Friends, regardless of where you live or what your personal beliefs and opinions, I feel we can agree on one thing: this has been an absolute crap week. I won’t go into specifics but I will say that a Shakespearean comedy is just what we all need right now.
Sadly, this week didn’t give us the best Shakespearean comedy. In fact, it didn’t give us even a remotely OK comedy, in my opinion. I didn’t like this play. Honestly, it was the ending for me. I don’t know what made less sense: the ending or the strange slow jazz music that the audio version I listened to had between scenes. The ending felt flat, like it jumped to “happy resolution” without any real reason or logic. But more on that below.
The play opens with Valentine preparing to leave for Milan while his friend Proteus is remaining in Verona for love. Valentine bids Proteus a fond goodbye and Proteus proceeds to agonize over whether his beloved Julia received the letter he sent with Valentine’s servant, Speed, and what she thinks of it.
Julia, for her part, is in her chamber getting unnecessarily catty with her maid Lucetta over whether she [Julia] likes Proteus or whether she’ll read the letters from him that Lucetta was slyly keeping from her. Julia tears up the letters in anger and then reads the fragments lovingly when she’s alone. At some point Proteus and Julia profess their love to each other offstage, although it’s never mentioned.
Proteus’s father decides that Proteus should go to Milan to advance himself as Valentine did. Proteus and Julia say goodbye and exchange rings as vows to remember each other and for Proteus to return to her soon. We’re then introduced to Launce, Proteus’s servant, who constantly mishears what people say to him and bumbles most of his duties. (We also meet Launce’s dog, who is perhaps the most rational character in the entire play.)
In Milan we find that Valentine has fallen for the Duke’s daughter, Silvia, and that she has been promised her to the wealthy Thurio. Proteus arrives, embraces Valentine, and meets Sylvia and Thurio. When the latter two leave Valentine lets Proteus in on his plot: he and Silvia are in love and plan to steal away that night, and Valentine needs Proteus’s help. Proteus agrees and then tells the audience that he’s quite suddenly fallen madly in love with Sylvia and plans to betray Valentine for his own benefit (making Proteus officially the Worst Wingman Ever).
And so it happens: Proteus snitches on Valentine and Silvia to the Duke and the Duke “discovers” the plot without Valentine ever knowing that Proteus turned him in. Valentine is banished from Milan on pain of death.
Silvia is beside herself with grief and Proteus offers to bad-mouth his best friend to Silvia to get her to fall out of love with Valentine (and to get her to fall in love with him instead). Proteus also promises to talk Thurio up, which he has no plans of actually following through with.
While walking outside Milan Valentine is captured by a band of outlaws. He lies and says he was banished for killing a man in a fair fight, so instead of robbing him (although Valentine has nothing to rob) the outlaws give Valentine a choice: die or become their leader (the Shakespearean equivalent of “cake or death”).
Meanwhile in Verona, Julia decides she can’t be parted from Proteus any longer and sets out to Milan dressed as a boy named Sebastian. Once she arrives, though, she finds that Proteus doesn’t recognize her and is attempting (badly) to woo Silvia; Julia is heartbroken, but agrees to help Proteus attempt to win Silvia’s love. Proteus decides to gift Silvia with the ring Julia had given to him (a twist of the knife in her heart). Julia goes to Silvia with the gift but Silvia spurns it, stating that she’s in love with Valentine and is disgusted that Proteus could so easily forget his Julia so quickly (not realizing that Julia is right in front of her).
Proteus, in what seems like a desperate ploy, tells Silvia that Valentine is most likely dead. Silvia doesn’t believe him and hatches a plot to leave Milan with Sir Eglamour to find Valentine. The two escape but are captured by the outlaws who begin to lead them to their leader (Valentine). On their way, however, Proteus and Julia (still disguised as a boy) overtake them. Proteus “frees” Silvia and then proceeds to chase her deep into the forest very near where Valentine is.
Valentine observes Proteus profess his love to Silvia (like I said, Worst Wingman Ever) and Silvia reject his advances. Proteus then tells Silvia he’ll “force” her to yield to him (ie: he’s going to rape her) and, just as he’s about to attack Silvia, Valentine finally reveals himself and expresses how disgusted he is by Proteus.
Then, in what has to be the most illogical, disappointing, and ridiculously quick of turnabouts, Proteus realizes how horrible he’s been and tells Valentine that he (Proteus) hates himself for his actions. Valentine decides that Proteus is truly repentant (after all of five seconds) and that he’ll forgive him completely. (“You betrayed me and just tried to rape the woman I love? Water under the bridge, my old friend!”) In fact, Valentine offers Silvia to Proteus! As if he has any right, and as if Silvia will just go along with this. (Yes, I know, my poor modern sensibilities, but how does Julia have so much agency while Silvia has none?)
Julia, presumably overcome by the suffocating misogyny and idiocy of this whole situation, proceeds to faint and reveals her true identity (though she remains in her male disguise). Proteus then remembers how much he loves Julia and the two renew their promises of fidelity (because heaven forbid someone be held accountable for their actions).
At this point, the Duke and Thurio finally catch up to the group after being captured by the outlaws. Thurio, continuing the “I am male, see me lay claim to whatever I wish” theme, states that Silvia is his; Valentine, for his part, threatens to kill Thurio if he takes a single step towards Silvia. Thurio decides he likes being alive and a coward and renounces his claim on Silvia. The Duke is disgusted by Thurio’s lack of spine and decides that he’s impressed by Valentine’s actions. He approves of Valentine and Silvia’s relationship and also, quite quickly, pardons all of the outlaws as well and un-banishes everyone.
And they all lived happily ever after. How absolutely ridiculous is that? The ending makes no sense! And this comes after The Taming of the Shrew; at least in that play we got a progression of events and character development. But here it’s almost like Shakespeare ran out of money and decided to end the play as soon as he could, regardless of how nonsensical it would be. Not his finest hour.
But a bright mark! I’ll never have to revisit this play again. And next week I’ll be reviewing Love’s Labour’s Lost, for which I have quite high hopes.
This was a play of friendship vs. love. When the friendship is restored at the end of the play love relationships fall into place neatly. We also have the servants acting as mirrors and foils for their masters (or so I read).
But I dislike pretty much everyone but the dog in this play, so let’s talk about the forest. The forest is always a significant space in Shakespeare: it’s a wild place, a place where social status loses meaning. People are judged for who they are rather than what rank they hold in the forest. We’ll see this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth in the coming weeks. So it’s in the forest that the Duke sees Thurio for the coward he is and Valentine for his merits. It’s also where Proteus’s desires reveal themselves to be extremely aggressive when not couched by social norms, and where he realizes what an absolute ass he’s been. Julia’s identity is also revealed here.
Apparently Valentine “giving” Silvia to Proteus at the end hints at homosexual feelings on Valentine’s part. Perhaps that’s also why Proteus realizes he’s more attracted to Julia than he is to Silvia while Julia is still dressed as a boy?
There must be a fan-fiction that rewrites the ending and has Valentine and Proteus declaring their love for each other and running away together while Silvia and Julia realize they’re a far better match for each other than any idiotic male in the play. If it’s not already written, someone please go and write it and then send it to me. That would make so much more sense than the actual ending of this play.