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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.

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He That Smelt It

Crab’s second appearance comes at Act 4, scene 4, lines 1–38. Just before, Silvia has determined to escape Milan and enlisted the gentil knight Sir Eglamour. Just before that, Silvia has scorned Proteus. Launce’s monologue will be interrupted by Proteus and Julia’s entrance, when Proteus bids Julia take his ring to Silvia. Thus, there is important action on both sides of the speech.

Crab doesn’t give a dog’s fart, even though he has a part in the action. Proteus, you see, has promised to give Silvia a lapdog, said to be the size of a squirrel; Paris Hilton was not the first to have a teacup Chihuahua (and if this reflects badly on Silvia, so much the better). He entrusts the dog to Launce, who promptly misplaces it and decides to give Silvia Crab instead; he’s ten times the size, so it will be ten times the gift. And that is when they wander onstage. I’m afraid I couldn’t even find a complete video rendition online, let alone one I liked at all; so imagine Will Kemp, Bill Irwin, or whoever you like going full throttle.

LAUNCE. When a man’s servant shall play the cur with him, look you, it goes hard: one that I brought up of a puppy; one that I saved from drowning when three or four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it. I have taught him even as one would say precisely, “Thus I would teach a dog.” I was sent to deliver him as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master, and I came no sooner into the dining-chamber but he steps me to her trencher and steals her capon’s leg. O, ‘tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies! I would have, as one should say, one that takes upon him to be a dog indeed, to be, as it were, a dog at all things. If I had not had more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did, I think verily he had been hanged for’t; sure as I live, he had suffered for’t. You shall judge. He thrusts me himself into the company of three or four gentleman-like dogs under the Duke’s table. He had not been there—bless the mark!—a pissing-while but all the chamber smelt him. “Out with the dog,” says one; “What cur is that?” says another; “Whip him out,” says the third; “Hang him up,” says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. “Friend,” quoth I, “you mean to whip the dog?” “Ay, marry do I,” quoth he. “You do him the more wrong,” quoth I, “‘twas I did the thing you wot of.” He makes me no more ado but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stock for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. [to Crab] Thou think’st not of this now. Nay, I remember the trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam Silvia. Did not I bid thee still mark me, and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? Didst thou ever see me do such a trick?

And so, we see, Launce is returning from a failed mission. Silvia has rejected Crab, for reasons with which we can only sympathize. But sandwiched between his two recountings of his audience with Silvia, he slips in the most extraordinary story. As you know, I’ve written at length—great length—about Shakespeare’s fart jokes. The ones I discussed proceed by innuendo—the clown in Othello talking about “wind instruments,” Lear howling “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks.” They’re about wind, instrumental or natural. This one is about—farts. Dog farts, to be precise. Launce is reproving Crab by reminding him of how Launce took the rap for him when he, Crab, farted under “the Duke’s table,” and got himself whipped for it. Greater love than this hath no man, indeed!

But Crab is sublimely indifferent as always. Though I would give major props to a production that had him fart when Launce says “Thou think’st not of this now,” I suppose that isn’t strictly necessary, since Crab also pissed on Silvia’s farthingale. The object is a woman’s hoop skirt (and I’d wager that Will Kemp raised his leg to illustrate the line) but the word cries out for commentary from Beavis and Butt-Head. This, I think, is proof that this speech is by Shakespeare—certainly not a transcript of Kemp’s routine. For this kind of wordplay is utterly characteristic of him.

One other brief point. I’ve mentioned that some scholars draw an analogy between Crab and Proteus, which I don’t find especially plausible. But I note the verbal parallel between Launce and Julia: as the former asks “How many masters would do this for his servant?” the latter asks “How many women would do such a message?” But would Julia suffer to be whipped for Proteus’s faults? As we saw three posts ago, maybe.

So, what are we to make of Crab’s two appearances? I suppose Wells is right that they are both “groaners,” but I for one do not hold that against them. I’d only observe that groaners can be much harder to pull off than they appear. These two ought to be hilarious if they are at all well done, but look at just a few of the YouTube videos and you will see exactly how much the actor playing Launce needs to put into his performance to make it work. As Steve Martin said, comedy is not pretty.

Sometimes it’s not even funny. That’s our cue to turn to the finale, one of the most uncomfortable scenes in Shakespeare.

