Shakespeare and the Invention of the Heterosexual

Stephen Guy-Bray
University of British Columbia

Stephen Guy-Bray. "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Heterosexual". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (October, 2007) 12.1-28 <URL:>. 

  1. The currently conventional view of heterosexuality typically presents it as the happy ending of a narrative beginning with an infant's attachment to his or her mother and progressing from close attachments to members of the same sex to a single attachment to a member of the opposite sex; in this narrative, each kind of attachment replaces the kind that preceded it, and these substitutions are presented as leading towards greater and greater happiness.  This view of sexuality is relatively new, although the idea of presenting a person's emotional and sexual life as a narrative is not.  In the Renaissance, however, the elements of the narrative are, as a rule, ordered differently, as they famously are in the fourth book of the Faerie Queene, in which Spenser speaks of the three kinds of love—familial, friendly, and heteroerotic:
    For naturall affection soone doth cesse,
    And quenched is with Cupids greater flame:
    But faithfull friendship doth them both suppresse.[1]
  2. In this narrative, a man's love for a woman is not the desired result of the man's life as a whole (the happy ending), but rather merely one of the kinds of love a man will experience in his adult life and, what is more, something potentially dangerous; in contrast, the love of a man for another man is the sign of true maturity.  Spenser illustrates this by making two male friends the primary characters of Book IV and by presenting them and their wives in a way that clearly shows that homosociality is more important than married love.

  3. In many ways, Spenser's stress on the importance of same-sex friendship is the typical Renaissance view.  According to this view it is not only the sex of the friends that should be the same.  As Laurie Shannon has recently argued, Renaissance writers on friendship felt that the two friends should not only both be male but also both of the same social degree.  In a discussion of Nicholas Udall's translation of Erasmus, Shannon points out that when Udall mistranslates a phrase—he says that "two frendes are one soul and one body," instead of one soul in two bodies—he is not really making a mistake after all: "two equal corporeal bodies bound in friendship constitute a single corporate or juridical body, a legal fiction creating an operative unity."[2]  That is, Udall's mistake helps us to see that while we might now consider the married couple as one of the basic units of the polity and regard friendships as strictly private, Renaissance writers were more likely to think of friendship between men as an affective bond with a public importance; although marriage was also a public relation, a man's relations to other men were typically considered more important.[3]  And, of course, a marriage was in any case also (and sometimes primarily) a relation between the groom and the bride's father, as the Duke of Milan's role in The Two Gentlemen of Verona makes clear.  Thus, what we now see as heterosexuality (in the context of this play, the prospective marriage of the young lovers) is a function of, and to some extent subordinate to, the homosociality that dominates the world of the play.

  4. The importance of friendship and the place of homoeroticism in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England have been the subject of much of the scholarship on Renaissance life and history done in the last twenty years or so, and the points I have raised above will not be new. The critical consensus now is that the Renaissance organisation of sexuality and of affective bonds in general was very different from our own.  Perhaps the first scholar to go into the question in depth was Alan Bray, who published his Homosexuality in Renaissance England in 1982.  Bray showed that while there were indeed some prosecutions for sodomy, for the most part Renaissance English people had little trouble with quite a wide range of erotic behaviour between males under certain conditions.  As Bray remarks, in the case of prosecutions it was often the case that "what was at issue was primarily the maintenance of the social order"; he also shows that in certain situations such as relations between masters and servants and between teachers and pupils we could even speak of institutionalised homosexuality.[4]  Shakespeare may well be making a tacit reference to contemporary gossip about masters and servants when Julia disguises herself as a man and serves her lover Proteus under the name Sebastian, a name which frequently has homoerotic connotations (as it has, for example, in Shakespeare's own Twelfth Night).[5]

  5. As a rule, however, these references remain tacit ,and Shakespeare's comedies usually end with a tableau of mixed-sex couples.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona is no exception to this rule, although I shall show that its conclusion is ambiguous.  Nevertheless, this play, like most of Shakespeare's plays, can be read as supporting a view of mixed-sex affection as the most important affective bond in a person's life, as opposed, for instance, to Spenser's positioning of homosociality as a restraint on heterosexual excesses.  This, at least, is the version of Shakespeare's presentation of love and sexuality that has been most energetically promoted, and from this point of view his world appears much more like our own.  What is remarkable about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, is both that its conclusion makes such an interpretation problematic and that it presents heterosexuality as something that is made up, rather than as something that is an essence or as something that the characters naturally do.  While similar claims could be (and have been) made about other plays of his, such as Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale to name only two examples, I believe that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is distinctive in that it gives us a particularly clear look at how heterosexuality is made and at what materials go into it: in this play, heterosexuality is clearly culture rather than nature, and it takes a great deal of work.

