Outdoor Shakespeare, that unlikely ritual of the American summer, can be very magical. I saw a cheerful, knockabout production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" the other night. It was one of Shakespeare's first plays. It was wonderful to watch it in that leisurely way, the air just cooling after a day of simmering heat. The lights went out, the audience subsided into attention, and then the lights went up again, and two actors, dressed in those peculiar Elizabethan garments, came sauntering onto the stage, the little world of the stage, the one that the young Shakespeare was, over the course of the next 20 years, going to own utterly. The opening speech: He's already learned the trick of beginning in the middle of things. One gentleman, Valentine, is telling the other, Proteus, that he can't talk him into staying home. And the spectator has nothing to do but sink into the rhythms of the language:

Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus;

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.

Were't not affection chains thy tender days

To the sweet glance of honored love,

I would rather entreat thy company

To see the wonders of the world abroad

Than, living dully sluggardized at home,

Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.

But since thou lov'st, love still, and thrive therein,

Even as I would when I to love begin.

We are to gather from this that the two are friends, that one is about to embark on travels to see the world, that the other is in love with someone and is staying home. I got it all, more or less. But I mainly felt that familiar and always surprising, intense happiness at the seemingly effortless verbal brilliance and playfulness of the poet's language: "Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits"; "affection chains thy tender days"; the completely wonderful, casually over-the-top "living dully sluggardized at home"; and the dead-on accuracy of "wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness."

We had been talking before the lights went down about the restlessness of college kids at home for the summer and remembering our own summers during college, not knowing quite what to do with ourselves, living in the family house, bored with our summer jobs, wildly restive. And there it was, in his language, described with perfect accuracy: "wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness." The play was probably written around 1592, which would have made Shakespeare 28 years old. The self-possession in the writing seems breathtaking. I somehow escaped ever taking a Shakespeare course in college. I'm sure there are studies of how he learned his craft -- of the conventions of wit and verbal play that were already out there, the shtick that he had already learned and could depend on. But I haven't read them, and part of the pleasure of seeing the play was guessing at how he proceeded. The next bit of the opening scene, verbal patter between Valentine and Proteus on the subject of love -- also, it seems, supremely skillful and effortless -- is probably pure shtick:

Valentine: Love is your master, for he masters you;

And he that is so yoked by a fool

Methinks should not be chronicled for wise.

Proteus: Yet writers say, as in the sweetest bud

The eating canker dwells, so eating love

Inhabits in the finest wits of all.

Valentine: And writers say, as the most forward bud

Is eaten by the canker ere it blow,

Even so by love the young and tender wit

Is turned to folly, blasting in the bud,

Losing his verdure even in the prime,

And all the fair effects of future hope.

But wherefore waste I time to counsel thee

That art of votary to fond desire.

And so in the next bit, Valentine leaves. Proteus, alone on the stage, makes a little speech to the audience right out of Elizabethan love sonnets (which Shakespeare was probably also writing at this time):

He after honor hunts, I after love.

He leaves his friends to dignify them more;

I leave myself, my friends, and all for love.

Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,

Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,

War with good counsel, set the world at nought;

Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.

Another set piece, fluent -- and with that delicious word "metamorphosed" in it -- that the available writing style had probably told him how to do. Then Valentine's servant Speed comes in, looking for him. Proteus tells him that Valentine has already "shipped." The servant -- you know that the actor who plays the servant will be a featured comic actor -- puns on "shipped" and "sheep":

Twenty to one then, he is shipped already,

And I have played the sheep in losing him.

Sheep jokes are in the offing. And where there are sheep jokes, there will be jokes about horns. Adultery -- especially involving men whose women slept around on them -- seems to have been a source of reliable hilarity to the late 16th-century English. Such men were "cuckolds" and -- why, I don't know -- cuckolds had "horns."

Proteus: Indeed a sheep doth very often stray,

And if the shepherd be a while away.

Speed: You conclude that my master is a shepherd

then, and I a sheep?

Proteus: I do.

Speed: Why then my horns are his horns, whether

I wake or sleep.

More shtick. I was thinking about being in love in college in the summertime. Also making mental notes to myself about the brilliant and easy way the play was unfolding. We had blankets for the later acts if it cooled off, a bottle of white wine. And the last of the sunset sent up a little flush above the outdoor stage. It made me very happy.