I didn't intend to read anymore Shakespeare for my Classics Club Challenge, but then the local theater company staged The Two Gentlemen of Verona this summer and traditionally we've always read the play before attending annual outdoor Shakespeare. And so it was that I came to read (and listen since Miss 16 and I read along while listening to an audio version) this early, lesser known comedy.It also works nicely as my "Classic with a number in the title" for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge.
The plot begins simply enough. Proteus and Valentine are friends from Verona. Valentine decides to leave for Milan in order to see the world, while Proteus wants to stay, because that's where his love Julia is. However, as no one familiar with Shakespeare comedies will be surprised to learn, complications soon abound. Proteus's father decides to send him to Milan anyway, Valentine falls in love with Silvia whose father wants her to marry Thurio, Proteus also falls in love with Silvia, Julia follows Proteus, disguises herself as a page and discovers his treachery, Valentine is banished but falls in with a gang of outlaws, and so it goes. But everyone ends up happy and reconciled in the end.
Admittedly this is not Shakespeare's strongest work and it does not contain any meaningful lessons about the dangers of unbridled ambition or revenge. Yet it was enjoyable in a lighthearted way and contained many elements which I think of as quintessentially Shakespeare The fast-paced witty dialogue from minor characters like Lance and Speed was repeated in many later plays. Mistaken identities as when Proteus did not recognise Julia are also a feature of many later plays. This was Shakespeare's first play to include song, and it was obviously popular since he included songs in many of his later plays. The theme of parents attempting to control their children's love lives was returned to in Romeo and Juliet for instance , and that play also featured a friar's cell, a device tried earlier but in a more limited way in The Two Gentlemen. Viola in Twelfth Night disguised herself as a page just like Julia did here, while the scene where Julia discusses her beaus with her servant Lucetta a is very similar to a discussion between Nerissa and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. In other words while the play itself was not his strongest many of the elements in it were so successful that Shakespeare used them again in later plays.
The ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is often criticized for being forced, weak, too quick and unconvincing. Certainly, Shakespeare had the lovers seemingly happily partnered up in just a few short lines and I wanted to yell at some of the characters ("Valentine, if you love Silvia don't give her up to Proteus. Women aren't possession to be given away anyway and since he tried to steal her from you he isn't a worthy friend." "Silvia and Julia, look at the behavior of these guys and ask yourselves if you really want to be with them."). However, in context, the ending doesn't seem unduly rushed or unbelievable. Romeo for instance was deeply in love with Rosalind but a short time later could think of none but Juliet.
If you are looking to find Shakespeare at his finest this isn't the play for you. But if you are familiar with his work, open to something light and are interested to see how his style developed then The Two Gentlemen of Verona would be a good choice.