The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a comedy with a controversial ending, built around the interruption of male friendship by heterosexual love and the confusion sparked by a cross-dressed heroine. The play probes the early modern discourse of idealised male friendship, explores metamorphosis, constancy and the boundaries of gender identity – and features the only animal role in Shakespeare, the scapegrace dog Crab.

The play was written no later than 1594. It first appears in print in the 1623 First Folio, on which this text is based – no quarto edition is known to have existed.

In his introduction to the current edition, editor William C. Carroll writes ‘Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Two Gentlemen has attracted the attention, if not the unfailing admiration, of the greatest editors and actors of the past four centuries and its stage history proves surprisingly rich. However, many readers and audiences have judged Two Gentlemen, as one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, to be aesthetically inferior to most of his others: ‘early’ comes to connote ‘immature’, hence relatively incompetent, in contrast to a play written later, which is more ‘mature’ (how could it not be?) and (almost by definition) therefore more successful . . I aim to break this critical cycle, not by mounting a new (and doomed) argument about the play’s aesthetic perfections, but by enlisting and, if possible, augmenting some stimulating recent critical and theoretical work on the early modern period and also related texts to cast light on Shakespeare’s dramatic strategies in Two Gentlemen . . . I hope that this edition, in exploring the early modern discourse of male friendship, will show how Shakespeare’s use of the tradition is more complicated and indeed more searching than what has sometimes been seen as a rather immature, incompetent appropriation of it.’

English drama during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) showcased England’s first great era of the theatre, crowned by the emergence of the world’s most renowned dramatist, William Shakespeare. Other prominent writers of the Elizabethan age included the University Wits – Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, and others – whose work for the stage shows the influence of ancient Greek and Roman playwrights, especially Seneca.

The first English tragedy, Gorboduc, was written and performed by law students of London’s Inner Temple in 1562 with Elizabeth in the audience. The first extant English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall, was performed around 1563. Distinct genres to emerge during the era include Revenge Tragedy and the Citizen Comedy.

Some 21,000 Londoners, or one-eighth of the population, attended the theatre at least once a week. Elizabeth herself saw only about five professional productions a year, for which she paid each company about ten pounds. She banned plays about religious or political subjects because these had been used as propaganda in earlier reigns; the mystery play was also prohibited.

As unlicensed actors were classified as vagabonds, they often sought the patronage of noblemen; among the companies supported in this way were the Chamberlain’s Men and the Admirals’ Men, together with several boy companies. During plague periods, the London theatres closed and actors went on gruelling tours of the regions in order to survive. Many actors became famous, however, such as Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and William Kempe, while those who had financial interests in the theatres in which they performed also became wealthy.

The first permanent public playhouse in England, the Theatre, was opened in 1576 by James Burbage, Richard’s father. Others quickly followed: the Curtain Theatre in 1577, the Rose Theatre in 1587, the Swan Theatre in 1594, and the famous Globe Theatre, at which many of Shakespeare’s works were given their first performances, in 1599. The average audience capacity was 2000 to 3000 people. The venues were classified as ‘liberties’ beyond the city’s jurisdiction.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).