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:

PETRUCHIO

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

KATHARINA

That I’ll try. She strikes him.

PETRUCHIO

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

KATHARINA

So may you lose your arms.
If you strike me, you are no gentleman,
And if no gentleman, why then no arms.
(II.i.219-225)

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.

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