In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, we get a pretty clear dichotomy: male friendship vs. romantic love. One is positive, the other negative. Friendship has honor, laws; love is inconstant, foolish, filled with folly.
In the play’s opening scene, we see the dichotomy introduced. Valentine considers the love between him and his friend Proteus, an “honored” (I.i.4) one, one in which Valentine has Proteus’ “holy prayers” (I.i.17) as “beadsman” (I.i.18). On the other hand, romantic love is less positively portrayed:
To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans;
Coy looks with heart-sore sighs; one fading moment's mirth
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights:
If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labor won;
However, but a folly bought with wit,
Or else a wit by folly vanquished.
Love is folly, something ironically oppositional (scorn/groans; mirth/tedium; folly/wit).
isn’t it interesting that this calls to mind the title of last month’s play, Love’s Labor’s Lost… you know, the one in which romantic love is a pipe dream…
This sense of opposition is at the heart of love; it defines love’s inconstancy. Love is a master of “fool(s)” (I.i.40), who will–by Proteus’ own admission–“neglect (his) studies, lose (his) time, // War with good counsel, (and) set the world at nought” (I.i.67-68). As we noted yesterday, the use of “nought” here is interesting, with its links to wicked morality and femininity. Here, we get the slightest hints that love is not love, but lust–a mindless, thoughtless entity.
This belief that love is folly is not an opinion shared only by men; even Julia knows how “wayward” or erratic (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]) is this “foolish love” (both I.ii.57). This emotion, call it love or lust, must be hid away from grown men (like Proteus’ father Antonio) “lest he should take exceptions” (I.iii.81) to it–not a single exception, but multiple, as there are so many things wrong with it.
You’ve got to wonder if it is the link to women that makes it so inconstant. Julia refers to something called a “month’s mind” (I.ii.137) concerning her and Lucetta’s feelings toward the love letters from Proteus. The Pelican Shakespeare edition I’ve been using has an explanatory footnote defining the phrase as “strong desire.” However, the Oxford English Dictionary uses two other meanings: “The commemoration of a deceased person by the celebration of masses, etc., on a day one month from the date of his death” (this one I think we can probably discard fairly easily) and “Used allusively as a more or less playful synonym for mind n.1 13; an inclination, a fancy, a liking,” and it is this one that I find fascinating. Here, it’s less a “strong desire” but a simple “liking,” something much more transient, fleeting. There’s no etymology given for the phrase (beyond the first OED definition), but could it be from a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle? Could this be the core of the phrase’s fickleness, its inconstancy?
Romantic (or at least heterosexual) love continues to be mocked, as in Speed’s description of Antonio’s “metamorphosed” (II.i.30) state, and his declaration that “Love is blind” (II.i.68). And soon, Valentine is forced to admit, even to his friend Proteus, that he has been “humbled” (II.iv.135) by the “mighty lord” (II.iv.134) Love, with “nightly tears and daily heart-sore sighs” (II.iv.130).
On the other hand, friendship is a bond that should not be broken. When Proteus soliloquizes over his dilemma, he says,
To leave my Julia, shall I be forsworn;
To love fair Silvia, shall I be forsworn;
To wrong my friend, I shall be much forsworn;
To break a love vow is to be simply forsworn, but to wrong his friend is to be “much” forsworn. The value of friendship is clearly higher than that of romantic love, and to break that bond is “treachery” (II.vi.32). Proteus knows there is a “law of friendship” (III.i.5), but it is one which inconstant love compels him to break; it is “ill office for a gentlemen (to go) against his very friend” (III.ii.40-41), but that is exactly what he does for what he thinks is romantic love.
What can save Proteus from the inconstancy that makes him break the bond of male friendship? Why, that male friend, of course. When Proteus threatens to rape Silvia in the woods, Valentine intercedes and lambasts him:
Thou common friend, that's without faith or love,
For such is a friend now. Treacherous man!
Thou hast beguiled my hopes. Nought but mine eye
Could have persuaded me. Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou wouldst disprove me.
Who should be trusted, when one's own right hand
Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus,
I am sorry I must never trust thee more,
But count the world a stranger for thy sake.
The private wound is deepest. O time most accurst,
'Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!
Proteus is no true friend, but only a “common” or superficial one, one without faith or love (the love of friendship, we presume, not romantic love)
I’m wondering if homosexual romantic love is held in the same kind of inconstant disregard…
Treachery, guile, distrust, perjury… all these accusations are rightfully placed at the feet of Proteus. And coming from his friend, the moralizing obviously works, as Proteus repents.
And his reward? Valentine’s ambiguous “gift”:
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.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into this now (I’m saving that for next week), but what I do want say is that romance does not win here.
It’s not the same kind of abortive defeat that romance has in Love’s Labor’s Lost, but it certainly is NOT the crowd-pleasing pairing off that you hope for at the end of a comedy. Sure, Proteus is reunited with the undisguised Julia, and their “day of marriage shall be” (V.iv.173) the same as Valentine and Silvia’s.
time frame, here, is uncertain… but I believe we’re safe to assume it’s less than LLL‘s year
Valentine will marry Silvia: the Duke ordains it: “Take thou thy Silvia, for thou has deserved her” (V.iv.148). She has no say in the matter. In fact, from the moment of the threatened rape “O heaven!” (V.iv.59), Silvia has no say in ANYthing… she is silent for the play’s final 114 lines.
a century plus a sonnet in length, though thankfully not in rhyme-scheme… how sick would that be?
There will be marriages–comic conclusion is achieved–but romantic love does not win, not in either couple. OK, well, maybe: Proteus (Mr. Changeable) says that with Julia, he has “(his) wish for ever” (V.iv.120), and Julia concurs, “And I mine” (V.iv.121)… but how believable is that? Not very.
The friends are united, with seemingly all forgiven: is this Shakespearean “Bros before Hos” philosophy? There were some contemporary notions that friendship (especially male-male) was superior to heterosexual romantic love/lust, and this ending would seem to follow that notion to its most extreme logical conclusion. But it’s not very satisfying for the audience (and in since the play only exists in the mind of the audience, can the characters be happy?).
Maybe Launce (missing since Act Four) and his “milkmaid” (III.i.267) will be happy: after all, they’re not married and their relationship seems purely sexual, unencumbered with any “romantic” entanglements or illusions…