The Failure of Two Gentlemen

There are two endings in Shakespeare that are likely to make contemporary Western audiences feel queasy. Both cause uneasiness because of their treatment of women. The better-known one is The Taming of the Shrew, in which Kate, who has been a “shrew” throughout (meaning that she doesn’t take shit from men), has been trained to be submissive to her husband Petruchio, even to the point of recommending subservience as a way of life to her sister.

The ending of Two Gentlemen is less well known, but even more disquieting. We’ve seen what happens, but let’s hit the highlights yet again:

  • Proteus, who thinks nobody is watching, tries to rape Silvia.
  • Valentine, who has been hidden and watching all along, reveals himself and confronts Proteus.
  • Proteus apologizes to Valentine.
  • Valentine forgives Proteus, and just to show that there are no hard feelings, gifts Silvia to him.

It’s an amazing course of events, to be sure. Editors, critics, and audiences have tried since at least the nineteenth century to get their heads around the fact that after all Valentine has seen, Proteus’s flimsy and not obviously sincere apology is enough to induce him to give Proteus the woman he supposedly loves. I won’t go into the interpretive contortions that have resulted from trying to make Valentine’s offer more palatable; the introduction to the Arden Third edition of the play contains a performance history that details a number of them. Sometimes the desperation is almost amusing.

Instead, I want to shift the focus. I can’t help but be struck by the fact that although everybody has problems with Valentine’s offer, nobody has problems with the immediately preceding attempted rape. Nobody wonders what Shakespeare could have meant by it, or insists it must be other than it seems, or cuts it from the text or in performance. William C. Carroll, editor of the Arden Third, strengthens this point by noting that recent stage history has tended to play up the rape scene to the same degree it plays down the offer. This seems downright weird. The offer may be awful, and it surely reflects awful notions about women as property, but there’s no way it is as awful as the rape. In fact, isn’t it obvious that what really makes us uneasy about the offer is that it is made to a rapist? As I’ve said, there is no way we can approve of Proteus, seeing what he’s done. That means there is no way we can identify with Valentine, who also saw what he’s done. Only a downright frivolous attitude could keep us from feeling irreparably alienated from both.

In my view, we can’t extricate the offer from the rape attempt—and it is the latter that needs to be explained, or explained away. And I’m not sure that it can be. Marjorie Garber’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt, in Shakespeare After All, to defang the offer helps suggest why. Like every other commentator including me, Garber reminds us that Two Gentlemen fits squarely into a male buddy literature tradition that goes way back. There were medieval bromances. In fact, as I mentioned, in the story of Titus and Gisippius, one of Shakespeare’s likely sources, there is even an offer of the woman, like Valentine’s. Garber also calls our attention to the genre of the distracted lover—the knight who spends all his time cataloging and contemplating the loved one’s qualities instead of, heaven forbid, actually doing something with her. Certainly any time Proteus opens his mouth he falls into this genre, but so does Valentine (who started out, remember, disparaging Proteus’s lovesickness for Julia). Speed’s diagnosis of his master’s lovesickness makes the point:

VALENTINE. Why, how know you that I am in love?
SPEED. Marry, by these special marks: first, you have learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms, like a malcontent; to relish a love-song, like a robin redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh, like a schoolboy that had lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch, like one that fears robbing; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas. You were wont, when you laughed, to crow like a cock; when you walked, to walk like one of the lions; when you fasted, it was presently after dinner; when you looked sadly, it was for want of money. And now you are metamorphosed with a mistress, that when I look on you, I can hardly think you my master.
(2.1.15–29)

Garber’s suggestion is that Shakespeare is “exploding” these two genres by exaggerating them until their contradictions are too blatant to miss—here combined in the one character Valentine, who “follows one social script and then another: the stereotypical lover and the friend-by-the-book. In both he is genially over-the-top.”

I’m not quite sure I understand or agree with this suggestion as it applies to Valentine. I just don’t see anything resembling a cue that he is switching from one set of conventions to another. (Garber’s discussion slides away from Valentine to Launce and his dog Crab well before it is played out, and never comes back, a telling shift in itself.) And if Valentine is in fact alternating conventional roles “genially over-the-top,” ironically underlining what it means to be a gentleman from Verona, he’s in a different play from Proteus. Proteus does not seem to be acting according to the conventions of either genre—at least, although I am no scholar I’m pretty sure rape is not one of those conventions.

The meat of Garber’s discussion is her answer to the question “Are they serious?”: “The answer is, it seems pretty clear, is that no one is serious here—or, alternatively, that everyone is serious.” I’m afraid this answer isn’t at all clear to me, at least as it applies to the characters. Applied to the play as a whole, though, it makes the problem clear. The play cannot be either wholly serious or wholly frivolous. To take it as wholly frivolous trivializes the rape; to take it as wholly serious is not only impossible, it requires taking the offer seriously. The moral of the play—told with a straight face—would then be that brohood conquers all.

I think Garber must be generally right that Shakespeare is rubbing genres together, exaggerating them until they give off sparks. That’s the problem. We can think of the rape as the Distracted Lover stereotype taken to extremes—over the line—and the offer as the Bromance stereotype taken to extremes. Then we can see that Shakespeare can’t have it both ways. He can’t undermine both by satire and he can’t take both seriously. He does not have the control of his material that will enable him, for example, to bring Death into Arcadia at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost and carry it off.

What I would do if I were staging the play is just to eliminate the rape. This would be simple: just cut Proteus’s speech and Silvia’s horrified reaction, and modify the line on which Valentine enters (“Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch,” 5.4.60). The result would be a completely frivolous play, but one that would indeed take the bromance tradition to extremes—and the underlying serious issues about the treatment of women would remain. Wouldn’t that be better than, say, the solution to the offer presented in the ShakespeareRuff production I saw in 2012, where Silvia and Julia confront Proteus with language taken from other plays?

That’s a wrap on Two Gents, folks. When we return we will be in a world so different it’s hard to believe that the same writer created them both.

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