A Dog Named Crab

I believe it was W.C. Fields who counseled actors never to do a scene with a child or a dog. The very thought of playing Launce would have driven him to drink a quart of gin—not that he ever needed much provocation. The two scenes with Launce and his dog Crab (probably named for the sour crab apple, not the tasty crustacean) stand out sharply from the rest of the play, as if somebody had dropped two Robin Williams monologues into a Sandra Bullock rom-com.

That may be pretty much what happened. There’s a body of scholarly opinion that holds that Launce was added after the rest of the play was written (Clifford Leech, the editor of the Arden Second edition, discerns four stages of composition, Launce’s monologues being the third stage). It’s plausible to suppose—and for my purposes we’ll assume—that Launce was created to provide a role for the new clown of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kemp. This raises the interesting though subsidiary issue of how much of these speeches is Shakespeare’s. I recall a print source—I think it may have been the book version of Michael Wood’s BBC miniseries about Shakespeare, but I’m too lazy to check—that insisted that clearly these are just transcriptions of Kemp’s routine. I don’t see how that can be right. I can see Shakespeare taking input from Kemp and leaving him room to improvise, especially with physical action, but I think that what we have is Shakespeare’s responsibility. (If you subscribe to the scholarly theory that Crab is associated with Proteus, that’s all the more reason to think that Launce’s speeches are carefully composed to reflect other things in the play.) We can’t go into any detail, but keep this in mind as an early example of how collaboration is likely to have worked in the Elizabethan theater (and when we look at Hamlet’s denunciation of actors’ improvisation).

Of course, Crab has not a single line. Hello, he’s a dog! But here Fields’s dictum comes into play. Whether portrayed by a real dog or a cardboard dog (I’ve seen it done both ways), Crab will upstage Launce—and it’s necessarily Launce’s uncredited doing. The comedy is solely due to the lines and how Launce delivers them in reaction to whatever Crab does—or doesn’t do (especially if he’s cardboard). I’d say that offers more than enough scope for improvisation without altering Shakespeare’s lines. If I were casting Two Gentlemen today, I would try to sign Bill Irwin as Launce. The role requires his physical and intellectual deftness. (I think it’s considerably more demanding than that of Speed, who is supposed to be the smart servant but who loses out to Launce in their one verbal duel (3.1.275–280, the scene with the Comedy of Errors anticipation).)

So let us look at the scenes themselves. They are pretty much self-explanatory, especially if you imagine them being performed, so I won’t have that much to say by way of analysis. But they are both very long, so I’ll devote a separate post to each.




Happy 450th, Will!

Just in under the wire. . . .

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.

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


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).

“Nobody Frolics in 2010!”

That, as Victoria Urquhart explains in this podcast, was the motto of the Spur-of-the-Moment Shakespeare Collective for a while, after a straphanger exclaimed it during their Shakespeare on the Subway performance series.

Unfortunately, I came to the podcast too late for its intended purpose, which was to publicize the company’s Shakespeare in Hospitals Showcase last December 17 and 18. It’s still required listening. As a come-on, here are some of the highlights:

  • The company’s first project was Shakespeare on the Subway, conceived to bring Shakespeare to young people outside of school and in an unexpected context that would make them more receptive to this material that had been crammed down their throats in high school.
  • It’s not that kids don’t get Shakespeare in school, it’s that they are forced to read it or listen to “that recording” where all that emerges is a bunch of accents.
  • She meant to offer a new experience on the subway, where young people could look at Shakespeare without “analyzing the hell out of it,” which is a big mistake because important though logical argument is, you lose the human perspective without emotion.
  • It’s very interesting that the Jailer’s Daughter was the most successful role in the subway project. The Jailer’s Daughter appears in Shakespeare’s least-known play, The Two Noble Kinsmen, one that we are certain wasn’t even wholly written by him. That Urquhart chose this character from this obscure play attests to her seriousness and scholarship; that it was the biggest success in the subway attests to her and her company’s talent.
  • Finally, since I’m not about to spoil it for you, please listen to the podcast at least to the point where Urquhart explains how a request from her grandmother led her to adopt a new mandate for the collective to do cyclical benefit projects, in addition to providing a resource for young actor to work on Shakespeare.

I’d note that Urquhart’s reasons for creating the subway project are the same as mine in creating this blog: to bring Shakespeare to people who were turned off to Shakespeare by bad school experiences. Urquhart does have one big advantage; as an actor with a company, she can present Shakespeare. I have to rely on the occasional video clip and resort maybe a little too often to “logical analysis,” though I do always try to bring it back to emotion and character. Anyway, we are definitely on the same team and that gladdens me.

