How Like a Dream Is This

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act V

As I finished Act IV, I couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t many pages left in the play.  How will Shakespeare resolve all these loose ends? I wondered.

Mostly I wanted to know if comedic tradition would hold and somehow the plot would turn out happily ever after.  I didn’t see how it could be possible, what with the pain and heartache that Proteus had caused.

Alas, I underestimated Shakespeare’s ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat.  And I have to say, the resolution left me more than a little unsatisfied, since Valentine’s noble gesture of forgiveness comes after a paltry five lines of “I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Right on the heels of catching him about to take Silvia by physical violence!

Here are the lines verbatim:

PROTEUS: My shame and guilt confounds me.

Forgive me, Valentine.  If hearty sorrow

Be a sufficient ransom for offense,

I tender’t here.  I do as truly suffer

As e’er I did commit.

VALENTINE: Then I am paid.

Valentine might be – but I am not.  This is doubly true when applied to Julia.  It’s as if Proteus had suddenly awoken from a witch’s spell.  Now he understands – voila – that Julia’s beauty was not so very different from Silvia’s.  Whoops, sorry.

I am greatly moved by the lengths everyone else went for their beloved.  The two women in particular.  Both risked life and limb to set out in a wicked world to find their partner.  Valentine never stops pining for Silvia.  Without her, it doesn’t matter that he’s been made the captain of the renegade band of merry men.  And when he finds her again, he’s willing to risk everything to keep her.  His display of devotion is so powerful that it convinces Silvia’s father, the Duke, to grant Valentine’s wish and allow him to marry his daughter.

Only when his fellow outlaws are pardoned too do I understand that this play is about reconciliation and forgiveness.  There is also an element of confession and grace – Catholic shadings in my estimation – but that would parse the play in a controversial manner.

Nevertheless, it is this very magnanimity that both tinges and unhinges the play.  I get (or think I do) what Shakespeare is up to and to some degree it works.  What I’m not convinced of is Proteus’s sincerity or worthiness of such a superhuman gesture. 

But then, that too is the very nature of grace.

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