Even Shakespeare was a beginner once. We can’t really date the composition of any of his plays exactly. (Not even Henry VIII, even though it was supposedly performed only two or three times before it burned down the Globe in 1613.) Sometimes we know when a play was first performed. Sometimes we know it was performed but not when. Sometimes we don’t know at all. But sometimes style can tell us earlier from later. Two Gentlemen is a prime example.
There’s no record of a performance of Two Gentlemen during Shakespeare’s lifetime (though the play is mentioned in Francis Meres’s famous 1598 list of plays he had seen, so we know it existed and had been performed by then) and no text before the First Folio, in 1623. Yet Edmond Malone, the great eighteenth-century scholar, thought that Two Gentlemen was Shakespeare’s first surviving play. The introduction to the play in the collected Oxford Shakespeare concurs (“it may be his first work for the stage”). Virtually all commentators and scholars since Malone have at least agreed that it is very early. But why?
There’s a simple reason. Two Gentlemen is clearly apprentice work (Lewis Theobald, the first really serious Shakespeare editor, called it “one of his very worst” plays). That’s not to say that it’s bad or incompetent. Like sex, bad Shakespeare is better than anything else going. It is to say that here we see Shakespeare trying things out, things he will later do better. It’s also to say that the play has weaknesses the later plays overcame.
In fact, it seems as if Shakespeare’s whole bag of tricks is on display in Two Gentlemen. To name a few:
- Male friends infatuated with the same woman (many plays, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Two Noble Kinsmen);
- A cross-dressed woman (almost all of the later comedies, particularly As You Like It and Twelfth Night);
- A cross-dressed woman who has to persuade another woman to pursue the man she, the cross-dressed woman, loves (Twelfth Night);
- Stratagems with rope ladders (Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice);
- A double-entendre conversation between one of the heroines and her lady in waiting (many plays, notably The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet);
- A high-class world juxtaposed with a low-class world whose denizens constantly make dirty (and sometimes labored) plays on words (many, many plays, from The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost to the Henry IV plays and Measure for Measure).
- A humorous catalogue of the qualities of a less-than-alluring woman by one of those lower-class denizens (The Comedy of Errors).
Merely to list these later plays is to see that Two Gentlemen must be early, because Shakespeare managed all these devices better in other plays than he does here. As the Oxford Shakespeare introduction puts it, “[Two Gentlemen] can be seen as a dramatic laboratory in which Shakespeare first experimented with conventions of romantic comedy which he would later treat with a more subtle complexity.”
In a word, he got better with practice. There is no way you’d mistake Two Gentlemen for As You Like It or Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let alone Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare clearly had a lot to learn. There are funny and clever things in Two Gentlemen, no question, including irony, but the play is crude enough that it’s hard to like and we can’t help but question the extent of the irony.
I like the Oxford Shakespeare’s characterization of the play as a “dramatic laboratory” because it underlines that Shakespeare is trying out all these “conventions.” I think we can tell that’s true simply because he’s using all of them in one play, and because they don’t necessarily contribute in the way that they do in later plays. (One exception, a bit that really does work, is Proteus’s weaselly declaration that Julia is dead when she is right there, disguised. But compare Julia and Lucetta’s relationship with that of Juliet and the Nurse or Portia and Nerissa.)
Critics and scholars have pointed to many other features of Two Gentlemen that marks it as early in their view: the quality of the verse, geographical confusions (the most obvious of which is the idea that you get from Verona to Milan by sea), and technical weaknesses (Stanley Wells comments that whenever there are more than three characters on stage, at least one of them falls silent). I have another reason that I can’t properly explain until we discuss the ending of the play.
For more, I think I’ll refer you to Clifford Leech’s introduction to the Arden Second edition of the play, which goes into great detail, including a list of no fewer than twenty-one “oddities” (xviii-xxi). William C. Carroll, editor of the Arden Third, is alert to the play’s manifold incongruities, but he doesn’t seem to think they form the basis of any possible argument for dating the play. my disagreement with him is deep enough that it requires a separate post.