Study Guide

The Two Gentlemen of Verona Violence

By William Shakespeare


But in what habit will you go along?
Not like a woman, for I would prevent
The loose encounters of lascivious men.
Gentle Lucetta, fit me with such weeds
As may beseem some well-reputed page. (2.7.39-43)

Julia dons a disguise while she travels to Milan in order to ward off "lascivious" men who might attack a woman travelling alone.

Know, then, that some of us are gentlemen,
Such as the fury of ungoverned youth
Thrust from the company of awful men.
Myself was from Verona banishèd
For practicing to steal away a lady,
An heir, and near allied unto the Duke. (4.1.44-49)

The Third Outlaw reveals something peculiar when he explains to Valentine why he was banished from the court – he got kicked out for trying to "steal away a lady." There are a couple of ways to read this. On the one hand, we can assume that the outlaw was planning on eloping with a woman (like Valentine was planning to elope with Silvia). On the other hand, we could read the phrase "to steal away a lady" as a confession of an attempted assault.

I take your offer and will live with you,
Provided that you do no outrages
On silly women or poor passengers. (4.1.70-72)

Valentine agrees to be the outlaws' leader, on the condition that that they "do no outrages" on women. What kind of "outrages" is he afraid they'll commit, exactly? Robbery? Rape? Something else? No wonder Julia was so afraid to travel alone.

But when I look on her perfections,
There is no reason but I shall be blind.
If I can check my erring love, I will;
If not, to compass her I'll use my skill. (2.4.221-224)

This is one of the first hints of Proteus's capacity for sexual violence. He says that he'll try to put his desire for Silvia in check, but, if he can't, he'll use his "skill" to "compass" her. As a verb, "compass" can mean a few things. The editors of the 2008 Norton Shakespeare gloss this word to mean that Proteus intends to "win" Silvia. But, "compass" can also mean to "to seize" and it can also mean "to encircle, or surround something" (Oxford English Dictionary). In other words, it seems like Proteus's intention to "compass" Silvia is a lot more aggressive than a simple desire to "win" her heart. Keep reading….

Sir Proteus, gentle lady, and your servant.
What's your will?
That I may compass yours. (4.2.96-98)

Here's that word "compass" again. At 2.4.18 (above), Proteus used the term to suggest that he would use his "skill" to "compass" (win, seize, attain) Silvia. Here, his use of the word is even more tricky. On the one hand, Proteus suggests that he wants to "compass" (win) Silvia's good "will." (He wants to win her affection.) On the other hand, Proteus could also be suggesting that he intends to "compass" Silvia's free "will." This latter meaning seems to anticipate his attempt to rape Silvia, which is an act that aims to deprive her of all free choice and free will.

Come, I must bring you to our captain's cave.
Fear not; he bears an honorable mind,
And will not use a woman lawlessly. (5.3.12-14)

When the outlaws take Silvia captive, the First Outlaw promises that his "captain" will not assault her. This speaks to the fact that Valentine (the outlaws' "captain") isn't the kind of guy who goes around raping women (unlike Proteus). It also speaks to the fact that the forest is a pretty dangerous place for women – otherwise, why would the First Outlaw go out of his way to put Silvia's potential fears to rest?

Here can I sit alone, unseen of any,
And to the nightingale's complaining notes
Tune my distresses and record my woes.
O thou that dost inhabit in my breast,
Leave not the mansion so long tenantless
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall
And leave no memory of what it was.
Repair me with thy presence, Silvia; (5.4.4-11)

When Valentine gets kicked out of Milan for trying to elope with the Duke's daughter, he bums around a forest, where he finds a sense of peace bemoaning his sadness in harmony with the mournful sounds of the nightingale. As literary scholar Jean Howard reminds us, Valentine's reference to the nightingale recalls the mythic story of Philomela, who was raped by Tereus and eventually transformed into a nightingale – whose sad tune mourned the loss of Philomela's virginity. OK, we know what you're thinking. What does the mythic story of Philomela's rape and transformation into a bird have to do with Valentine hanging out in the forest missing his girlfriend? Well, it can't be a coincidence that moments after Valentine mentions the nightingale, his pal Proteus tries to rape Silvia in the very same forest, can it? Keep reading…

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form,
I'll woo you like a soldier, at arms' end,
And love you 'gainst the nature of love—force you.
O, heaven!
I'll force thee yield to my desire.
Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch,
Thou friend of an ill fashion! (5.4.57-64)

When Silvia refuses to love Proteus, he says he'll take her by "force," which is another way of saying that's he's going to rape her. He never completes the assault, however, because Valentine steps in and puts a stop to it.

Literary scholar Jean Howard points out that if Proteus had raped Silvia, the play would have been transformed from a comedy into a tragedy. But, because Valentine stops Proteus, Two Gentlemen of Verona escapes the genre of tragedy by the skin of its teeth.

Thou common friend, that's without faith or love,
For such is a friend now. Treacherous man,
Thou hast beguiled my hopes; nought but mine eye
Could have persuaded me: now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou wouldst disprove me.
Who should be trusted, when one's own right hand
Is perjured to the bosom? (5.4.66-72)

OK, when Valentine stops Proteus from assaulting Silvia, we're expecting him to say something different here, right? But, instead of being angry that Proteus was going to violate Silvia, Valentine lectures Proteus about being a disloyal friend. What's going on here?

My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine. If hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offense,
I tender 't here. I do as truly suffer
As e'er I did commit. (5.4.78-82)

After he's caught trying to rape Silvia, Proteus apologizes to Valentine, but not for his crime against Julia. Here, he apologizes for being a lousy friend to his guy pal, as if trying to rape Valentine's girlfriend was a crime against Valentine, and not Silvia.