July 12, 2002
Valentine Hood: Searching for a Hero in Two Gentlemen of Verona
In Shakespeares Two Gentlemen of Verona, we are presented with a rather bizarre love quadrangle between Valentine, Sylvia, Proteus, and Julia. After being nudged out of the way by Proteus behind-the-scene manipulations, Valentine finds himself banished to the forest where he becomes the leader of a band of highwaymen. These late scenes seem to cast Valentine in the role of the honorable outlaw, and indeed they would have been successful in this recasting of Valentine had he perhaps stayed his tongue a bit more and been more stingy with forgiveness. Unfortunately, this was not the case and we are left not with the foolish Valentine of the early play, but a downright frightening Valentine who is quick to dismiss capital offences and trade women with his friend with disturbing ease. Valentines quick transformation points to a desire on the part of Shakespeare to have some fun at the expense of the upper classes and make this comedy a satire beneath the surface.
When Valentine agrees to take on the role of leader of the band of brigands who stop himself and Speed in the forest, his position in the play changes because he is now a man with some degree of power. Of course his acceptance of the role is forgivable because his alternate choice is death, and he accepts the position, "provided that you do no outrages on silly women and poor passengers" (IV.i. 71-72). Sticking it to the rich guy is fair game apparently under the new reign of Valentine. Of course they wouldnt be very good outlaws if they werent sticking it to somebody. What is interesting to note in Valentines declaration of not committing outrages upon women is the outrageous manner in which he treats Sylvia at the end of the play. For the time being however, Valentine is now a noble bandit.
We dont return to Valentine and his band of merry men until the next and final act of the play. Sylvia is captured by the outlaws who, unaware of her relation to Valentine, plan to take her to him so that he may decide what to do with her. A question at this point is where is Valentine during this capturing of Sylvia? He is the leader of this band and one would assume he would be leading his men in their raids, but instead he is wandering around by himself pondering his love for Sylvia and musing about the difficulties of being a crime lord. This separation serves the purpose of keeping Valentine away from the nasty realities of being a highwayman and also gives the opportunity to show once again how much he loves Sylvia. In the eyes of the audience, Valentine is still a pretty good guy. Another point worth some mention at this stage of the play is that Speed has disappeared since the first encounter with the outlaws. One can only ponder as to what has become of him (eaten during a particularly harsh winter, or perhaps disposed of after one too many attempts to engage the semi-illiterate outlaws in verbal puns).
In the final moments of the scene, Shakespeares characterization of Valentine reaches its nadir, and then it is completely torn to pieces. Valentine rescues Sylvia from near rape at the hands of Proteus (who was supposedly saving Sylvia from a similar fate at the hands of the outlaws). At this point, Valentine is a hero and the play should end with his banishment of Proteus or the meting out of some sort of penalty to Proteus for his back-stabbing ways and attempted rape of Sylvia. Unfortunately, in keeping with the conventions of a comedy at the time, everybody needs to get married at the end of the play, and as no other obvious suitors of Julia have been presented (perhaps the omnipresent Sir Eglamour?), it is necessary for Proteus to be forgiven for his transgressions. After vowing that he will never trust Proteus again, Valentine quickly accepts Proteus apology and the two friends are reunited. One gets the sense that Shakespeare is trying to rush the actors off the stage, this forgiveness scene is so quick. The part of this scene that is even more troubling is at the end of Valentines speech of forgiveness; he says to Proteus, "and, that my love may appear plain and free, / all that was mine in Sylvia I give thee" (V.iv.82-83). While Valentines forgiveness of Proteus is difficult to swallow, at its best it can be viewed as an example of Valentines benevolence, but for Valentine to offer up Sylvia to the man who tried to rape her moments before is inexcusable. This offering of Sylvia goes a good deal further than is necessary to tie up the loose ends so that everyone can get married, so it would seem that Shakespeare never wanted Valentine to be a hero. Instead, we have a final scene in which the two main characters of the play are cads. Nevertheless, Julia still wants to marry Proteus, and Sylvia, Valentine. As the scene comes to its end, with Valentine telling of the great joy they will experience when they are all married in one ceremony, one comes to the realization that not only are Valentine and Proteus idiots, apparently Sylvia and Julia are as well. Maybe they will all find true happiness as they are all of like mind.
Two Gentlemen of Verona finds itself lacking in gentlemen by the end of the play. Shakespeare sets up Valentine to be a hero, but then tears him down as quickly as he is built up. Valentines shift mirrors that of Proteus earlier in the play. Apparently Shakespeare is making a point that the gentlemanly thing to do, forgive and forget, is not always the best course of action, and we are left with a satire of the upper classes.
Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The Riverside Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 181-207.