes, right up to The Hangover, Part 3.

I will only mention one of Shakespeare’s most important precursors. The story of Titus and Gisippus goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron; Shakespeare followed an English version that appeared in 1531. Titus and Gisippus embody the “one soul in two bodies” idea by being twins. Gisippus is pressured into marrying Sophronia, with whom Titus falls in love so violently it makes him sick unto death. To save him, Gisippus gives him Sophronia, a gift effected by means of a “bed trick”; the identical Titus is substituted in the marriage bed for Gisippus, where he performs the formalities necessary for a valid marriage. In the second part of the story, Gisippus is accused of murder and Titus offers to take the rap. Greater love than this no bro hath! The main point of this very brief summary is to note that there is an offer of a woman by one friend to the other in one of Shakespeare’s sources. There are clear differences (for example, Titus didn’t try to rape Sophronia, she seems copacetic with the situation, though—like Silvia in Two Gentlemen—being a piece of property she doesn’t get to speak, and it is really surprising that Shakespeare didn’t use the bed trick), but the incident is there.

We’ll see the bromantic tradition working itself out as we proceed through Two Gentlemen, so let’s turn to that task now. Just keep in mind: Valentine and Proteus fit neatly into a (basically adolescent) tradition in which male friendship is more important than adult relationships with women.

What Is a “Gentleman,” Anyway?

What do we mean on those increasingly rare occasions when we call a man a gentleman? We mean to praise his conduct. When US Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson learned of the existence of the Cipher Bureau, the codebreaking office that was a precursor to the National Security Agency, he thundered: “Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail”—and closed the Bureau down. (That high-pitched sound you hear is this dedicated statesman whirling in his grave at last week’s revelations.) Stimson’s outrage reflected the concept of a gentleman as “a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., df. c(2)).

But an equally important aspect for us is punctilious, even chivalrous behavior toward women (cf. Webster’s, df. c(1)). Here is where we might wonder at Shakespeare’s title. If there is one thing Valentine and Proteus are not, it is gentlemen in this sense. So far from being chivalrous, they spend the entire play treating women like dirt. Two Fratboys of Verona or Two Entitled, Spoiled Rich Kids of Verona would be more accurate. One’s first, natural, and ultimately correct reaction is to suppose that there’s irony afoot. But to understand the irony some explanation is needed, and that is the purpose of this post.

Courteous attitudes toward women were not the core of the concept of “gentleman” in Elizabethan times. Behavior wasn’t at the core at all. Technically, “gentleman” denoted a status in the class system; that of a man “who is entitled to bear arms, though not ranking among the nobility” (Oxford English Dictionary, df. 1.a; this is why we see references to Shakespeare as “Gent.” after 1596, when his father’s application for a coat of arms was granted). The most concise Elizabethan description is that of Sir Thomas Smith in his De Republica Anglorum (1584): “Who can live idly and without manual labor . . . shall be taken for a gentleman.” So the primary concept of a gentleman in Shakespeare’s time is that of a man of “gentle” birth and rich enough not to have to work (in most cases, that would have meant living off one’s landholdings).

Valentine and Proteus eminently qualify as gentlemen in this primary Elizabethan sense. Since this sense is all but extinct today, it’s important to note that it is certainly in play in the title of Two Gentlemen.

But something like our modern conduct-based sense also existed at this time. In fact, it existed long before; Chaucer’s Knight was both “parfit” and “gentil.” So there is certainly room for irony in Shakespeare’s usage. Is there evidence?

Well, consider that Shakespeare actually brings the two senses of “gentleman” together ironically in The Taming of the Shrew:


What, with my tongue in your tail?
Nay, come again, good Kate, I am a gentleman—


That I’ll try. She strikes him.


I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again.


So may you lose your arms.
If you strike me, you are no gentleman,
And if no gentleman, why then no arms.

I’m not quoting the tongue/tail joke just because I have a dirty mind. It is relevant, because Petruchio is—really—saying “Kate! I would never commit such a vile sexual act on you as to stick my tongue in your tail! I’m a gentleman [in the chivalrous sense].” That in turn sets up the wordplay you can clearly see in Kate’s last speech. First threatening to tear off Petruchio’s physical arms if he hits her again (223), she continues: if you hit me, you’re not a gentleman in behavior (224), so you’re not a gentleman in status, so by definition you aren’t entitled to a coat of arms.

Damn, he’s good! But is he as good in Two Gentlemen? “Gentleman” appears sixteen times. Of these, I reckon ten to refer to gentle status or be generic uses (as in “Do you know the gentleman?”; here, where almost every male character is a gentleman, these uses can be hard to tell apart). Five involve the sense of gentle conduct; since one of these references is to the foolish suitor Thurio and two are to Proteus, there is plenty of scope for irony, especially in the one instance where Proteus is talking about himself. And then there’s the very last, most important occurrence in the whole play. the Duke of Milan ensures a happy ending by saying:

I do applaud thy spirit, Valentine,
. .  .
Sir Valentine,
Thou art a gentleman and well derived;
Take thou thy Silvia, for thou hast deserved her.                                                                                                (V.iv.138-145)

Valentine is a gentleman in the conduct sense (“I do applaud thy spirit”) and the status sense (“Thou art . . . well derived”). This is the only instance in the whole play of “gentleman” being used in both senses. So is Valentine the play’s one true Gentleman of Verona? Or, considering that the Duke is giving Silvia away, underlining her status as mere property, is this the most slashing irony in the play?

We’ll see when we get to the end of our discussion. For now, just marvel that even in a very early play with very serious problems, Shakespeare can make so much hang on one word.