‘All things changed to the contrary’:
Comic-Tragic Contiguities in the Verona Plays
Upon the occasion of the fourth centenary of Shakespeare’s death, this conference will focus on the Bard’s Veronese plays (The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet) as cases in point of Shakespeare’s early experimentation on the pliability of comic and tragic patterns, focusing on their fluidity as well as on their manifold performative potentialities. Sudden reversals of fortune, friendship turned to enmity, love to violence, and death as the other, yet contiguous, face of life make up the common frame of these two early plays. Heavily drawing on the European novella tradition and the coeval amorous poetry, which makes for their fundamentally eventful but also lyrical cast, Shakespeare explores in these plays the dramatic possibilities of an ever-changing reality mingling the comic and the tragic in unexpected ways outside of the pastoral and tragicomic tradition that he will reinvent in his later romances.
As Chambers observed in 1905, The Two Gentlemen of Verona “was Shakespeare’s first essay at originality, at fashioning for himself the outlines of that romantic or tragicomic formula in which so many of his most characteristic dramas were afterwards to be cast. Something which is neither quite tragedy nor quite comedy, something which touches the heights and depths of sentiment and reveals the dark places of the human heart without lingering long enough there to crystallise the painful impression, a love story broken for a moment into passionate chords by absence and inconstancy and intrigue, and then reunited to the music of wedding bells”. Revolving around the conflict between the ideal conceptions of love and friendship, the play, possibly composed in the early 1590s, provides a first attempt to dramatize male antagonism, love at first sight, plans of elopement, episodes of banishment as well as of final reconciliation which soon afterwards will also be dealt with in Romeo and Juliet, yet on a tragic note. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona all the potentially tragic misunderstandings and turns are eventually, albeit not entirely, resolved, leaving compass for a different, yet close, experimentation in the two quarto versions of the other Verona play. In this regard it offers several performative and staging opportunities also spurred by the frequent travels and change of place, but also by a problematic and potentially tragic finale (with Silvia’s attempted rape and Valentine’s abrupt decision to hand her off to his friend). Despite having sometimes been classified as juvenile or even immature, after its first recorded performance at Drury Lane in 1762 (with a text prepared by Benjamin Victor), it has been constantly reprised, especially in British and American regional theatres. Its most recent production has been the Royal Shakespeare Company’s in 2014, yet the play has known many adaptations also in other spectacular contexts such as musical and opera theatre, cinema, television, and even the radio with Willi Richards’ 2007 The Two Gentlemen of Valasna. This rich history allows for the investigation and discussion of the performative and dramatic potential of a text that, while lacking the complexity of later dramas, offers a series of opportunities for experiment on the fluidity of the comic and the tragic in different theatrical and non-theatrical contexts as well as sundry genres and media (see, for instance, Galt MacDermot and John Guare’s 1971 rock musical or Richards’ above-mentioned radio drama).
Romeo and Juliet will be considered here as an early tragic response to this exploration of comic-tragic amorous patterns, by investigating their different balance in the two in-quarto editions, published in 1597 and 1599, which witness the existence of two significantly different versions. The dissimilarities that emerge from the comparison of the two texts (traditionally identified as Q1 and Q2) have been diversely explained and justified. Such heterogeneity accounts for the haziness that still cloaks their origin and theatrical function, pointing at possibly divergent destinations or even different performance stages (pre- or post-production texts). While Q2 appears as a longer and more complex text, characterized by an articulate lyric dimension, deeper psychological insights, and foregrounded tragic tone, Q1 (the so-called ‘bad’ quarto) seems to display a more pronounced comic veneer, and a perceptible proclivity for theatrical workability, detectable in a tendency towards verbal simplification and discursive reduction (such as a sensible cutback on dialogues and soliloquies) in favour of stage action and gesture. Comparison between the in-quartos and the Folio foregrounds different ratios in the pace of the action and the verbal performance which invites reflection upon their performative and thematic features, also in view of the play’s afterlife.
The principal areas of investigation and discussion focused upon issues of comic and tragic continuities also include:
- the stage history of The Two Gentleman of Verona: what are the (thematic, cultural, generic, etc.) elements that have been privileged in its subsequent stagings and adaptations from the eighteenth century to the present, and what have been their performative fallouts?
- the rewritings/adaptations of The Two Gentlemen of Verona: what kind of rewrites/adaptations/appropriations have gone by in time? What media, different from the theatre, have been involved? What role may this drama’s alleged ‘weakness’ play in the passage from one medium to another?
- the textual performability of Romeo and Juliet’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ quartos: do they reveal a different approach to theatrical stageability? What kind of performance do they suggest? The conference welcomes an exploration of the staging possibilities inscribed in the texts as traces of their performance history (stage directions, speech types, word-gesture relation, etc.);
- the mise en scene of Romeo and Juliet’s in-quartos: may an investigation of past and present performances of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ quartos suggest new performative approaches?
- present-day re-creational scopes: in 2010 ‘Bad quarto productions’ was founded (http://badquarto.org/about.html) witnessing a growing interest in the theatrical re-creation of ‘bad’ quartos. Is it possible to go further than that, and receive new insights from the Folio’s and ‘good’ quartos’ relation to the ‘bad’ quartos? Can this exploration help to develop fresh or even completely new thoughts on the plays’ own expressive translatability in new word-gesture balances?
- creating and re-creating Shakespeare in different media: can such new balances be captured by audio-visual media different from theatre? May they have a role in exploring the potential of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ quartos? Can we learn a more profound lesson on the way we communicate complex ideas and feelings?
- how may new performative and expressive experiments relate back to early modern unstable play texts and with what outcomes?