Perhaps the most critically discussed issue in the play is the sequence, bizarre by modern Western European standards, in Act 5, Scene 4 in which Valentine seems to 'give' Silvia to Proteus as a sign of his friendship. For many years, the general critical consensus on this issue was that the incident revealed an inherent misogyny in the text. For example, Hilary Spurling wrote in 1970, "Valentine is so overcome [by Proteus' apology] that he promptly offers to hand over his beloved to the man who, not three minutes before, had meant to rape her." Modern scholarship, however, is much more divided about Valentine's actions at the end of the play, with some critics arguing that he does not offer to give Silvia to Proteus at all. The ambiguity lies in the line "All that was mine in Silvia I give thee" (5.4.83). Some critics (such as Stanley Wells, for example) interpret this to mean that Valentine is indeed handing Silvia over to her would-be rapist, but another school of thought suggests that Valentine simply means "I will love you [Proteus] with as much love as I love Silvia," thus reconciling the dichotomy of friendship and love as depicted elsewhere in the play. This is certainly how Jeffrey Masten, for example, sees it, arguing that the play as a whole "reveals not the opposition of male friendship and Petrarchan love but rather their interdependence." As such, the final scene "stages the play's ultimate collaboration of male friendship and its incorporation of the plot we would label "heterosexual"."
This is also how Roger Warren interprets the final scene. Warren cites a number of productions of the play as evidence for this argument, including Robin Phillips' Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production in 1970, where Valentine kisses Silvia, makes his offer and then kisses Proteus. Another staging cited by Warren is Edward Hall's 1998 Swan Theatre production. In Hall's version of the scene, after Valentine says the controversial line, Silvia approaches him and takes him by the hand. They remain holding hands for the rest of the play, clearly suggesting that Valentine has not 'given' her away. Warren also mentions Leon Rubin's 1984 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production (where the controversial line was altered to "All my love to Silvia I also give to thee"), David Thacker's 1991 Swan Theatre production, and the 1983 BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation as supporting the theory that Valentine is not giving Silvia away, but is simply promising to love Proteus as much as he loves Silvia. Patty S. Derrick also interprets the BBC production in this manner, arguing that "Proteus clearly perceives the offer as a noble gesture of friendship, not an actual offer, because he does not even look towards Silvia but rather falls into an embrace with Valentine" (although Derrick does raise the question that if Valentine is not offering Silvia to Proteus, why does Julia swoon?).
There are other theories regarding this final scene, however. For example, in his 1990 edition of the play for the New Cambridge Shakespeare, Kurt Schlueter suggests that Valentine is indeed handing Silvia over to Proteus, but the audience is not supposed to take it literally; the incident is farcical, and should be interpreted as such. Schlueter argues that the play provides possible evidence it was written to be performed and viewed primarily by a young audience, and as such, to be staged at university theatres, as opposed to public playhouses. Such an audience would be more predisposed to accepting the farcical nature of the scene, and more likely to find humorous the absurdity of Valentine's gift. As such, in Schlueter's theory, the scene does represent what it appears to represent; Valentine does give Silvia to her would-be rapist, but it is done purely for comic effect.
Another theory is provided by William C. Carroll in his 2004 edition for the Arden Shakespeare, Third Series. Carroll argues, like Schlueter, that Valentine is indeed giving Silvia to Proteus, but unlike Schlueter, Carroll detects no sense of farce. Instead, he sees the action as a perfectly logical one in terms of the notions of friendship which were prevalent at the time:
|“||the idealisation of male friendship as superior to male-female love (which was considered not romantic or compassionate but merely lustful, hence inferior) performs a project of cultural nostalgia, a stepping back from potentially more threatening social arrangements to a world of order, a world based on a 'gift' economy of personal relations among male social equals rather than one based on a newer, less stable economy of emotional and economic risk. The offer of the woman from one male friend to another would therefore be the highest expression of friendship from one point of view, a low point of psycho-sexual regression from another.||”|
As in Schlueter, Carroll here interprets Valentine's actions as a gift to Proteus, but unlike Schlueter, and more in line with traditional criticism of the play, Carroll also argues that such a gift, as unacceptable as it is to modern eyes, is perfectly understandable when one considers the cultural and social milieu of the play itself.
