Comments by Bob Corbett
General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on
This is a bit of a difficult play for one of the 21st century. It would seem it is a love story in which Helena is madly in love with Bertram. She is a lovely and respectable young woman, but lowly in rank despite the fact that she’s the daughter of a famous doctor, Bertram is a count and quite aware of rank and privilege. She knows she hasn’t a chance to woe him to marry her. All this is fairly difficult stuff to relate to.
However, the king is feeble and weak and Helena has an ace up her sleeve. Her father left her a secret curative which will heal the king. She goes to the king and makes a deal: she will heal him, he will let her marry any eligible man of the realm. The king agrees and is healed. She chooses Bertram who is horrified to be asked to marry someone beneath his rank. He at first refuses, but the power of the king is great and he ends up agreeing. He makes it a marriage in name only, and manages to go to war rather than stay with her.
Helena seems like a fairly decent person, but she uses hook and crook to try to deceive Bertram and get him to reverse his attitude toward her. In doing so she has no concern for him and his life, nor he for her.
In the end, as the title suggest, all ends well, if well means that she gets her way by hook and crook and a good deal of science fiction and the occult!
There were two particular speeches of the king which I liked. When the king meets the young Bertram, he tells him about his father, one of the king’s close friends. Bertram’s father was sensitive to what happens in aging and wanted to allow the younger and more able to rise up. The king, too, realizes he is weak and infirm and wants to get out of the way and allow the youth of the world to move forward and upward, not be weighed down by the old and less fit.
In speaking to Bertram about his father, the king says:
Methinks I hear him now; his plausive words
He scattered not in ears but grafted them
To grow there and to bear–“Let me not live” –
This his good melancholy oft began,
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime,
When it was out: “Let me not live;” quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff”
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdains; whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.
Toward the end of the play Bertram returns to France and the king intervenes in this troubled marriage to tell Bertram what a lovely woman Helena is. What I especially liked about the king’s speech (which, alas, fell on the deaf ears of Bertram) is that he rises beyond the common distinction of the time between the “nobility” and the “commoner” based solely on blood.
King. 'Tis only title thou disdainst in her, the which
I can build up. Strange is it that our bloods,
Of color, weight, and heat, poured all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty. If she be
All that is virtuous, save what thou dislikest,
A poor physician's daughter, thou dislikest
Of virtue for the name: but do not so.
From lowest place when virtuous things proceed,
The place is dignified by the doer's deed.
Where great additions swell's, and virtue none,
It is a dropsied honor. Good alone
Is good without a name; vileness is so.
The property by what it is should go,
Not by the title. She is young, wise, fair,
In these to Nature she’s immediately heir.
And these breed honor. That is honor’s scorn
Which challenges itself as honor's born
And is not like the sire. Honors thrive
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers. The mere word's a slave
Deboshed on every tomb, on every grave
A lying trophy, and as oft is dumb
Where dust and damned oblivion is the tomb
Of honored bones indeed. What should be said?
If thou canst like this creature as a maid
I can create the rest. Virtue and she
Is her own dower; honor and wealth from me.
I thought it bold of Shakespeare to have his loveable king make this speech, but at the same time, he was a realist too. His character, Bertram, is completely unmoved by the king’s appeal.
This wasn’t one of Shakespeare’s best plays by any means, but interesting to me in the clash between the value of nobility versus the disvalue of the commoner.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com