  6. The specific kind of work required to get characters into mixed-sex couples is substitution.  As we shall see, almost everything in The Two Gentlemen of Verona can be substituted for something else; indeed, the narrative could be summarised consisting of a chain of substitutions.  One effect of Shakespeare's stress on substitution and interchangeability in this play is to undermine the stable and individual self; as a result, in the play the characters tend to have selves composed of fragments.  In the last twenty years, many Renaissance scholars have pointed out that our modern concept of what selfhood is cannot really be applied to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and from this point of view the characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona do not seem particularly odd.  Without reviewing this extensive body of scholarship, I want to look at a recent book on the subject by Will Fisher's.  Fisher points out that from the seventeenth century on, the individual is "conceptualized as an entity that was quite literally in-dividual (in the sense of indivisible).  In other words, it had no prosthetic or detachable parts."[6]  In contrast, Fisher argues that in Shakespeare's time the individual was to a great extent formed out of detachable parts.  His emphasis is primarily on items that could be part of a stage costume (handkerchiefs, codpieces, beards, and hair), but our idea of prostheses could include other things.  Specifically, I am thinking of male relations with women.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona presents what we would now call heterosexuality as a prosthesis, as part of the equipment or furniture of a man, but Shakespeare ultimately refuses to subordinate homosociality to marriage.

  7. As I see it, The Two Gentlemen of Verona concentrates on precisely this formation of the individual by prostheses and as a result what the plot documents is a sense of heterosexuality as process, rather than as a fixed state.  As J.L. Simmons remarks, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play concerned with coming out (in all the meanings, ancient and modern, of that phrase), an action "both initiative and performative."[7]  For us, the phrase "coming out" usually refers to the process of acknowledging one's homosexuality and thus leaving behind heterosexuality; in this play, however, the coming out is the entrance into what we now call heterosexuality without, as I shall argue in my discussion of the play's conclusion, giving up on what we now call homosexuality.  To return to Simmons's phrasing, we could say that for the two gentlemen themselves, to come out initiates their heterosexual lives, their becoming, as was virtually compulsory, married men, but because it is also performative, this coming out is something that has to be demonstrated rather than merely declared.  Nor is it sufficient to demonstrate one's coming out once only: as Simmons says, ""coming out" is semiotically always in tension with "going back,""[8] and the action of The Two Gentlemen of Verona suggests that this tension cannot be resolved, that for Valentine and Proteus to come out is to combine mixed-sex and same-sex affections.  While we could say that Proteus' initial love for Julia demonstrates the substitution of a mixed-sex attachment for the bond between himself and Valentine, this is not a substitution in which heterosexuality simply replaces homosexuality.  Rather, it is the first of an apparently never-ending process of substitutions.

  8. The Two Gentlemen of Verona opens with a conversation between the eponymous characters in which the audience's attention is drawn to a simple form of substitution: one of the two gentlemen is now in love with a woman—although this perception is qualified when we realise, as Jeffrey Masten points out, that "male friendship and Petrarchan love in this play speak a remarkably similar language."[9]  The substitution is thus on the level of object choice rather than on the level of discourse.  But while the play's title and much of the first scene would almost certainly lead the contemporary audience to expect a story of two close friends in the traditional Renaissance style, for most of the play the friendship does not appear to be more than tepid.  A comparison with Lyly's Euphues is instructive here.[10]  In that book, Euphues and Philautus fall in love at first sight.  The former's affair with the latter's fiancée ends their friendship for a time but their shared misogyny soon reunites them and they live happily ever after (although admittedly in different cities).  To some extent, Lyly's narrative follows Spenser's, as in Euphues "faithfull friendship" both precedes and follows "Cupids greater flame" and could certainly be said to suppress it: for Euphues and Philautus, the love of women is a danger that almost ruins them; their ability to rise above it is what convinces the reader that the two men are now mature.  In contrast, in the first scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona it appears that Proteus, if not Valentine, has already made a fairly unproblematic transition to a female love object, so the male couple as the primary feature in the protagonists' life is already in the past and the play appears at this point to be chiefly concerned with heterosexuality.

