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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Or else for want of idle time, could not
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
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
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
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
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
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
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) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/twogent/launceandspeed.html >.