‘Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus’ by William Holman Hunt


Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus by William Holman Hunt

Accession number: 1887P953

Date: 1850-1

This tableau-style painting is inspired by Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act V scene iv. This is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, which perhaps accounts for the lack of critical discussion of the painting. Valentine and Proteus are friends who both fall in love with Silvia; after some complicated series of events, Proteus finds himself in a forest with Silvia and threatens to rape her – he has rescued her from outlaws and feels he deserves a reward. Valentine stops him, and, after Proteus has apologised, he immediately falls in love again with Julia. Appropriately for the character, Proteus is the name of a sea-god in Greek mythology, who can change his appearance and thus represents changeability. Proteus is set up in the play as not the right lover for Silvia, which he knows himself:

But Silvia is too fair, too true, too holy,
To be corrupted with my worthless gifts.

In Act V scene iv, Proteus makes his desire for repayment clear, and at the same time his ungentlemanliness is also most apparent:

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form,
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love,–force ye.

Valentine reproaches his friend as a ‘treacherous man’, and all is forgiven with surprising speed. The characters depicted are: From left to right: Julia disguised as a page, Silvia, the appeasing Valentine and a repentant Proteus who is in love with Julia. Silvia’s father, the Duke of Milan, with a group of followers can be seen in the right background.[1]

The elaborate frame contains quotations from the play, which read:

Valentine. Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou would’st disprove me
Who should be trusted now, when one’s right hand
I’ve perjured to the bosom?
Proteus. I am sorry I must never trust thee more
But count the world a stranger for thy sake.

Proteus. My shame and guilt confound me
Forgive me Valentine if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender it here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.

As the title makes clear, this is the moment of Silvia’s rescue; however, the reconciliation has not yet taken place. Julia is still downcast (in the play she faints), seeing that she has lost her erstwhile lover to Silvia, and, dressed as a page with a hat and tunic hiding her femininity, she is a sad figure. While Valentine looms over the painting, by far the largest figure, with upright bearing and an aura of justice and righteousness in his expression, Silvia and Proteus are kneeling. Proteus, his hand on his neck, looks thoroughly ashamed of himself, with a hangdog expression which presumably accompanies his apology. Silvia has the shocked but self-contained appearance of a Victorian woman whose virtue has been affronted; Hunt portrays these Shakespearean characters as quite contemporary in appearance despite the gestures towards medieval dress. Silvia’s posture and demeanour indicate her virtue and the near-loss of her chastity; as Ruskin pointed out, even the ‘broken fungi’ in the foreground indicate the recent struggle, with true Pre-Raphaelite attention to the detail of the natural world. (Ruskin objected to the ‘commonness’ of their faces, however). It is a dramatic moment in the play, where the forces which have been at work up till this point erupt, and after which peace will be restored as all the characters are reunited with their rightful partner.

[1] See BMAGIC website.