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Shakespeare's Fools: Launce and Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

From The Fools of Shakespeare by Frederick Warde. London: McBride, Nast & company.

There seems to be little doubt but that the comedy of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" was one of the earliest of the poet's dramatic works. There is no authentic record of its first presentation, but it is the general impression among the commentators that it occurred in 1591 or 1592. Sidney Lee, probably the most accurate and reliable authority on Shakespeareana, places it second in order of production. It was not printed in the author's lifetime, nor was it published till it was included in the First Folio edition of collected plays that appeared in 1623, seven years after the poet's death.

There is a crude conventionality in the construction of the plot, inexperience in the development of the characters, and immaturity in its deductive philosophy. These conditions confirm the view-point taken above, and are entirely consistent with the known facts. Shakespeare was at this time but twenty-seven years of age, had been in London but six or seven years, and though study and observation had given him some idea of dramatic composition, it was on conventional lines only; experience had not yet developed his powers or given him any marked individuality.

Mrs. Cowden Clarke goes so far as to suggest that the comedy was probably one of the MSS. that Shakespeare took with him to London. This is disproved, I think, by his references in the play to historical and mythological characters, with which he would hardly be familiar before his advent into the metropolis.

I doubt if Shakespeare did any literary work of a dramatic character before he went to London. It was his association with a company of professional actors, in a varied repertory of plays, with the environment of a regularly equipped theater, that revealed to him the possibilities of the drama, inspired his ambition, and developed his genius.

There is no originality in the story of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," nor in any of the incidents of the comedy. The characters are but prototypes of those which appear, elaborated and completed, in his later plays, after experience had matured his powers and given him a deeper insight into human nature.

This is particularly true of Launce and Speed, the two clownish servants in the comedy, who are reproduced as the two Dromios, in "The Comedy of Errors"; as Peter, in "Romeo and Juliet," and as Launcelot Gobbo, in "The Merchant of Venice"; but with far more consistency of purpose and detail of character.

Launce and Speed are servants: born to serve, contented to serve, with little or no ambition beyond it. They are personal attendants on Valentine and Proteus, two young noblemen, and accompany their respective masters on their travels, obeying their orders without question, accepting their wages with satisfaction, and submitting upon occasion to personal chastisement without resentment.

They are young, full of humor, and fond of mischief. Their humor they exercise upon their masters, when they can do so with safety, and indulge in their mischief between themselves. Both are shrewd and keenly observant, particularly of the foibles and weaknesses of their masters.

Speed is at times exuberant; Launce, who is apparently the elder, is more thoughtful and sententious, and with the egotism of a little learning patronizes and reproves the youth and ignorance of his comrade. Launce has some sentimentality in his nature which is shown in his affection for his dog. Crab, and his grief (not wholly unaffected) at the parting from his family. Launce does not, however, permit that sentimentality to affect his material interests at any time, or even influence his considerations in the selection of a wife. Both have the punning habit to an abnormal degree, and vie with each other in amphibolous repartee.

Of the two, Launce has the keener wit and deeper philosophy. He is also more resourceful when occasion demands; witness, his prompt acceptance of the punishment that had been imposed on his "ungentlemanlike" dog. Crab, which would have ended the career of that canine; and the substitution of the same ill-bred cur for the "little jewel" he was commissioned to carry to Mistress Sylvia, which had been stolen from him by the boys in the market-place.

Speed is the first of these two worthies to appear in the play. It is in the first scene of the first act, and in his second speech he begins a corruption of words in a succession of the most atrocious puns and ingenious transliterations, that positively appall by their audacity: and he continues it throughout the scene. The play on the words. Ship and sheep, pound and pinfold, and the evolution from a nod of the head, and the exclamation "ay" to the word "Noddy," fully justifies the term Proteus applies to it, "silly."

In fact, there is but one bit of repartee in the entire dialogue worthy of note: Proteus exclaims with obvious sarcasm: "Beshrew me, but you have a quick wit," to which Speed, who has been unable to extract a gratuity from him, replies: "And yet it cannot overtake your slow purse."

The dialogue in Act 2, Scene 1, between Speed and Sir Valentine, is in the same vein as in the first act; but Speed seems to have some advantage in it, for travel appears to have sharpened the wit of the servant, while love has dulled the spirit of the master. In Speed there is evidence of more observation both of incidents and circumstances; a clearer and brighter expression of ideas, combined with a shrewdness that approaches wisdom, - especially in his reflections on Sir Vallentine's love-lorn condition; while there is a dimness of comprehension that amounts almost to density in the lack of understanding displayed by his master. Speed's critical philosophy, however, never permits him to lose sight of the demands of his stomach, or the perquisites of his position.

