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"Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus", 1851, by William Holman Hunt: A Valentine appears in both "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "Romeo and Juliet"

Shakespeare is on everyone’s mind at the moment — with his 400th death anniversary having just passed — so it’s a good time to float a somewhat unorthodox Shakespeare theory: he wrote a sequel to Romeo and Juliet.

Not a direct sequel, like Henry IV, Part 2 — but two characters from Romeo and Juliet reappear in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Which, under the circumstances, qualifies.

I should say it’s not generally accepted that these repeat characters are repeat characters. In fact, so far as I can tell, anyone who has noticed the appearance of a couple of names in both Romeo and Two Gentleman has chalked it up to Shakespeare reusing names, which he does often. But I suggest they are meant to be the self-same fictional characters making cameo appearance in each others’ plays. Let me explain:

The two characters in question are Valentine, one of the two titular Gentlemen, and Friar Laurence, who marries Romeo to Juliet, and suggests she fake her death. In R&J, Valentine is named as Romeo’s best friend Mercutio’s brother; Romeo mentions that Valentine is attending the Capulet party where he meets Juliet. Though Valentine doesn’t have any lines. Likewise, Friar Laurence doesn’t have any lines in Two Gentlemen. In fact, he doesn’t even appear on stage. But he’s mentioned, by the Duke of Milan, who says his daughter and a friend are on their way to “that peasant Valentine”. He goes on: “’Tis true; for Friar Laurence met them both, as he in penance wandered through the forest.”

Laurence isn’t mentioned again, and no one explains what it is that he’s wandering in penance for. Perhaps for marrying two teenagers whom he accidentally tricked into committing suicide?

Needless to say, everyone who reads Two Gentlemen notices Friar Laurence, and wonders what he’s doing there. The explanation generally given is that Shakespeare used Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet — his main source for Romeo and Juliet — as one of his minor sources for Two Gentlemen, because each features a character helping his beloved escape her father with a rope ladder. For some reason, perhaps because Brooke’s Tragical History was on his mind, Shakespeare decided to toss Friar Laurence in along with the rope ladder. Later (says this conventional wisdom) the Friar Laurence borrowed from Brooke would inspire the creation of Shakespeare’s own Friar Laurence in R&J.

This is perfectly plausible. Really, in some ways, it’s more plausible than my theory, because what I’m proposing makes sense only if Two Gentlemen and Romeo were written at the same time, or if Romeo was written first. Everyone — myself included — agrees that the Romeo we have is a later play than Two Gentlemen, because Romeo is brilliant and Two Gentlemen is terrible. (That is, it’s immature.)

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