Don’t be a Julia, Be a Silvia: Self-respect and relationships in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

As I read through/listened to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I found myself to be more intrigued by the female characters than I was the male characters. I don’t think it’s just because I am a woman, and therefore related to them easier. I also don’t think it is because Proteus is THE WORST (even though he definitely is). I think it is because they express deeper emotion, more emotions, and generally have more depth of character. Additionally, they are, in many ways, complete opposites. Silvia knows her own mind and is unafraid to express it, or let anyone easily sway her mind. Julia, however, expresses a deep-seeded hatred towards herself, conceals her true feelings multiple times throughout the play. Together, they provide compelling insights into the female side of relationships, Silvia as an example and Julia as a cautionary tale.

Silvia is definitely the one to emulate. She frequently expresses a better understanding of the meaning of love and loyalty. She also displays a much higher level of self-respect than Julia. Silvia is first introduced as she does a little wooing of her own. Valentine seems unaware that she actually loves him in return. So, she uses this to her advantage and has tricked Valentine into writing a love letter to himself.

Silvia: Ay, ay: you writ them, sir, at my request;

But I will none of them; they are for you;

I would have had them writ more movingly.

[Act II, Scene 1: 132-134]

It’s refreshing to see a woman actively participating in the pursuit of love and having a little fun while she’s at it.

In addition, Silvia is probably the most loyal person in the play. She never once falters in her affection toward Valentine. She is prepared to risk everything by disobeying her father and running away with Valentine. Once Valentine is banished, she more even more openly expresses her hatred toward her father’s choice, Thurio. Then, she refuses to give in to Proteus’ advances and reminds him that he is betraying his best friend and the supposed love of his life. Even when she becomes the not-so-stereotypical damsel in distress to Proteus’ “knight in shining armor,” she refuses to requite his love.

Proteus: Unhappy were you madame, ere I came;

But by my coming I have made you happy.

Silvia: By thy approach thou makest me most unhappy.

[Act V, Scene 3: 29-31]

This is a woman who knows who she loves and is unwilling to compromise her own feelings for anyone, even her father. And most of the time she was right. Thurio was a coward and Proteus was a terrible person. Now, she did remain silent when Valentine seemed to offer her to Proteus to retain his friendship.

Valentine: And, that my love may appear plain and free,

All that was mine is Silvia I give thee.

[Act V, Scene 3: 82-83]

But, that line baffles most scholars, so we’ll give it a slight pass. She also frequently expresses sympathy towards Julia, the forgotten love, who Silvia has never really met. Silvia regularly demonstrates her deep understanding of love and loyalty.

Then there’s Julia…oh, Julia. She appears to hate herself from the very beginning of the play and it never really improves. In her first scene, we see her moods swing violently as she tries to conceal her true feelings for Proteus from her maid. She starts coyly asking about her various suitors, but then quickly gets angry and rips the letter apart. She immediately expresses extreme regret over that decision. Then, as she tries to piece the letter back together, she attacks her name and character, while elevating Proteus to an absurd degree.

Julia: Look, here is writ ‘kind Julia.’ Unkind Julia!

As in revenge of thy ingratitude,

I throw thy name against the bruising stones,

Trampling contemptuously on thy disdain.

And here is writ ‘love-wounded Proteus.’

Poor wounded name! my bosom as a bed

Shall lodge thee till thy wounded be thoroughly heal’d;

[Act I, Scene 2: 109-114]

Her hatred towards herself is only countered by her obsessive love for Proteus.

Her obsession with Proteus only grows as the play progresses. It seems impossible for her to separate herself from Proteus, even after he declares her dead. She, dressed as a man, follows Proteus around in a masochistic exercise to figure out why he stopped loving her. The entire time, she barely manages to conceal her broken heart to both Proteus and Silvia.

Julia: She hath been fairer, madam, than she is:

When she think my master loved her well,

She, in my judgement, was as fair as you:

But since she did neglect her looking-glass

[Act IV, Scene IV: 154-157]

Julia can’t help but compare herself to Silvia and find herself wanting. Silvia can see that Proteus is simply a jerk, but Julia appears to blame herself.

Even after Proteus declared her dead, gave away Julia’s ring, and attempted to rape Silvia right in front of her, Julia still loves him. She doesn’t seem to think she can do any better and that is what makes her so tragic. Her entire self-worth seems to be wrapped up in Proteus so much so that she can’t bear to leave him, even after he fails to recognize her dressed as a man. Proteus says it best in the end.

Proteus: What is in Silvia’s face, but I may spy

More fresh in Julia’s with a constant eye?

[Act V, Scene 4: 114-115]

If Julia is always in his presence, he will love her. But, if they are apart, he will find love in another. Julia loves Proteus above herself, but he does not feel the same. That is why their “happy” ending rang hallow for me.

The complexity of the female characters is what adds any depth to this otherwise shallow comedy. There is so much more to these two women than this play -and their loves- deserve. They both deserve to be in a better play. Nonetheless, I will take what we got of them in this early comedy and hope to see their characters renamed and made better as I continue my journey through the Complete Works.

What do you think? Have I given Silvia too much credit? Is Julia too sympathetic, in my reading? Has my deep, burning hatred for Proteus clouded my judgement?

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