If you love her, you cannot see her. (2.1)
Played with intriguing cross-casting — the true lover Valentine was also Crab the beloved but ill-mannered dog! — by just six actors with some judicious cuts, this production was fast, happy, and funny. Leaving Sir Eglamour on the cutting room floor, it presented the classic love parallelogram, in which Proteus loves Julia, Valentine loves Sylvia, then changeable Proteus mirrors his best friend’s affections by turning to Sylvia, etc, etc.
She woos you by a figure. (2.1)
Part of the charge of this early play is watching the young Shakespeare try out tricks he’ll later deepen, from sea voyages, which here inexplicably ferry the lovers from Verona to Milan, to wandering disguised lovers to sudden jealousy. Stage business involving torn letters, a glove, and the scene-stealing dog guide the paper-thin plot raft forward.
I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself. (2.3)
The servant Launce’s devotion to his dog, in whose stead he is whipped and beaten, set a high bar for the less constant human lovers. Having Crab played by a human actor, unlike the trained pooch I saw in Stratford last summer, focused this idealistic mirror. Are Launce and Crab the most devoted couple in all of Shakespeare?
I know him as myself. (2.4)
The two gents of the title lose themselves in a Rene Girard-esque tangle of emulation, love, and friendship. If I love my friend as myself and now he loves her, how can I not love her too? Proteus’s egotism tips him into betrayal, while Valentine’s constancy exiles him repeatedly, first to Milan and later to an unexpectedly hospitable forest. To know some other person, friend or lover, “as myself” may be to know only “slenderly,” as a daughter in a later play with a sharper view of human nature observes.
…discourse of disability (2.4)
Shakespeare’s only use of the word “disability” comes in this play, in reference to Proteus’s pleas to Sylvia that he is “too mean” for such a noble lady. The juxtaposition of discourse and disability suggests that the play probes the capacities and lacks of language in relation to emotion. What if we can never say just what we feel?
I cannot now prove constant to myself. (2.6)
The tangled plot of the first half of the play should have been easy to untie — every gent goes back to the first lady he loved — but it turned violent. The exiled bandits turned out to be friendly and Proteus’s last-minute attempt to rape Sylvia was interrupted, but the happy ease of the first half of the plays went into exile with Launce and Crab.
The hardest part to stage, I think, is Valentine’s offer of “all that was mine in Sylvia” to his treacherous and violent friend. In a rare miss of an on-stage connection, Zachary Fine’s Valentine did not look at Sylvia when he tried to give her away. This good-hearted production couldn’t bear to show it.
The problem here, I think, was the dramatic insufficiency of the transformation that preceded the misogynistic offer. Proteus mouthed the pieties of repentance, albeit in the conditional: “if hearty sorrow / Be a sufficient ransom for offense, / I tender’t here” (5.4). I didn’t feel it in the first row, and I’m not convinced Shakespeare did either.
Repentance was a central trope of late sixteenth-century English theology, and also a key narrative feature of the Elizabethan prose romances that Shakespeare drew on in many plays. (I wrote a book about those romances in 2006, with special attention to the king of repentance, Robert Greene.) I think Shakespeare recognized in the awkward ending of Two Gents that simple repentance was undramatic. His plays present change perhaps more than any other thing — but the simple pieties of repentance tend to be relegated to off stage moments, as with Oliver and Duke Frederick in As You Like It, another play directly tied to Elizabethan prose fiction.
I might say more about repentance on stage at some point — I’ve got a proposal in to Blackfriars 2015 about the faux-conversion of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale – but in this play it gives a slightly bitter twist to a wonderful romp. The sour taste doesn’t last, but it’s noticeable.
Get down to Fort Greene to catch this one before May 24!