This scene is so admirable in its commingling of humor and satire, that I quote it at length:
Val. Why, how know you that I am in love?

Speed. Marry, by these special marks. First, you have learn'd, like Sir Proteus, to wreath your arms, like a malcontent; to relish a love-song, like a robin redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh, like a schoolboy that had lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch, like one that fears robbing; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas. You were wont, when you laugh'd, to crow like a cock; when you walk'd, to walk like one of the lions; when you fasted, it was presently after dinner; when you look'd sadly, it was for want of money; and now you are metamorphosed with a mistress, that, when I look on you, I can hardly think you are my master.

Val. Are all these things perceived in me?

Speed. They are all perceived without ye. ... These follies are within you, and shine through you like the water ... that not an eye that sees you, but is a physician to comment on your malady.
Later, in the same scene the dialogue is noteworthy, and again illustrates the shrewd observance of Speed, and the privilege of speech permitted him by his master.
Speed. You never saw her since she was deform'd.

Val. How long hath she been deform'd?

Speed. Ever since you loved her.

Val. I have loved her ever since I saw her, and still I see her beautiful.

Speed. If you love her, you cannot see her.

Val. Why?

Speed. Because Love is blind. O! that you had mine eyes; or your own eyes had the lights they were wont to have, when you chid at Sir Proteus for going ungartered!

Val. What should I see then?

Speed. Your own present folly, and her passing deformity; for he, being in love, could not see to garter his hose; and you, being in love, cannot see to put on your hose.

Sir Valentine, probably realizing the truth of Speed's remarks, and finding no adequate reply, attempts a reproof, which, however, does not faze his irrepressible follower:
Val. Belike, boy, then you are in love; for last morning you could not see to wipe my shoes.

Speed. True, sir; I was in love with my bed. I thank you, you swinged me for my love, which makes me the bolder to chide you for yours.
Mistress Sylvia, the lady of Sir Valentine's love, now comes upon the scene, and Speed is a most attentive observer and listener to the interview between the lover and the lady. Sylvia has apparently commissioned Sir Valentine to write some appropriate lines for her to ''one she loves," a "secret nameless friend." Sir Valentine, having written the lines, in the form of a letter, now delivers it to the lady, who thereupon returns it to the writer, pointedly exclaiming: "They are for you." Sir Valentine, however, does not appreciate her meaning, looks bewildered and stands in great perplexity ; and the lady, disappointed at his lack of comprehension, abruptly takes her leave with considerable show of anger. Sir Valentine stands in speechless astonishment, but Speed, who has realized the full significance of the lady's device, exclaims:
O jest unseen, inscrutable, invisible.
As a nose on a man's face, or a weathercock on a
My master sues to her, and she hath taught her suitor,
He being her pupil, to become her tutor.
O excellent device! was there ever heard a better.
That my master being scribe, to himself should write
the letter.
Sir Valentine, still oblivious to the lady's design, and Speed's meaning, declares:
Val. Why, she hath not writ to me?

Speed. What need she when she hath made you write to yourself? Why, do you not perceive the jest?

Val. No, believe me.

Speed. Why, she hath given you a letter.

Val. That's the letter I writ to her friend.

Speed. And that letter hath she deliver'd, and there an end.

Val. I would it were no worse!

Speed. I'll warrant you, 'tis as well: For often have you writ to her, and she, in modesty. Or else for want of idle time, could not again reply; Or fearing else some messenger, that might her mind discover. Herself hath taught her love himself to write unto her lover.
Sir Valentine is still perplexed, he cannot see the jest, so Speed, seeing it impossible to make the matter clear, suggests: "'Tis dinner time." Sir Valentine replies: "I have dined," but Speed requires a more substantial diet than love, and concludes the scene with the following most earnestly delivered protest: "Ay, but hearken, sir: Though the chameleon Love can feed on air, I am one that am nourish' d by my victuals, and would fain have meat. O I be not like your mistress: be moved, be moved."

