In this early, and fairly spotty, comedy Shakespeare emphasizes the adage that actions speak louder than words. This is an interesting concept for a playwright, a play reader, and an audience member to explore. The words are written first, but take on a different meaning with each production – perhaps even with each performance. While the words must come first, and are meaningful and moving, it’s the action that ultimately consummates them. In this play Shakespeare gives us one character who puts his money where his mouth is, and one who decidedly does not.
While rife with frustrating inconsistencies, the play contains delightful wordplay aplenty that reinforces the notion of both the importance of words, and their limitations. We revel in the repartee, but the play itself still has to hang together as a whole, and it disappoints. The words may be great, but the overall action of the play undercuts their value.
Proteus, one of the “gentlemen,” illustrates this problem. He is no gentleman. Even before he opens his mouth, Shakespeare’s choice of his name speaks volumes. Proteus was a god of bodies of water in Greek mythology.(Wikipedia) As rivers and seas constantly change, so does Proteus. He is a shape shifting chameleon, whose self-serving actions contradict his words. In fact, protean means “tending or able to change frequently or easily; inconstant; unstable.”(Google dictionary) He literally talks a good game but has no substance to back up his words. His actions reveal him as a deceitful lout.
Valentine, the other (and true) gentleman, is named for the universal representative of love and lovers. Saint Valentine, the martyred Roman saint, is “associated with a tradition of courtly love,” a love that “emphasized nobility and chivalry.” (Wikipedia). He not only stands behind what he says, but is quick to forgive when his friend doesn’t.
Shakespeare tells us all we need to know about them with their names. One shifty, one true. We meet the best friends in the opening scene where they express their esteem for words. They thrust and parry over books (I,i,19-21), writers (I,i,42-46), and letters (I,i,57) before they part ways.
When Proteus bids adieu to the woman he claims to love deeply (Julia), he laments her lack of verbose response more than the departure itself:
“What, gone without a word?/Ay, so true love should do: it cannot speak,/For truth hath better deeds than words to grace it.” (I,ii,17-19)
And he simultaneously confirms the inability of words to trump action. Ironically, he then goes on to break his solemn word to those he ardently averred most dear to him: is friend Valentine and his love Julia. He betrays them both at once by renouncing his love for her to woo his best friend’s girl, Silvia. He justifies his abhorrent actions by invalidating his own words with more convoluted words: “Unheedful vows may heedfully be broken,/And he wants wit that wants resolved will/To learn his wit t’ exchange the bad for better.” (II,vi,11-13)
Valentine, on the other hand, goes to words as his tool of choice: “That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man/if with his tongue he cannot win a woman.” (III,i,104-5) He backs them up with his behavior. When a group of banished outlaws anoints him their captain they cite his talent as a “linguist”(IV,i,55) as one of the reasons for selecting him, but note that he backs up his words by acting as “a man of perfection.” (IV,i,55)
Proteus’s language, at first poetic and playful, changes as he steeps in deceit. He speaks more in prose with longer, less rhythmic sentences. This change mirrors how far his actions have strayed from his words. Valentine continues to wax poetic, especially as he eschews village life for the refreshing great outdoors where he lives, banished, with the outlaws. His proximity to nature seems only to strengthen the connection of his word and deed, even as Proteus’s divide widens.
When Valentine, Silvia, and Julia confront Proteus with his deception and betrayal, he beats a hasty verbal retreat. They, astonishingly, accept his hollow apology, having learned nothing from his past behavior, which is surely the best predictor of how he’s likely to act in the future. I, for one, remain completely unconvinced by his words and find no comfort in the final image of the two couples heading off to marital bliss. The title may claim that there are “Two Gentlemen” in this play, but those are just words. The play’s action reveals only one.