  9. As I have just said, the play's contemporary audience would presumably have been expected to assume the existence of an especially close friendship between Valentine and Proteus.  What I think is significant is that this male friendship turns out to be most obvious and important at the play's conclusion, so that instead of a progression from male friendship to mixed-sex love Shakespeare gives us a narrative in which a man's love for a woman is merely one of the elements in male friendship.  The focus on relations between the sexes that the first scene appears to announce never quite materialises, or at least not at the expense of a focus on same-sex relations.  The married heterosexuality that we have been trained to see as the desired outcome of the narrative of sexual development ends up being recuperated by male homosociality, or, to return to the term I used earlier, it ends up being revealed as a prosthesis.  In this respect, the presentation of heterosexuality in The Two Gentlemen of Verona more closely resembles Spenser's account than it does most of Shakespeare's other comedies, especially the most famous ones such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, in which the characters who seem most to embody homosociality (Jaques and Antonio) are excluded from the blizzard of marriages with which both plays end.  It is, I think, primarily for this reason that The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been seen not just as one of Shakespeare's early plays (which it undeniably is: most critics place its composition in or around 1592), but also a play that shows us an immature Shakespeare.  Like the characters in his plays, Shakespeare himself is often judged according to our contemporary understanding of sexual development.

  10. The first scene of the play gives us a discussion between the two primary male characters about love, a discussion which is expressed in highly conventional terms.  Shakespeare follows this scene in which two men talk about love with a scene in which two women talk about love.  The separation of the sexes by scene underscores our sense of the work that a heterosexual conclusion will require, as at this point the genders are like parallel lines.  Shakespeare's own work in bringing the characters in these scenes together sets up a paradigm for the play itself.  Furthermore, this work is complicated by the inability of the characters to talk openly about love: Proteus sends Julia a letter rather than speak to her directly, and Julia is unable to admit to Lucetta, her own maid, that she wants to read this letter.  To a considerable extent, the features of these opening scenes that I have noted here will turn out to be typical of the play as a whole: the action of the play is generally indirect—a great deal is done by proxy—and tends to be mediated through textuality.[11]  In his groundbreaking study of the relationship between male (homo) sexuality and textuality in the Renaissance, Alan Stewart point out that "[t]exts were commissioned, written, taught, learned, presented, dedicated, accepted, and read within a series of socially acknowledged but socially problematic transactions between men (xliv)."[12]  In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare's concern is with transactions between men, but also between men and women.  However private we (or the senders or recipients) might think the letters in the play are, I think Shakespeare always wants us to see each letter as only part of a larger network of relations.

  11. Letters are unusually prominent throughout The Two Gentlemen of Verona (and, as a result, in critical discussions of the play).  One of the most widespread kinds of books in Renaissance Europe was the letter-writing manual; the best-known example of this kind of book is the De conscribendis epistolis of Erasmus, a work which offers a range of models, including tags and quotations suitable for all occasions.[13De conscribendis epistolis is typical of these manuals, through which educated people were trained to write letters according to approved models: indeed, this ability was considered to be essential to a gentleman, and it is no exaggeration to say that one of the things every letter was supposed to convey was the writer's social status. Letters, then, were simultaneously personal documents, insofar as they were sent by a particular person to a particular person, and collective documents, in that they provided the means to place a person socially and in that they were almost all based on a finite and known set of models.  That is to say that in The Two Gentlemen of Verona Shakespeare presents letters and sexual roles or identities as working in much the same way.  What is more, the similarity between letters and sexualities also lies in the fact that each is a system in which roles and directions are always changing, in contrast to the common contemporary perception of sexuality as fixed.  These implications are for the most part implicit rather than explicit but I believe that they are important for our understanding of the play.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona demonstrates that intense relations with men and intense relations with women were not thought to be incompatible.

  12. While letters are most obviously a way to communicate, they are also material objects, and it is this aspect that Shakespeare emphasises: it often appears that it is form rather than content that matters.  Near the beginning of the second scene Lucetta gives the provenance of the letter she delivers to Julia, saying that she got it from
    Sir Valentine's page; and sent, I think, from Proteus.
    He would have given it you, but I, being in the way,
    Did in your name receive it (I.ii.38-40).
    What should be a simple declaration of love becomes a chain of substitutions: textuality for physical presence, Lucetta for Julia, Proteus' page for Proteus, and Proteus for Valentine.  After this discussion comes the farcical sequence in which Lucetta attempts to deliver the letter: she takes it away, brings it back, drops it, picks it up, refuses to give the letter, gives it, then Julia looks at it, rips it up, and forbids Lucetta to pick up the pieces.  Once Lucetta has gone, Julia apostrophises the pieces and vows to atone for her rough treatment—"I'll kiss each several paper for amends" (I.ii.108)—then searches the pieces for names: "kind Julia," "love-wounded Proteus," "Poor forlorn Proteus, passionate Proteus, / To the sweet Julia" (I.ii.109, 113, 124-25).  Then Lucetta comes back on stage and picks up the pieces.