Launce does not appear till the third scene of the second act, when he introduces himself, his sentiments, and his dog Crab, by whom he is accompanied, with much humor and, as with all of Shakespeare's characters, his mental, sentimental and social status is at once established; while the domestic drama played with a pair of old shoes, a hat, and a staff as representatives of the family of the Launces, gives us an introduction to them as effectively as if we had met them all in person. One can easily understand that Crab's failure to appreciate the importance of the journey, and the pathos of parting with such a family is a source of great disappointment to his master. The episode is described with so much delightful originality of expression and humorous detail, that the reader must be dull indeed who cannot see the scene enacted before his eyes: the weeping women, the wailing father, the howling maid, and the "perplexed" household; while the dog, unmoved, stolidly watches the entire proceedings with a bored expression of canine indifference.

Nay, 'twill be this hour ere I have done weeping: all the kind of the Launces have this very fault. I have received my proportion, like the prodigious son, and am going with Sir Proteus to the imperial's court. I think Crab my dog be the sourest-natured dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear: he is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog: a Jew would have wept to have seen our parting: why, my grandam, having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at my parting. Nay, 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: - that cannot be so neither: yes, it is so, it is so; it hath the worser sole. This shoe with a hole in it, is my mother, and this my father. A vengeance on't: there 't is : now, sir, this staff is my sister; for, look you, she is as white as a lily, and as small as a wand: this hat is Nan, our maid; I am the dog: - no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog, - O, the dog is me, and I am myself; ay, so, so. Now come I to my father; Father, your blessing; now should not the shoe speak a word for weeping; now should I kiss my father; well, he weeps on: - now come I to my mother, (O, that she could speak now, like a wood woman.) - well, I kiss her; why, there't is; here's my mother's breath up and down; now come I to my sister; mark the moan she makes: now the dog all this while sheds not a tear, nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.

The misuse of the words "prodigious" and "perplexity" has a most familiar sound, and may be readily recognized as a favorite comedy device of the poet, to provide humor for his clowns and serving-men.

In an interesting work by Dr. A. O. Kellogg, of the State Lunatic Asylum, at Utica, New York, entitled "Shakespeare's Delineations of Insanity, Imbecility, and Suicide," that distinguished alienist places Launce among the imbeciles, and by way of preface to an able analysis of the character, in which is included Crab, the constant companion of the boy, he makes the following concrete summary:
Another shade of mental obtuseness and imbecility has been exhibited by the poet in the character of Launce, the clown par excellence, in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." Launce is not a character manufactured by the playwright, one of "Nature's journey-men," to serve a particular purpose, but is a product of Nature's own handiwork, and if not the most cunning, still none the less genuine. The close companionship which exists between him and his interesting dog. Crab, is evidently one based upon a moral and intellectual fitness in the characters of the two. The clown is such by natural organization, and no education or change of circumstances or condition could make him otherwise. So the dog Crab, is ... the cur that nature made him; and we can scarcely conceive that even the cultivation of three generations ... would suffice to make either a courtier of the one, or "a gentleman-like dog" of the other. ... The spirits of the two are so "married in conjunction" by mutual intercourse, that the one has come to conduct himself in all companies, as a currish clown, and the other as a clownish cur.
As I have stated in the preface, I do not presume to differentiate between folly and imbecility. I quote the foregoing as the indorsement of a scientist to the accuracy of the poet's conception and treatment of the character.

In reference to the habit of punning, which is one of the characteristics of Launce, to which I have before alluded in this article, as well as to the same practice by similar characters in previous chapters, I again quote Dr. Kellogg:
His humorous punning and play upon words is also quite characteristic, and shows that this faculty may be possessed in quite an eminent degree by those of very inferior mental caliber, like Launce.
How completely Shakespeare realized this condition is evidenced, not only by the countrymen and clowns in his comedies, but also by the characters of inferior rank and humble station in his tragedies: notably, Peter, in "Romeo and Juliet"; the Citizens, in "Julius Caesar"; the Grave-diggers, in "Hamlet"; and the drunker Porter, in "Macbeth."

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is unfortunately seldom presented on the stage, but Mr. Augustin Daly made a production of the comedy in his series of Shakespearean revivals at Daly's Theater, New York, some years ago. Mr. James Lewis played Launce, and while I cannot recall the entire performance in detail, I distinctly remember his first appearance on the scene. He came upon the stage slowly, with an expression of extreme disgust on his face, leading his dog Crab by a cord. The property man who had procured the dog for the production had been most fortunate in his selection, for a more complete specimen of a "low-down cur" I never saw. It would have puzzled the most experienced dog fancier to name his breed or trace his ancestry.