Urquhart emerges from this podcast as a remarkably open, generous, warm, passionate, and humourous actor and human being. I can’t remember the last time I came across someone so perfectly suited to be an ambassador for Shakespeare, and I can’t think of a company that is doing more good by and with Shakespeare than the Spur-of-the-Moment Shakespeare Collective. Listen for yourself.

Two Gentlemen: Early and Inferior?

Even Shakespeare was a beginner once. We can’t really date the composition of any of his plays exactly. (Not even Henry VIII, even though it was supposedly performed only two or three times before it burned down the Globe in 1613.) Sometimes we know when a play was first performed. Sometimes we know it was performed but not when. Sometimes we don’t know at all. But sometimes style can tell us earlier from later. Two Gentlemen is a prime example.

There’s no record of a performance of Two Gentlemen during Shakespeare’s lifetime (though the play is mentioned in Francis Meres’s famous 1598 list of plays he had seen, so we know it existed and had been performed by then) and no text before the First Folio, in 1623. Yet Edmond Malone, the great eighteenth-century scholar, thought that Two Gentlemen was Shakespeare’s first surviving play. The introduction to the play in the collected Oxford Shakespeare concurs (“it may be his first work for the stage”). Virtually all commentators and scholars since Malone have at least agreed that it is very early. But why?

There’s a simple reason. Two Gentlemen is clearly apprentice work (Lewis Theobald, the first really serious Shakespeare editor, called it “one of his very worst” plays). That’s not to say that it’s bad or incompetent. Like sex, bad Shakespeare is better than anything else going. It is to say that here we see Shakespeare trying things out, things he will later do better. It’s also to say that the play has weaknesses the later plays overcame.

In fact, it seems as if Shakespeare’s whole bag of tricks is on display in Two Gentlemen. To name a few:

  • Male friends infatuated with the same woman (many plays, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Two Noble Kinsmen);
  • A cross-dressed woman (almost all of the later comedies, particularly As You Like It and Twelfth Night);
  • A cross-dressed woman who has to persuade another woman to pursue the man she, the cross-dressed woman, loves (Twelfth Night);
  • Stratagems with rope ladders (Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice);
  • A double-entendre conversation between one of the heroines and her lady in waiting (many plays, notably The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet);
  • A high-class world juxtaposed with a low-class world whose denizens constantly make dirty (and sometimes labored) plays on words (many, many plays, from The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost to the Henry IV plays and Measure for Measure).
  • A humorous catalogue of the qualities of a less-than-alluring woman by one of those lower-class denizens (The Comedy of Errors).

Merely to list these later plays is to see that Two Gentlemen must be early, because Shakespeare managed all these devices better in other plays than he does here. As the Oxford Shakespeare introduction puts it, “[Two Gentlemen] can be seen as a dramatic laboratory in which Shakespeare first experimented with conventions of romantic comedy which he would later treat with a more subtle complexity.”

In a word, he got better with practice. There is no way you’d mistake Two Gentlemen for As You Like It or Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let alone Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare clearly had a lot to learn. There are funny and clever things in Two Gentlemen, no question, including irony, but the play is crude enough that it’s hard to like and we can’t help but question the extent of the irony.

I like the Oxford Shakespeare’s characterization of the play as a “dramatic laboratory” because it underlines that Shakespeare is trying out all these “conventions.” I think we can tell that’s true simply because he’s using all of them in one play, and because they don’t necessarily contribute in the way that they do in later plays. (One exception, a bit that really does work, is Proteus’s weaselly declaration that Julia is dead when she is right there, disguised. But compare Julia and Lucetta’s relationship with that of Juliet and the Nurse or Portia and Nerissa.)

Critics and scholars have pointed to many other features of Two Gentlemen that marks it as early in their view: the quality of the verse, geographical confusions (the most obvious of which is the idea that you get from Verona to Milan by sea), and technical weaknesses (Stanley Wells comments that whenever there are more than three characters on stage, at least one of them falls silent). I have another reason that I can’t properly explain until we discuss the ending of the play.

For more, I think I’ll refer you to Clifford Leech’s introduction to the Arden Second edition of the play, which goes into great detail, including a list of no fewer than twenty-one “oddities” (xviii-xxi). William C. Carroll, editor of the Arden Third, is alert to the play’s manifold incongruities, but he doesn’t seem to think they form the basis of any possible argument for dating the play. my disagreement with him is deep enough that it requires a separate post.