To my mind, Julia is the most interesting character in Two Gentlemen. True, that’s not a very high bar: until Proteus provokes her into showing some mettle, Silvia is a cipher (perhaps Shakespeare is intentionally underlining her status as property); Valentine is a genial lunkhead; Proteus is, well, call him protean and leave it at that.
Julia alone is courageous enough to make the perilous journey to Milan (and geographically literate enough to do it by land) alone and in male disguise, making her probably the first of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines. But she does it because she is lovesick. In response to Lucetta’s skepticism about men she says:
But truer stars did govern Proteus’ birth.
His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles,
His love sincere, his thoughts immaculate,
His tears pure messengers sent from his heart,
His heart as far from fraud as heaven from earth.
This although in a textbook example of one kind of irony, we readers and viewers have just seen Proteus, in 2.6, say “I will forget that Julia is alive/Remembering that my love to her is dead” (27–28). The effect, of course, is that we feel sorry for Julia; she’s unknowing, not delusional. And of course the twists and turns of the drama require that she not know about Proteus’s change of heart, if that is the word.
I have to wonder, though, whether she is sacrificed to the demands of the drama. For she arrives in Milan, going by “Sebastian,” in the middle of one of Proteus’s schemes. With Valentine banished from Milan, Proteus is still trying to undermine him by disparaging him to Silvia. And he is scheming to get the hapless Thurio out of the way by pretending to help him. His plan is to get Thurio to bankroll a consort of musicians to serenade Silvia under the tower in which her father keeps her at night, claim that he will press Thurio’s suit, and actually take the occasion to come on to Silvia himself.
This makes for a rude awakening. Julia shows up right before the serenade, a song in praise of Silvia sung (and no doubt written, despite Thurio’s claim that he has a “sonnet” to hand) by Proteus. Surely many if not all of us have been in Julia’s situation; not necessarily cross-dressed, but having the scales ripped from our eyes. She asks her innkeeper host “But, host, doth this Sir Proteus that we talk on/Often resort unto this gentlewoman?” (4.2.70–71), and gets the reply “I tell you what Launce, his man, told me: he loved/her out of all nick” (4.2.72–73). Are we surprised that Proteus shows up immediately afterward to woo Silvia further?
Concealing herself (“Peace, stand aside; the company parts,” 4.2.78), Julia witnesses an even greater betrayal. Silvia shoots Proteus down viciously:
Thou subtle, perjured, false, disloyal man,
Think’st thou I am so shallow, so conceitless,
To be seduced by thy flattery
That hast deceived so many with thy vows?
Return, return, and make thy love amends.
For me—by this pale queen of night I swear—
I am so far from granting thy request
That I despise thee for thy wrongful suit,
And by and by intend to chide myself
Even for this time I spend in talking to thee.
“Back off, dude!” even most fratboys might say at this point. But Proteus doubles down: “I grant, sweet love, that I did love a lady/But she is dead” (102–103). This is probably the first delicious instance of a form of irony we’ll see again and again in Shakespeare. But we are only in Act 4, scene 2, so it is too early for the “unmasking scene,” as the critics call it. Instead of ripping off her trousers and shouting “I am not dead, you sleaze,” she merely says to herself: “’Twere false, if I should speak it/For I am sure she is not buried” (103–104). And who is in a better position to know?
Shortly Silvia leaves to look for Valentine, in disgust at Proteus—disgusted with herself, too, in giving in to his request for a picture. This leaves Proteus to strike up a friendship with the “boy” Sebastian, leading to an even worse betrayal. Remember those rings Proteus and Julia exchanged before he went to Milan? Now Shakespeare takes the gun down from the rack. Proteus tells Sebastian to give his ring to Silvia:
Go presently, and take this ring with thee,
Deliver it to Madam Silvia.
She loved me well delivered it to me.
It must be all Julia can do to say “It seems you loved not her, to leave her token./She is dead belike?” (72–73) To which Proteus, ever the gentleman, answers “Not so; I think she lives” (73).
(There is much more byplay in which “Sebastian” refers to Julia, whether as alive or dead, particularly when she meets Silvia. It’s clever, but Shakespeare has already made the point.)
