The Bardathon: 1 – The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Perhaps The Two Gentlemen of Verona works better in performance. The reading, however, left me decidedly underwhelmed. Of course, this is possibly Shakespeare’s very first play, and I did not expect a masterpiece; but I did expect some glimmers, some indications of what was to come. But there didn’t seem to be much of that either.

And yet, in terms of plot details, there are many aspects that return in Shakespeare’s later works: motifs from this play find their way into Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, etc. etc. And if, as seems likely, Shakespeare had collaborated very late in his career in The Two Noble Kinsmen (a dramatisation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale), then the title chosen for that work seems to be an affectionate glance back at this earlier play.

The plot is preposterous, but that needn’t be a drawback: the plots of Twelfth Night or As You Like It are also quite preposterous, but that does not prevent these later plays being great masterpieces. But here, the poetry and the imagery seem, at best, merely pretty, and, frequently, quite laboured. Here is a typical example:

This weak impress of love is as a figure  
Trenched in ice, which with an hour’s heat
Dissolves to water and doth lose his form.
A little time will melt her frozen thoughts,  
And worthless Valentine shall be forgot.

A simple conceit, but expressed in rather verbose terms over five rather unremarkable lines. In later plays, such an image would merely have been touched upon in passing, and would have been swept up in a host of other images. The laboured quality I find here gives the whole thing a sort of static, lumpen quality.

The humour too, seems rather obvious and laboured. With the exception of Launce’s anecdote about his dog, it all seems eminently forgettable. And time after time, one comes across scenes, and wonders how a more mature Shakespeare would have handled them. Take, for example, that brief scene between Sylvia and the disguised Julia, and compare that to the gloriously lyrical scene in Twelfth Night between Olivia and the disguised Viola, and the difference in quality is all too apparent.

Of course, this sort of lyric, romantic comedy is a very artificial medium, and one shouldn’t cavil at the artficialities inherent in the form; but nonetheless, within the parameters of the work, one should look for at least some psychological credibility. And what happens in the last scene defies any credibility at all. It’s like something out of Monty Python. Valentine saves his love Sylvia from being raped by his false friend Proteus; Proteus then expresses remorse; and Valentine accepts Proteus’ repentance, and actually offers to give Sylvia to Proteus as a mark of his friendship. It may be that Shakespeare was bound by the original source material, but this really would be distasteful were it not too silly for words.

Not an auspicious start to the Bardathon, I’m afraid, and if I didn’t have some idea of the riches to come, I’d be tempted to give up here and now. But it’s good to know that Shakespeare didn’t start off a genius: he had to work hard to cultivate his extraordinary talents. 

***

The BBC version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona proves that it does work better in performance than on the page – or, at the very least, it can be made to work. Tessa  Peake-Jones (who later turned up as Raquel in Only Fools and Horses) made an excellent Julia, and projected more pathos in the role than I thought was possible: the serenade scene was particularly effective. But I’m afraid that this still remains a very minor play, and possibly a contender for the worst single play Shakespeare has written.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael H. on March 1, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Whenever I’ve seen a production of ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ they director seems always to want to ‘do something with it’. I recall a production in the Swan Theatre at Stratford which was played in modern dress and used interpolated songs by Cole Porter. Kenneth Branagh did something similar in his film of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.

    Reply

    • I think companies like the RSC feel obliged to perform this play because it has the magical name of Shakespeare attached to it, but they realise that one has to “do something” to it to make it worthwhile. I thought the BBC production did as fine a job of this as is possible, without going for any gimmickry. But in all honesty, if it weren’t part of the canon, it’s very unlikely ever to be performed at all.

      Reply

  2. Don’t know this play at all – and frankly you haven’t sold it to me! Just wanted to note that, “Fools & Horses” aside, Tessa Peake-Jones was also good in the 1987 TV production of Orton’s “What the Butler Saw”.

    Reply

    • Mike, if I tried to sell this play to you, I’d lose credibility for anything else I tried to sell! But watch this space, as they say – the plays do get better. Considerably better…

      Reply

  3. Posted by Michael H. on March 2, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Of course, having vowed to the Muses at the age of about 15 (having been bowled over by the Old Vic in ‘Othello’ with Paul Rogers, Irene Worth, Coral Browne) that I would see, collect, ALL Shakespeare’s plays in performance ON STAGE, I HAD to see ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’. It took me to about age 40 to complete the canon. The final one was ‘Cymbeline’. Some rarities, like Titus Andronicus’ arrived in my collector’s bottle as early as 1958. Some, like ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘King John’, I have seen only twice. Some like ‘Hamlet’, ‘A Midummer Night’s Dream’, ‘Twelfth Night’, I have seen many times and are part of my permanent consciousness. Indeed I cannot imagine my life without WS and all that goes with him. It was a great pleasure, and a lasting satisfaction, to actually act Romeo, Puck, Lorenzo, Horatio, Orlando, Oberon, Bottom when a young man. There is nothing like acting Shakespeare for getting inside the lines. Making them work in performance. Being part of a kind of poetic tennis game with the other actors, responding to them, and sending your lines back. I think the most thrilling moments I can remember are as Puck and speaking his final address to the audience, and hearing the waves of applause as my spotlight faded. Absolutely exhilarating.

