Troubadourian Impact on Shakespeare: A Study of ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’

Prof. N. C. Bhoi – 


No writer could be studied in isolation from his preceding tradition and the study of Shakespeare is not an exception to it. E.M.W.Tilliyard is justified in studying Shakespeare in the context of Renaissance. Charlton has rightly argued that the Elizabethan age was basically ‘A Romantic age’ and ‘Shakespeare and his fellows were Romantic in the strict sense that they clamoured for fuller draught of that spirit of romanticism which the Middle Ages had first discovered and revealed in their tales of chivalry and Knight Errantry’. The present paper aims at establishing the continuation of medieval tradition of romantic love in Shakespeare’s Italian comedy, ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’. From historical point of view an attempt has been made to trace the origin of romantic love in medieval love poetry and romances. At the same time a comparative prospective is applied to find out how such theory of love continued in Shakespeare’s play ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’ albeit in a slightly modified form because of the impact of the Renaissance.

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Key Words: Romance, Troubadours, Romanticism, Courtly Love, Chivalry.

The poetry and plays of Shakespeare have been analysed and interpreted in several ways with the help of different critical theories and approaches. Whereas E. M. W. Tilliyard studied Shakespeare’s plays in the context of Renaissance, H.B. Charlton emphasised the continuation of Medieval Romantic tradition in Shakespeare on the ground that no writer can be studied in isolation from his preceding tradition. Charlton emphatically argues that the Elizabethan age was a ‘Romantic age’ and that Shakespeare and his fellows were Romantic in the strict sense that they clamoured for fuller draughts of that spirit of Romanticism which the4 Middle Ages had first discovered and revealed in their tales of chivalry and Knight Errantry.’ Among the Indian scholars H.H. Anniah Gouda goes to the extreme extent of saying that ‘Shakespeare had always been interested in Romance’. The present paper aims at establishing the continuation of the medieval tradition of Romantic love in Shakespeare’s Italian comedy ‘The Gentlemen of Verona’. The methodology we have adopted here is both historical and comparative. From historical point of view an attempt had been made to trace the origin of Romantic love in medieval love poetry and Romances. At the same time the continuation of such a theory of love in the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ is shown from a comparative prospective.

To start with the medieval theory of Romantic love, one has to inevitably go back to the love poetry of Troubadours, the French court poets of the high Middle Ages. C.S. Lewis strongly argues that the Troubadours were the first to discover and express Romantic Passions in their love Lyrics (Cansos) through an elaborate Paraphernalia of courtship, otherwise called Amour Courtois(Courtly Love). Passion, which had often been condemned by rationalists and theologians as the most notorious elements in human nature, was glorified by Troubadours as a noble and ennobling experience. Courtly love rejected the medieval Christian view of Eve as a ‘Defiled Woman’ on the one hand and the idea of ‘innocent sexuality’ within the periphery of marriage on the other. In the hands of Troubadours, love became a religion and the religion of love ultimately became a parody of Christian religion. It is not God but Eros, the Lord of love, who exercises his paramount supremacy over all lovers. Whereas the lover becomes a devotee in this ritual of romance, the beloved is idealized to the position of a Goddess before whom he surrenders with suppliant knees. He falls in love with her at the first sight and praises her ineffable beauty. Like his Ovidian counterpart the courtly lover suffers and swoons, sighs and weeps, passes sleepless nights and goes out in the dark to listen to the song of nightingale. Since the beloved is feudally superior, it is inevitable that the lover should worship her and serve her with humility and courtesy in a feudal fashion. Their relationship is like that of a ‘Lord and Vassal’. Physical union is an anathema in courtly love precisely because the lover is a devotee and a servant and therefore, his beloved-goddess cannot be carnally possessed. Carnal possession comes under the purview of marriage and hence love and marriage are two different things. Love is a mystical experience which transforms and spiritually elevates the lover, whereas marriage is a matter of duty, necessity and possession. Medieval romanticism is therefore, grounded upon idealization in suffering and separation. Since idealization is not possible within the periphery of marriage, courtly love permits it beyond the bounds of marital happiness. C.S. Lewis therefore aptly argues ‘Any idealization of sexual love in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian must begin by being on idealization of adultery’.