What do you think Julia does next? Does she reveal herself to Silvia so that the two of them can confront Proteus together, perhaps even getting Valentine reprieved? That would be a logical course—perhaps even the one we tell ourselves we would take. What she actually does must strike us, as we sit in the study or the audience, as not just surprising but irrational, completely governed by emotion with no thought of her best interests. Perhaps we know what it feels like, but it’s not a reaction we would be proud of:
How many women would do such a message?
Alas, poor Proteus, thou hast entertained
A fox to be the shepherd of thy lambs.
Alas, poor fool, why do I pity him
That with his very heart despiseth me?
Because he loves her, he despiseth me;
Because I love him, I must pity him.
This ring I gave him when he parted from me
To bind him to remember my good will.
And now am I, unhappy messenger,
To plead for that which I would not obtain,
To carry that which I would have refused,
To praise his faith which I would have dispraised.
I am my master’s true confirmed love,
But cannot be true servant to my master
Unless I prove false traitor to myself.
Yet will I woo for him, but yet so coldly
As, heaven it knows, I would not have him speed.
Note that Julia is alone with us, so this is an exact counterpart to Proteus’s soliloquy. Julia is confiding in us about what she plans to do. She fully understands the depths of his betrayal (“This ring I gave him”) and the untenability of her position (“Unless I prove false traitor to myself”). But what does she decide to do? To carry out Proteus’s wishes, but in such a lukewarm manner that they won’t do him any good.
I can imagine being so besotted that I ignore the unpleasant truth that is slapping me in the face (whether I ever have been is none of your business), but does it make psychological sense for Julia to react this way—and to adopt the least effective possible course of action (remain concealed and do what you’ve been told, but don’t try very hard)? In a play that has not bowled us over so far with its psychological depth, you would be forgiven for thinking that Julia’s reaction exists solely to advance the plot. That’s another indication that Two Gentlemen is early; this question doesn’t even arise in later plays.
Silvia shows up the moment Julia finishes this soliloquy; she rejects the proffered ring and expresses her support of poor Julia without, of course, knowing who she’s talking to:
JULIA. Madam, he sends your ladyship this ring.
SILVIA. The more shame for him that he sends it me,
For I have heard him say a thousand times
His Julia gave it him at his departure.
Though his false finger have profaned the ring,
Mine shall not do his Julia so much wrong.
JULIA. She thanks you.
SILVIA. What sayst thou?
JULIA. I thank you, madam, that you tender her.
Poor gentlewoman, my master wrongs her much.
SILVIA. Dost thou know her?
JULIA. Almost as well as I do know myself.
To think upon her woes, I do protest
That I have wept a hundred several times.
It should be clear even to the lovestruck Julia that Proteus doesn’t have a chance with Silvia. Yet she doesn’t take the other into her confidence. Instead, she compares herself (favorably, surprise!) to the picture Silvia gave her to give to Proteus:
Here is her picture. Let me see, I think
If I had such a tire, this face of mine
Were full as lovely as is this of hers;
And yet the painter flattered her a little,
Unless I flatter with myself too much.
Her hair is auburn, mine is perfect yellow;
If that be all the difference in his love,
I’ll get me such a coloured periwig.
Her eyes are grey as glass, and so are mine.
Ay, but her forehead’s low, and mine’s as high.
What should it be that he respects in her
But I can make respective in myself,
If this fond Love were not a blinded god?
Feminine psychology has not changed in four hundred years—at least not in rom-coms. Despite all the evidence, Julia seems to believe that she can actually win Proteus back—and, even more implausibly, that he is worth it. I’m convinced that she would compare herself to Silvia, but I’m very doubtful about her romantic obsession. Yes, people get obsessed in this way, but for Julia to do so stretches this play close to the breaking point. At the top I said Julia is unknowing, not delusional; not any more.
But then, as we’ll see a couple of posts to come, the ending goes way, way past the breaking point. Yet before we finish our consideration of Two Gentlemen, we must pay a visit to the star of the show—Crab the dog.