- Wherefore Verona in The Two Gentlemen of Verona?
The greatest variety in the titles of Shakespeare's plays can be found in the comedies: one, for example, is a complete sentence, All's Well That Ends Well; one indicates the genre, The Comedy of Errors. Unlike the histories, named for the ruling sovereign, and the tragedies, named for the principal character, the comedies never have the proper name of a character in the title. The one exception would be Cymbeline, but the Folio groups this play with the tragedies. Pericles, another potential exception, the Folio does not even include. Three of the comedies indicate location in their titles: The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Typically, the titles of histories and tragedies do not specify location, with the notable exception of Timon of Athens.
Thomas Berger has ruminated on Shakespeare's titles, making astute observations about the changing titles from quarto texts to the Folio, especially the histories. As Berger succinctly states, "Titles matter. Titles matter a lot."1 But we have to ask: these titles matter to whom, and how? We have no way of knowing, of course, how or what Shakespeare thought about his plays' titles. Berger also observes, "If I have fewer 'problems' with the titles of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, it is not because the problems are fewer or absent; if anything, the problems are less apparent, more complex."2 Building on this "less apparent" dimension of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, this essay contends that the play has an inappropriate title, based on a faulty location.
If we think about the matter, we have to admit that we do not know where the plays' titles come from. We can assume that Shakespeare created the titles, but we cannot be certain. Considering that roughly half [End Page 423] the plays had not appeared in quarto format in Shakespeare's lifetime, we might have even less reason to be confident about the titles that end up in the Folio. That is, Shakespeare presumably would have had no involvement in the construction of the Folio, unless he left plans behind. Rather, the "editors" of the Folio, probably John Heminge and Henry Condell, might well have been the ones who made the decisions about titles; they certainly participated directly in gathering the texts for inclusion, as they tell us. They may also have decided to arrange the plays by genre.3
If we turn to the popular Tom Stoppard–Marc Norman film Shakespeare in Love for illumination, we can learn something about the possibly arbitrary nature of title decisions, remembering that this film is a fiction about fiction-making. Early on, Henslowe tries to reassure Fennyman, one of his financial backers, that he will be getting a new play from Will Shakespeare. Henslowe describes this play thus: "It's a crowd-tickler—mistaken identities, a shipwreck, a pirate king, a bit with a dog, and love triumphant." Fennyman asks, "What's the title?" and Henslowe replies, "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." Fennyman says succinctly, "Good title."4 In the conversation between Shakespeare and Marlowe, Shakespeare praises Doctor Faustus and even quotes from it. But Marlowe says, "I have a new one nearly done, and better. The Massacre at Paris."5 And Shakespeare responds, "Good title." He then reveals the title of the play that he is writing: Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, at which he sighs "despondently."6 Much later, as Shakespeare discusses the play with Edward Alleyn, Alleyn blurts out, "The title won't do"; then he adds, "Romeo and Juliet—just a suggestion." To which the grateful Shakespeare responds, "Thank you, Ned."7 It's been Romeo and Juliet ever since. I think that in their witty and informed way, Stoppard and Norman have probably come close to the mark about how plays may get their titles. One can easily imagine such exchanges, without being able to document them, in the rough-and-tumble theater world. The Two Gentlemen of Verona: good title; that is, it sounds precise.
While acknowledging the potential uncertainty of some titles, we can nevertheless conclude that...