Posted by: admin October 28th, 2016

The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Bill Alexander

Notes and thoughts while preparing The Two Gentlemen of Verona for a production with final year students at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. 

Male Bonding

The play needs to be understood in relation to Elizabethan theories of perfect friendship

It was a common belief that ideal friendship could only exist between two men. This links Two Gentlemen thematically to The Merchant of Venice. It raises many issues of interpretation in the relationship of Valentine and Proteus ( the two gentlemen of the title ) just as it does with Bassanio and Antonio in the Merchant. 

From Aristotle to Montaigne we come across theories of male friendship that explore ideas of one soul in two bodies, perfect amity that is indivisible, a perfect friend being another I, an alter ego, another self and a second self.

Lust and passion

It was an opinion often expressed that women could not really have true friendships as their emotions were not stable enough. Montaigne did not think that male/female relations could be true friendships because lust and passion got in the way and destabilised them.

In many writers of the time the nature of idealised male friendship is platonic but it's hard for us not to see it as in some way erotic as well. It's power can be sufficient to cause a man to renounce his own life to save his friend ; to renounce his wife or fiancé in preference to the bond to another man or even in extreme form to offer his female love to his friend as happens at the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.Bassanio, in the heat of the trial scene in Act 4 of the Merchant says he would sacrifice his new wife Portia, to save the life of his friend Antonio.

Shakespeare explored ideas of male friendship throughout his career. In the Two Gentlemen which is probably his very first play, he does so in a fairly basic way, but he's still doing it obsessively in his last ( co-authored ) The Two Noble Kinsmen.

It seems to me that throughout his work he gradually deconstructs these limited ideas about male friendship and in exploring the complexity of all human relationships shows how profoundly friendship can be an intricate part of love between men and women. 

Inappropriate unions 

This all touches on another issue his work explores: how heterosexual desire can threaten class structures by creating unions considered inappropriate to parents in terms of status and economics. Sylvia's father considers Valentine a bad match in those terms.

Some of Shakespeare's sonnets depict the painful disruption of an idealised male friendship by heterosexual desire for a third party - the famous "dark lady". See especially numbers 36 and 42.