If you didn’t know who wrote it, you’d swear the author of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, currently at the Old Globe, stole every Shakespearean device he could find.
Two Gents is “early” Shakespeare. The year 1594 gets most mention. In his excellent Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate speculates that young William began his career in the theater as an actor and script-doctor. He revised scenes, kicked-up flagging dialogue, all the while dreaming not of the stage but of becoming England’s next great poet.
In this sense, Two Gents reads like a demonstration piece for an advanced course in playwriting. Shakespeare obviously passed the test. Two Gents also reveals, as the Bard says elsewhere, “the baby figure of the giant mass of things to come at large”: techniques and devices he’ll use again and again.
1.) The Best Young Friends: Proteus and Valentine are inseparable, like twins, until separated by love — of the same woman. In The Winter’s Tale, when they were boys, King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia “were as twinned lambs.” Leontes’ unwarranted jealousy shatters their “eternal” bond. This pattern extends to betrayals in general and even to questioning notions of permanence.
2.) Odd Lover Out: Two men fall for the same woman, which evicts a second woman from the man she loves: poor Julia, in love with Proteus in Two Gents, dazed Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Odd Lover Out lets the playwright range through love’s many ways economically. Having young lovers heightens the emotions and the sudden turns, and may even explain how they can be so forgiving when the smoke clears.
3.) Leave Home and Grow Up: Very few of the comedies stay where they start. In Two Gents, Valentine’s become “dully sluggardized” at Verona. He goes to Milan to broaden horizons. Sometimes called the “withdrawl and return” pattern, Shakespeare sends his characters away from their homeland, usually to flee an unjust law or ruler. They’re somehow transformed when they return. The new geographical perspective often facilitates the change, as Tom Waits sings, “Never saw the East Coast, ‘till I moved to the West.”
4.) Forests of Transformation: Nature often rectifies urban wrongs. Valentine flees from Milan to a nearby forest. He runs into outlaws who are, in fact, “worthy, civil, full of good” — a la Sherwood Forest. Other examples: a wood near Athens (Midsummer Night’s Dream); the Forest of Arden (As You Like It); Bohemia (The Winter’s Tale).
5.) Clown Scenes as Mirror: Launce talks malapropisms in Two Gents and his shenanigans underline the main plot. Jump to Dogberry in Much Ado and many others.
6.) Woman Disguised as a Man: Julia in Two Gents (who ponders wearing a codpiece); Rosalind, As You Like It; Viola, Twelfth Night; Portia, The Merchant of Venice. A favorite of Elizabethan theater, Shakespeare uses it as a cloaking device. The cross-dresser is, in a way, invisible. Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at the funeral, she has a privileged, behind-the-scenes view. Also, since women weren’t allowed to act in Shakespeare’s day, a young man played the woman. So every word carried several possibilities, all at once. They say that in the next hundred years, what we call writing will have poly-dimensional levels and layers, hypertexts, sprocketing points of view — like playing a 12 dimensional game of Tic Tac Toe.
There are more devices in Two Gents. Right now someone’s probably writing a dissertation on the Escape With A Rope Trick (“Neo-Penumbrative Shadings and Hempish de-Litteration in the Young-Ish Shakespeare”): Valentine in Two Gents; Portia in Merchant of Venice; Romeo.
But these show that, for someone expected to produce at least two plays a year, Shakespeare had a ready rolodex of devices, to draw from and fiddle with, from the start.