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  • Mimetic Service in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Elizabeth Rivlin

The Two Gentlemen of Verona includes one of William Shakespeare's most intensive considerations of servant characters and their relationships with masters. Thirteen of the twenty scenes in the First Folio Two Gentlemen feature speaking parts for servant characters, not including the scenes in which Julia appears disguised as a male page. At least in part because of the centrality of servant/master relationships, literary criticism through the centuries has not been kind to the early comedy.1 While it is true that the servant-clown figures of Speed and Launce (not to mention the latter's infamous dog, Crab, about whom more later) have traditionally earned the lion's share of critical approbation, they have also been accused of distracting from the courtly love and friendship plot.2 Buried within the traditional critique of Two Gentlemen as one of Shakespeare's immature efforts lies a critical anxiety about the prominent place the play assigns to servant characters.

Such criticisms ignore, however, the way in which Shakespeare maps servant/master relations onto bonds of romantic love and friendship, so that far from detracting from the play's conceptual unity, service underwrites its governing interest in how interpersonal relationships shape the individual subject. Specifically, servants and masters in Two Gentlemen share an imitative bond that consolidates broader concerns about the role of imitation in constructing social identity. The servant acts as his master's proxy, an iterative function, but one that allows him to exploit the space between will and its fruition. The imitative relationship of servant and master is thus informed by difference as well as similitude. In this sense, it resonates with Philip Sidney's definition of poetic mimesis, but with the key proviso that Shakespeare portrays the mimetic function in a social register alien to Sidney's conception. It is in that social register that servants in Two Gentlemen highlight two conflicting ideas of elite identity. The first of these ideas, put into practice by the play's courtiers, suggests that imitations reproduce and naturalize homogenous [End Page 105] social positions.3 The second, based on performances of identity that are simultaneously imitative and creative, has its locus in domestic servants. In contrast to the circumscribed, fixed concept of the elite subject posed by the first model, the second model of identity proves heterogeneous and mutable, capable of accommodating the shifting influence of multiple social positions. By bringing the relation of servants and masters in Two Gentlemen to the forefront and discussing the theatrical and poetic connotations of mimesis, I argue that the mimetic servant/master dynamic both shows the potential of Renaissance servants to rearrange social identities and reflects on the capacity of Shakespeare's theater to generate and dismantle such identities.

Two Gentlemen redefines elite identity through the service of Julia, the gentlewoman who cross-dresses as a page boy in the final two acts. Although the play recognizes the pervasiveness of socially aspirant desires, Shakespeare displays little interest in the upward mobility of either domestic servants or courtiers. Rather, it is Julia's downward mobility that opens up a narrative of the elite subject achieving potency through subservience. In the heroine who "change[s] . . . shapes," Shakespeare offers a subject shaped not only by a gender differential, but also by the asymmetrical social dynamic of mistress and servant.4 The implications of locating the servant's agency in an elite subject are twofold, for even as this move implies that members of the elite classes were best positioned to appropriate the servant's productive mimesis, it also demonstrates that such performances undercut the stability of social hierarchies by presenting elite identities as multifaceted and theatricalized. In other words, elite identities are no less performative and contingent than the service roles that these subjects at times assume.

To sharpen and clarify this conception of the elite subject, Shakespeare draws comparisons and contrasts between the personal and domestic functions of Launce, Speed, and Lucetta, and the courtly service in which Proteus and Valentine engage. Both forms hinge on imitation, but where the domestic servants deploy their potential to parody, alter, and sometimes produce their masters' wills, the courtiers...


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pp. 105-128
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