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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 Juliet(1)
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 plays 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 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 deconstruction 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 will or no. It is true that the Jacobean Shakespeare offers recurring baroque descants on the departure-from-home trope, most importantly in the latest Roman tragedies; and in conspiracy with John Fletcher the suppressed will return in the sunset hues of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Nevertheless, with the conclusion of the Elizabethan period Shakespeare lays to unquiet rest this tropical obsession, one that in the Princes Hal and Hamlet we most spectacularly find "not-knowing" subjects brought with varying degrees of comic or tragic success to "a final state of conjunction with an object of value . . . a certain knowing."(8)
The narratological anxiety over "coming out" reverberates throughout Two Gentlemen, as we can see in the "narratologist" that emerges in act 2, scene 3. After the narrative of departures has advanced with textual uncertainties and contradictions of desire, Lance comes out on the stage to render a comic version of the narrative trope, The Clown Leaves Home.(9) Here he replays for the audience the drama of separation that he claims occurred just before his coming out, a monologue in which he problematizes his "script" both in the "production" and "representation" of it.(10) With the name Lance suggesting the surgeon, the playwright, the knight errant, the pen, the penis, and an early inscription of Shakespeare's heraldic spear, Shakespeare replicates the procedural difficulties of playwright and quester by immediately bringing their actions to a halt: accompanied by his dog Crab, Lance comes out only to sit down on the floor in order to remove the part of his attire most necessary for travel--his shoes. What follows is an allegory of the uncompleted discourse of the family romance, the unsuccessful rupture that motivates Shakespeare's repeated enactments of the narrative situation just as it motivates Lance's own compulsive replay-within-a-play.(11) There is no clearer example in Shakespeare of the subjective moment wherein the subject is trajected into the process of its becoming, reenacting upon its threshold the history of its formation. Lance attempts to constitute his subjective position in a perplexing familial context in which identities have come to be uncertainly established in the symbolic realm, as all familial identities must be, by sexual difference.
Although Shakespeare has given us not just one but two young gentlemen leaving home, neither Valentine nor Proteus has the family unit for representing this obligatory scene of separation, the scene in which the youth receives the parental blessing and farewell. Lance's family is a condensation of at least three such censored families (I include the parents of Julia who are oddly absent when she departs Verona in male disguise), absences that can aptly be signified by old shoes. On this low farcical level Shakespeare problematizes the drama that, although essential to the coming-outness of his text, has been almost entirely effaced from the serious level. Distinguishing with Greimas the "surface" content of the text from the "deeper" structure, we can see that, by this technical resolution to the irresolution, the narrative confirms Lance as acting in a sense for all of the actors. According to Greimas, an actor can articulate narrative functions that are not incorporated exclusively within the boundaries of separable and apparently independent actors. These articulated functions--for which Greimas employs the term actant--can be shared by more than one independent actor on the "surface" level of the story. This actantial mechanism is especially likely in a narrative in which the boundaries of subjectivity and desire are themselves at issue.(12)
Lance's compulsion to repeat a scene just played is caused like all such compulsions not by the satisfaction of the original act but by its frustration:
Nay, I'll show you the manner of it. This shoe is my father. No, this left shoe is my father; no, no, this left shoe is my mother. Nay, that cannot be so neither. Yes, it is so, it is so: it hath the worser sole; this shoe with the hole in it is my mother--and this my father. A vengeance on't, there 'tis! (2.3.11-15)
Reading the nervous obsession as Lance fumbles to work out the left and right binarism, we can say that his initial impulse to isolate the mother in the superior position reflects the pre-oedipal phase of her plenitude; but this imaginary world loses hold when, in the semiotic conjunction of mother/father, difference is hierarchically established in terms of the mother's castration: from absence proceeds not only a material but also an essential and transcendant lack. The only mother in the play, Lance's left shoe establishes in the sole/soul homonym the theological justification of female inferiority and the more important physical reality of "the hole" that gives the play space for its preoccupation with male subjectivity. Lance's primary impulse toward the left is rejected in secondary consideration of the superior right, but only after his frustration in the triangular drama provokes a cry of "vengeance!"
Hamlet is deeply embedded in the …