The Two Gentlemen of Verona is Shakespeare’s bromance. Gentlemen only in the sense that they don’t have to work for a living, Valentine and Proteus are buddies no mere woman can separate. It’s unquestionably very early Shakespeare—a “laboratory,” as the Oxford Shakespeare editors put it, for a plethora of ideas used more successfully in later plays, such as male friends infatuated with the same woman; cross-dressing; stratagems with rope ladders; a double-entendre conversation between a heroine and her lady in waiting; a humorous catalogue of the qualities of a less-than-alluring woman.
But the two hilarious, dirty speeches made by Proteus’s servant Launce about his dog Crab are so brilliantly effective they seem to belong to a different play. (In fact, it’s plausible that they were added when the clown Will Kemp joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.) Crab is the silent straight man as Launce berates him, first for failing to show any emotion at his departure (2.3.1-32; this scene is especially effective when Crab is played by a cardboard cutout), then (4.4.1-39) for misbehavior that shouldn’t be recounted in a family-friendly blog (but if you see a play on words in “farthingale,” you’re right).
And then . . . there’s the ending. Having followed Valentine to Milan, Proteus has spent most of the play in a fruitless attempt to seduce Valentine’s beloved, Silvia. After rescuing her from brigands in the nearby woods, he tries to rape her (“I’ll force thee yield to my desire,” [5.4.58]). Valentine, who has been watching, comes out of hiding to stop him but moments later, after Proteus’s not very convincing show of repentance, says: “And that my love may appear plan and free / All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee” (5.4.82-83).
Yes, Valentine is offering his beloved to the man who has just tried to rape her. Scholars have tried to explain this offer away; directors cut or soft-pedal it (I once saw a production in which the women berated Proteus in language taken from Love’s Labour’s Lost!). But the very last lines are Valentine’s to Proteus: “ . . . our day of marriage shall be yours / One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” (5.4.170-71). Is Shakespeare reducing the medieval male friendship (bromance) tradition to absurdity? Or is he simply not yet in control of his material?
The latter, I’m afraid. Nobody notes the Duke’s lines: “Sir Valentine, / Thou are a gentleman, and well deriv’d / Take thou thy Silvia, for thou hast deserved her” (5.4.143-45). For all the ink spilled on the offer, it’s nugatory. The woman is property, but Valentine has nothing that is “mine in Silvia” to give to Proteus until her father gives her to a “gentleman.” Finally the true meaning of the term emerges, and it’s even less pretty than we thought.