Alas, How Love Can Trifle with Itself!

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act IV

It’s becoming clear to me how much in Shakespeare depends upon ironies of awareness and perception.  Hidden identities, switched gender roles, soliloquies, twins – they skew knowledge so that characters and/or the audience know things that others do not.  It can be the source of comedy or tragedy depending upon the type of disequilibrium it causes and what the bearer of the information advantage chooses to do with it.

Act IV turns out to be extraordinarily painful from Julia’s perspective.  She has traveled a long way at great personal danger to herself, only to have to witness firsthand how disloyal her lover has turned out to be.  But not only must she endure the heart-rending torture of it. The very nature of her disguise forces her to actively participate in the wooing of her rival.

Dressed a male page, she approaches Silvia bearing a love note and ring from Proteus. About now we begin to wonder how much suffering this woman will bear. What quality in Proteus causes her to put up with this? (Answer: love is blind and beyond reason, so there.)  After all, when we first met her, she was being courted by many eligible men and wasn’t herself sure that Proteus was “the” guy for her.

Now here she is, suffering the worst forms of humiliation in the name of love.  Herein lies perhaps one of the play’s chief faults.  I have read somewhere that playgoers weren’t terribly concerned in Shakespeare’s day with character consistency when it came to motivation.  That would go far toward helping me understand situations like this that tend to stick in my craw.  It’s quite similar to what I experience a lot at the movies lately.  I find myself muttering things like, “But why is he – should they – do we – oh, nevermind.” Plot holes apparently no longer need to be filled for ticket-buyers to leave satisfied so long as a lot of stuff blows up and somebody hot takes off his/her clothes.

Okay, fine then.  It would seem there’s a long tradition for reasons that don’t necessarily add up or ring true.  For me, this is one of them (there’s more coming, but that later).

The one thing we definitely learn is that Silvia is remarkably loyal and true.  She remains steadfast in her love for Valentine, come what may, proving utterly resilient and unassailable from a wayward courtship such as Proteus’s.

She sees straight through him, understands full well what he’s done and what his intentions are.  She wastes no opportunity, pummeling him at every turn.  Instead of pulling back and reconsidering, Proteus is spurred on like an outraged bull.

Here we experience an amazing range of emotions at one and the same instant: outrage at Proteus, awe at Silvia, sorrow for Valentine and abject pity for poor Julia.  This, again, highlights another aspect of Shakespeare’s unique genius.  No matter what the play or circumstances, rarely does he create characters we fail to care about.  We may not like them.  We may disagree with them.  We may love them, revile them, reject them.  But we won’t be unaffected by them.

On a silly side note, I was startled by the mention of Robin Hood when Valentine was captured by a motely crew of outlaws in the forest.  Somehow (see above) they instantly recognize their captive as being worthy of promotion to become their leader.  That quibble aside, I got a jolt from that outside pop culture reference.

Shakespeare was hip to the old school.  Who knew?

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