Most animals, when they appear upon the stage, become frightened by the glare of the footlights, and startled by any applause that may come from the audience, but this dog that played Crab was absolutely oblivious to his surroundings. Crab received even a more cordial greeting than his popular master, but while the latter acknowledged the compliment gracefully, the dog looked on with complete indifference as if the entire proceedings bored him. Launce began his first speech, which included a mild reproach of Crab's lack of sympathy, but it made no impression on the cur: he then led the dog to the base of a statue, or fountain on the scene, seated himself on the steps, the cur by his side, and enacted the domestic scene described in the text with a droll humor that the audience found irresistible, but it had no effect on Crab, who sat upon his haunches, looked at Mr. Lewis' manipulation of the shoes, and listened to his detailed description of the parting of the family of the Launces as if, like Baron Grog, in "The Grand Duchess," he had always been taught "to observe an impassive countenance."

I regret that I cannot remember more of the performance of Mr. Lewis, for everything he did was worthy of memory: but the picture of the dog. Crab, is indelibly impressed on my mind, and the memory of that frowsy cur that was such an appropriate companion to his master, tempts me again to quote Dr. Kellogg:
Next to the human associates whom a man takes into his confidence, nothing seems to furnish a more correct index to his character than the species of the canine race which he selects as his companions. The grim-looking, fighting bulldog is found at the heels of the bully and prize-fighter. The dignified mastiff and gentlemanly Newfoundland, guard ... the stately banker. The gaunt hound is found in the train of the active, vigorous, fox-hunting squire. The poodle or spaniel ... is the combed, washed, and petted companion of my lady, but the cur, who seems to be a combination of the evil qualities of all these, your "yaller dog," is found at the heels of the clown, and the nature of the relationship is nowhere so admirably depicted as by the poet in his delineations of Launce and his dog Crab.

The play upon the words "tide" and "tied" in the brief dialogue with Panthino, that concludes the scene is another capital illustration of the quality of wit possessed by Launce. It is amusing, harmless and characteristic.
Pan. You'll lose the tide, if you tarry any longer.

Launce. It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.

Pan. What's the unkindest tide?

Launce. Why, he that's tied here. Crab, my dog.
Scene 5, of Act 2, is entirely occupied by a dialogue between Launce and Speed. The scene does not advance the plot or develop the characters, but is marked by the same quality of wit to which I have before referred; a brief example of which will suffice.
Speed. I understand thee not.

Launce. What a block art thou, that thou canst not. My staff understands me.

Speed. What thou sayest?

Launce. Ay, and what I do too: look thee, I'll but lean, and my staff understands me.

Speed. It stands under thee, indeed.

Launce. Why, stand-under and under-stand is all one.
In the first scene of act third a new phase of the character of Launce is developed. He is in love. We have his own admission of the fact, with the addenda: "But a team of horse shall not pluck that from me; not who 'tis I love, and yet 'tis a woman: but what woman, I will not tell myself; and yet 'tis a milkmaid." Launce does not give us his reasons for the secrecy that he so ingeniously negatives, and we might attribute it to the bashful modesty of a lover, but this is again negatived by his subsequent interview with Speed. The name of the lady is withheld, but we are frankly informed of "The cate-log of her conditions." Launce is a man of method and has carefully collated both the virtues and vices of the lady, and set them down in a sort of debtor and creditor arrangement, which he not only carefully considers himself, but on a convenient opportunity submits to the judgment of his friend Speed, reserving, however, the privilege of making the final decision himself.

The merits of the lady are set down somewhat as follows:
She can fetch and carry.
She can milk.
She brews good ale.
She can sew.
She can knit.
She can wash and scour.
She can spin.
She hath many nameless virtues.

And her demerits:
She is not to be kissed fasting.
She hath a sweet mouth.
She doth talk in her sleep.
She is slow in words.
She is proud.
She hath no teeth.
She is curst.
She will often praise her liquor.
She is liberal.
She hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults.
One can easily imagine the sapient and judicial air assumed by Launce, as Speed reads the "catelog" to him; but I shrewdly suspect that the decision of the judge had been made before the trial began, or the evidence was presented. The virtues he appreciates at their practical value, the vices he ingeniously transforms into virtues, and like many in real life of far greater social and intellectual pretensions, finally permits the possession of money to be the deciding factor in his choice. With Launce, wealth appears to have been a cloak whose ample folds are sufficient to cover a multitude of vices, for though she have "more faults than hairs" her wealth was all powerful "to make the faults gracious."