  13. Throughout this scene, it is the servant who is dominant, seemingly both more experienced and more adept.  When Lucetta says that she received the letter in Julia's name, does she merely mean that she took charge of the letter and promised to deliver it or that she impersonated Julia?  In conjunction with Julia's later disguise, we can see Lucetta's statement as ambiguous, and as pointing to another kind of substitution: the substitution of one social position for another.  In her recent study of the importance of mimesis to the play, Elizabeth Rivlin has said that "Lucetta's ... domestic service stresses the servant's mimetic influence over the master."[15]  I would add that her influence is underlined by the fact that the letter came to her from another servant.  In the process of moving towards married heterosexuality, the upper class characters must rely on their servants.  In this sense, servants function as prostheses just as clothes do.  Later in the play when Julia disguises herself as a boy and works as a servant, she functions in precisely this way between Proteus and Silvia.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona presents courtship as a process in which people—and texts, like the letter, and other objects—are substituted for other people until the desired pairings are reached.  The effect is to undermine the pretensions of any particular pairing to be permanent and to raise the possibility that heterosexuality itself may be just a stage, although these possible interpretations remain latent.

  14. My main interest in this scene is in how Shakespeare presents the role of the letter in the greater ritual of love-making, however.  First of all, rather than being a transparent medium of communication, in this exchange of letters between lovers, letters become the main subject, attaining almost to the status of a character in the play.  We could even say that in Julia's assembling of a narrative from the letter—something Shakespeare shows us both in her selection of those parts of the letter that contain proper names and in her commentary on those parts—Julia appears like Shakespeare himself.  This could suggest a reductionist view of drama in which writing a play involves nothing more than selecting names and then matching them to the most standard of attributes: N + A = T, where N stands for one female name and one male name, A stands for adjectives, and T stands for theatre.  But I think that the point here is not only meta-theatrical but also—and for my purposes here this is more important—a point about love and sexuality in general.  The image of Julia creating a love story for herself out of pieces of paper is meant to appear paradigmatic for the play as a whole.  We should understand this scene as indicating, to some extent at least, that relationships we might think of as especially personal and intimate are all formed out of pre-existing material, out of texts we already know.  The point is emphasised by the noticeably conventional nature of the discourse at this point in the play undermines the specialness of the characters. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, then, heterosexual love is not creation but rather recycling; perhaps given the insistence on textuality here it might be better to say that heterosexual love is like editing an anthology.

  15. I said in the previous paragraph that letters can attain almost to the status of a character within the play.  Perhaps the best example of this in the second scene is provided by Julia's final words to the pieces of the letter: "Thus will I fold them one upon another; / Now kiss, embrace, contend, do what you will" (I.ii.128-29).  Here, the suggestion is clearly that the fragments of the letter will have sex with each other—an activity that is denied to Proteus and Julia themselves not only at this early point in the play but throughout The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  In this scene, the text appears as a body, a familiar metaphor that can be traced back to Plato, who famously makes Socrates say in the Phaedrus that "every text should be formed like an image, having its own body."[16]  But in ascribing agency to the fragments of Proteus' letter, Shakespeare's version of Plato's metaphor—and while I am not suggesting that Shakespeare knew the Phaedrus, the image was certainly a commonplace in the Renaissance—extends it by giving the paper not only the image of the body or a resemblance to the body but also the functions and desires of a body and, as I have said, suggesting that the paper can act on those desires in a way that the humans cannot.  This scene makes it difficult to say which is the tenor and which is the vehicle in the metaphor of the text as body.  Metaphor is itself a kind of substitution, and it depends on our ability to distinguish the thing itself from the word or words temporarily used to represent it.  In this scene, Julia could be said to take the metaphor of the text as body literally.  The difficulty here turns out to be typical of The Two Gentlemen of Verona as a whole, in which substitution is never simply a matter of replacing one thing with another, but always rather a contested process that may go backwards as often as forwards.  As the play's conclusion shows, this double motion is true of the shift from same-sex affection to mixed-sex affection that the play appears to narrate.

