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.