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Experimentation in Two Gentlemen of Verona

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a bingo sheet of Shakespearean plot devices. Though it has a story of its own, the play is difficult to view as much more than a testing ground for devices used and developed more fully in later plays. It does not take someone intimately acquainted with Shakespeare’s works to notice the parallels. This play is therefore an effective foil for evaluating strategies finessed in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice.

In this play, as in Romeo and Juliet, a female protagonist uses the local friar as part of her scheme for an escape. Sylvia uses the façade of going to confession as a cover for her flight to Mantua to find her love Valentine. In the famed tragedy the friar plays a more prominent part of tutor and friend, but the usefulness of having a person in this role cannot be ignored. The inherent discretion of the religious position gives Shakespeare’s plots flexibility. As his plays develop more completely this device falls to the wayside in favor of other stratagems.

There are moments in Two Gentlemen of Verona that seem to be experimental stages of what appear in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The friendship Valentine and Proteus exhibit and how they regard each other does not look too different from the friendship between Hermia and Helena. Both pairs of friends discuss the “over boots in love” (1.1.25) of one or the other, an intention to flee with their love, a wrong or slight between them that breeds ill will, and a reconciliation of the friendship. What brings more believability and humor to the situation in Midsummer is the additional element of fairies manipulating the humans’ lives. This is also true of how Proteus’ love for Julia is “thawed,/Which like a waxen image ‘gainst a fire/Bears no impression of the thing it was” (2.4.210-212) after he meets Julia. In Midsummer this happens to Lysander’s and Demetrius’ love for Hermia with the help of an enchanted flower. In Two Gentlemen of Verona it is a natural occurring falsehood which incites sympathy for Julia and scorn for Proteus. As in Midsummer, though, everything concludes neatly. The lovers offer a simplified summary of events to the Duke and the pairs of lovers leave to be wed. Aspects of this are problematic in the plot in each play, but this, too, is a seems to be a shared, if unintentional, notion.

Valentine’s experience being banished (also another similarity with Romeo from Romeo and Juliet) but finding a home in his banishment parallels that of the Duke Senior’s banishment and the life he forges with his followers in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. Though Valentine is beset by outlaws in his travels in banishment, he becomes their general and comes to live in the wilderness. Just as Duke Senior’s followers willingly join the Duke in banishment in the forest, serving him as their commander and king, the outlaws choose Valentine as their commander and king. In both instances nature comes to represent a more idyllic lifestyle possible only as a result of banishment. Julia’s disguise as the page Sebastian is likewise parallel to Rosalind’s disguise in As You Like It. Both women disguise themselves as page boys and go in search of their loves, Rosalind to the forest of Arden and Julia to Milan. Their stories continue to parallel each other as they enter roles in service to their lovers without their lovers realizing it. Both Rosalind and Julia undertake a transformation to achieve their end.

Disguise is an effective tool used in Twelfth Night, as well. In this later comedy Viola disguises herself as her brother and dons the name Cesario. In this guise she is the servant sent to woo her lover’s love. Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona serves the same purpose. The conversations Viola and Julia have as disguised woman to desired woman share an ambiguous banter and double meaning that creates humor for onlookers. Viola’s conversation with Orsino about her love while she yet retains her disguise continues the humorous thread in a way that also mirrors Julia’s conversation with Sylvia. In this dialogue Sylvia inquires after Julia and Julia must answer truthfully yet not reveal her true identity. These types of scenes demonstrate Shakespeare’s exploration of the use of disguise.

The same trope enters The Merchant of Venice, a more complex tragicomedy. In the same way Julia disguises herself and follows Proteus, Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves and follow their betrothed. Both stories contain an exchange of ring as an important moment and promise of love. This exchange comes before the lovers leave, adding weight to the gesture. It is in disguise that these women, suspicious of some falsehood, plot to catch their loves. While in disguise they obtain the rings as debts of gratitude. This enables them to use the rings to shame their loves as they reveal their true identities. Before vows and the exchange of rings even occurs, though, Julia and Portia demonstrate a similar personality in considering their suitors. Portia talks through her list of suitors with Nerissa just as Julia talks through her suitors with Lucetta. This offers a rare glimpse at the kind of relationship that exists between two close women in Shakespeare’s plays.

The number of plot devices in Two Gentlemen of Verona that parallel those used in other Shakespearean plays indicates experimentation to the development of plot. Witnessing this development across multiple plays is a rare treat possible only because of the playwright’s prolificity.

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