Anthony Perullo and Guardian as Launce and Crab, Shakespeare & Company 2011
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is Shakespeare’s earliest comedy (according to the Oxford Shakespeare) and was first performed in 1594 or 1595. It has 2199 lines (4th shortest). Poetically it is divided of 68.7% blank verse, 5% rhymed, and 25.5% prose. It has 12 scenes, calls for 13 men and 3 women, and has one song.
BB: My experience with this play has come only this summer with the above production at Shakespeare & Company. I served as the company’s Tanglewood Liaison, collaborating with the six composition fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center as they wrote and recorded an original score for the production. Before that I knew nearly nothing of Two Gents before this project (except the famous song Who is Silvia?), and am suddenly an opinionated convert to its values. I think.
Dr. Bloom finds the play amiss in every way, except Launce whom he hails as a 3D clown lost in a 2D world and utterly wasted on this lesser play. Even Crab, his dog, has more personality than any character except his luckless owner. I must admit Launce has always been my favorite in this piece, and both his long soliloquies about Crab are absolute classics – set pieces, really – it’s the bit with the dog. While I don’t feel nearly as dismissively as Harold about Two Gents, he makes some worthy comments: “Directors and actors would do well to stage the Two Gentlemen of Verona as travesty or parody, the targets being the two Veronese friends of the title.” I agree that there’s some fun to be had here with archetypes – hell, the main character is named after protean man. And Valentine the love-sick? Bloom thoughtfully: “I uneasily sense that we have yet to understand The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a very experimental comedy.”
As do I. For its famous problems, (the attempted rape at the ending only at the top of the list…), I find the poetry fresh and in many places rippling with its own invention. The meter is mostly regular, but its rhythmic irregularities artfully push the flow of the play forward and contribute momentum and dramatic accentuation. There are episodes of the frothiest wordplay – a divertimento. This play is one that is waiting for a production to show us what we’ve all been missing by dismissing it out of hand.
Garber, in Shakespeare After All, takes time with this early comedy to praise it mostly for the great ideas that are better employed in later plays. She begins by naming the many tropes in Shakespeare that appear in Two Gents for the first time – the first pants role in the canon (Julia, disguising as Sebastian and presaging Viola, Rosalind, Portia, and Imogen), the other heroine fleeing for safety in a friar’s cell from an unwanted suitor, a comical lover who hires musicians to serenade the love he’ll never acquire, outlaws who desired to be pursued by a well-to-do outcast to ennoble their aims, a clown with a malapropism disorder who still somehow speaks the truth, and my favorite, a planned tryst featuring a rope ladder. She makes good points, and it is amusing to view this play as prototypical of what’s to come.
Speaking of prototypes, Garber makes much (as one should), of the names of our heroes, Proteus and Valentine, and muses what the theatrical merits of a comedy could be with names so clearly meant to signify kinds of men as opposed to these specific men, or boys. I am intrigued by her notion that they are really two sides of the same person, and this play is a riff on the human-as-microcosm (a popular Elizabethan idea); Valentine is clearly the higher of the two, noble, aspiring, true, altruistic, while Proteus (literally, the changeable one) is inconstant, dishonest, violent, scheming, and out of control.
She makes much of Launce, albeit without making him the only reason to see the play, as Bloom does. She points out, as the actor somehow must, that Launce is deeply in love with his dog Crab, and that this relationship reflects those of the four troubled lovers. Even Launce and Speed’s scene about the milkmaid that Launce loves (another familiar Shakespeare moment – the cataloguing of a woman’s parts), is indicative of this reality: his highest praise for her is that “[s]he hath more qualities than a water-spaniel.” I love her characterizing Launce’s first speech as a great opening stand-up monologue. It is, and slips nicely into the ‘funny cause it’s true’ mode of laugh-inducement.
I’ll write more on Marjorie on the Discussion page, which lists a few ‘problems’ in the plays and asks for your solutions and thoughts.