  16. As I have suggested, one of the potential problems with many of the substitute objects in the play—letters, rings, gloves, a dog, a painting—is that while they have the primary function of bringing people together they may, in fact, exceed their function as media of communication and, perhaps, take on a life of their own; the difficulties in these cases parallel Julia's vision of the pieces of the letter as bodies.  Two particularly good examples of this kind of problem are provided by Lance.  Before I turn to these I want to point out that in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (as indeed in many of his plays) Shakespeare uses the servants to explore many of the issues raised by the play's main characters.  As Rivlin has argued, "servants and masters in Two Gentlemen share an imitative bond that consolidates broader concerns about the role of imitation in constructing social identity."[17]  I would connect Rivlin's focus on imitation with mine on substitution; in both cases, what is at issue is the unoriginality of the identities whose formation The Two Gentlemen of Verona narrates. In the first of my two examples, Lance's attempt to dramatise a scene from his own life using props breaks down entirely, not just because he is so stupid but also because he is distracted by the features of the things he uses.  As a result, the audience is also distracted and the potentially sad tale of Lance's parting from his family becomes a comic scene.  Nevertheless, this comic scene has serious implications.  Seeing an allusion in Lance's name to the spear in Shakespeare, Simmons argues that the scene "replicates the procedural difficulties of playwright and quester."[18]  For instance, Lance attempts to substitute his shoes for his father and mother—"This shoe is my father.  No, this left shoe is my father; no, no, this left shoe is my mother ....  This shoe, with the hole in it, is my mother" (II.iii.14-16, 17-18)—and then goes on to say "this staff is my sister, for, look you, she is as white as a lily and as small as a wand" (II.iii.19-21).  By drawing attention to the qualities in these props that make them suitable objects for dramatic representation, Lance only succeeds in focussing the audience's attentions on the objects themselves.  In pressing them into the service of his narrative, Lance deprives the objects of their function; as he never gets to the story itself, the objects never become real actors (that is, we do not get to the point at which the staff, for example, acts the part of Lance's sister).  As the shoes and the staff—as well as the hat that represents "Nan, our maid" (II.iii.21)—are associated with travel, this part of the scene suggests that substitution is essential to progress.  When things become important for themselves, when a character can be distracted by the specific nature of his shoes, progress is impossible.

  17. My second example of the way in which Shakespeare uses Lance to show that metaphors or symbols may take on a life of their own concerns the dog.  Once Lance has assigned the roles of his family to articles of clothing, he thinks about how he will cast himself: "I am the dog—no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog—O! the dog is me, and I am myself" (II.iii.21-23).  Here, Shakespeare is obviously playing on the various metaphorical meanings of "dog," but as was the case with Julia and the letter, he makes it difficult to say which is the tenor and which the vehicle.  Later in the play we learn that Lance has adopted the dog Crab and has gone so far as to take the blame for the dog's unacceptable behaviour: "I'll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen ....  I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed" (IV.iv.29-332).  It seems that the dog was supposed to inspire Silvia to love Proteus (IV.iv.6-7), but it has instead succeeded in inspiring love for itself.  There is even a further substitution: dogs traditionally symbolise faithfulness and, especially, wedded faithfulness (the best-known example of this would undoubtedly be Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini portrait) as well as unquestioning devotion more generally, but in The Two Gentlemen of Verona it is the man who is faithful and unquestioningly, foolishly devoted to the dog.  In other words, the dog cannot play its accustomed role in the iconography of heterosexuality because Lance refuses to see it merely as a substitute.  Thus, although the scene is intended to be comic, Shakespeare nevertheless draws attention to heterosexuality as something created out of substitutions.

  18. Characterising the first of the scenes with Lance and Crab as showing "a wild excess of prosopopoeia," Louise Schleiner aptly says that the identification of Lance and dog "foregrounds the recursiveness of selfhood in formation,"[19]  the way in which, that is, whatever identity is at issue cannot be established but has rather to be demonstrated again and again.  With this in mind, we might want to reconsider Lance.  Although he is in many ways a stock character—the unintentionally funny servant—in his problems with representation (and, in particular, with self-representation), in his propensity to be distracted by the process of substitution, and in the way we can see him as becoming a substitute (persisting in his devotion to Crab until he takes the blame for the dog's misdeeds), Lance is perhaps only a more extreme version of the other characters, and even of ourselves.  When he exclaims, as if saying "Eureka!", "O! the dog is me and I am myself," he may even surpass the other characters.  What Lance sees in his relation to the dog is a mutuality that is denied to the other human relationships.  Of course, he is wrong as it is clear that Crab feels no similar identification with him, but in this respect Lance is perhaps not very different from Silvia and Julia, who trust that their love is returned, or from Valentine and Proteus, who vacillate between same-sex and mixed-sex bonds.  Shakespeare stops short of suggesting that Lance's love for the dog is sexual, but the love he feels is not, mutatis mutandis, so very different from the other examples of love in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

  19. The beginning of The Two Gentlemen of Verona might seem to depict a transition rather than a vacillation.  When the first scene, in which two men talk about love, is followed by a scene in which two women talk about love we appear to have the substitution of femininity for masculinity, both in terms of the characters on stage and in terms of the gender of the desired object: the original bond between Proteus and Valentine is replaced by heteroerotic bonds.  But the advent of heterosexuality is qualified by the fact that, of course, the female characters are really men in any case: to be a woman, and thus to be the object of the kind of male desire about which plays are written, is to be a man who has substituted women's clothing for his own.  As he does so often in his later plays, Shakespeare draws attention to this particular substitution by reversing it; here this reversal occurs when Julia substitutes male clothes for female ones in order to follow Proteus.  While we might be inclined to consider clothing as a kind of prop, Fisher reminds us that "in early modern English culture, clothing was often seen as integral to a person's identity."[20]  In other words, we could see Julia's change of clothing as making a point about what increasingly looks like the fungibility of identities—even gender identities—in the world of the play.  Furthermore, Shakespeare focusses our attention on the change of clothing and, in particular, on the question of whether Julia will wear the codpiece (that is, the garment that is most unmistakeably male).  As Fisher says, "Julia does eventually adopt the codpiece, and consequently Shakespeare ... ends up foregrounding the transferability of the item"[21]—and, I would add, of the identity of which it is a sign.  If masculinity is not inherent but rather something that can be put on like a garment, then heterosexuality and homosexuality themselves cannot be stable categories.

