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  • Coming out in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • J. L. Simmons

Though I saw the same argument lately set foorth on stage with more commendation, then I can looke for: (being there much better set forth then I have or can dooe) yet the same matter penned as it is, may serve to lyke good effect.

Arthur Brooke, “To the Reader,” The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet1

How can this be? they restles lye, ne yet they feele unrest. I graunt that I envie the blisse they lived in: Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin. But that I might as well with pen their joyes depaynt, As heretofore I have displayd their secret hidden playnt.

Romeus and Juliet, lines 902–6


I propose for my argument that The Two Gentlemen of Verona represents Shakespeare’s debut and that the text of the play is traversed and thwarted by anxieties of “coming out.” 2 As in my first epigraph, from one of the play’s major sources, “setting forth” would no doubt be historically the preferable Elizabethan idiom for the production both of a text and of a theatrical enactment; it would indicate as well the homology between the narrative content of the play—The Young Man from Verona Leaves Home—and the desire of the narrator in the process of narrating—The Young Man from Stratford Leaves Home. 3 “Coming out,” however, stresses the act as both initiative and performative. As a text written for the London stage Two Gentlemen is self-referentially the self-fulfilling purpose behind Shakespeare’s departure from Stratford—his playwrighting debut. It asserts as well a corollary subjective dimension in that the act of “coming out” attempts clarification of desire and thereby unfolds yet another homology between the narrative and the narrator of the play. Constructed upon this spatial and temporal intersection, Two Gentlemen can be apprehended as a text that, in the words of Fredric Jameson, “speaks only of its own coming into being, of its own construction, under the determinate circumstances or formal problems in the context of [End Page 857] which that construction takes place.” 4 A “formalistic projection,” Two Gentlemen reflects the historical context of the Shakespeare family romance conflicted by the individuating action of the young man’s separation. The disturbances in Shakespeare’s greenest text reveal a fearful “coming out,” a nervous debut, marking both the narrative and the narrator as thwarted by uncertainties of desire. The reiteration in Shakespeare of The Young Man Leaves Home as the incisive narrative trope is not only familiar psychoanalytical evidence of an incomplete rupture, an unsuccessfully played scene of separation obsessively reenacted; it also intimates that “coming out” is semiotically always in tension with “going back.” As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick concludes, the decon-struction of the closet may not prove possible or even desirable as the object of the epistemological quest. 5

The young man’s departure from home in quest of knowledge, a lost twin, or (in the case of Petruchio) a wife structures three of the earliest comedies; and the fourth, Love’s Labor’s Lost, varies the paradigm only by transposing “home” so far as is possible into a defamilialized male zone wherein without setting forth the four young men can achieve “fame” and “honor” as “brave conquerors” of “ [their] own affections” and “the world’s desire” (1.1.1–11). 6 Not only are all four early comedies fashioned as quest narratives wherein a cognitive subject is characterized by “an initial state of lack”; this narrative trope recurs as well throughout the Elizabethan Shakespeare, plotting a trajectory that in the comic world concludes quizzically in the problematic closure of All’s Well That Ends Well. 7 The always frustrated and therefore persistently repeated scene of separation is tragically modulated in the tragic variation of Hamlet. There The Young Man Returns Home upon the death of his father only to have his mother and surrogate father refuse his resumption of the aborted narrative “In going back to school in Wittenberg” (Hamlet, 1.2.113); the scene of the unsuccessful rupture will be played out whether Hamlet...

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