Through the tales of chivalry and Knight Errantry, the convention of courtly love was carried further into the Medieval Romances. The medieval Knight ventures to win his lady of castle through humility and courtesy, vows of chastity and honour, service of love and self-sacrifice. The love of Lancelot for Guinevere, of Tristran for Isolt and the adventure of the Arthurian Knight in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ are all reminiscent of the Medieval Chivalrous tradition. From France the tradition in fact passed on to Italy where Dante and Petrarch were its true votaries. Petrarch in his sonnets idealized his love for Laura, whereas Dante made a mystical exaltation of his love for Beatrice in ‘La Vita Nuova’ and the ‘Devine Comedy ‘by spiritualizing human love as the gateway to salvation. The medieval romantic tradition entered in to England through two possible routes. Firstly ,the idea of chivalry and Knighthood came in to vogue after the Norman Conquest and Chaucer himself a court poet ,applied the courtly love tradition to The romance of the Rose’ and Troilus and Cryseide with some modifications. Gower and Spenser too presented the spirit of romance under the veil of allegory. The second route of transmission points to the efforts of Thomas Wyatt and his friends who popularized the Petrarchan convention in England. It is needless to say that Italy, the center of Renaissance, is equally strong with the medieval romantic tradition. And Shakespeare, with his powerful leaning towards the Italian setting in many of his plays, was therefore under the inevitable influence of the medieval romanticism. An analysis of his ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona; in a comparative prospective would suffice to establish our viewpoints. ‘

‘The Two Gentle of Verona’ is a romantic play in which Shakespeare has adopted the world of romance and all the implications to the service of comedy. Behind the double romantic love story of Valentine and Sylvia and of Proteus and Julia, Shakespeare employs all the principal features of the medieval romantic tradition. The play embodies a moral code prescribed by the convention of courtly love and medieval romance, and its actions are conducted in accordance with a conventional etiquette. In the mouth of Sir Eglamour, the dramatist puts the glory of chivalrous love, and points to the cult of love as professed by the Troubadours. He takes us back to the world of medieval romance where Knight vowed pure chastity. Though his lady-love is dead, Sir Eglamour vows pure chastity on her grave and dedicates himself to the assistant of lovers in affliction regardless of all dangers in his adventure. He is now at Sylvia’s command and thus epitomizes the valour and honour, humility and gentlemanliness of medieval Knight:

                                   “Your servant and your friend;

                                   One that attends your ladyship’s command”

                                                                        (Act-IV. Scene III, 4-5)

H.B. Charlton rightly observes that Sir Eglamour’s “home is in the land of medieval romance and that his brethren are those consecrated warriors who will undertake all dangers”. What is true of Eglamour is also true of Valentine. He is Shakespeare’s courtly lover for whom courtship is the most exciting of men’s emotional experiences. He is the true gentleman of Verona who remains loyal to Sylvia from the start to the finish of the play. Proteus, on the other hand is a fickle and at one point of time he ships his love from Julia to force Sylvia to his blind passion. However, Proteus’s fickle mindedness is chastened by his remorse and repentance which finally leads to his union with Julia.

As in Kalidas’s “Abhijnana Shakuntalam” in which Shakuntala’s love for king Dushyanta is hindered by curse of sage Durvasa, romantic love of valentine for Sylvia is set against the hatred and indifference of her father, the Duke of Milan and Thurio, a foolish rival to valentine. Thurio, reminds us of the scandal-monger in Troubadour love poetry who stands as an impediment on the way of love. Like the courtly lover, the lovers in “The Two Gentleman of Verona” surrender to the Suzerainty of mighty Eros.

This invincible Eros changes Valentine and Proteus into votaries of love. It highly probable that Shakespeare was aware of irresistible power of the Greek Eros and Roman Cupid which poets and artists have unquestionably admitted right from the days of Sappho, Ibycus, Calullus, Propertius, Ovid down to the time of the Troubadours. In “The Two Gentleman of Verona” love is considered to be the master, as it masters all (I.i.39). What is expected of a true lover here is absolute devotion, and unconditional surrender to Eros rather than doubt and suspicion. In the beginning of the play Valentine is critical of the power of Eros and therefore he has to undergo penance. We are told that the “Lord of Love” has punished him with “bitter fast”, “penitential groans”, “Knightly tears”, sleeplessness and heart-rending sighs:

                                   “Love hath chas’d sleep from my enthralled eyes

                                   And made them watchers of my own heart’s sorrow

                                   O, gentle Proteus! Love is a mighty Lord”

                                                            (Act II, sc IV, 138-41)

