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The Two Gentlemen of Verona has the odd distinction of being at once a popular play and a critical ugly duckling, chastised by one of its early editors, the poet Alexander Pope, for containing scenes “composed of the lowest and most trifling conceits.” Another 18th-century writer, John Upton, went further in wishing that Two Gentlemen, along with Love’s Labor’s Lost, “should be sent packing, and seek for their parent elsewhere.”
Upton and Pope have been far from alone in finding serious flaws in this play, believed to be one of the earliest that Shakespeare wrote. The play has become known as an apprentice work, an artifact of a moment when Shakespeare was still learning the craft of playwriting. Two Gentlemen is among a handful of strong candidates for Shakespeare’s first foray into solo playwriting. Yet despite allegations of its immaturity, Two Gentlemen flourishes in theatrical production.
One reason that Two Gentlemen prospers onstage may well be its dogged appeal or more accurately, its dog appeal. The fact that even well-trained pets can be unpredictable creates ample opportunity for spontaneous humor: will Crab scratch himself indecorously or bark at the audience? How will the actor playing Launce react to such improvisations? When Launce announces, “I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. O, the dog is me, and I am myself” (act 2, scene 3), in a sense he speaks for us in the audience. We are drawn to the comic confusion between animal and human even as we dismiss our enjoyment as inadequate to more appropriately “Shakespearean” emotions. The tension is central to the mixed legacy that Two Gentlemen carries with it in the theatre.
The sincere but unsettled laughter that Crab provokes is symptomatic of a larger critical problem with Two Gentlemen that somehow translates to theatrical success. The play’s main focus is supposed to be love, and yet generations of critics have had trouble swallowing the resolution that Shakespeare devises to the play’s romantic conflicts. The final scene pairs off the lovers through a series of bold, clunky plot machinations. But these apparent deficits can become virtues in performance. The abruptness with which these characters fall in and out of love lends itself to the audience’s sharp scrutiny: how substantial is a love that can be so easily assumed and discarded? For audiences today, Two Gentlemen holds up a clear, often unflattering mirror to conventional narratives of romance, desire, sex and love.
If the play effectively exploits and debunks romantic illusion, it does so largely through the agency of its servant characters. The prominence of servants in Two Gentlemen used to bother some readers, including one critic who sniffed that “Shakespeare gives the maid the best lines.” Although the servants were acknowledged to be funny, they were also perceived as improperly stealing the show from their masters. By the same logic that audiences were supposed to distrust their affection for dogs onstage, they were not supposed to allow the clowning of the servants to distract from the trials and tribulations of the lovers.
There is nothing extraneous about Shakespeare’s use of servant characters, however. Instead, the servants imitate, mock and parody their masters precisely to display their pretensions and weaknesses. In the process, they emerge as characters in their own right, with whom audiences identify strongly through the force of shared laughter. It is revealing that Will Kempe, the most celebrated comic actor of his day, likely did play the part of Launce in early performances. In allowing servants to take central, rather than peripheral, roles and in depicting them as more masterful, more sympathetic, or both than their masters, Two Gentlemen demonstrates strongly that personal identity and dramatic worth cannot be deduced from social position. That simple but elegant idea resonates today, when we readily question what it means to be a gentleman. By the end of the play, we contemplate whether or not the two gentlemen of Verona have lived up to their titles or whether the titles themselves prove empty. We can view Two Gentlemen as an apprentice work in a positive light: a young playwright just embarking on his career tapped into the marginal positions occupied by servants and animals to produce a work of enduring theatrical vibrancy and vitality.
Elizabeth Rivlin is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University and the editor of The Upstart Crow: A Shakespeare Journal. She has published essays in journals and book collections, and her book The Aesthetics of Service in Early Modern England is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2012.