Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Two Gentlemen of Verona: Friendship Between Women

A study of the friendships of Julia, Lucetta and Silvia in
Two Gentlemen of Verona

”Boo hiss” seems to be the general response of the literary world to Shakespeare's (possibly) first play Two Gentlemen of Verona. Gut reaction tends to agree with that. Rape? Giving your girlfriend to your really worthless best friend? Is that funny? Duh. I don't think so.

And of course Shakespeare didn't intend it to be. Already here, in this (possibly) first of his plays, he sets the stage for comedies that are based on true tragedy and realism.

The eminent professor Harold Bloom, one of my favorite scholars with whom I often agree and just as often don't, seems to hate the play more than anybody, but he is discerning enough to point out that when reading the play we seem to have ”the uneasy sense that we have yet to understand Two Gentlemen of Verona.” He also points out something that is always important to remember - that we must not ”underestimate Shakespeare”. So why does he in this play? There is much in it that it is worth exploring, not the least of which is this attempted rape and giving away of a human being.

It is not the rape attempt itself, or the actual offer of trafficking, however, that I am going to focus on or try to explain, nor is it the patriarchal structure per se of the society which has created these two insidious examples of Renaissance gentlemen friends, Proteus only somewhat more so than Valentine. What I find to be the backbone of this play are the three who have backbone themselves - Julia, Lucetta and Silvia (plus Lance, but that's the stuff of another essay). Much more should have long since been written about these three complex, strong, admirable and likeable women. I see in them one of the most interesting themes of Shakespeare- but largely ignored (from what I could see in my googling) - friendship between women.

Much has been made of the friendship between men, in this case Proteus and Valentine. In her introduction to the Norton edition, Jean Howard has made an important argument for Shakespeare's intent to present the conflict between male friendship on the one hand, and heterosexual romantic love on the other, a conflict that was going on in Shakespeare's time, with no clear victor on either side. Parallel to this I see the equally fascinating aspect of sisterly solidarity, and how it could be argued that this is the real point of the play.

We first see friendship between women in the two scenes with Julia and Lucetta. In Act 1.2 they are discussing love and courtship, a rather stereotypical topic of conversation between women but of course stereotypes emerge from and nourish reality, and really, what were women of the noble class at the time allowed to talk about, with marriage their only option? So Julia and Lucetta are talking about love, romance and courtship. While they are not equal in rank, Lucetta being Julia' servant and treated as such whenever Julia feels frustrated or annoyed, they are also quite open with each other. Julia asks Lucetta for advice. Lucetta gives it. Their playful exchange, similar to the opening exchange between Valentine and Proteus, should not mistakenly be taken as being silly and girlish but should be seen as both ironic and insightful in regard to men's and women's feelings and roles:

Lucetta: Fire that's closest kept burns most of all.
Julia: They do not love that do not show their love.
Lucetta: O, they love least that let men know their love.

Their banter shifts back and forth between being humorous and serious, with Julia seriously looking for someone among the gentlemen who have chosen to woo her (she doesn't have the possibility of wooing someone she might have caught sight of) who is worthy of her love. She is hoping she'll find one since she has to marry someone. Lucetta, as a true friend will, gives a cautionary tone of realism. When asked by Julia what the letter is, Lucetta replies, ”Nothing,” adding ”Nothing concerning me,” implying that the foolish profession of love from Proteus and his ilk is worthless at the same time as admitting that when it comes to other women's feelings of love, it's none of her business, no matter how much advice is requested of her. She sees the potential danger but keeps her own counsel. ”I see things too, although you judge I wink.” Knowing what develops in the play, we wish of course that Lucetta had been more outspoken and convincing about the vagaries of love but in fact, she is simply being a good friend.

Which she continues to be in Act 2.7, which also starts with a request for advice. But now the need is suddenly serious, even grim. Julia says:

Counsel, Lucetta. Gentle girl, assist me,
And e'en in kind love I do conjure thee,
Who art the table wherein all my thoughts
Are visibly charactered and engraved,
To lesson me, and tell me some good mean
How with my honour I may undertake
A journey to my loving Proteus.

Serious indeed. For a woman to lose her honour was not to be taken lightly. It led to danger, even death. Who can help her? Not her mother, who doesn't seem to exist. Not friends of her own rank, ditto. So Julia turns to the only friend she has. And again, Lucetta proves herself a true friend. She points out the dangers, not only of the trip itself but of the dangers of love that burns ”above the bounds of reason” and the very real possibility that Proteus won't be happy to see her: ”I fear me he will scarce be pleased withal,” pointing out that oaths and promises and declarations of love aren't worth much but are only ”servants to deceitful men.”

Nevertheless she agrees to help Julia with the men's clothing necessary for the journey. For this Julia shows true appreciation for true friendship by leaving her undoubtedly substantial wealth in Lucetta's hands as thanks.

