The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Yet another harshly criticized gem from the master that everyone wants to cut down so that he/she will gain the top of the mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is considered another apprentice piece or possibly a cowritten play due almost completely to the ending: wherein Proteus (one of the Verona gentlemen) falls for Silvia, who loves Valentine (Verona gentleman number two), and attempts to rape her; Valentine jumps out and puts a stop to it; Proteus apologizes; Valentine accepts his apology; Julia shows up and forgives Proteus for attempting to cheat on her; the two couples live happily ever after. All of which takes place in the last and very short scene. There is an abruptness and finality to all of this that every critic gets stuck on when reading the play and forgets that the reason for it rests in the constantly reinforced subject of masters and servants.
Speed comically serves his master Proteus. Proteus’s father, Antonio, has Panthino call him master. Proteus gains another servant in Lance, who himself is a master and servant to his dog Crab (it really is a beautifully sad and funny combination of the two). Other servants and masters abound along with numerous lines from the gentlemen and ladies about who serves whom in relationships. So why do few critics even acknowledge the importance of this theme? Because very few people recognize the prevalence of master and servant relationships that exist today let alone the ego crushing realization that most of us are not the masters of our outer and inner lives as we so often believe.
Proteus falls perfectly into this mold with his first lines of the play. Valentine is off to see the world and Proteus replies
Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu!
Think on thy Proteus when thou haply see’st
Some rare noteworthy object in thy travel.
Wish me partaker in thy happiness
When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,
If ever danger do environ thee,
Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers,
For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine. (I.1.78)
Proteus gives well-wishes, but really states that he will forever be the servant, who partakes in his master’s happiness and prays for his master’s grief, of Valentine. Valentine is keenly aware of Proteus’s shortcomings and wants Proteus to come and enjoy the world for himself, but it has to be Proteus’s choice or it will be more servant status only abroad. A last pinch of wisdom cannot but escape from Valentine as he warns Proteus that “Love is your master, for he masters you” (79). Proteus quips that he is no fool but wise because some writers support his servitude to love. Valentine brings up a better counterargument reinforced with some more writers, but cuts it off recognizing that he must literally step away from being Proteus’s master if Valentine really wants to see his friend develop.
Shakespeare then gives the reader many different scenarios and wrinkles of the master/servant dichotomy through the characters I already listed above with one important distinction. In Act I Scene three Antonio shows us what a master type Proteus could evolve into. Proteus’s father is straight to the point with his servant Panthino in asking what he spoke about with Antonio’s brother a moment ago. It concerns, of course, Proteus and his unwillingness to travel and experience the world. Panthino includes his own opinion on the matter, while Antonio quickly agrees to the advice to force his inexperienced son out into the lessons the world will certainly teach. Again, Antonio doesn’t play with his words.
I like thy counsel. Well hast thou advised,
And, that thou mayest perceive how well I like it,
The execution of it shall make known.
Even with the speediest expedition
I will dispatch him to the Emperor’s court. (I.3.83)
Although it seems Antonio is not making this decision under his own free will but under the servitude of his servant, Shakespeare undercuts this immediately by having Antonio speak with that all-important pronoun ‘I’ in the beginning. The one true inner identification, the master of all thoughts and decisions, the singular ‘I’ enjoys Panthino’s counsel and advice and will use that advice to create an action supported by the top most decision-making intellect in Antonio. He could have mulled it over to see what the other parts of his mind might have to say about it or even what his son would think about it, but that would have devolved into inaction and the stumbling over the correct course to follow in order to meet all of the expectations and desires of countless voices. Antonio asked for counsel from a trusted servant, agreed with it as it fit with his master plan and then executed it. If that wasn’t obvious enough, Shakespeare adds the definitive note to Antonio’s singular existence ruled by himself and no other with the line “Muse not that I thus suddenly proceed, / For what I will, I will, and there an end” (83). Antonio’s willpower is absolute and absolutely under the guidance of that one master ‘I’. He governs his inner life, thoughts, desires, and emotions with the unbreakable fixture of identity that reflects in his outer life wherein actions complete and accomplish because they are under the servitude of one master.
Of course Proteus is not yet his father, because he has not yet been tutored through direct experiences only venturing out into the world delivers. That is why his first love crumbles in the presence of a just as beautiful Silvia, why his plans to woo her fall apart, and why he acts upon a fleeting thought of violence to then wrap it all up as complete. These outward actions can only fail because they are administered by many ‘I’s’ jostling for mastership within him, which makes him merely a servant to whatever new idea pops up. Valentine saw this in his friend when he left and sees it again as a prophecy fulfilled. What else would a man holding no clear identification of self inside do but bumble around until the failures developed enough frustration and anger for him to lash out with violence? And in this moment of delusion over who he is, Valentine reminds Proteus that he is a friend. A friend that can’t be trusted, or more specifically a servant that can’t be trusted. Proteus speaks swiftly of how guilty he is, and how he is willing to suffer in his sorrow for moving against Valentine. Yet Valentine has shown that he is still a master that has taken Proteus for a servant and if both of them are to move forward, swift and decisive judgments must be made. Valentine grants Proteus an “honest” place by his side that is free of doubt or other fleeting thoughts that may usurp this feeling of trust by stating one of the most troubling lines for critics, “And, that my love may appear plain and free, / All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” (106). The constant and free from feelings of guilt love Valentine showed to Silvia throughout will also be given to Proteus. If Valentine didn’t proclaim such a “plain and free” decision on their relationship, then where would his servant go? Proteus would degenerate further and into the faults and sins of his inconstant nature as Shakespeare reminds the audience,
Oh, 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. (V.4.106)
Instead the master, Valentine, has come to a conclusion based on his will that he will see through completely less he lose his servant, Proteus, forever, and the chance to grow further. As troubling as the almost rape is, a less violent action would not be enough to convince the audience that these two could be separated or convince the audience that Valentine has evolved enough to be a strong enough master to quiet down second guesses about their roles. The servant must give opportunities to the master to demonstrate his command over the multitudes of voices wishing to usurp. While the master must also act as a guide for the servant to emulate until the servant can obtain his own mastership of the self. Valentine sees now that he must stay next to and treat Proteus as a part of him for both of them to reach something higher and Proteus sees it is in his best interest to follow Valentine honestly and unfaltering if he wants to gain as much as his friend.
Everyone is a servant to some master and believing otherwise quickly creates inconstancy in identifying ourselves. You can’t change identities until you first recognize what yours is. I am and hope to always be a servant to Shakespeare’s mastery as following him will take me far above any place I blunder to under my own guidance.