The Gift that Keeps on Giving

OK, so the part of The Two Gentlemen of Verona that gives the most people the most discomfort is, fittingly, the “gift” Valentine gives to Proteus, the gift of Silvia.

In Act Five, Scene Four, just after Proteus threatens Silvia with rape, Valentine comes out of the shadows and reprimands his old, treacherous friend for his deeds.  Proteus immediately responds and repents:

My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine: if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender 't here; I do as truly suffer
As e'er I did commit.

Then I am paid;
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased.
By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased;
And, that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.

— V.iv.73-83

If Proteus’ repentance comes quickly, so too does Valentine’s forgiveness.  Valentine says that anyone who is not satisfied by repentance is of neither heaven nor earth (the only other available option then is hell); he also claims to know that God and Nature are “pleased” by Proteus’s contrition, and thus he knows that God’s punishment has been appeased.  These are bold statements to be made by a common and mortal man.  But it’s the next two lines that really bury the needle on the bold-o-meter:

And, that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.

Just what does that mean?  For many, it means that Valentine is giving up his claim to Julia, in effect handing her over to Proteus.  Others maintain that he is saying that all the love he feels for Julia (the equal amount, not the love for her itself) he gives to Proteus.  A third possibility is that the love he feels for Silvia, he is now giving to Proteus, effectively abandoning her.

Let’s take these interpretations in reverse order:

  • Abandonment: VERY unlikely, as nothing in the remainder of the play’s text supports this–certainly not Valentine’s response to the Duke, as Silvia’s father’s granting of her to Valentine is a “gift (that) hath made (him) happy” (V.iv.149).
  • Equal Love: The interpretation that is gaining more and more critical support in recent years (though some feel this is, at best, an apologist’s interpretation, an attempt to soften the play’s seeming misogyny).  I don’t feel that this is an apologist position, however, and this is the interpretation I would lean toward (but more on that later).
  • The Gift:  The most popular critical opinion, though there is a split as to what that exactly means in regard to performance and the world of the play.  Those who subscribe to this interpretation point to the Shakespearean contemporary notion of the superiority of male friendship to the inconstancy of love.

    so close to typing incontinency of love… but that’s just wrong…

To give Silvia to Proteus would be proof to his friendship.  Of course, there is some question as to the “reality” of the presentation of this interpretation.  Some feel that it should be played “straight” so that Valentine really does give Silvia to Proteus, others feel that this ending should be played as farce (as it IS pretty ridiculous).  A straight presentation would be a really awkward ending (and kind of a downer, if you think about); the farcical ending would probably necessitate the use of a more farcical tone throughout the play (which might not be a bad thing).

this gives me HUGE critical heartburn… not because I’m such a traditionalist that I think each and every line of the Canon is sacrosanct… rather, I just hate the way the change affects the verse.  The line is the last of four, split into two consecutive rhyming couplets, which tells me that the four should be metrically similar.  while the change maintains the rhyme, it kills the meter… the first three lines are all pentameter, the change would make the last line hexameter and throw off the rhythm of the ending of the speech…

No matter what approach you take, this is the crucial moment, one which will change how you approach all that came before it (this is one of those cases where it is of some value to study the play from end to beginning, I guess).  And this crucial moment has given directors fits for years… centuries, really, as until the mid 1800s those two lines were cut from most productions of the play.  Even to the last decades of the twentieth century, directors have tried to get around it; in 1984, Leon Rubin in his production changed the last line from “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” to “All my love to Sylvia I also give to thee.”

OK, so I said above that I like the second option the best, the idea of “equal love.”  But how to present that on stage, and make it clear to the audience?  In Edward Hall’s 1998 modern-dress production, he had Silvia move to Valentine and take his hand, showing that she is still “his.”  What I might do is have Valentine step between Proteus and Silvia, taking each of their hands in his own as he speaks his lines.  Then make one line switch in the following section following “the line”:

O me unhappy!

Look to the boy.

Why, boy! why, wag! how now! what's the matter? Look up; speak.

O good sir, my master charged me to deliver a ring to Madam Silvia, which, out of my neglect, was never done.

Where is that ring, boy?

— V.iv.84-91

I think I would have Proteus and Valentine switch the second and third lines of the sequence, so that Valentine tells Proteus to “look to the boy” and Proteus then turns his attention to Julia/Sebastian.  This would then give Valentine and Silvia the opportunity to converse (silently) while Proteus leaves to see to the “boy.”  Their mimed conversation could take any number of tonal turns, ending with what I would hope would be an embrace (otherwise the later text will seem forced at best, laughable at worst).

of course, this raises the question of Silvia’s complete and utter silence after Proteus’ threat of rape, through the penance and forgiveness and gift, all the way to the end of the play.  why is she silent?  how do you present THAT satisfactorily?