The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a comedy about the adventures of two bosom buddies, Valentine and Proteus. When Proteus falls in love with his best friend's girlfriend, the guys find themselves torn between the bonds of male friendship and romance. (If you're thinking all this sounds like a modern day "bromantic comedy," you're right. Two Gentlemen of Verona is the great, great grandfather of buddy flicks like the 2009 comedy I Love You Man.)
Written as early as 1590-91, Two Gentlemen appears to be William Shakespeare's first play. (As usual, some literary critics are divided over this issue, but we're going with the editors of The Norton Shakespeare and the editors of The Oxford Shakespeare on this one.) As Shakespeare's first theatrical effort, Two Gentlemen has been referred to as a "limping forerunner" of Shakespeare's later works. Even famous literary scholar Harold Bloom says it's "the weakest of all Shakespeare's comedies." We, on the other hand, prefer to think of Two Gentlemen as Shakespeare's test kitchen, where a budding young playwright begins to work out the recipe for his "comedies" and begins to explore themes and conventions that he'll develop more fully in later works – particularly the themes of male friendship and heterosexual love, which come into conflict in plays like The Merchant of Venice and also in Shakespeare's collection of Sonnets.
Like all test kitchen creations, Two Gentlemen is far from perfect – there are multiple plot inconsistencies and many scenes feature only a couple of speakers at a time. On this latter point, Jean Howard notes that it's "as if Shakespeare had not yet mastered the skill of orchestrating a full complement of stage voices and bodies." The play is also notable for its controversial and somewhat bizarre ending. We don't want to spoil it for you, but be sure to check out "What's Up With the Ending?" for all of our thoughts on it.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the least frequently staged Shakespeare plays, but it also happens to have inspired one of the greatest film adaptations of all time – the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, co-written by Tom Stoppard (the guy responsible for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Shakespeare in Love is a fictional account of how young Will Shakespeare overcomes writer's block to pen Romeo and Juliet. The film references several of Shakespeare's works but borrows most heavily from Two Gentlemen, including several speeches (like Valentine's famous "What light is light" monologue) and scenes (like Lance's "bit with the dog").
Shakespeare's main source for Two Gentlemen is Jorge de Montemayor's Diana Enamorada. (It was published in English 1598 but Shakespeare may have read an earlier version in French.) Shakespeare's play is also influenced by Thomas Elyot's The Book Named the Governor (1531), especially the story of Titus and Gisippus (Gisippus gives his best friend, Titus, the woman he is supposed to marry after Titus falls in love with her in Book 2, Chapter 12).
Earlier, we said that reading Two Gentlemen is like getting a glimpse of Shakespeare's test kitchen – you know, the place where he works out his "recipe" for his later comedies. If this isn't enough to make you want to check out Two Gentlemen of Verona, then try to think of it this way: Most people have felt torn between a romantic relationship and loyalty to friends at some point in their lives. Maybe you've had to decide between, say, joining your pals for a night of bowling & pizza or a romantic date with the person you've been crushing on since the fourth grade. And we all know someone who has betrayed a best friend by stealing (or trying to steal) his/her prom date, right? It's not very nice but it's the stuff literature, poetry, and music lyrics have been made of for as long as anyone can remember – whether it's the Twilight series love triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob, or famous song lyrics like "My Best Friend's Girl" (1978) by The Cars. Two Gentlemen of Verona is all about messy relationships between friends and lovers.
But the thing to remember about Two Gentlemen is that, in Shakespeare's day, male friendship was often valued above all other relationships, especially heterosexual romance. Marriage was pretty important too, but male bonds trumped everything. This is partly due to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attitudes about gender. For many writers and philosophers, women weren't considered to be capable of true friendship. Ever read the famous essay "Of Friendship," by Montaigne? Check out what Montaigne has to say about women: "Moreover, to say truth, the ordinary talent of women is not such as is sufficient to maintain the conference and communication required to the support of this sacred tie; nor do they appear to be endued with constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot." Yikes!
Our point is this: Shakespeare's play is about love triangles and whether or not our friends deserve our loyalty more than our romantic partners. If you think about it, The Two Gentlemen of Verona isn't so different from some popular "bromantic comedies" like Knocked Up and I Love You Man.