Pay attention now: Which of the following make The Two Gentlemen of Verona a comedy? Is it the goofy dog named “Crab”; the two slapstick servants, Launce and Speed; the bumbling, inept outlaws; the hilarious disguises; the intriguing mixture of friendship and love; or all of the above that brand this early play by Shakespeare as “a pleasant comedy”? If you answered “all of the above” you would be only half right, because determining the genre (or literary type) of a play depends less upon individual comic circumstance and more upon the overall design of the drama. Most people would agree, for example, that King Lear and Romeo and Juliet are tragedies despite the fact that both plays include comic characters and amusing situations? So if an occasional dog or joke doesn’t make a play a comedy, what does?
As we all learned in Miss Hickey’s ninth grade English class, tragedies move from good fortune to bad fortune, while comedies progress from bad to good. All Shakespeare’s comic plays, in fact, follow this evolution from problem to solution or from bad fortune to good. If we look closer at this theatrical paradigm, however, we can arrive at a much more sophisticated and satisfying definition of “comedy” that helps us understand the inner workings of the genre and also its deeper dramatic purpose.
Shakespeare’s comedies move in two distinct, intriguing patterns: either (1) from society to wilderness to improved society or (2) from union to wandering to reunion. The first of these models—most clearly illustrated by such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Winter’s Tale—takes its characters from an urban, civilized environment to the “green world” of a forest, then back to the original society which has become a better place because of the freedom and personal growth the characters enjoyed in the wilderness. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, all four principal character groups—royalty, young lovers, fairies, and rude mechanicals—move from bad to good fortune because of a single, wonderful night in Shakespeare’s enchanted woods.
In contrast, plays like Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and All’s Well That Ends Well illustrate a movement from union to wandering to reunion. In Twelfth Night, for instance, Viola and her brother, Sebastian, are parted at the outset by shipwreck, wander separately throughout the script, and are then reunited in a climactic reconciliation scene that brings love and happiness to both. In similar fashion, the principal characters in many Shakespearean comedies gravitate toward wedlock at the conclusion, which certainly seems like “good fortune” to those of us with happy marriages.
An awareness of these important comic patterns also helps us understand the deeper, more significant manner in which watching a comedy transports us from our mundane, everyday world of bills to pay and kids to chauffeur into a theatrical dreamscape that restructures our imaginations and enables us to see our lives more clearly after the curtain falls. We are metaphorically “united” with our everyday lives, then “separated” from them so we can undergo the joyful journey of the comedy, and then “united” again with lives made richer, sweeter, and more meaningful by the dramatic progress of the play. Interpreted in this fashion, the action of viewing a play is “comic” because it carries us towards good fortune and solved problems through the ancient and timeless ritual of responding to actors on a stage.
Interestingly enough, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is unique within the genre because it fulfills both these comic patterns. The play begins in Verona, then moves rapidly to Milan, the “city of gold”—a highly sophisticated, urban environment from which the four lovers escape into a forest near Mantua, where all the conflicts are resolved and the sweethearts return to their proper mates. In a play where the names of characters such as Valentine, Proteus, and Julia predict their behavioral idiosyncrasies, we should not be surprised that a brave and resourceful young woman named “Silvia” represents the sylvan wilderness that helps shape the outcome of the play. Similarly, through its focus upon the two title characters, Shakespeare’s comedy features the union of Proteus and Valentine in Verona, their separate adventures wandering through Milan and the forest, and their reunion and reconciliation as dear friends at the conclusion of the play.
Shakespeare’s reinforcement of these two comic patterns is more understandable when we recall that he yoked together two different sources in constructing his play: (1) Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana, a Spanish pastoral romance celebrating the virtue of love, which moves from society to wilderness to improved society, and (2) the story of “Titus and Gisippus” in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor, which progresses from union to wandering to reunion in arguing that male friendship is a higher type of human behavior than erotic love. Although these two complimentary sources help define the play as a “double comedy” shifting in intricate, overlapping patterns to its optimistic conclusion, they also create dramatic tension by setting in contrast Valentine’s love of Silvia with his platonic affection for his friend Proteus. Both plots join instantaneously in the forest when Valentine, reunited with Proteus, presents his lover to his friend: “that my love may appear plain and free,” he offers, “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee (5.4.82 83). Though the moment often elicits howls from the audience and a strong on-stage reaction from Silvia herself, it seems appropriate in a play that somewhat awkwardly straddles two comic patterns and two literary sources.
Shakespeare’s dual plots also allow the comedy to carry more than its fair share of important themes, including those concerned with maturity and metamorphosis. This is a play featuring very young characters, with few older people serving as positive role models. The four young lovers in particular must learn, through the progress of the play, how to function in an adult world. Appropriately, the comedy ends with the dawn, the beginning of a new day in the lovers’ journey into maturity. If, as Valentine argues, “Love’s a mighty lord” (2.4.136), so too, the characters discover, is friendship. And finding a proper balance between the two extremes of love and friendship is an important lesson in becoming an adult—in Shakespeare’s comic universe and in our own as well.