From Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (4.4)
Enter LAUNCE, with his his Dog
When a man’s servant shall play the cur with him,
look you, it goes hard: one that I brought up of a
puppy; one that I saved from drowning, when three or
four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it.
I have taught him, even as one would say precisely,
‘thus I would teach a dog.’ I was sent to deliver
him as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master;
and I came no sooner into the dining-chamber but he
steps me to her trencher and steals her capon’s leg:
O, ’tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself
in all companies! I would have, as one should say,
one that takes upon him to be a dog indeed, to be,
as it were, a dog at all things. If I had not had
more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did,
I think verily he had been hanged for’t; sure as I
live, he had suffered for’t; you shall judge. He
thrusts me himself into the company of three or four
gentlemanlike dogs under the duke’s table: he had
not been there–bless the mark!–a pissing while, but
all the chamber smelt him. ‘Out with the dog!’ says
one: ‘What cur is that?’ says another: ‘Whip him
out’ says the third: ‘Hang him up’ says the duke.
I, having been acquainted with the smell before,
knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that
whips the dogs: ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you mean to whip
the dog?’ ‘Ay, marry, do I,’ quoth he. ‘You do him
the more wrong,’ quoth I; ”twas I did the thing you
wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out
of the chamber. How many masters would do this for
his servant? Nay, I’ll be sworn, I have sat in the
stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had
been executed; I have stood on the pillory for geese
he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t.
Thou thinkest not of this now. Nay, I remember the
trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam
Silvia: did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I
do? when didst thou see me heave up my leg and make
water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? didst
thou ever see me do such a trick?
With Harold Goddard’s commentary on Lance from his classic The Meaning of Shakespeare (v. 1)
But how about Launce? someone will ask. How did such a masterpiece of characterization get into this early play? It is a question that must be confronted, unless we adopt the improbable hypothesis that he is a later interpolation. Launce—or rather Launce-and-his-dog-Crab, for the two are inseparable—is stamped with Shakespeare’s genius. He could walk into any play the author ever wrote and not jar us with any sense of immaturity in either conception or execution. Perhaps in this paradox we may find a clue to how Shakespeare wanted his play taken, how so apprentice-like a piece could have been produced so close chronologically to works that so utterly surpass it.
Launce has more sense, humor, and intelligence in his little finger than all the other men in the play have in their so-called brains combined, and it happens that in the course of it he gives his opinion of each of the two gentlemen of Verona. Proteus, his master, he tells us, is “a land of a knave,” and Valentine, the other gentleman, “a notable lubber.” Now it happens that the play confirms these judgments to the hilt. Indeed, Proteus’ treatment, in succession, of Julia, Valentine, and Silvia makes the name “knave” quite too good for him, as Silvia recognizes when she calls him a “subtle, perjur’d, false, disloyal man,” or when she declares that she would rather be eaten by a lion than rescued by such an abject creature. We have his own word for it that he is a sly trickster, and the story proves him to have been not only that but a perfidious friend, a liar, a coward, a slanderer, and a ruffian and would-be ravisher of the woman for whom he had deserted his first love. And this, forsooth, is the man whom his friend Valentine describes as having spent his youth in putting on an “angel-like perfection” of judgment and experience, until
He is complete in feature and in mind
With all good grace to grace a gentleman.
Valentine, it is true, is a paragon of virtue compared with such a bounder as Proteus, but his estimate of his friend does little credit to his intelligence and is enough in itself to justify the label “lubber” that Launce puts on him. But if Launce’s say-so is not enough, proof is afforded to an almost supernatural degree by the “ladder scene.” How any man could act more inanely than Valentine does on that occasion it would be hard to imagine, if we did not have the final incredible scene of the play in which the same man outdoes himself.
Now if Launce had reached the same conclusions about these two gentlemen that the action of the play forces on us independently, it is hard to believe that Shakespeare himself was not in the secret. It sets us wondering just what he meant by his title, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and how far he may have written the play with his tongue in his cheek. If there is anything in this suggestion, we may have to revise our opinion of its juvenility and consider whether some of its apparent flaws are not consciously contrived ironical effects. This is the second of the two possible ways of taking the play.