We see no more of Lucetta in the play but hope that she will show up again after the play, after the weddings, to take part in the other friendship we see here, the one between Julia and Silvia.

Julia knows it is a friendship – though not yet, not really, being that they're rivals. Silvia does not, but in fact she and Julia both display sincere sisterly solidarity throughout.

Before they even meet, Silvia establishes that she is firmly on Julia's side against Proteus when she tells him, ”I despise thee for the wrongful suit...go to thy lady's grave...” (Act 4.2). When Silvia and Julia do meet, in Act 4.4 in their only exchange, Silvia immediately confirms this, believing she is speaking to Proteus' page:

Tell him from me
One Julia, that his change of thoughts forget,
Would better fit his chamber than this shadow.”


Though his false finger have profaned the ring,
Mine shall not do his Julia so much wrong.


I weep myself to think upon thy words.
Here, youth. There is my purse. I give thee this
For thy sweet mistress' sake because thou lov'st her.

Thus before Silvia even knows Julia, or knows that she knows her, she proves herself a good friend.

This moves Julia deeply. She wants to hate Silvia for being the object of Proteus' deceitful love but we see that, far from being blinded by her own love for Proteus, she values Silvia's acts of friendship so much that her impulse to scratch her eyes out disappears as soon as it comes. In a violently patriarchal society where women are forced to marry men whether they love them or not – and a case could easily be made that while Julia loves Proteus she is not blind to his glaring faults – friendship with another woman, even The Other Woman, is valued. In spite of, or because?

The next time Silvia and Julia are on stage together, events happen so fast that they strike Silvia dumb, cause Julia to faint, and leave the audience with their mouths hanging open – wha'??

It has been noted that Shakespeare has given almost no stage directions. Much else has been made of Silvia's last words being ”O heaven!” in response to Proteus' attempted rape – which is so rapidly thwarted by Valentine that nobody, much less Julia, has a chance to do anything. Skillful directing and acting could – and I maintain should – allow Julia an instantaneous move toward defending Silvia. This would be in keeping with the solidarity already established by Shakespeare in their relationship.

Nor should Silvia's silence be interpreted as passivity, or indeed careless forgetfulness on Shakespeare's part. The silence of women is a result of the political and patriarchal power structure. Indeed, you and I would also be struck dumb, at least momentarily, by an attempted rape and by being shoved off onto a violent despicable suitor by one's own true love.

However when Julia herself is struck dumb (i.e. faints) by this very development, the only possible stage directing must be that, whatever relief and feelings of love Silvia might briefly express over being rescued by Valentine must be transformed into shock, deep hurt and anger at his betrayal, shown by the actress at the same moment as a flash of concern for the fallen page and an instant movement towards ”him” to assist the ”boy” to whom she had expressed her solidarity with Julia. In keeping with this solidarity and with Silvia's sharp intelligence already established by Shakespeare, it would not be amiss to show that Silvia is the first one to realize that the page is in fact Julia.

In other words, no words are necessary to show the rapid development of friendship, in this time of acute crisis and betrayal, between two women who already have a strong bond.

A bond they will surely need, and which they will surely encourage and treasure in the years to come. Being married to such worthless cads as Valentine and Proteus, who will no doubt continue to blithely trod roughshod on their wives' souls in the name of love, Julia and Silvia, hopefully with Lucetta's wisdom and support, will need this friendship to survive.

And that is why this play can be called a comedy. It is not a happy ending because they get married in the end, but in spite of the fact that they get married in the end. Jean Howard points out – and rightly so – that the happy ending comes at a great cost to the women, but in the few lines and even fewer scenes in which these women meet, Shakespeare firmly establishes the basis for what will sustain them despite the cost, what is clearly the victor over romantic - and untrustworthy - love between men and women, what is emotionally superior to the flawed and bizarre example of friendship between men. And that is, of course, friendship between women.

Ruby Jand
February 6, 2011
July 18, 2011
Posted July 27, 2011

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Howard, Jean. Introduction to Two Gentleman of Verona, Norton edition (see above.)
  • 1983, BBC. Directed by Don Taylor. Cast: Tessa Peake-Jones (Julia), Joanne Pearce (Silvia), Hetta Charnley (Lucetta), Tyler Butterworth (Proteus), John Hudson (Valentine).
Seen on stage: No.


  1. Congratulations! Looks great and fun reading!

  2. I've never read Two Gentlemen of Verona but I've heard plenty about it. Maybe it's time to go read it once and for all.

    Definitely looking forward to your future studies, though I'm afraid I may have to do some of my own if I want to get what you're talking about (how many plays did he write in total again ... 38 plays, eh? I think I've read maybe 3 of those.. :O)