“My shame and guilt confounds me.” So confesses Proteus, the villainous hero of Shakespeare’s rarely performed play Two Gentlemen of Verona. Proteus’s descent and dissolution from friend and lover was completed but fifteen lines before his shocking confession, when he threatens to rape his best friend’s fiancé, Silvia. His inconstancy is more pernicious than merely an inability to chart a stable course through his life, or to make up his own mind. He violates both his oaths and his friendship in his mad pursuit of Silvia, turning his back on both the bonds of love and friendship. The falseness of Proteus’s love unwinds his very self; he can only be reconstituted through the humiliation of repentance.
It is no common friendship, that of Proteus and Valentine. Shakespeare describes their intimacy with echoes of Aristotle’s famous formulation of the true friend as a “second self” in the Nicomachean Ethics. “I knew him as myself,” Valentine will say of Proteus. These two gentlemen of Verona open the play on the stage alone, together, saying their farewells with a bantering playfulness that betokens amity. There are hints of trouble, of course, and of real insight into each other’s characters. It is for love that Proteus remains behind in Verona, rather than setting sail with his friend. “Love is your master, for he masters you,” Valentine observes, and rightly: Proteus has fallen for Julia, and remains in Verona for her sake. “And he that is so yoked by a fool, methinks should not be chronicled for wise.” There is more truth in Valentine’s mocking than he knows at the time. But Proteus willingly admits the differences in their aspirations; Valentine “leaves his friends, to dignify them more,” while Proteus leaves “myself, my friends, and all, for love.”
“The humiliation at the heart of repentance takes no time at all.”
Proteus’s slavish devotion to “love” separates him from Valentine geographically, before eventually burying a knife into their intimacy. It is no surprise that Proteus attributes his betrayal of his friend to love: He has no other reason, no other cause upon which he might call. After eventually being forced by his father to follow Valentine to Verona, Proteus decides upon arrival that he will woo Silvia, Valentine’s newly minted fiancé. The cost of such an effort is steep: it will ruin his friendship with Valentine, and require relinquishing the dutifully-waiting Julia, whom Proteus had sworn oaths of love to already. And Proteus is well aware of the costs: his perfidy happens in the clear light of day, accompanied by the kinds of banal rationalizations and self-deceptive justifications that such treachery requires: “Love bade me swear, and Love bids me forswear,” he tells us. Here he stands in the grip and throes of Love; poor, poor Proteus can do no other. Having made himself a slave for Love, it becomes a rather convenient excuse for treason. As his personal identity extended no further than serving love, it is precisely his very self that he argues rests upon the decision. “Julia I lose, and Valentine I lose,” if he pursues Silvia: but “if I keep them, I needs must lose myself.” The speech is a study in self-deception. Proteus even manages to invoke the very virtue he is leaving behind against itself, suggesting that constancy to himself requires inconstancy toward Valentine. The move is as pretty a rationalization as ever you will see. Proteus’s “second self,” Valentine has been replaced by his own hubristic affirmation of his own worth, precisely because he is willing to follow Love: “I myself am dearer than a friend, for love is still most precious in itself…”
Of course, we in the audience know that Proteus’s appeals to Love are as reliable as a straw house in a tornado. Launce, Proteus’s servant, sees well enough what’s afoot: “I am but a fool, look you,” he says, before offering the decidedly unfoolish comment, “and yet I have the wit to think my master is kind of a knave.” But it is less clear to us precisely what makes Proteus’s decision so damnable. It is, after all, easy to mock his pathetic rationalizations while mimicking them in far less dramatic ways in our own lives. We are none of us exempt from the temptation to break faith for the sake of Love. The unmarried teenager hoping to navigate his way successfully into a marriage must discover some reason to make the life-altering commitment to this person rather than that, at least if we are going to conduct our erotic attachments any differently than sheep. But how is he to know? There is no easy way to gain the power of telling true love from false; that is what makes love so much fun, and so destructive.
Shakespeare here provides at least one clue: The man who is inconstant cannot be a real lover. Love is faith’s crown, rather than its undoing. That relationship which is begotten through promises and oaths must be brought to its completion by love. There can be no love, no erotic attachment that divorces us from the obligations that we have willingly brought upon us; to love is to do one’s duty with gladness, to delight in being needed by another in such a peculiar way that no other can fulfill it. The depths of our love are not found out in the swearing of oaths—joyful as such ecstatic offerings can be—but in their performance. “Love never fails,” writes Saint Paul, who knows well the treacheries of the heart (1 Corinthians 13:8).
The enduring, constant nature of love is one reason why Proteus’s rationalizations fail so miserably: He gets things exactly backward. He does not gain himself by betraying his friend—he destroys himself. By dissolving those obligations and promises that had marked out his path, Proteus leaves himself bereft of his own past. He becomes homeless and adrift, throwing himself upon the uncertain and unreliable prospect of charming his best friend’s fiancé. It is through “covenants among men,” as theologian Paul Ramsey once described them, that we establish our personal identity in this world. Such relationships make us who we are. We are born into covenants with our parents, and make new ones with our neighbors. In each case, our identity and life consists of mutual obligations, of needing and being needed. Our glad assumption and fulfillment of such covenants expands the self; our biographies are written from the unrepeatable and irreplaceable gifts of ourselves that we offer one another. Proteus is right that his self is at stake in the decision to betray his friend. But he is wrong to say that his self can endure the dissolution of the world which formed it.
“The man who is inconstant cannot be a real lover. Love is faith’s crown, rather than its undoing.”
When we break faith with one another, the only path to restoration lies through confessing the dissolution of ourselves that we had willingly undertaken and reversing our course. If we are undone by inconstancy, we are remade through repentance. Proteus’s reversal is admittedly sudden, but it is not less real for it. (In the play, the staging is all: what might seem like but seconds between Valentine’s astonishing judgment and Proteus’s lament may in fact be minutes.) He sees the full weight and tragedy of his betrayal:
My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine: if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender ‘t here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.
The humiliation of Proteus is not yet complete; his betrayed lover Julia will yet unmask herself, heaping coals of shame upon Proteus’s deserving head. Her judgment is also met with honesty by Proteus, who lays bare his fault for the world:
But constant, he were perfect. That one error
Fills him with faults; makes him run through all the sins:
Inconstancy falls off ere it begins.
Proteus’s penitential upheavals are met with forgiveness by both Valentine and Julia, an absolution that comes as suddenly and jarringly as the repentance. Yet the forgiveness is not without grounds, for “who by repentance is not satisfied is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleas’d.” In the truncated economy of the play, there is no extended timeline required to demonstrate penitence is genuine. We are meant to believe it so on the strength of Proteus’s laments and the depth of his self-abnegation. But then, repentance happens in a moment in our time as well. Though prudence may sometimes prompt us to delay the reestablishment of the relationship until we have seen the effects of such penitence, such a transformation is the outworking of a momentary revolution within the will. The humiliation at the heart of repentance takes no time at all.
And, perhaps as importantly, there is no time beyond which such repentance is allowed. Proteus is late: his degeneracy reaches shocking depths before he turns from his ways. But he is not too late, for he yet has breath. As his buffoonish servant Launce says in a moment of genius, “I reckon this, that a man is never undone till he be hanged.”