Two Gentlemen of Verona
This is one of the least well-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and many of those who know it dislike it with a rare intensity. It has a fantastically convoluted and artificial set-up, and a solution that is, by most readers’s standards, grotesque and abusive. Almost no age has found the final resolution really appealing. A lot of the things along the way are so arbitrary as to defy categorization (including one scene where one of the two so-called gentlemen is set upon by outlaws, who, finding that he has no money to give them, demand that he become their leader instead). And yet there are a few emotionally resonant scenes at its heart, especially in the fourth act, and a number of thematic connections that remain interesting in spite of all its shortcomings.
Whatever one can garner from the play really needs to be drawn from the intrinsic power of its dramatic situation, and the predicament in which the most interesting of the central characters (Julia) finds herself. In keeping with a few other of Shakespeare’s comedies (she resembles no one so much as the abject doormat Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well), she exercises a generosity and greatness of spirit right at the border between sainthood and delusion. The unfolding of that generosity and pathos one sees in “Sebastian” (Julia in disguise) can, in spite of everything, be genuinely dramatically powerful material, if you don’t insist on the whole thing making much sense in the long run. The titular two gentlemen are harder to tolerate: one of them is a would-be rapist, and the other willing to facilitate. At least one famous critical wag concluded that by the end of the play there were no gentlemen in Verona. Of course by the term Shakespeare meant something about social standing, not about their behavior, which is at most points loathsome.
It’s probably almost a joke since the movie Shakespeare in Love, but here arguably the “bit with a dog” rises to an uncommonly high level. What are we to make of the relationship of Lance with “man’s best friend”? Does it have some thematic connection to the larger issues of the play? I think it may, but I haven’t yet been able to nail down exactly what.
Despite the fact that this is not among Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, it has had a following through the years, both in English and in translation. Schubert wrote a rather popular (German) setting of the song from Act IV (An Sylvia, D. 891).