  20. Julia's decision to pursue Proteus is itself a reversal in terms of the plot, as it was he who initially made the advances.  Even the cross-dressing that will ultimately bring about the play's dénouement, then, can be seen as an imitation or a new version.  The situation in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is thus very different from the situation in As You Like It or Twelfth Night, in which Shakespeare's stress is on the resourcefulness of his cross-dressing heroines.  Rosalind and Viola both come up with the idea of disguising themselves as men in response to situations that are potentially life-threatening.  In contrast, Julia's only worry is for the fate of her love affair with Proteus, and although, as is the case with Rosalind and Viola, it is she who decides to disguise herself as a male, she is still presented as a follower rather than a leader—a point Shakespeare stresses by preceding the scene in which Julia tells Lucetta her plan with the soliloquy in which Proteus decides to pursue Silvia.  Rather than creation or invention, then, in this play Shakespeare gives us repetition with a number of differences that are ultimately not very important: Proteus' new interest is in Julia rather than in Valentine; Proteus' new interest is in Silvia rather than Julia; Lance now loves a dog; and so on.

  21. We can see especially good examples of substitution at the level of the prop and at the level of the plot in the scene in which Julia goes to Silvia on Proteus' behalf.  To begin: Silvia is Julia's substitute in Proteus' affections; Julia has substituted masculine attire and a masculine name for her usual clothing and usual name; Julia is Proteus' substitute in wooing Silvia.  This scene began with Lance's story of his love for the dog that was supposed to get Silvia to fall in love with Proteus.  Now Proteus resolves to send Julia to deliver other tokens of his affection (a ring—the one Julia gave him as a token of her affection—and a letter) and to get a portrait of Silvia.  The conversation between Julia and Silvia is a restaging of the scene between Julia and Lucetta, with Julia now playing the role of the servant (although a manservant this time).  As was the case in the earlier scene, there is an emphasis on the materiality of the letter: Julia at first gives the wrong letter (perhaps the one, now presumably taped together, that Proteus sent her); when she gives the correct letter to Silvia the latter first tries to return it and then tears it up.  Each of the two female characters thus destroys a letter from Proteus.  As if to emphasise the theme of substitution and, in particular, of objects standing for emotions, Shakespeare ends the scene with an orgy of substitutions: Julia calls attention to her male drag by telling a story in which she, that is to say he, dressed as a woman; Silvia gives a purse to him, that is to say her, "For thy sweet mistress' sake" (IV.iv.175); Julia is left with the portrait, which is a substitute for Silvia; Julia wants to substitute herself for the portrait as the object of Proteus' adoration; Julia tells the portrait that she will "use thee kindly for thy mistress' sake" (IV.iv.200).  The last is a double substitution: of the portrait for Julia and of the line as being about Silvia for the line as being about Julia.

  22. My point is not that nothing happens in this scene or indeed in the play as a whole but rather that, as I have said, Shakespeare gives us repetition with a difference rather than forward motion.  This may be his point about what we now call heterosexuality: as Spenser suggests in the lines from the Faerie Queene that I quoted at the beginning of this essay, a man's love for the woman he marries is not so very different from the other kinds of love he experiences. While Shakespeare gives married love much greater centrality to his characters' lives than Spenser's narrative would allow, he shows no desire to suggest that it is different in kind from a man's love for his friend or for his parents and siblings.  Or perhaps even for his dog.  In an organisation of sexuality in which fixed sexual identities are of paramount important and come increasingly to be tied to concepts of maturity, these differences among these kinds of love will be crucial, as they have tended to be to critical discussions of the play.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona is often discussed as a play about education, about how men become gentlemen for instance, so the differences that occur in the play are seen as having an effect that is both cumulative and ameliorative.

