Superlative Obscurity

Two Gents textShakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona is relatively unknown and undone in comparison to his other plays. This even though the play features several Shakespearean superlatives: smallest cast (13 named characters), first appearance of a girl disguised as a boy, most occurrences of forms of the word “love” (225, with Romeo and Juliet a distant second with 182), and the sole named animal (Crab, Launce’s dog). But the play is far from a favorite. It has been called “immature,” “trifling,” “improbable and unrealistic,” and “slipshod” by critics.

Scholars place the writing of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the early to mid-1590s making it one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. Various lines, such as “Some, to the wars, to try their fortunes there; / Some, to discover islands far away” being thought to refer to Elizabeth’s aid to Henry IV and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Guiana expedition, help speculators on such things attempt to date the play. The first recorded performance of the play was not until December 1762 at the Drury Lane Theater. Evidence indicates that the play was a disaster, possibly owing to its being a cobbled-together adaptation by the theatre’s treasurer, a Benjamin Victor, that altered the ending for the sole purpose of bringing back the clowns Speed and Launce and the dog Crab in the last act. In January 1763, the sixth performance of the play was stopped because a fire broke out during a riot at Drury Lane—or was it a riot that broke out during a fire? At any rate, significant damage was done to the scenery and the theatre during what would later be referred to as the Half-Price Riots. After that, the play was not performed again until it was seen at Covent Garden in April 1784. The play returned to the Drury Lane (renovated and under new management) in 1790. Then in April 1808 actor Charles Kemble, a joint proprieter of the Covent Garden theatre, enacted the part of Valentine in a production that returned to the unsuccessful Victor version. Two Gentlemen was again abysmally received, and only three performances were held. It was Kemble who had the play written as an opera by Frederic Reynolds in November 1821. The operatic version was a failure as well. Even today, the play is done relatively infrequently. Perhaps the most well-known line of the play, “Who is Silvia?” is part of a song that was set to music by Franz Schubert in 1826.

So why did this play fall from, and generally continue to be out of, favor? I’m glad you asked. There seem to be two main objections to the play. The first is the fact that The Two Gentlemen of Verona consists of a string of duo scenes that, left in the hands of an unskilled director (which we have not), become monotonous (which ours are not). Some critics go so far as to say that this early Shakespeare seems uncomfortable whenever there are more than four people on stage. This objection is easily overcome by Summer Shakespeare’s talented troupe. The second, and more substantial, objection to the play has traditionally been the final scene in which Valentine says to his rival, “And that my love may appear plain and free, / All that was mine in Silvia, I give thee.” Debates continue about what in the world Valentine was thinking to offer up his lady love to this cad who has only just attacked her in the forest. Here is where some digging yields possible results. In an ancient book entitled The Works of Shakespeare edited by Charles Knight (no date), the editor explains that Valentine is most likely saying that the line means that Valentine is giving up the anger that he has (hence the past tense “was”) in regard to Silvia. With this reading, the play’s ending becomes one of supreme and selfless forgiveness. A worthy theme, right? Come see whether we can pull this relatively obscure interpretation off believably. Tickets are waiting for you at 770-1372 or on the Box Office page!

Have you ever seen a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona? What did you think of the last scene in the production you saw?

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