Language is of primary importance in the play insofar as Valentine and Proteus speak in blank verse, but Launce and Speed speak (for the most part) in prose. More specifically, the actual content of many of the speeches serve to illustrate the pompousness of Valentine and Proteus' exalted outlook, and the more realistic and practical outlook of the servants. This is most apparent in Act 3, Scene 1. Valentine has just given a lengthy speech lamenting his banishment and musing on how he cannot possibly survive without Silvia; "Except I be by Silvia in the night/There is no music in the nightingale./Unless I look on Silvia in the day/There is no day for me to look upon" (ll.178–181). However, when Launce enters only a few lines later, he announces that he too is in love, and proceeds to outline, along with Speed, all of his betrothed's positives ("She brews good ale"; "She can knit"; "She can wash and scour"), and negatives ("She hath a sweet mouth"; "She doth talk in her sleep"; "She is slow in words"). After weighing his options, Launce decides that the woman's most important quality is that "she hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults" (ll.343–344). He announces that her wealth "makes the faults gracious" (l.356), and chooses for that reason to wed her. This purely materialistic reasoning, as revealed in the form of language, is in stark contrast to the more spiritual and idealised love espoused by Valentine earlier in the scene.
One of the dominant theories as regards the value of Two Gentlemen is that thematically, it represents a 'trial run' of sorts, in which Shakespeare deals briefly with themes which he would examine in more detail in later works. E.K. Chambers, for example, believed that the play represents something of a gestation of Shakespeare's great thematic concerns. Writing in 1905, Chambers stated that Two Gentlemen
|“||was Shakespeare's first essay at originality, at fashioning for himself the outlines of that romantic or tragicomic formula in which so many of his most characteristic dramas were afterwards to be cast. Something which is neither quite tragedy nor quite comedy, something which touches the heights and depths of sentiment and reveals the dark places of the human heart without lingering long enough there to crystallise the painful impression, a love story broken for a moment into passionate chords by absence and inconstancy and intrigue, and then reunited to the music of wedding bells.||”|
As such, the play's primary interest for critics has tended to lie in relation to what it reveals about Shakespeare's conception of certain themes before he became the accomplished playwright of later years. Writing in 1879, A.C. Swinburne, for example, states "here is the first dawn of that higher and more tender humour that was never given in such perfection to any man as ultimately to Shakespeare." Similarly, in 1906, Warwick R. Bond writes "Shakespeare first opens the vein he worked so richly afterwards – the vein of crossed love, of flight and exile under the escort of the generous sentiments; of disguised heroines, and sufferings endured and virtues exhibited under their disguise; and of the Providence, kinder than life, that annuls the errors and forgives the sin." More recently, Stanley Wells has referred to the play as a "dramatic laboratory in which Shakespeare first experimented with the conventions of romantic comedy which he would later treat with a more subtle complexity, but it has its own charm."
Other critics have been less kind however, arguing that if the later plays show a skilled and confident writer exploring serious issues of the human heart, Two Gentlemen represents the initial, primarily unsuccessful attempt to do likewise. In 1921, for example, J. Dover Wilson and Arthur Quiller-Couch, in their edition of the play for the Cambridge Shakespeare, famously stated that after hearing Valentine offer Silvia to Proteus "one's impulse, upon this declaration, is to remark that there are, by this time, no gentlemen in Verona." H.B. Charlton, writing in 1938, argues that "clearly, Shakespeare's first attempt to make romantic comedy had only succeeded so far as it had unexpectedly and inadvertently made romance comic." Another such argument is provided by Norman Sanders in 1968; "because the play reveals a relatively unsure dramatist and many effects managed with a tiro's lack of expertise, it offers us an opportunity to see more clearly than anywhere else in the canon what were to become characteristic techniques. It stands as an 'anatomie' or show-through version, as it were, of Shakespeare's comic art." Kurt Schlueter, on the other hand, argues that critics have been too harsh on the play precisely because the later plays are so much superior. He suggests that when looking at Shakespeare's earlier works, scholars put too much emphasis on how they fail to measure up to the later works, rather than looking at them for their own intrinsic merits; "we should not continue the practice of holding his later achievements against him when dealing with his early beginnings."
