I’ve always loved reading on trains. The views are great, you can do what you like, and the romance of travel always stirs something in me. This Saturday’s trip to London proved particularly pleasant, going from the grey predawn drizzle of Cardiff into the Newport sunrise, to snow on the fields of England and ever-changing January skies – very beautiful to look at while sheltered from the constant alternation of sunshine, rain and hail. It was a perfect time for the second part of my project to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a year.
After reading The Tempest in the RSC’s modern edition of the First Folio, I decided to do something different with Two Gentlemen of Verona and read it in the oldest edition Cardiff University Library still kept on loan. After a few minutes browsing the dustiest and least regarded avenues of Shakespeare Criticism, I found myself holding a 122 year-old edition published in 1893 as part of the original Cambridge Shakespeare series. A tall book printed on handmade paper with generous margins, it was clearly something of a prestige object, and the bookplates in the endpapers revealed a long working life. Originally part of the City of Cardiff Libraries Collection, it was withdrawn as duplicate stock and presented to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as it was then, in 1939. Now broken in the spine and largely held together by sticky tape, it still proves a pleasure to read – the thick luxurious paper feels good under the fingers, and the whole volume exudes a strange sweet smell, like aged honey. It feels strange to be bereft of the usual cribs and glosses with which modern editors fill the margins, and to find in its place a variorum commentary in the page footer referring to the long-superseded eighteenth-century editions of Pope, Theobald, Rowe and Johnson (of which, more later in the blog) but it adds to the interest of the reading experience.
And so to Two Gentlemen of Verona, regarded by critics as being one of Shakespeare’s very first plays – an interesting comparison with The Tempest, one of his latest and finest. If you’ve heard any of it at all, it will probably be these fine lines, which Tom Stoppard borrowed for Shakespeare in Love:
What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me look upon.
The plot bears many familiar Shakespearean comic motifs, later to be honed and finessed in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It – girls dress up as boys, letters miscarry, and love affairs are pleaded by proxies with their own agendas. The eponymous Veronese gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who have been friends since the nursery. Proteus has long been in love with Julia, who grows to respond to his passion, but Valentine’s heart remains unencumbered until he is sent to Milan, and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. (What, if any, relation this Duke of Milan bears to the lineage we see in The Tempest is pure speculation – but he seems more than tyrannical enough to be Antonio, Prospero’s usurper. I know, I’ll be writing fan fiction next.)
This is the cue for a lot of charmingly silly romantic games that wouldn’t be far out of place in your average playground – Julia rips Proteus’s love letter in pieces, and then has a change of heart and goes to great lengths gathering up the fragments. She stamps on and scatters all those that bear her name, tucks all that bear his name in her bosom and, where the fragment bears both, folds them over so they kiss. Silvia, the more resourceful of the two, saves a lot of labour and invention by getting Valentine to write a love letter for her, to ‘a secret unknown friend’ and then pointedly delivering it back to him – something that has to be explained to the clueless Valentine by his valet, Launce, in the usual ‘cheeky servant’ role. His wilful misunderstandings and laboured wordplay quickly become tiresome, but his selfless devotion to his dog, Crab, is equally touching and hilarious.
A darker element to the plot emerges when Proteus’s peremptory father decides to send his son to Milan after Valentine. Proteus duly says his heartfelt goodbyes to Julia, exchanging rings and pledging eternal affection, and no sooner arrives in Milan than he forgets all about her and falls wildly in love with Silvia. His machinations cause the Duke of Milan to discover Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia, and to banish him from the realm, while Proteus, pretending to forward the suit of the Duke’s preferred husband, the foppish and cowardly Thurio, pleads his own case to Silvia in the form of a series of very Shakespearean songs and sonnets. Unknown to him, his infidelity is witnessed by Julia, who has come to Milan disguised as a male page, and found a position in Proteus’s employ.
At this point the plot, which until this point has held up pretty well, begins to unravel. The exiled Valentine is captured in the forest by a bunch of soft-hearted outlaws, the elder brothers of the Pirates of Penzance, who elect him their King with comical haste. Back in Milan, meanwhile, Silvia enlists the aid of the honest widower Sir Plot-Device in order to escape her enforced captivity in her father’s house. Sir Plot-Device, the most thankless role in the production, duly rescues her, accompanies to the forest, and then vanishes from the play without a word. The reader is left to guess whether he was secretly murdered by Proteus or if he merely knocked himself out on a low-hanging branch. His absence gives space for the disgracefully rushes final scene, a confrontation between Proteus and Silvia in the forest, while Julia wrings her hands on the sidelines in disguise and Valentine, unknown to any of them, watches from afar. Maddened by lust, Proteus resolves to rape Silvia – at which point Valentine intervenes to avert tragedy. Proteus goes down on his knees and begs forgiveness, and in a worryingly short space of time – about 20 blank verse lines – Valentine forgives him, and seems to offer him Silvia as pledge of their renewed friendship. At this point Julia faints, and her disguise is penetrated by means of the rings she and Proteus exchanged earlier; Proteus is allowed to revert to his former love with hardly a word of blame. The Duke of Milan is dragged on stage by the outlaws just in time to give Valentine’s marriage his blessing and issue a general pardon, and the play concludes in the least convincing happy ending until I get round to Measure for Measure.
It would be no exaggeration to call the resolution problematic. I caught the cinema version of last year’s RSC production, which at least attempts to inflect Valentine’s forgiveness with some doubt and consideration by filling it with very long, awkward silences. Julia’s silence in this scene irritates me in the extreme. It would surely be a good moment to tiptoe up behind Proteus with a blackjack in hand, or at the very least, make a moving speech of dissuasion – but she remains voiceless and passive, and it’s only Valentine’s appearance that saves the day. Surely, having witnessed Proteus’s behaviour in the play, her opinion of him has changed? Just a trifle? Often with Shakespeare, I find myself wondering whether the problematic bits are really that bigoted, or just there to make you think. This time, it just feels like he was writing in a hurry, and produced a rushed and ill thought out conclusion to a play that, despite its flaws, remains broadly enjoyable, and shadows forward the greater dramaturgy and the more triumphant poetry of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Sonnets.