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Two Gentlemen of Verona | Shakespeare and comedy | Birmingham City Council

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Shakespeare’s fools don’t always stick to convention. Each and every one is an individual. Speed (Two Gentlemen of Verona), as its name suggests, is quick and witty:

Speed: You conclude that my master is a shepherd, then, and I a sheep?
Proteus: I do…
Speed: Nay, that I can deny by a circumstance.
Proteus: It shall go hard but I’ll prove it by another.
Speed: The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the sheep the shepherd, but I seek my master, and my master seeks not me. Therefore I am no sheep

In contrast, Lance is from poor background, uneducated and easily confused. His role is more pure clowning, giving the audience a chance of respite from the action in the play. He has little to do with the rest of the characters and one can make an educated guess that was created to allow some famous comedians of the day (Will Kemp) to show their virtuosity. Here is his famous scene representing his farewell with his family:

Nay, I’ll show you the manner of it.
This shoe is my father.
No, this left shoe is my father.
No, no, this left shoe is my mother.
Nay that cannot be so neither.
Yes, it is so, it is so, it hath the worser sole.
This sole with the hole in it is my mother, and this is my father. ……. I am the dog.
No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog.
O, the dog is me, and I am myself.
Ay, so,so.

The scene above follows immediately the parting of Proteus (his master) and tearful Julia and makes an amusing and ironic contrast to the lover’s separation.

Both servants in Two Gentlemen of Verona like to make fun of their masters. Speed doesn’t miss a chance to mock his master Valentine’s love for Sylvia. This is his explanation on the signs of love:

First, you have learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms like a malcontent;
To relish a love-song like a robin redbreast; to walk alone like one that had the pestilence;
To sigh like a schoolboy that had lost his ABC; to weep like a young wench that had buried her grandam…..

Masterly playing with the words, Speed is ridiculing Elizabethan tradition of romantic love. In the famous Scene 1, act 2 of the play he creates fun by repeating and interpreting every single word of Valentine and Sylvia’s conversation. Most fun is derived from the brilliant dialogues and witty exchanges between the two servants Speed and Lance when discussing a certain milkmaid’s character:

Speed: 'She hath many nameless virtues'
Lance: That’s as much as to say ‘bastard virtues’, that indeed know not their fathers and therefore have no names.

Similar wit is expressed in the conversations of Luciana, Adriana and the servant Dromio in The Comedy of Errors. Despite being one of the early plays, The Comedy of Errors demonstrates the full dramatic potential of foolery. Clowns and servants are there to express the ridiculous in court life. Fools are everywhere. Ruled by ‘ neither rhyme, nor reason’, they exist to entertain. Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, the twin servants of Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus provoke thoughts and de-mask their master’s true intentions. Dromio E’s language is full of puns and extended plays on words when he describes his conversation with his master’s twin brother:

‘Tis dinner-time’, quoth I . ‘My gold’ , quoth he.
‘Your meat doth burn’, quoth I. ‘My gold’, quoth he.
‘Will you come home?’ quoth I. ‘My gold’, quoth he.

The device of answering something completely different to what has being asked is an endless source of laughter. In the later comedies Shakespeare develops further the image of the fool who becomes more intelligent , witty and sarcastic. Where Lance and Bottom are simply foolish, Touchstone analyses – ‘ Such a one is a natural philosopher’. He lives on paradox and wordplay, creating new conceptions, introducing new ideas and doubts in order to expose the ridiculous. Touchstone offers his observations with self-irony, parodying court manners and wise men:

Says, very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock.
Thus we may see’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour ‘twill be eleven;
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.

As a court jester, his job is to expose true foolishness and bring things down to earth. He is at his best when targeting Orlando’s romantic love with the language of working people:

I remember when I was in love I broke my sword upon a stone and bid him take that for coming a-night to Jane Smile, and I remember the kissing of her batlet, and the cow’s dugs that her pretty chapped hands had milked…

Or when joking about the ways of life in the country:

And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

Unprincipled and opportunistic, adaptable and with no illusions, he grows quickly from the ‘clownish fool’ at court to the ‘worthy fool’ in the forest, which gives freedom to his playful irony (‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’). Sensible and pragmatic, Touchstone cannot refuse himself bodily pleasures (his marriage to Audrey) and truly deserves his label of the ‘material fool’.