Knight of Staffs - Julia
Dramatis Personae: Julia.
Text & Context: Two Gentlemen of Verona is generally held to be Shakespeare's first play. Julia, the exceptional young woman of fortitude and industry with a poor taste in men, represents all the ladies to follow who, for a variety of reasons, must obscure their womanhood under the weeds of the male.
Here, it's night. Torches burn themselves down that Julia may read a page sent by her fickle paramour Proteus. Yet there exists only one flame; the rest are facsimiles or reflections, as in a hall of mirrors.
Julia, in her ardor and industry, enlists as a page boy with her erstwhile suitor Proteus, becoming - along with Launce - a member of his staff. This, despite Proteus' blatant betrayal of her, his best friend Valentine, and his oblique betrayal of Sylvia. Julia's devotion to Proteus mirrors Launce's servitude to his dog Crab, while, on a higher level, an allusion to her role in a Pentecostal pageant paints Julia as Ariadne to Proteus' Theseus. Not by accident then is the male pseudonym Julia chooses Sebastian, the saint whom artists down the ages have made synonymous with homo-erotic sadomasochism.
Sylvia, for her part, remains loyal to both Julia and Valentine, rumored dead. This votive quality, shared by the women and extended to their flames, stands in stark contrast to the chauvinistic posturing and boys' club ethics evinced by the men. Valentine's offer of Sylvia as a sexual gift to Proteus after he threatened to rape her may indicate the play was originally written for a specific audience, possibly the universities, where male bonding - platonic and otherwise - was prevalent. At 173 lines, the final act also shows signs of being circumcised.
Staffs being a male suit, women are marginalized at best, even ones who don a male suit. Uncharacteristically for the author, his interest and facility with women's character here seems puerile and distracted. As elsewhere with Shakespeare, when dramatic and psychological deficits of character occur, we may suspect at once allegory is being stressed at the expense of naturalism. Within the bard's oeuvre, Two Gentlemen of Verona is a rare example of Lacan's "la femme n'existe pas". What sticks in the throat isn't so much Valentine's love for Proteus, but Shakespeare's love for them both. Along with Bertram, Bassanio, Claudio, Prince Hal, and The Sonnets' Fair Youth, these deplorable pretty-boys engender a faint glistering light utterly lacking in warmth, but nonetheless embarrassingly indulged by clear-eyed Shakespeare .
Subtext: Two Gentlemen of Verona's forest, into which Julia stumbles and Valentine becomes outlaw king, is another version of the "naked hermitage" in Love's Labours Lost, and "the life removed" in Measure for Measure, and the chapel of penitence in which Leontes learns how to heal. Note that the outlaws Valentine commands are all gentlemen, their backgrounds much like Valentine's. At play's end the outlaws are pardoned and restored to their true stations under Valentine's guidance. What we have here then is an allegory of the Earl of Oxford's retinue of writers centered around his Bishopsgate estate, Fisher's Folly. Oxford owned the property between 1580 and 1588, and the writers in his cadre of university wits included John Lyly, Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Nashe. Others who appear to be associated include George Peele, Lord Strange, Thomas Kyd, and Christopher Marlowe.
Lyly is well-known as an influence on Shakespeare, but the influence was in the opposite direction. Oxford's secretary Munday wrote a number of works relevant to Shakespeare's canon, for instance Zelauto to Merchant of Venice, and in resurrecting the Robin Hood legend he transformed the forest outlaw into a dishonoured Earl. Lodge's Rosalynde was the basis for As You Like It, wherein a Duke and his court are banished to the forest. Greene wrote Pandosto, the basis for Winter's Tale, a tale of banishment. Kyd's Spanish Tragedy bears similarities to Hamlet, while Marlowe collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VI and possibly Richard III and his Dido. Nashe, who frequently references de Vere, in his 1592 work Strange News writes, “I lurk in no corners but converse in a house of credit, as well governed as any college, where there be more rare qualified men and selected good Scholars than in any Nobleman’s house that I know in England.”
Intertext: The Fool