In Shakespeare’s early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus offers Thurio, his rival for Silvia’s favour, some advice on the art of seduction:
You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composed rhymes
Should be full-fraught with serviceable vows.
There is no doubt the dullard Thurio needs a lesson or two in lovemaking. The above tutorial, however, is offered by one of Shakespeare’s most perfidious lovers. Proteus has himself fallen in love with Silvia, whom he attempts to woo in Act 4 Scene 2. He is met with a frosty response: ‘Thou subtile, perjur’d, false, disloyal man … I despise thee for thy wrongful suit’ (4.2.95, 102). The Two Gentlemen of Verona was written in the 1590s when the vogue for sonnets in England was at its height, and Proteus’s speech captures something of the energy, intensity and artfulness of this brief but important episode in the history of English poetry. Sonnets had developed by this time into a powerful vehicle for exploring the psyche, articulating inward experience and capturing the cadences of emotional turbulence. Usually written in the first person, they offered an opportunity for confessional utterance, each ‘feeling line’ promising to reveal what Proteus calls passionate ‘integrity’ (3.2.75–6). At the same time, however, and thanks to the demands posed by their inflexible form, Elizabethan sonnets are often astonishingly ‘composed’, or contrived, despite their appearance of spontaneity, and are always self-conscious about their mode of expression. They may be spoken by a Proteus whose very name declares his faithlessness; they may be fictionalised, ventriloquised, rehearsed, performed, studied or borrowed.