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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“All That Was Mine in Silvia”

Act 5 is where Two Gentlemen comes together, or falls apart, or both. First, let’s recap what leads up to the ending. Silvia, disgusted by Proteus and Milan, has decided to flee to the very forest where Valentine has become the leader of a merry band of outlaws (who are a little too reminiscent of Monty Python’s Dennis More and company to take seriously, and who describe themselves as “gentlemen,” 4.1.43). She does so in the very brief 5.1. In 5.2, learning that Silvia has fled, the enraged Duke pursues her into the forest, dragging Proteus and Thurio with him, as Julia tags along (“And I will follow, more to cross that love/Than hate for Silvia, that is gone for love,” 5.2.53–54). Note how Shakespeare has arranged things so that everybody except the servants and Crab will soon end up in the same place. Actually, you can’t help but notice it; it’s that crudely done.

Silvia is captured by the bandits in 5.3 (as are Proteus and Julia, offstage). They take her to “our captain’s cave” (12), at which prospect Silvia interjects “O Valentine, this I endure for thee!” (15). Valentine hides himself as the little party, now including Proteus and Julia, approaches. So he is eavesdropping on the following scene (5.4). Remember, he sees and hears it all.


Proteus brazenly comes on again to Silvia (“Unhappy were you, madam, ere I came/But by my coming I have made you happy,” 5.4.29–30), only to meet another vehement rejection:


Had I been seized by a hungry lion,
I would have been a breakfast to the beast
Rather than have false Proteus rescue me.
. . .
I do detest false perjured Proteus.
Therefore be gone, solicit me no more.


But not only does Proteus not take no for an answer, he thinks that no means yes:

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form,
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love—force ye.
SILVIA. O heaven!
PROTEUS.                    I’ll force thee yield to my desire.


Let’s pause for a moment and be absolutely clear about what just happened. Proteus, that gentleman of Verona, has just tried to rape the woman he says he loves.

I’m ashamed to acknowledge that we live in a world where this really happens. Rape is all too real and too prevalent (though even once is too often.) But in late 2014, at least we can say that it is a crime, however underreported and underprosecuted. And that morally a rapist or attempted rapist like Proteus places himself beyond the pale. Not only can we not approve of his act, we can no longer approve of him. We especially can’t regard him as anything like the hero of this play or as deserving anything other than punishment for what he’s done.


Note also that a play that has at best skirted the edge of frivolity for its entire length suddenly lurches into brutal reality. A play with a rapist as one of its comic heroes is—to say the very least—extremely problematic. It is no longer a comedy. We cannot laugh at what Proteus has done.


So what happens next? Valentine finally decides that the time is ripe to reveal himself, and denounces Proteus savagely. Not because he tried to rape a woman. No, Valentine is miffed that Proteus has betrayed their friendship:


Thou common friend, that’s without faith or love,
For such is a friend now! Treacherous man!
Thou hast beguiled my hopes. Naught but mine eye
Could have persuaded me. Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou wouldst disprove me.
Who should be trusted, when one’s right hand
Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus,
I am sorry I must never trust thee more,
But count the world a stranger for thy sake.
The private wound is deepest. O time most accurst,
‘Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!
(5.4. 62–72)


I’ve quoted this whole speech to show you that there’s not a word about Silvia. But then, why should there be? She’s property, as will be underlined later. This is between the two gents, and it’s pure bromance. Proteus responds with the abasement appropriate to an offending bro:


My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine; if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender‘t here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.

We can wonder, and many have, whether Proteus is even sincere, but he certainly gets the response he wants—the passage that has caused more dropped jaws than any other in Shakespeare:


VALENTINE. Then I am paid,
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased;
By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.

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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.

