Purchase Repertory Theater, SUNY Purchase School of the Arts

It’s hard to know what to take seriously in Two Gentlemen of Verona. For, the further we travel — geographically and psychologically — with Valentine, Proteus, Julia and Sylvia, the more we must process contradictory and nonsensical twists of plot and character. These contradictions have led most critics to dismiss the play, presumed to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest, as a somewhat embarrassing stepping-stone on the way to his greater achievements, at best a preview of masterpieces to come. Two Gentlemen of Verona certainly rewards attentive Bardolators with countless opportunities to spot many of the themes, dramatic situations and character types that would intrigue Shakespeare for his entire career.

Perhaps most prominent of these is Shakespeare’s fascination with the mutability of identity. The experience of selfhood is very much a journey in Two Gentlemen of Verona: through time, as one progresses from childhood through adolescence into adulthood; through space, as one leaves home to acquire education and expertise in the world; through consciousness, as one navigates inner landscapes, gauging intense personal feelings against idealized conceptions of human experience. Shakespeare delights in the theatrical possibilities of disguise, make-believe, cross-dressing, gender-bending, multiple casting and all the existential questions these practices produce. He experimentally juxtaposes the real and the make-believe: pitting full-blooded (even hormonally super-charged) feelings against fairy-tale settings and situations.

Feelings are extreme in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tempers run high; tears flow freely. Everything’s a matter of life and death. If nothing seems to matter to us as much as it does to the characters, perhaps it’s because Shakespeare invites his audience to recognize how much the high drama of human life stems from a ridiculous propensity to view our ever-changing, beautifully unpredictable and ultimately unknowable selves as conventional and fixed.

-Drew Barr