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.

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