  23. The first of these important differences is what commentators tend to see as Valentine's real love for Silvia.  In this reading, Proteus' love for Silvia is inauthentic and has been seen as an example of mimetic desire: he loves her because Valentine loves her.  Proteus himself considers this interpretation when he asks himself whether he loves Silvia because of "mine eye or Valentine's praise" (II.iv.193).  But Valentine's love for Silvia is also mimetic desire: he loves a woman because Proteus loves a woman; what is more, the male characters' love of women is mimetic in any case as it based on the love they originally had for each other.  The foundational relationship in the play, the one memorialised in the play's title, the one that is the basis of the various plots in the play, is the relationship between Proteus and Valentine.  The fact that The Two Gentlemen of Verona presents us with substitution and imitation rather than narrative movement means that the play cannot really be understood as the story of how two young men achieve mature heterosexuality.  And the heterosexuality that the play narrates is not really heterosexuality at all since, as Shakespeare is careful to point out, both Julia and Silvia are really men anyway: perhaps heterosexuality is what you call homosexuality when the man you love wears a dress.

  24. Most people have been only too happy to understand The Two Gentlemen of Verona as the story of how two young men achieve mature heterosexuality, however.  Shakespeare's emphasis on substitution and inauthenticity throughout the play has been ignored in favour of a concentration on the play's ending, which shows the main characters formed into two heterosexual couples under the aegis of the play's patriarch.  What most people do not like about the ending is Valentine's response to Proteus' contrition: "that my love may appear plain and free, / All that was mine in Silvia I give thee" (V.iv.82-83).  This, it appears, is one substitution too many.  In the real world, it has been objected, a man would not give up the woman he loves to his best friend and nobody would hand a woman over to a man who has just threatened rape; the fact that this is, after all, a play and not real life does not appear to have occurred to most commentators.  In real life, one might well wish that Valentine could remain in the all-male society of the outlaws.[22]  But most critics writing on the play have felt obliged to discuss these lines and to explain them away; productions of the play quite often omit the lines altogether, although there have been exceptions: Jeffrey Raynes Myers argues that the point of view expressed in lines 82-83 "derives from and is consistent with a system of human relations that justifies and even necessitates actions that objectify all human beings, but especially women."[23]

  25. Although Myers's emphasis is very different from mine, it seems to me that another way to describe Shakespeare's focus in this play on a system that tends to turn people into objects is to use the word substitution.  Valentine's offer–and, indeed, the scene as a whole—demonstrates that in the world of the play it is the relations among men that are most important: despite the amount of attention Shakespeare gives to the female characters throughout the play, the conclusion demonstrates that they are not the protagonists and that even the mixed-sex marriage that we often assume comedies are written to celebrate are subject to the needs of male homosociality.  More typical of the critical discourse on these lines than either Myers's article or my own, however, is Eric Hyman's recent discussion.[24]  Hyman's analysis as a whole is ingenious and well-argued, but it ends with the following sentence: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the two gentlemen of Verona have weaknesses enough; let us not believe that Valentine hands over, against her known will, the woman he loves, even to his best friend."[25]  In other words, the things that some critics do not like about the play are weaknesses that must be located in what is one of Shakespeare's earliest texts—which is to say a text that can safely be relegated to a minor position in the canon and whose imperfections will not change our picture of the bard—but they must not be located in Shakespeare himself.

  26. Valentine's generous offer comes as a surprise to contemporary critics and audiences because it exemplifies the "repeated privileging of ... same-sex bonds over ... heterosexual relations" that Shannon sees as typical of Renaissance friendship; as she suggests, this privileging "marks the gaping distance between early modern "homonormative" affects and contemporary heterosexual erotic normativity."[26]  In the sixteenth century, such an offer would presumably not be surprising, since it is precisely the sort of gesture that is expected in Renaissance narratives of male friendship.  Masten suggests that we should think of "a sex / gender system in which marriage ... and the homoeroticism of male friendship co-exist"[27]; I would say that the ending places a man's love for another man ahead of a man's love for a woman.  In any case, at the very end The Two Gentlemen of Verona seems about to become the sort of play the title would lead us to expect, but the day is saved for heterosexuality by Julia's swoon, that most feminine of stage actions that gives the lie to her masculine costume.  From here on, the play can safely be considered as a story about how men and women fall in love with each other and this is how it has in fact typically been presented, read, and discussed.  As I suggested above, the arrival of the Duke and his substitution of approval for disapproval ratifies the couples in their current formation.  With what Jane Austen in a similar narrative position described as "tell-tale compression,"[28] Shakespeare wraps everything up at high speed.  The triumph of heterosexuality, a juggernaut destroying everything in its path, appears to be complete.

