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

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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.

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