The Canon—Close Encounters: What Is in That Name?

The language of the relationship between Proteus and Valentine in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, familiar and natural to Shakespeare’s original audience, creates an ambiguity for readers of the twenty-first century. We may wonder about the true character of their friendship when they address each other as “loving Proteus” and “sweet Valentine” (1.1.1, 11). Should we assume a romantic atmosphere between them? Jane Donawerth’s analysis of sixteenth-century usage of English language sheds light on this ambiguity. In the chapter “What Is in That Word?: The Nature, History, and Powers of Language,” Donawerth observes that “[i]n their etymological elements, words were thought to communicate knowledge not immediately obvious, a legacy of the wisdom of the past” (31). In order to discern between our twenty-first-century reception of the play’s language and its original meaning, I will consider the etymology of the character’s names and examine resulting connections.

Names are words worth examining; as Donawerth asserts, they may be used as “an imitation in little of a portion of the world” (31). Donawerth observes that Shakespeare used “imitative names” in his plays (31), following the medieval and Renaissance “science of etymology” that was justified by “the likeness between words and things” (29). Once we look at the names of Proteus and Valentine, we may begin to see the science at work. Proteus, the name of a sea-god in Greek mythology, signifies a being capable of changing shapes. The name has entered the language in the adjectival form “protean,” which can mean the tendency or ability to change frequently or easily on the one hand, and versatility on the other. The name proves to be a miniature container of who Proteus is. From the beginning we notice that the language of the play is full of sweetness. Proteus habitually uses sugary words: he calls Valentine “sweet” (1.1.11), “sweet” are his “love,” “lines,” and “life” as he receives a reply from Julia (1.3.45); he addresses Sylvia as “sweet lady” when he is introduced to her (2.4.100), but, as he becomes bolder, he refers to her as “sweet love” (4.2.98). The word “sweet” goes well with Proteus’ versatile nature. Conversely, the nature or, rather, the meaning of the word, which initially may indicate a romantic relationship, changes depending on the situation and the person who utters it. The word proves to be a linguistic chameleon whose appearance, like the character of Proteus, cannot be predicted and, therefore, trusted.

Valentine is a patron saint of those in love, and Shakespeare uses this connotation to inform his audience of the nature of the character bearing this name. Valentine, therefore, is nothing but love; once he experiences love, he discovers that he is one with it and with the object of his love—Sylvia “is [his] essence” (3.1.182) and, “banished from her,” he is banished as “self from self” (3.1.174-5). In losing Sylvia, he loses his essence, his soul, even his name, and becomes “Nothing” (3.1.193-8). If Valentine’s true essence is love, his language and his actions reflect it. His beginning address to Proteus, at first glance ambiguous and suggestive of romantic feelings, proves to be indicative of Valentine’s understanding of love. In this context, when Valentine says “… my loving Proteus…/ Were’t not affection chains thy tender days / To the sweet glances of thy honour’d love, / I rather would entreat your company,” he recognizes that Proteus is in love (“loving”) and that, as good friends do, he lets him follow his path (1.1.1-5). Valentine’s loving nature undergoes an ultimate test when Proteus plots against him and threatens Sylvia with rape. We are surprised and, in some ways, appalled at the quick change of heart(s) that happens in the scene; Proteus, a “ruffian,” a “treacherous man,” and the worst amongst “all foes” quickly transforms into a repentant friend, “confounded” with his “shame and guilt,” and immediately receives forgiveness from Valentine, who is satisfied with the words of apology (5.4.60-78). How should we understand Valentine’s generous offering of Sylvia to his friend? The scene may seem illogical, contrary to common expectations. However, Valentine gives an explanation to his reaction when he says,

Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased.
By penitence the Eternal’s wrath’s appeased:
And, that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee. (79-83)

Valentine seems to admonish those who dwell on hurts and are not happy with the honest repentance of the offender. In terms of Christian faith, Valentine epitomizes the perfect love of which we learn in the letter of Saint Paul, where “love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous” and “it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 4-6). Christian ideal love means to give up what we cherish the most, even one’s own life, and to bear wrongs with patience. Such love goes beyond the classifications and the ambiguities—it is neither brotherly nor romantic—it is a sacred, essential force that comes from the “Eternal.” If “a man is often ‘like’ his name,” as Donawerth observes of Shakespeare’s characters, Valentine is true to his name in words and actions (28).

Both of the young gentlemen come into the knowledge of their own nature, established through the etymology of their names, by undergoing the trials in the course of the play. Proteus can’t help being unfaithful and Valentine can’t help being loving. They each use a language that reflects their nature. Shakespeare provides clues to their relationship and, despite the passage of years, allows audiences to clear the ambiguities that arise from cultural difference.

— Kasia Wolny, Assistant Art & Design Editor; Copy Editor

Editor’s Note: This is an essay written by Asst. Art & Design Editor Katarzyna Wolny. It considers the etymology of the character’s names and examines resulting connections in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Wolny originally wrote the piece for her Shakespeare course with Dr. Mardy Philippian.


Donawerth, Jane. Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language. U of Illlinois P., 1984. 1-55.

Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

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