In the Name of Clowns and Dogs (Part Two, “Shakespeare loves to use his La[u]nce a lot” edition)

Last week, we began our discussion of clowns in The Two Gentlemen of Verona with a look at Speed, the servant of Valentine.  We noted that he’s the kind of clown that needs personal interaction with other characters to convey his humor: he’s either joking with other characters, or commenting on the actions of other characters in asides to us (or to still other characters).

We also noted that Speed’s comic prowess peaked early, then disappeared quickly upon the arrival of Launce, the servant to Proteus.  Today, let’s take a look at Launce….

is Launce the balance to Speed?  are the explicit clowns the balance to the implicit folly of the male lovers?

The name Launce is the shortened version of Lancelot (Arthur’s knight, and the adulterous lover of Arthur’s wife Guinevere), and a homophone for “lance” (a rather phallic weapon).  Around the time of the play’s composition, however, another meaning was cropping up: “balance or scale” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).

Regardless of any “deeper” meaning Launce’s name may carry, the key point to consider is the very different type of comic role he plays.  Unlike Speed, who needed other characters to interact with or comment upon, Launce is our stand-up comic, delivering long comic soliloquies with little or no help from other characters.  He can interact with others, but he has the ability that others do not: that solo delivery of comedy.

And it is in that solo role that we first meet Launce in Act Two, Scene Three, as he appears with his dog, Crab.

fyi, Crab’s name has a couple of different meanings: the crustaceous animal, the crabapple (sour and bitter), or anyone sour or bitter… Launce refers to Crab as “the sourest-natured dog that lives” (II.iii.5-6)

In this first comic speech, Launce recounts his tearful goodbye to his family.  All–mother, father, sister, maid, even the cat “wring(s) her hands” (II.iii.7)–cry at the farewell… all except the dog, “this cruel-hearted cur” (II.iii.8-9).  Now while that might be funny (slightly), what follows is more that slightly funny: he attempts to act out the wailing sendoff as a kind of puppet show with pieces of his apparel standing in for family members.  He cannot decide which of his shoes should represent his mother, but he finally decides the left will have to do as “it hath the worser sole” (II.iii.16).  Here, he puns on “soul,” referencing a contemporary controversy in the Church debating whether or not women had souls; this also dives into the bawdy as he says that the left shoe has a “hole in it” (II.ii.17), the hole being a woman’s vagina.  He then jokes about the representation of the dog and his own station in life:

I am the dog: no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog--Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself; ay, so, so.

— II.iii.20-22

Once the parts and the “players” are settled, he goes on to act out the goodbye, including a goodbye kiss for his mother, which means a kissing of his shoe.  His feet must stink as he then exclaims, “Why there ’tis; here’s my mother’s breath up and down” (II.iii.27-28).  And through it all, the tears and the jokes, “the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word” (II.iii.29-30).

When Panthino arrives to tell Launce that he has missed the boat (literally) and must row off to catch it, Launce cannot help but to pun some more before he goes: “tale” for “tail”, and “tide” for “tied” (a reference to the dog’s leash).

yeah, I know… we’re supposed to be in Milan… go figure…

When we next see Launce, it’s Act Two, Scene Five, and Launce–newly arrived in Milan–meets our other clown, Speed.  As we noted last week, it is here that Speed’s role in the play begins to change, from comic to straight man, setting up Launce’s jokes.  Speed “welcome(s Launce) to Padua” (II.v.1), but Launce says that he can’t be truly welcomed until the local bar tab or “some certain shot be paid” (II.v.5), so that he can be welcomed… as in “You’re welcome” after a “Thanks.”  This begins a series of puns and comic call-and-responses:

  • part(ed) == closed in earnest
  • broken == whole as fish
  • matter stands == (bawdy) stands
  • lover == lubber

When we next see Launce, it is in Act Three, Scene One, where first Launce listens to his master Proteus urge Valentine to leave Milan (as he’s been banished) and promise his “friend” that he will deliver to Silvia any letters Valentine sends.  Once alone on stage, Launce tells us what he thinks: “I am but a fool, look you; and yet I have the wit to think my master is a kind of a knave” (III.i.261-262).  Of course, the surface meaning here is “a base and crafty rogue” (OED), but it could also mean “a boy or lad” (OED), outlining his master’s immaturity.  But before he can go on to discuss his master, which given the circumstances would be LESS THAN COMIC, he instead turns his attention onto himself, or at least onto that which has recently captured his own attention: “a woman” (III.i.266).  He shows us a “cate-log” (III.i.271) of his new love’s “condition” (III.i.272).  When Speed arrives, Launce has Speed read the catalog aloud (straight man set-up), so Launce can provide commentary (punch line).

it takes a pretty deep dive into the bawdy, so I’ll live it our monthly sophomoric bawdy-fest… but let’s just say that his love is a “milkmaid (who) is not a maid” (III.i.267), and one with “no teeth” (III.i.332)

Launce’s last appearance (in Act Four, Scene Four) begins much like his first one, with Crab the dog on stage for a soliloquy.  He tells us a story of Crab’s misbehavior in the court of the Duke (where Launce was supposed to deliver a present [another dog] to Silvia from Proteus).  Crab pisses on the floor of the chamber, and Launce–“acquainted with the smell… kn(ows) it was Crab” (IV.iv.22)–takes the blame (“’twas I that did the think you wot of” [IV.iv.26]).  And Launce pays the price for his dog’s deed.  It’s a funny story, even to himself, but more importantly, it’s a teachable moment for the dog:

Thou think'st not of this now. Nay, I remember the trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam Silvia. Did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman's farthingale? Didst thou ever see me do such a trick?

— IV.iv.32-37

The dog isn’t much of a talker, so we don’t know if he learns from his master’s teachings.  What we do know, however, is that Proteus is none-too-pleased to find that Launce’s mission to gift a dog to Silva is very much left UNaccomplished, even though Launce had “offered her (his) own, who is a dog and as big as ten of (Proteus’ dog) and therefore the gift the greater” (IV.iv.53-55).  Proteus sends Launce on his way to find the dog again.

And it’s the last we see or hear from Launce.  There are moments where Julia (disguised as Sebastian) takes on a Speed-like role to Proteus, but never again do we hear the Launce kind of comic speech delivered to the audience.

And the play (and we) are poorer for it.

btw, there are two moments of fairly vicious anti-Semitism by Launce in the first half of the play… in the first soliloquy, he compares Crab to a Jew; Crab doesn’t cry at the family farewell, but “a Jew would have wept” (II.iii.11).  Later, when Launce meets with Speed, he offers Valentine’s man the opportunity to drink; if Speed refuses, then–Launce claims–Speed is “an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name of a Christian” (II.v.45-46).  Why the anti-Semitism in Launce?

btw (some more), why is it that only the men are the clowns?  Lucetta plays to Julia much the same advisory role as Launce and Speed do for their masters, but her scenes are not comic.  Julia, disguised as Sebastian, has a few comic asides in Act Five, Scene Two, acting is a Speed-like position for Proteus, but nothing as consistently comic.  Why (this seeming misogyny by disparity)?

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