The One with the Hole in It

Launce’s first monologue is lines 1–30 of Act 2, scene 3. Some scholars consider its placement right after Proteus’s parting from Julia in scene 2 strategic, in that Crab’s indifference to Launce’s tears (as we’ll see) ironically parallels Proteus’s indifference to Julia. This strikes me as something of a stretch, in that Proteus is not indifferent to Julia in scene 2; he only becomes indifferent after he falls for Silvia. So at best Launce’s scene foreshadows 4.2.82–136, in which Proteus woos Silvia in Julia’s disguised presence, or 4.4.39–105, in which Proteus bids Julia give Silvia the ring Julia gave him as a token. (The problem with the latter is that the immediately preceding 4.4.1–38 is Launce’s second monologue.) Further, whereas Proteus is parting from Julia in 2.2, Launce has taken Crab with him.

Whatever the merits of the Proteus-Crab analogy, here is the monologue:

LAUNCE. Nay, ’twill be this hour ere I have done weeping; all the kind of the Launces have this very fault. I have received my proportion, like the prodigious son, and am going with Sir Proteus to the Imperial’s court. I think Crab my dog be the sourest-natured dog that lives; my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebblestone, and has no more pity in him than a dog. A Jew would have wept to have seen our parting. Why, my grandam, having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at my parting. Nay, I’ll show you the manner of it. This shoe is my father. No, this left shoe is my father. No, no, this left shoe is my mother. Nay, that cannot be so neither. Yes, it is so, it is so: it hath the worser sole. This shoe with the hole in it is my mother, and this my father. A vengeance on’t—there ‘tis. Now, sir, this staff is my sister; for, look you, she is as white as a lily and as small as a wand. This hat is Nan, our maid. I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. O, the dog is me, and I am myself. Ay, so, so. Now come I to my father: “Father, your blessing.” Now should not the shoe speak a word for weeping. Now should I kiss my father—well, he weeps on. Now come I to my mother: O, that she could speak now, like a wood woman! Well, I kiss her. Why, there ’tis—here’s my mother’s breath up and down. Now come I to my sister: mark the moan she makes. Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.

This big long block of text would be easier to follow with the help of a performance. I haven’t found any videos online I really liked, but this is the best; it’s got plenty of the physical business Shakespeare obviously left room for (you can find at least two others in which Launce just stands there holding Crab! Which seems to me to miss at least half the point).

The jokes need little if any explanation but a few points are worth making. Notice how the anthropomorphized cat, wringing her hands, contrasts with Crab, who has “no more pity in him than a dog”—well, what were you expecting? And yes, that’s a very broad joke (like “sheds not a tear nor speaks a word” at the end), but that’s the nature of this passage. The same goes for the business with the shoes. In his Shakespeare, Sex, and Love, Stanley Wells protests:

Some sexual jests are so simple-minded that no pun is required to signal them. So when Lance . . . says, “This shoe with the hole in it is my mother . . . the hearer needs little intelligence to understand why something with a hole in it may be identified with the female of the species. This is a kind of “groan-joke”—so obvious that the hearer may even feel a kind of comic resentment at being expected to find it funny (90).

Well, yes, it is a groaner, but tastes in humor vary, and I’d say that puns, to which Launce is also addicted, can just as easily be groaners. In fact, Wells has just cited a perfect example, when Speed asks “What news with your mastership?” (a term used by inferiors to address superiors, here an obvious sarcasm) and Launce replies “With my master’s ship? Why, it is at sea.” Speed even underlines the labored effect by replying “Well, your old vice still: mistake the word” (3.1.275–279).

I confess I find the innuendo a bit of a relief after that. Two other points: first, it’s sharpened by the subliminal hint of incest (if the shoe with the hole in it were Julia or Silvia, the effect would be entirely different), and more important, it allows for a bit of physical business if Launce waggles his finger through the hole (as he does in the clip). I suspect it was Will Kemp who had the main input here.

Even crude sex jokes can be funny, just like fart jokes. Which brings us to Launce’s second monologue, in the next post.



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.




Poor Julia! (2 of 2)

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?

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Happy 450th, Will!

Just in under the wire. . . .