Through Valentine’s fasting, groaning, sighing, weeping and passing sleepless nights, Shakespeare introduces, like the Troubadours, the paraphernalia of the religious cult of love. Here is the mystical ritual of romance in which Eros puts Valentine to test in the purgatory of passion. The fire of passion burns his baser desires and finally the love comes illumined as a pure piece of gold. The more is his languishing fidelity in love, the greater is the degree of his submission to the beloved-goddess and Lord of love who has made him so humble, courteous and gentle. There can be neither a better joy on earth nor a better subject for discourse than love, and the beloved is the fount of ambrosia from whom all other joys follow. Valentine imbibes the Troubadourian aesthetic of love and like Dante experiences a quasi mystical feeling. Therefore, he embraces the dark night and after banishment goes far away from the madding crowd to take his lament for Sylvia to the woods. Here we are reminded of Jayadev’s “The Gita Govinda” in which Krishna, the courtly lover contemplates, like a “Sadhaka”, the divine essence of Radha with quasi-mystical delight. Valentine, like Krishna experiences a state of spiritual ecstasy:

                                   “These shadowy, desert, unfrequented woods

                                   I better brook than flourishing peopled towns

                                   Here can I sit alone, unseen of any,

                                   And to the nightingale’s complaining notes

                                   Tune my distresses and record my woes”

                                                (Act, V, sc, IV, 1-5)

In this state of mystical contemplation and spiritual ecstasy that Valentine idealises Sylvia as the fount of all joys, all wisdom and all light. He idealizes her in the following lines in much the same way Ferdinand eulogizes Miranda and Dusyanta glorifies the beauty of Shakuntala:

                                   “What a light is light, if Sylvia be not seen?

                                   What joy is joy, if Sylvia be not by?

                                   Except I be by Sylvia in the night,

                                   There is no music in the nightingale…..”

Here is Shakespeare’s powerful lyrical genius which couches Valentine’s romantic feeling in terms of spiritual ecstasy. The lines quoted above are typically Troubadourian and they remind us of the quasi-mystical lines of Bernat de Ventabourn and Arnaut Daniel, the two major Troubadours of France. It is this spiritual attribution (Aropa) to the beauty (Rupa) of Sylvia that prompts Valentine to call her behind (Svarup) and heavenly saint whereas Proteus prefers to call her an earthly paragon only (Act, II, sc, IV, 145-148). When Proteus declines to flatter her, the true gentleman takes pride in flattering her on the ground that “love delights in praises”. Valentines page speed marks the metamorphosis caused by love upon his master (Act, II sc, I, 29-31).  This is also evident from Valentine’s own observation. “I have loved her ever since I saw her, and still I see her beautiful” (Act, II, sc, I, 74-75). It is in this search for the divine beauty and light in Sylvia that prompts Valentine to accept her as lady of wisdom and as the essence of his very being. Like Troubadourian Bella Donna (Beautiful Lady) she can chastise him, illumine him, foster him, elevate him spiritually with the rewards of humility, courtesy, refinements, self restraint and gentlemanliness:

                                   “She is my essence, and I leave to be

                                   If I am not by her fair influence

                                   Fostered, illumined, cherished, kept alive”.

Thus “The Two Gentleman of Verona” is a romantic play in which Shakespeare has incorporated the medieval theory of love to the service of comedy. As a result, love ends with the ringing of marriage bell which resolves all conflicts on the altar of friendship and union thereby providing laughter and joy to the audience. We are also aware of the fact that Humanists and Puritans like More, Erasmus and Calvin attacked, medieval romance for deifying women on the ground that to see the women as goddess is to silence her as a human being. The Humanists saw the adultery of courtly lover as a part of corrupt aristocratic culture and the Puritan like Calvin took from Luther the doctrine of chaste marriage in order to assert the spiritual equality between man and woman with its powerful implications for the relation of man and wife. It is perhaps the Puritanical and Humanist temper which prompted Shakespeare to transform the medieval “Bella Donna” to a “dark lady” and to parody the medieval ritual of romance in “Loves Labours’ Lost”, “The Taming of the Shrew” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”. However, this type of argument deserves a separate discussion in the light of Feminism and Post-Colonialism. In the conclusion, we come back to our original proposition that “The Two Gentleman of Verona”, inhabits a romantic universe in which the behaviour of Valentine is conditioned by the medieval cult of romance.


  1. Charlton, H. B.: Shakespearian Comedy (London: Methuen and Co., 1969.
  2. Gowda, H. H. Anniah, Shakespeare’s Comedies and Poems: A Critical Introduction (Delhi Sterling Publishers, 1986.
  3. Lewis C. S., The Allegory of Love: A Study In The Medieval Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
  4. Dusinberre, Juliet; Shakespeare and The Nature of Women (London: Mac Milan, 1975.


The writer is the Associate Professor, Deptt. of English, P. Chaliha College, Assam (India)

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