Love and friendship
Norman Sanders calls the play "almost a complete anthology of the practices of the doctrine of romantic love which inspired the poetic and prose Romances of the period." At the very centre of this is the contest between love and friendship; "an essential part of the comicality of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is created by the necessary conflict between highly stylised concepts of love and friendship." This is manifested in the question of whether the relationship between two male friends is more important than that between lovers, encapsulated by Proteus' rhetorical question at 5.4.54; "In love/Who respects friend?" This question "exposes the raw nerve at the heart of the central relationships, the dark reality lurking beneath the wit and lyricism with which the play has in general presented lovers' behaviour." In the program notes for John Barton's 1981 RSC production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Anne Barton, his wife, wrote that the central theme of the play was "how to bring love and friendship into a constructive and mutually enhancing relationship." As William C. Carroll points out, this is a common theme in Renaissance literature, which often celebrates friendship as the more important relationship (because it is pure and unconcerned with sexual attraction), and contends that love and friendship cannot co-exist. As actor Alex Avery argues, "The love between two men is a greater love for some reason. There seems to be a sense that the function of a male/female relationship is purely for the family and to procreate, to have a family. But a love between two men is something that you choose. You have arranged marriages, [but] a friendship between two men is created by the desires and wills of those two men, whereas a relationship between a man and a girl is actually constructed completely peripheral to whatever the feelings of the said boy and girl are."
Carroll sees this societal belief as vital in interpreting the final scene of the play, arguing that Valentine does give Silvia to Proteus, and in so doing, he is merely acting in accordance with the practices of the day. However, if one accepts that Valentine does not give Silvia to Proteus, as critics such as Jeffrey Masten argue, but instead offers to love Proteus as much as he loves Silvia, then the conclusion of the play can be read as a final triumphant reconciliation between friendship and love; Valentine intends to love his friend as much as he does his betrothed. Love and friendship are shown to be co-existent, not exclusive.
Foolishness of lovers
Another major theme is the foolishness of lovers, what Roger Warren refers to as "mockery of the absurdity of conventional lovers' behaviour." Valentine for example, is introduced into the play mocking the excesses of love; "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" (1.1.29–31). Later, however, he becomes as much a prisoner of love as Proteus, exclaiming, "For in revenge of my contempt for love/Love hath chased sleep from my enthrall'd eyes/And made them watchers of my own heart's sorrow" (2.4.131–133).
The majority of the cynicism and mockery as regards conventional lovers, however, comes from Launce and Speed, who serve as foils for the two protagonists, and "supply a mundane view of the idealistic flights of fancy indulged in by Proteus and Valentine." Several times in the play, after either Valentine or Proteus has made an eloquent speech about love, Shakespeare introduces either Launce or Speed (or both), whose more mundane concerns serve to undercut what has just been said, thus exposing Proteus and Valentine to mockery. For example, in Act 2, Scene 1, as Valentine and Silvia engage in a game of flirtation, hinting at their love for one another, Speed provides constant asides which serve to directly mock the couple;
VALENTINE Peace, here she comes. Enter Silvia SPEED (aside) O excellent motion! O exceeding puppet! Now he will interpret her. VALENTINE Madame and mistress, a thousand good-morrows. SPEED (aside) O, give ye good e'en. Here's a million of manners. SILVIA Sir Valentine and servant, to you two thousand. SPEED (aside) He should give her interest, and she gives it him.
A third major theme is inconstancy, particularly as manifested in Proteus, whose very name hints at his changeable mind (in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Proteus is a sea-god forever changing its shape). At the start of the play, Proteus has only eyes for Julia. However, upon meeting Silvia, he immediately falls in love with her (although he has no idea why). He then finds himself drawn to the page Sebastian (Julia in disguise) whilst still trying to woo Silvia, and at the end of the play, he announces that Silvia is no better than Julia and vows he now loves Julia again. Indeed, Proteus himself seems to be aware of this mutability, pointing out towards the end of the play; "O heaven, were man/But constant, he were perfect. That one error/Fills him with faults, makes him run through all th'sins;/Inconstancy falls off ere it begins" (5.4.109–112).