15a. The Two Gentlemen of Verona: by 1598

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams


(Numbers in bold refer to the Documents section and bibliographical citations refer to the Bibliography of The Real Shakespeare II, on-line edition)



   The play was begun in the early 1590s, like the Sonnets (RS1 103-113). It received its sole contemporary mention in 1598 ('for Comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, 242) but it remained unpublished until 1623,1and unperformed, so far as written records reveal, until 1762. It has all the hallmarks of a drame à clef written for private performance; it has attracted little critical attention. Hence the aptness of Dr. Rowse's comment (1973, 76-7): 'It has never been noticed before' that its love-triangle is closely congruent with the one described in the Sonnets. That affinity also offers an acceptable dating and provenance. Further, this logo (the same triangle inscribed within the same circle) is an aid to authenticity.

     Dr. Rowse quotes (I.i.42-3, 45-6)


'Yet writers say, as in the sweetest bud

the eating canker dwells...'

'And writers say, as the most forward bud

is eaten by the canker...'


and he tellingly adds that the writer who has said exactly that, at much the same time too, is Shakespeare himself, in the Sonnets: 'loathsome canker liues in sweetest bud' (35.4). This exchange is spoken by the two gentlemen in question. Each is of course an original dramatic creation; but each may well also exhibit contrasting facets of the author as love-poet and shape-changing actor, well named both Valentine and Proteus. Young Southampton was also amorous and fickle; both names suited him too. By 1598, Shakespeare had become a gentleman, which was no mere courtesy title but had the specific meaning of 'one entitled to bear arms' (IV); he is regularly mentioned or self-styled thus thereafter (302, 309313349384392413421429449,453461). His armigerent motto was 'non sans droit', not without right. There would be no social incongruity in his seeing himself and his best friend as Two Gentlemen. As in the Sonnets, and also in the lampoon Willobie his Avisa (RS1 95-113; 203) they love the same woman, whom one of them is ready to renounce in favour of the other. 'All that was mine in Silvia I give thee', says Valentine to Proteus (V.iv.83). The same painful self-sacrifice appears in the Sonnets, e.g. 'Take all my loves, my love' (40.1). Thus their own mutual affection is made manifest; greater love hath no man than this.

     Dr. Rowse might also have cited some of the other linguistic interlinkages with the Sonnets, such as 'by and by a cloud takes all away' (I.iii.87)/'by and by black night doth take away' (73.7), or 'to love fair Silvia shall I be forsworn' (II.vi.2)/'in loving thee thou knowst I am forsworn' (152.1). The play twice mentions sonnets (III.ii.69, 99) and contains (as Valentine's letter to Silvia, III.i.140-9) the last ten lines of an actual sonnet in Shakespearean form on a Shakespearean theme (the journeying of 'my thoughts' to the distant beloved, as in 27. 5-6). The play also contrasts 'shadow' and 'substance' (IV.ii.123-4), just as in sonnet 37.10. There is even a dark lady; compared to Silvia, Julia is 'but a swarthy Ethiope' (II.vi.26) who pictures her rival 'as black as I' (IV.iv.156).

     So why has this neglected but not negligible play been singled out for deprecation, even by its own specialist editors, as Shakespeare's first, not to say worst, effort for the stage (e.g. Wells 1986, 1)? Perhaps it is not well suited for public performance. As Valentine says, 'the private wound is deepest' (V.iv.71); the intimate personal secrets are not to be disclosed. Thus the dawning poetry does not fully illuminate the drama, which is often undeniably lack-lustre in plot, action and character. The result is more like the littleness of real life than the heightened experience of fine art.

     There is a further link with the Southampton circle. Shakespeare occupied a central position there, as its official poet; so did John Florio, as its official linguist. So the former may have been (as argued in detail by Minto 1885, 371-382) the author of the sonnet entitled 'Phaethon to his Friend Florio' prefixed to the latter's Italian text-book, the Second Fruits of 1591. Its text is worth citing here:


Sweet friend, whose name agrees with thy increase

How fit a rival art thou of the Spring!

      For when each branch hath left his flourishing,

      And green-locked Summer's shady pleasures cease,

      She makes the Winter's storms repose in peace

      And spends her franchise on each living thing:

      The daisies sprout, the little birds do sing;

      Herbs, gums and plants do vaunt of their release.

      So that when all our English wits lay dead

      (Except the Laurel that is ever green),

      Thou with thy fruits our barrenness o'erspread

      And set thy flowery presence to be seen.

      Such fruits, such flow'rets of morality,

      Were ne'er before brought out of Italy.


     The sonnet was itself an Italian form; and this hybrid with a traditional octave (abbaabba) and an English sestet (cdcdee) forms was perhaps a deliberate tribute to the anglicised Florio. The 'Laurel' was presumably Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene was just becoming known. The name 'Phaeton' also appears, again in association with 'enfranchise', in The Two Gentlemen (III.i.151-3); and it assorts well with the identification of Shakespeare as 'Aetion' (RS1 85, 108) in a Spenser poem of 1591. 'Aethon' was one of the horses that drew the chariot of the sun-god Apollo in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and 'Phaeton' was Apollo's son, who was allowed to drive that same vehicle.

