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.

VALENTINE
And on a love–book pray for my success?
PROTEUS
Upon some book I love I’ll pray for thee.
VALENTINE
That’s on some shallow story of deep love —
How young Leander crossed the Hellespont.
PROTEUS
That’s a deep story of a deeper love,
For he was more than over–shoes in love.
VALENTINE
’Tis true; for you are over–boots in love
And yet you never swam the Hellespont.
PROTEUS
Over the boots? Nay, give me not the boots.
VALENTINE
No, I will not, for it boots thee not.
PROTEUS                                    What?
VALENTINE
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.
PROTEUS
So, by your circumstance, you call me fool.
VALENTINE
So, by your circumstance, I fear you’ll prove.

(I.i.19-37)

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).

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