I am very much inclined, however, to think that the affectation of prudence was another of the practical jests of this exuberant youth with his friend Speed; that he himself concocted the "cate-log," and the entire matter had its existence only in the vivid and picturesque imagination of our friend Launce; for later we learn that the boy has voluntarily taken upon himself both the blame and the punishment for the sins of his dog Crab. He hath "sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen"; "stood in the pillory for geese he hath killed"; and taken a whipping to save that ill-bred cur from the consequences of his "ungentleman-like conduct" at the Duke's table. Now it is but reasonable to assume that a man, however humble his station in life, who would sacrifice himself so completely for the sake of a dumb animal, would have some sentimentality in the choice of a wife, and however mercenary he might assume to be, his selection would not be influenced by wealth alone, but be governed by the feelings of his heart, rather than by the calculations of his head.

Be that as it may, there is a good deal of sound common sense, even if it was assumed, in the method of selecting a wife as affected by Launce, that might be adopted with advantage by some of our modern young men who so heedlessly assume the responsibilities of marriage. A little more prudence and consideration of their respective qualifications for what should be a life-long union, might avert many an unhappy marriage, and considerably diminish the congestion in our courts of law.

The brief dialogue concluding the scene bears out the above suggestion. Speed, whose name by the way appears to be a misnomer, is waited for by his master at the north gate of the city. Launce knows this, and out of sheer mischief, as he inferentially admits, is detaining him. This would seem to indicate that the milkmaid with her "cate-log of conditions" is pure imagination on the part of Launce, and his apparent indecision a mere device to detain the already dilatory Speed. The solo and exit speech of Launce on the hasty departure of Speed, accentuates the view: "Now will he be swing'd for reading my letter. An unmannerly slave, that will thrust himself into secrets. I'll after, to rejoice in the boy's correction."

Scene 4 of Act 4 in the comedy brings the charactor of Launce to its conclusion. Crab seems to be as incorrigible as impenitent, and Launce entertains us with a most diverting account of the dog's misdeeds and his own self-sacrifice in the cur's behalf. To appreciate thoroughly the humor of the scene, I commend the reader to a full perusal of the same in the play itself.

By the irony of fate, Crab seems to be the factor in his master's undoing. Launce has been commissioned by his master, Sir Proteus, to deliver "a little jewel" of a dog to Mistress Sylvia as a present. Launce loses the little jewel, and in this dilemma substitutes his own dog Crab. The lady indignantly rejects such a present, and returns a most sarcastic response to the advances of the amorous Sir Proteus, whose anger on learning the details of the adventure may be better imagined than described.

The explanation of Launce is characteristic of the boy, while his humor, love of mischief, and his "old vice" of punning is sustained to the last.
Pro. Where have you been these two days loitering?

Launce. Marry, sir, I carried Mistress Sylvia the dog you bade me.

Pro. And what says she to my little jewel?

Launce. Marry, she says, your dog was a cur, and tells you, currish thanks is good enough for such a present.

Pro. But she received my dog?

Launce. No, indeed, did she not: here have I brought him back again.

Pro. What, didst thou offer her this from me?

Launce. Ay, sir; the other squirrel was stolen from me by the hangman's boys in the market-place: and then I offered her mine own, who is a dog as big as ten of yours, and therefore the gift the greater.
Poor Launce narrowly escapes the whip at the hands of his outraged master, and is angrily dismissed from his presence. The future of the boy is left to our conjecture. Did he lose his place? Did his master restore him to favor? and did he wed the lady whose qualifications were the source of so much careful calculation? The author does not tell us. Let us, however, express the hope that an indulgent master forgave the exuberant humor of his youthful servant, and permitted Launce and his dog Crab, with possibly the lady Launce has chosen, to share in his own felicity so completely expressed in the concluding lines of the comedy, "One feast, one house, one mutual happiness."

How to cite this article:
Warde, Frederick. The Fools of Shakespeare. London: McBride, Nast & company, 1915. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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Launce and Speed, played by James Lewis and Sidney Herbert. From The Fools of Shakespeare by Frederick Warde.