  27. But hope remains: the Duke vows that "we will include all jars / With triumphs, mirth and rare solemnity" (V.iv.158-59). The usual footnote for this line says that "include" means "conclude," and this is certainly one of the standard meanings of the verb in Shakespeare's time.  Nevertheless, the verb also had its more usual modern sense then (as the OED points out, it occurs in this sense in the first part of Henry VI, a play Shakespeare wrote at about the same time he wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona), and I think that to understand the verb in this sense leads to a more interesting reading of the play's conclusion.  We could then read the Duke's comment as drawing attention to the fact that what I have called substitution will continue.  Once again, we are told that heterosexuality is made from other things.  The "triumphs, mirth and rare solemnity" of The Two Gentlemen of Verona's final boy / girl, boy / girl arrangement are the result of recycling.

  28. What is more, Valentine's final lines suggest that heterosexuality's triumph may only be partial.  He says to Proteus: "our day of marriage shall be yours, / One feast, one house, one mutual happiness" (170-71).  The initial distinction between the first person plural that refers to Valentine and Silvia and the second person singular that refers to Proteus collapses as soon as it is made.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona ends with this picture of one unit comprising all four major characters.  While certainly doing enough to ensure that his play can be understood as a romantic comedy about heterosexuals, Shakespeare consistently undermines heterosexuality's claims to be considered either genuine or (even) a goal.  Just as the play begins with the separation of Valentine and Proteus (one is in love with a woman, one is not; one has to stay in Verona, one has to go to Milan), so it ends with their reunion and what is clearly an invitation to live happily ever after.  The fact that the play is called The Two Gentlemen of Verona and not, for instance, Marriage Italian Style, turns out to be important: heterosexuality may advance the plot, but it is not the main event.  Once again, the comparison with Euphues is instructive: in that narrative the eponymous' character's desire for a woman disrupts his friendship with another man.  By the end of the story, however, the woman has been removed from the narrative and the male friendship is secure.  Shakespeare's achievement in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is to produce a narrative in which same-sex and mixed-sex relationships can co-exist.



[1] Faerie Queene, Poetical Works, ed. J.C. Smith and Ernest de Selincourt Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912, IV.ix.2.1-3.

[2] Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Comedy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002, 4. For a thorough and valuable study of the huge body of Renaissance friendship literature see 17-53.

[3] For a Renaissance text that argues for marriage as a kind of friendship, see Tilney.

[4] Homosexuality in Renaissance England.  London: Gay Men's P, 1982, 74, 42-53.  For a more recent study that looks at the situation in Renaissance Italy, see Rocke, especially 148-91.

[5] And compare As You Like It, where Rosalind disguises herself as a boy called Ganymede.

[6] Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006, 35.  For other good analyses of prosthetic gender in the Renaissance, see the discussions by Stallybrass and by Finucci, 190-211.

[7] "Coming Out in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona."ELH 60 (1993), 857.

[8] "Coming Out in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona." 858.

[9] Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997, 39.

[10] For a discussion of the conflict between same-sex and mixed-sex bonds in Euphues, see Guy-Bray.

[11] For an excellent discussion of the role of texts in the formation of the play's characters, see Goldberg 68-100; see also Masten, 40-45.

[12] Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997, xliv.

[13] For an analysis of sexuality and letter writing in Erasmus' own correspondence, see Stevens.  For the role of correspondence in Erasmus' life and posthumous reputation as a whole, see Jardine, especially 14-26.

[14] Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974, I.ii.38-40.  All references to the play are to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

[15] "Mimetic Service in The Two Gentlemen of Verona." ELH 72 (2005), 114.

[16] Phaedrus, Opera vol. II, ed. John Burnet, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1901, 264c.  This statement itself contains a metaphor, as the word that I have translated as 'image' is zoon, which can mean both a living being and an object like a statue, that resembles a living being.

[17] "Mimetic Service in The Two Gentlemen of Verona." 105.  See 113-17 for her discussion of Lance.

[18]"Coming Out in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona," 859.

[19]"Voice, Ideology, and Gendered Subjects: The Case of As You Like It and Two Gentlemen." Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999), 304.

[20]Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, 11.

[21]Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, 66.

[22] For a discussion of the homoeroticism of the forest world in this play see Simmons, 870.

[23] "'In nothing am I chang'd but in my garments': Shakespearean Cross-Dressing and the Politics of Sexual Frustration." Annals of Scholarship 11 (1996-97), 219.

[24]    I have chosen Hyman's note because it is the most recent analysis of the lines in question.  The article also includes a useful bibliography and discussion of the most important and influential work on the lines.  See also Schleiner, 305-07, Masten, 45-48, and, for a good brief discussion of what is at stake in interpreting this line, Simmons 860.

[25] "Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona 5.4.83" The Explicator 64.4 (2006), 200.

[26] Sovereign Amity, 1.

[27] Textual Intercourse, 48.

[28] Northanger Abbey, eds James Kinsley and John Davie, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003, 185.

Works Cited

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