The plot tweet: Proteus loves Julia, then Valentine's girl Silvia, then Julia again. Or as explained in Shakespeare in Love, it is "love, and a bit with a dog."
My favorite line: "Upon some book I love I'll pray for thee." (Proteus)
The critical reaction to Two Gentlemen of Verona is rather amusing. The critics apparently really want to say, "I really hate this play. It sucks." What they say instead:
"The weakest of all Shakespeare's comedies ... so manifestly peculiar that Shakespeare cannot have expected any audience to accept this, even as farce." (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human)
"Little more than the first outlines of a comedy loosely sketched in ... [quoting Pope] I wish I had authority to leave them out, but I have done all I could, set a mark of reprobation upon them." (William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays)
"It is useless to try to deal with the characters as if they were sensitive, intelligent, highly developed and psychologized persons ... [this play is] the first in a long series of romantic comedies that are superior to it." (Maurice Charney, All of Shakespeare)
"We might regard Two Gentlemen as an anthology of bits and pieces waiting to be crafted into more compelling drama." (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All)Gosh, I didn't think it was that bad. Did you? As Garber points out, Two Gents has all the familiar elements of Shakespearean comedy crammed into one play: a female character dresses up as a boy, a female character woos another woman while disguised, a pair of lovers plan to elope, a worthy gentleman is banished, a harsh ruler makes things hard on young lovers, a clown provides comic relief, and everyone pairs off and gets married in the end. It's like some bizarre Shakespearean YouTube mash-up. I think we can all agree it's not Shakespeare's best work, but neither would I say that it is irredeemably bad.
That said, my copy of the play is now peppered with marginal question marks, my way of noting, "I have no idea what just happened here." The largest question mark is in act five, scene four, which basically goes like this:
Silvia: Alas, woe is me, I love Valentine!
Proteus: Fine, if you won't love me, I'll rape you instead. By the way, I also told on you to your father and lied about my first love being dead.
Valentine: Dude, get away from my girlfriend! I am so disappointed in you. We can never be friends again.
Proteus: Oops, sorry.
Valentine: Hey, no worries. I forgive you. If you want her, you can have her.
Julia: Hey, wait a minute ...
How are we supposed to interpret Valentine's instant forgiveness of so many grievous faults? And, at the end, when Valentine says the couples will go to "one feast, one house, one mutual happiness," who exactly is supposed to be happy in this situation? Not Julia, certainly, and probably not Silvia either, since Valentine has just offered her up to Proteus as a token of friendship.
These are questions that must be answered on stage, and I look forward to seeing the play next month at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where one of my favorite actors, Bruce Dow, will play Speed. More than anything, I'm wondering whether they'll use a real dog. If so, what breed will it be? How will it behave on stage, and how does one train a dog for stage acting ...
Perhaps the fact that I'm thinking about the dog is the best indication that this play lacks substance. It does not, however, lack charm.