Thursday, July 29, 2010

5. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Everyone says this is Shakespeare’s worst play and they have a point. The plot is half-baked, the characters are comic-book-cut-outs and the language is all clichés. Much of it is a real displeasure to read. People say the best parts are the parts about the clownish servants, mainly Launce and his monologues about his madcap dog (if this really is Shakespeare’s first comedy, these are his first of many funny servants), but even these are not worked out.

1. Comedy:

Shakespeare’s comic strategy in this play seems to consist of three elements: 1) the funny servants, 2) sarcastic asides, especially in one comic dialogue in which Julia, the wronged lover disguised as a boy servant, provides them, and 3) everyone’s a little bit kooky in the sense that they do things that don’t make sense. Today people would call these characters “unmotivated” and unbelievable. If you put them all in clown suits and made them fall all over each other while they say the lines they say, maybe you would get a laugh: I can’t imagine any other way to make it work (yet, the play was successful with early audiences).

But still, Shakespeare must have been thinking something when he wrote this, and if you look closely you can see signs that there was some kind of idea behind it.

2. Violent Dualism:

The main reason why the characters seem to act so unbelievably is that they are constantly going from one extreme to another without warning. That becomes especially visible in the end. Proteus, the Evil Gentleman, nearly rapes Silvia, the lover of the Good Gentleman Valentine. Valentine preaches at him for about half a minute, Proteus repents and asks forgiveness for all the bad things he’s done against his pal Valentine throughout the play, Valentine forgives him, they are close friends again. All this you can accept if you really want to. Then Valentine says, “Okay, since we’re friends again, I’ll give you the love of my life Silvia, because friendship is greater than love.” If you’ve taken anything in the play seriously up to now, that’s the last straw, you’re the last one in the audience to walk out. It’s just bizarre, this character veering so suddenly away from everything he has worked for and believed in, and it makes his love to Silvia, which he is constantly preaching about, a joke.

On the other hand, this is a comedy. I can imagine what Shakespeare was trying to do: Throughout the entire play, he plays with dualities; he shows people jumping from one extreme to the other.

In the beginning, Valentine and Proteus discuss what is best, love or career (more or less). Proteus is all for career. Then he meets Julia. Suddenly he’s all for love. (Julia too, is all back and forth about Proteus.) Then he meets Silvia (who is in love with Valentine) and he completely forgets Julia and is head over heels for Silvia. Everything he talks about in theory flies out the window immediately. He doesn’t know his own heart at all, it’s all just talk. Nor does he know what a horrible bad person he is until he meets Silvia and plots to steal her away from Valentine.

Sudden reversal of personality characterizes everyone in the play: Valentine, in exile, meets robbers who want to kill him, but instead they make him their boss. It’s all crap in our eyes, completely out of character from beginning to end. But it’s also all about people saying one thing and doing another and even surprising themselves, doing it.In the end, when Good-Gentleman Valentine offers to hand over the love of his life, for whom he has sacrificed all, to his friend, whom she hates and who has just tried to rape her, Valentine is again doing what he thought he wouldn’t do: He’s showing that friendship is more important to him than love, even though it’s love he can’t stop taking about thought the play.

Of course, Valentine also proves thusly that he is a wimp in general compared to Proteus’ more predatory nature. Then there’s the gay thing: Depending on how you play it, you can make a good case for Valentine simply being secretly in love with Proteus all this time and Silvia just an elaborate beard. This theory makes a lot of sense in the end, but there’s not much in the rest of the play to back it up – Valentine never pines for Proteus when they’re apart – so it probably wasn’t some kind of conscious thing on Shakespeare’s part.

3. Plotting: The Boxing Model vs. the Bolero Model

Shakespeare’s idea of plotting is taking shape. So far I see two methods:

In Richard III he used “The Bolero Model” – that is, he keeps slowly building up one idea until it implodes. With Richard, it was his way to the throne plastered with bodies. The bodies kept piling up, Richard kept getting more and more evil. There was impressively little resistance throughout the play – we’re just astounded again and again as Richard proves himself more and more evil. I kept thinking, if I were to stage it I would set up a huge checklist with all the names of everyone he has to kill in order to get the keep the throne, and whenever he gets one more step toward ultimate power, he’d check off another name. Finally, in the end, resistance gets its act together and finally fights back, and Richard gets his come-uppance. But the resistance doesn’t fight back until the very end.

In Two Gentlemen, Shakespeare uses the Boxing Model: Resistance is immediate and continual. Every time a protagonist makes a move, the antagonist makes a counter-move. It’s slug for slug, back and forth.

The Bolero method only works if build-up is fascinating enough, and Richard of course is a fascinating character. The one-step-forward-two-steps-back Boxing Method keeps us on the edge of our seats no matter if the character is weak or not: We want to know if the protagonist will reach his goal and get anxious every time he experiences a setback. In Gentlemen: Everything Valentine and Proteus do gets reversed, and they have to fight to become master of the situation once more.4. Villainy:

Speaking of Richard – the only interesting character in Two Gentlemen is Evil-Gentleman Proteus. Even though he is poorly drawn, he is a scoundrel, compared with goody-goody/weak-kneed Valentine. He has no compunction against betraying his friend. He acknowledges certain irony in his actions, even the amorality of them, but that doesn’t stop him. The big difference – the reason Richard is so vibrant and fascinating and Proteus, who is actually very villainous for a character in a comedy, is so pale, is that Proteus doesn’t revel in his evil, as Richard does.

The whole time, reading, I kept having this unexplainable urge to rewrite it. I couldn’t help feeling that Shakespeare should have gone further with Evil Proteus and with the entire reversal of personality thing. I thought: If I had a chance to rewrite it, that’s what I would do, I would make Proteus more villainous, more kooky and emotionally erratic, and make Valentine more of a weakling, dreamy-for-love but unable to get his act together (and possibly more in love with Proteus) and also, like Proteus, not knowing his own heart.