William Shakespeare’s play The Two Gentlemen of Verona may well have been the first that he wrote for professional players, and probably dates from around 1590. Its plot will be familiar to those who know the stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and appears in other literary works of the period.
Although popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, it quickly faded, and was slow to be revived in the late eighteenth century. It has therefore not been painted often, but has attracted the attention of two major narrative artists, and several other fine depictions.
Valentine and Proteus are good friends. When Valentine is leaving for Milan he teases his friend over being in love with Julia, whose love-letter to Proteus has just arrived. When she receives Proteus’ reply, though, she tears his letter up in anger before trying to reassemble its fragments. Proteus’ father decides to send his son to the court in Milan, so that he gets the same opportunities as his friend.
Valentine, now in Milan, has fallen in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke. She asks him to write a letter from her to the one she loves, then when it’s complete she tells him to keep it. It takes his servant Speed to explain to Valentine that Silvia intends this as a way of informing him of her love.
Henry James Haley’s undated painting Silvia Refuses Valentine’s Letter shows Silvia in green refusing the love-letter written for her by Valentine, in red, while Speed looks on knowingly.
Alfred Elmore’s Two Gentlemen of Verona from 1857 shows Valentine wooing Silvia, as her father the Duke sits right by them, pretending to be asleep.
Proteus and Julia exchange rings as tokens of their faithfulness to one another before he departs for Milan, with his servant Lance and his dog Crab. When Proteus arrives in the Duke’s court, Valentine explains his plan for him to elope with Silvia, but once Proteus is alone he admits that he too has fallen in love with her, and decides to reveal Valentine’s intended elopement so that his friend is banished from court and he can press his own suit for the Duke’s daughter without serious opposition.
Julia arranges to be disguised as a man so that she can follow Proteus and keep an eye on him while he’s in Milan.
As Valentine is ready with a rope ladder to elope with Silvia, Proteus betrays him to the Duke, who promptly banishes Valentine from his court. Proteus then agrees to help the suit of a rival, Thurio, for Silvia’s hand, and to help him woo her.
When Valentine is on his way back to Verona, he and his servant Speed are ambushed by outlaws. To save his life, Valentine agrees to become their leader instead of facing death.
Back in the court, Proteus is proving unsuccessful in his advances towards Silvia. Thurio sings under her window. Julia, now disguised as the page Sebastian, watches them, and Proteus’ attempts to woo Silvia afterwards.
Edwin Austin Abbey’s painting Who Is Sylvia? What Is She, That All the Swains Commend Her? (1896-1900) quotes Shakespeare’s words, for Thurio’s song to Silvia:
“Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admired be.
Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being help’d, inhabits there.
Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us garlands bring.”
Proteus engages Sebastian (the disguised Julia) as his messenger, and sends her to take the fidelity ring Julia gave him to Silvia as a token of his love. However, the Duke’s daughter refuses it, and Sebastian (Julia) discusses Julia with Silvia.
With the help of Sir Eglamour, Silvia pursues Valentine towards the forest. When the Duke hears of this he, Proteus, his rival Thurio and Sebastian (Julia) all leave in pursuit of the Duke’s daughter.
The outlaws quickly capture Silvia, and chase Sir Eglamour, who runs away. Valentine hears fighting, so hides to watch Proteus, followed by Sebastian (Julia), who has rescued Silvia from the outlaws. Proteus’ attempts to seduce Silvia become increasingly desperate and violent until he tries to rape her, when Valentine intervenes.
Angelica Kauffmann interposes Valentine between Proteus and Silvia in her Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona from 1789. Julia, disguised as the page Sebastian, is on the right.
Francis Wheatley’s Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus from 1792 shows Valentine at the right, sword in hand, interceding as Silvia struggles against Proteus. Behind them is Julia disguised as the page Sebastian.
The most detailed account is given in William Holman Hunt’s ornately framed painting of Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus from 1850-51. It shows a few moments later, with both Silvia and Proteus kneeling, as Valentine stands holding their hands. At the left is Julia in disguise, clearly shocked at what she has just seen take place in front of her. In the distance at the right is the party of outlaws due to arrive a little later. Inscriptions contain quotations from the play.
This brings Proteus back to his senses, and he repents his actions. Valentine welcomes him as his friend again, but leaves Silvia to him, causing Sebastian (Julia) to faint and reveal her true identity. Proteus then relinquishes his feelings towards Silvia, and Valentine joins his friend’s hand with that of Julia.
The outlaws then arrive with their captives, the Duke of Milan and Thurio. Valentine threatens Thurio, who abandons his suit for Silvia, allowing the Duke to approve Valentine’s marriage to her instead. The Duke repeals the banishments of the outlaws and Valentine, and they all return to Milan ready for the weddings of Valentine to Silvia, and Proteus to Julia.
Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.