     It is worth noting, though, that similar allusions to that same source are also found in the otherwise very different historical drama Edmund Ironside. That play is very early, c. 1588, as Two Gentleman is also said to be ('probably the late eighties', Wells 1986, 1). So their otherwise surprising overlap of phrase and vocabulary is readily explicable by shared authorship at the same date, though the canonical work was no doubt revised before its first publication in 1623 while Ironside remained unprinted (cf. Sams 1985, 2/1986, 21-5). In both sources, puns and quibbles, e.g. on 'boot' (I.i.25-8/1221-2) proliferate throughout; so do antitheses, copious diction (a string of synonyms pegged out along a pentameter line) and the detestation of flattery. Disguises are effected; letters are read out. Specific resemblances include: 'watchful weary...nights' (I.i.31)/'weary watchful night' (414); 'blasting...bud' (I.i.48)/'bud...blast' (1355); 'once more adieu' (I.i.53)/'farewell once again' (1500); 'you/ye stumble not' (I.ii.3/792); 'fire that's closest kept burns most of all' (I.ii.30)/'conceal...breaketh forth like hidden fire' (1517); 'inward joy...heart' (I.ii.63)/'inward solace...hearts' (2024); 'Attends...royal court' (I.iii.27)/'attend...royal court' (622-3); 'Lend me the letter' (I.iii.55)/'Give me the letter' (1272, 1757); 'partner of his fortune' (I.iii.59)/'partners of your...griefs, partners of your woes' (1088, 1098); 'why, this it is' (I.iii.90, V.ii.49)/'why this tis' (1267); 'wipe (=clean) my shoes' (II.i.80)/'wipe your shoes'...'wipe a shoe?' (485, 519); 'O excellent device' (II.i.139)/'device...oh it is excellent' (1841-3); 'seal...kiss' (II.ii.7/439); 'unwelcome news' (II.iv.81/742); 'entertain him to be my fellow-servant' ...'entertain him for your servant' (II.iv.104, 110)/'I entertain thee for my chamberlain' (541); 'too too much' (II.iv.205/252); 'quench your love's hot fire' (II.vii.21)/'quench the burning choler of my heart' (209); 'course...hinderéd, hinder...course (II.vii.27,33)/hinders...course (1676); 'drift...heap on your head' (III.i.19)/'drift. To heap...on your head' (256-7); 'conceal...mind' (III.i.5-6)/'mind...conceal' (1515-6); 'timeless grave' (III.i.21)/'timeless want' (=death, 1927); '(these letters) signify' (III.i.56)/'these letters signify' (739); 'to fancy him?' (III.i.67/421); 'fawning... mates' (III.i.158)/'fawning mate' (1727); 'woe...surfeit' (III.i.222)/'surfeited...woe' (2107); 'to give the onset' (III.ii.93)/'to give...onset', 'given an onset' (913, 1405); 'he grieves my very heart-strings' (IV.ii.62)/'it grieves me at the very heart' (1777); I cannot choose' (IV.iv.77)/732); 'honourable mind' (V.iii.13)/'honourable minds' (634); 'the right hand is perjured to the bosom' (V.iv.68)/'thy right hand shall make thy heart away' (380);'at my depart' (V.iv.96/1290); 'degenerate and base' (V.iv.136)/'base...degenerate' (165-6).

     The rest of the shared word-stock is equally eloquent of close and curious kinship. The following list of shared words is restricted to Shakespeare's very rarest, i.e. those with no more than 20 occurences (Spevack 1973), in any form (again, Ironside second): accurst, acted, ado, afterward, agent, aloft, appeas'd/appease, bees, beseeming, block, burden, churlish, odd-conceited/rare-conceited, concord, considered, conspire, contend, cowardice, coy, cunningly, degenerate, depart(sb), desolate, despairing, dinner-time, drift, endless, Ethiope/Ethopian, feature, fraud, geese, grudge, hammering, heap(vb), hearty,  homage, homely, ill-favoured, influence, intrude/intruder, judgements, ladder, lawless, linger, loiter/loiterer, madcap, manage/managed, mastership/masterships, melodious, mutual, nectar, neglect(sb), notable, onset, papers, parley(vb), pestilence, privy/privily, proceedings, prodigious, proffer/profferer, proverb, rashness, remnant, repentance, ruffian/ruffians, scale(vb=climb), schoolboy, scandalized, scour, sepulchre, serviceable, solitary, stumble, timeless, tigers, tire(sb=attire), trencher, tutored/untutored, unadvised, uncivil, undeserving/undeserved, unwelcome, upper, wages, watchful, whirling/whirlwind, whit, worthies.

     These rare words are here arranged in alphabetical order, to facilitate checking. But they can also be grouped in order to tell a story, from small beginnings in a rural community (bees, block, geese, hammering, ladder) by way of the stage (acted) and writing (papers), before being raised by education (first untutored, then tutored) to life at the level of a lord (melodious, nectar). And this exemplary progress is accompanied at every step by expressions of ethical obligation, social feeling, devoted concern. The Sonnets tell the same tale. At the outset of the play, Valentine protests that 'home-keeping youth have ever homely wits'; he would far rather 'see the wonders of the world abroad/than [live] dully sluggardized at home'. Before long, it is said of Proteus too that he 'should spend his time no more at home'. Of course neither 'is' Shakespeare. But, in a sense, both are; he too felt that he had to leave home. And his co-religionist Southampton, unlike modern editors and commentators, would have known perfectly well what 'a month's mind' was (I.ii.134); something loved and lost, like dear friends for whose souls' repose a mass is said a month after their death.


1 in a Folio text that seems to have retained the original authorial orthography, to judge from a comparison between the Oxford concordance (Howard-Hill 1969) and the Shakespearean spellings identified in e.g. Othello 1622 (Honigmann 1996).