When Shakespeare set his play about male bonding and verbal horseplay in Verona, he may have tipped his hat at a feature of Roman comedy–the sparring of slaves/servants as they outwit their masters. Verona was a Roman city as its beautifully preserved “coliseum” attests. On the other hand, the verbal horseplay in the first “half” of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590-91) may have been based on various Renaissance predecessors, such as the amusingly titled The Blok named the Governour (Thomas Elyot, 1513).
As we listened to the verbal sparring–word play, one-up-man’ship to the max–I began to doze. But with a smirk on my face. How often have I sat on the sidelines or listened from upstairs while my husband, wordplayer to the max, dueled it out with buddies in the living room. Women can be witty–for instance Dorothy Parker, or our recently departed Nora Ephron. But for casual parsing and parrying with puns and innuendos, men have a relish that most woman eschew. Shakespeare put his finger on it when he titled a play The Taming of the Shrew. Women enter the verbal fray only at the peril of being hoisted across a masculine back and carried off stage.
Or being traded in an excess of male fraternity: Viz, Valentine’s line to his Verona pal Proteus, “And that my love may appear plain and free,/ All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.”
This problematic line has kept scholars scratching their heads for centuries. Too overt, probably, yet within the first half of the play, perfectly fitting given the madcap love these two gents display for each other. “Whatever is mine, is thine”–that sort of thing.
Yet, there is the continuance of the race to consider. Or even more compelling, the winning of adult responsibility and power. When do the boys give up the wordy horseplay and attain the dignity of adults? This is exactly the question that Shakespeare poses in this play. I can almost see the wheels turning: What kind of theatrical machinations can body forth a psychological shift from team playboy, to moral, responsible adult?
Turns out enacting this transformation creates far more drama than the endlessly fascinating (to the participants) repartee of the first half. First, Shakespeare detaches each gent from home and sets him traveling toward the big city of Milan. Once there, Proteus takes Valentine’s proposition seriously: he falls in love with his friend’s intended: Sylvia. She will have none of it. Meanwhile, Valentine is abducted by a band of thieves and cut-throats. Using his wit to preserve his life, he becomes one of them and they set out to steal Sylvia from her father who’s tying to marry her off to a dork.
In the meantime, Proteus’s discarded love Julia disguises herself as a young man and thus enters Milan, hoping to get her lover back. In the ensuing mix-and-match, steal-and-suffer shenanigans, Proteus gets a few kicks and slaps, Valentine humanizes his thugs toward civility, and the two ladies eventually nudge their lovers into something like union.
The message seems to be that in the hard knocks and rough paths of real life, these word-whacked gents must diverge. They must learn what they can and cannot do. Their boyish crushes must be tested, and because this is comedy, their women must eventually woo/surprise/embarrass them into true and lasting love.
It’s charming, amusing, entertaining.
Coda: Few theaters within a comfortable drive of the Twin Cities, including the grand and glorious Guthrie, do Shakespeare better than The Great River company. The theater on the campus of Winona State University is smallish, the actors close. Never once have I felt that costuming or sets distracted from speaking lines intelligibly. Acting follows suit. Magic occurs. It’s worth the drive, plus you get to cross and recross the river, stopping on the Wisconsin side at Stockholm for small-town charm and treats, then recrossing the river at Wabasha to admire the bluffs. A great river, indeed. We call it the Mississippi.