    Reply

    • I’m afraid that for those of us lacking the talent to act, we must be content with experiencing Shakespeare either in the library, or from the auditorium. I’ve often wondered, though – if I could act, which Shakespearean role would I most want to play? I think I’d want to play mark Antony. Why? ’Cos you get to snog the actress playing Cleopatra, of course! 🙂

      Reply

  4. Posted by Michael H. on March 3, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Dear AOG, Have you ever considered starting a Shakespeare Society? I mean actually, rather than on line? I bet there would be a lot of interested parties in your part of the world. A sort of club where members could discuss Shakespeare and all related topics. Drink wine of course while doing so. And read the plays, or parts of them. It’s an excellent way to get to know plays which one will never see in performance. And reading out loud often makes knotty passges clearer. Many years ago I was a member of a play-reading group which was great fun. The organiser prepared a cut version and put in and read his own stage directions. I remember an hilarious evening reading ‘Titus Andronicus’ when the excesses of the plot became too much for those asembled. The evening finally collapsed, and the play with it, on the line after the ravishment – ‘Help ho, Lavinia is surprised.’

    Reply

    • That does sound very attractive, Michael, but to be frank, I doubt I have enough time or energy to set up something like that: I have too much on my plate already. And it’s hard enough finding enough people in the whole wide world of the internet sufficiently interested in Shakespeare even to discuss his works, so how I’m going to find enough people in the locality sufficiently interested in Shakespeare to set up the sort of thing you are sggesting, I have no idea! (That was a really badly constructed sentence, but I am too tired to polish it up!) It does sound fun, though.

      Reply

  5. I would appreciate more visual materials, to make your blog more attractive, but your writing style really compensates it. But there is always place for improvement

    Reply

    • Thank you very much for your feedback. I am afraid I am still quite new to all this, and I haven’t yet come to grips with all the possibilities of blogging. You are quite right, of course – I should certainly put in more illustrations, video clips, etc. to make the blog more attractive. I’ll see what I can do over the next few weeks on this front. Thanks once again.

      Reply

  6. Thank you for that – but I’m afraid that the only copy-writer is my my own unpaid self! 🙂

    When I was reading through the Shakespeare plays last year, I was writing up notes on each of them, mainly because I find that when I write up my thoughts, it helps to clarify them in my own mind. Then, seeing I had notes on all the plays, I thought I might as well stick them up on a blog somewhere. And if this enocurages a bit of discussion on these plays (and on other works that I love) – then so much the better!

    Please do come to this blog again: I have the scribbling habit, I’m afraid, and enjoy writing, and would hate to think that all this stuff goes unread…

    Reply

  7. Talk about arriving late at the party; well, four and a half years late! Anyway, regarding the appallingly crude end scene between Valentine, Silvia and Proteus I’ve recently come across a different take on that. I’m reading ‘Shakespeare’s Happy Comedies’, a 1962 book by John Dover Wilson and regarding that scene he notes:

    “…Shakespeare greatly enriched his plot which now turned upon a conflict between Love and Friendship.

    “This, however, is a theme not fully understood by critics because Elizabethan ideas of love and about friendship and about the relationship between the two, are strange to our modern minds”

    Well, yeah: you can say that again; but he goes on:

    “No doubt the incident of the attempted violation is managed with a crudity we do not expect from Shakespeare. No doubt too the repentance of Proteus that follows Valentine’s forgiveness and the subsequent surrender of Silvia are huddled one upon the other with incredible speed. It is rough technique that seems to contrast strangely with the rest of the play which, if less subtle than ‘As You Like It’ or ‘Twelfth Night’, is constructed with considerable skill. and gives an effect of great charm on the stage when well produced. The apparent crudity of the last scene may well be partly due, I believe, to textual corruption, but the almost universal condemnation of it at the hands of modern critics is also due to their inability or refusal to view the scene through Elizabethan eyes as a young poet’s rather high-flown representation of the triumph of Friendship over Love.”

    I’m afraid I can’t make the frankly enormous leap that he’s asking for; I did, however, think it worth noting a different view.

    Reply

    • Don’t worry about being late to the party: this set of posts on Shakespeare’s plays were the first things I put up on the blog, and, in retrospect, they aren’t aparticularly well-written. No-one turned up to the party at the time either.

      The BBC Shakespeare series actually made quite a good job of it does convey the charm that john Dover Wilson talks about, but, as you say, that last scene is too big a leap for the modern audience. But it is nonetheless fascinating that this play should foreshadow so many of teh themes that appear in his later masterpieces.

      Reply

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