Two close friends, the gentlemen of the title, come together to part. Valentine is leaving Verona for Milan to take a position at court; Proteus is staying to be near Julia, his love. However, Proteus’ father decides that his son, too, should broaden his horizons and orders him to accompany Valentine. In a tearful farewell, Proteus pledges Julia his eternal devotion and the two exchange rings.
Valentine had mocked his friend’s “fond desire,” but once in Milan he quickly falls for the Duke’s daughter, Sylvia. She returns his love, but the Duke has betrothed her to another, the wealthy, foolish Thurio. Determined to be together, Valentine and Sylvia decide to elope. Naturally, Valentine lets his closest friend in on their plans. But Proteus betrays him. Smitten by his first glance of Sylvia, he decides he wants her for himself. And so he gets Valentine banished by secretly informing on him to the Duke.
The shaken Valentine leaves Milan only to be captured by outlaws, who make him their leader. Meanwhile, Julia, disguised as a boy, comes to Milan to be with Proteus. Shocked to see him wooing Sylvia, she becomes his page to keep close to him. Proteus tasks her with delivering his love-tokens to Sylvia—including, unhappily, the ring Julia gave him when they parted. But Sylvia refuses the ring and scorns Proteus’ faithless affection. Indeed, refusing to believe rumors that Valentine is dead, Sylvia escapes Milan to find him.
The Duke and Thurio set out in pursuit, with Proteus and Julia following. Sylvia is captured by Valentine’s band of outlaws, but Proteus rescues her before they can bring her to their leader. Unaware that Valentine has caught up with them and is watching, Proteus presses his suit yet again. When Sylvia rejects him, he tries to rape her. A horrified Valentine intervenes, and Proteus, shame-struck, begs his forgiveness. Valentine not only grants it but also offers to give Sylvia to him. At this point, Julia reveals herself to Proteus. The sight of her rekindles Proteus’ love, which she accepts, as the Duke and Thurio enter. Valentine threatens to kill Thurio if he presses his claim to Sylvia, and the cowardly courtier retreats. Impressed, the Duke offers Valentine his daughter’s hand. Valentine then offers to share his wedding day with Proteus: “one feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”
And Sylvia? From the moment of her attack, she doesn’t say a word.
Silvia’s mute presence at the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona has disturbed readers and viewers for centuries. The Victorian critic Edward Dowden spoke for many when he declared in 1877 that Silvia’s “silence and passiveness whilst disposed of from lover to lover are, even for the fifth act of a comedy, strangely unreal and ill-contrived.”
Directors have generally responded to this strangeness in one of two ways: by seeing it as a mistake, a sign of Shakespeare’s inexperience; or by viewing its discomforts as deliberate and productive. Dowden suggested hopefully that perhaps the play’s final act “has reached us in an imperfect form, and that some of the speeches between Silvia and Valentine have dropped out.” Early directors had happily corrected the perceived imperfection. The first recorded production of Two Gentlemen, Benjamin Victor’s in 1762, added an exchange between the two lovers just after Silvia’s attack, so that she could at least express her horror and Valentine acknowledge it. At the same time, the adaptation cut Valentine’s offer to give Silvia to her would-be rapist, removing a key reason her silence had proven so disturbing.
As reverence for Shakespeare grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, directors felt less comfortable rewriting him. Some simply avoided the issue of Silvia’s silence entirely by staging their way around it. They had her faint after the attempted rape and then, conveniently, remain unconscious until she revived to take her lover’s hand, unaware of the way he had disposed of her. Julie Anne Robinson’s 1999 production by the Royal National Theatre Company in London upheld this tradition, keeping a woozy Silvia outside of the action with her face on her knees and her expressions largely hidden. While plausible in light of Silvia’s recent trauma, such staging rendered the character even more passive, as she was claimed then dropped and swapped by multiple men. By presenting Silvia’s long silence as unintentional, directors refused to let it signify at all.
Other directors steeled themselves and tackled her silence head on. By the end of the 20th century, a number of productions began to show Silvia actively approving and even orchestrating the play’s reconciliations. For his 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company production at Stratford-on-Avon, David Thacker had Silvia come stand by Proteus after his confession, and, facing Valentine, mutely plead for his forgiveness. Valentine’s response, “Who by repentance is not satisfied,” could thus be seen as an expression of her will as well as his, reassuring the audience that his subsequent offer, a sign of his renewed friendship and trust, did not threaten her. Other productions had her silently join the hands of the two estranged men or of Julia and Proteus. These interpretations extended the play’s presentation of the women as wiser and more emotionally mature than the men, too aware of the importance of friendship to let them throw it away.
Still other productions sought to explore the discomforts Silvia’s silence raised rather than smooth them over. After Valentine’s offer in Bill Rauch’s 2006 Two Gentlemen at OSF, Silvia sank down at the front of the stage and stared out into the audience, her legs hanging over the edge, as if to signal her distance from the masculine world behind her. A few moments later, Julia left the group, came down beside her and touched her shoulder. Silvia reached up, and the women joined hands. That touch eloquently suggested a common bond in betrayal as the men behind them continued to chatter away.
A few productions went even further, taking the women from solidarity to outright rebellion. At Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in 1978, the actors playing Valentine and Proteus walked offstage together, arm in arm, too absorbed in their own reconnection to take account of the women. When they remembered and returned to claim them, moments later, the women linked arms and marched off together, as the men looked on in astonishment.
Of course, refusing the play’s final unions means rejecting its comic closure. In 1993, Joan Robbins directed a production at the University of Scranton that sought to register the play’s subversive possibilities without straying too far from its comic spirit. Robbins built on an early scene of female silencing between Proteus and Julia. When Julia attempts to respond to Proteus’ vows of constancy, he bids her “Answer not,” then reacts in astonishment when she silently obeys his “farewell”: “What, gone without a word? / Ay, so true love should do: it cannot speak . . . .” He rationalizes her behavior as natural, unable to see that he himself has enforced it. Robbins replicated this satire of naturalized compulsion in the play’s final act. When Silvia appeared with Proteus after he has rescued her from the outlaws, her hands were still bound but her gag had slipped. Proteus replaced it when she berated him; it remained in place after Valentine stopped the assault. For the remainder of the scene, Silvia struggled to speak as the men determined her destiny, but none of them paid attention. As Valentine concluded the play with its conventional promise of harmony and union, he leaned over and kissed her, never noticing the gag.
This season at OSF, director Sarah Rasmussen approaches the challenges of Sylvia’s silence and the issues it raises through a different lens; she has selected an all-female cast. Her period-dress production upends Renaissance staging (women actors were legally banned) but embraces its gender-bending subtext (as the boy playing Julia playing Sebastian reminded onlookers, femininity in the play was man-made). What will women’s interpretations of masculinity open up or disrupt in a work so concerned with the roles men feel they must play—and the roles they assign to women as a result? By shifting the way that characters, behaviors and cultural assumptions are embodied in the play, Rasmussen will find intriguing new ways of making its silences speak.
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.