Saturday, January 22, 2011

Studies in Comedy and Tragedy

5. The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

My second read, first for a class, not one of the plays I've seen performed except for the snippet of it in Shakespeare in Love. Although it's one of the lesser known and least performed of Shakespeare's plays, I didn't find any lack of amusement while reading. Sure, it's inferior to As You Like It or Much Ado about Nothing, but we've still got witty women, clueless, boorish male love interests, and perhaps the most successful and sympathetic of absurd servants in Launce.

What I remembered most about reading this play were Launce's speeches about his dog Crab. While he condemns Crab as a villain, he's willing to sit in the stocks and be whipped lest his dog hang for the various crimes of stealing puddings and pissing indoors. That, my friends, is true love. The contrast with Launce's devotion to his dog is sharp in comparison to his master Proteus' swift abandon of his paramour Julia for his friend Valentine's lady Silvia. Throughout the play, the women and the servants remain faithful, while Proteus "the shapeshifter" indeed, switches his love, Valentine changes his mind about love when he meets Silvia, and both Proteus and Valentine ultimately forswear Silvia for each other. It's a complex story of relations between men and between men and women, and which wins out in the end is difficult to tell.

It is a comedy and must needs end in marriage, and the end's explicit deus ex machina rubs many Shakespeareans the wrong way. My professor defended the ending in terms of its being a deliberate satire, or cartoon of human behavior. It comes down to everyone in the woods, Proteus almost about to force Silvia to yield to his desire, Valentine coming in to protect her and declaring he can never trust any friend again, Proteus apologizing...and Valentine accepting. Then, Silvia's dad comes in, allows her to marry Valentine, and Proteus realizes he is still in love with Julia, as she conveniently appears dressed as a boy, having changed her shape but not her mind, as she chides him before falling into his arms. Instead, perhaps, Shakespeare didn't care that the ending was contrived, the actors' skill might have made it seem less (or more) ridiculous and here he's made his points and gratified the audience with a happy ending.

It seems like there was a lot of pressure on playwrights of the time for either complete redemption or utter, bloody ruination. Thus the endings of many of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies until either he or his audience developed more nuanced sensibilities, and then the problem plays.

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