Speed: "But tell me true, will't be a match?"This work is based on a theme of the plays Constancy and Honesty vs. Deception and Dishonesty.
The composition contains four figures. In the left foreground stand the two servants, Speed and Lance, contemplating the latter's dog. In the upper right are the "Two Gentlemen.." Proteus and Valentine.
The canvas is divided into light and dark: truth and deception. Both sets of figures share similar postures and attire, for sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between honesty and deceit.
A warm sunrise glow illuminates the trees behind the servants. The trees, representing truths, are neither black nor white but many shades of gray.
Lance, a man of sensibility and integrity, sets his foot firmly on a rock. Rocks, as symbols of endurance, also ring the base of the stump on which the doleful "Crab" is perched. The stump is a memorial to the great truths that have been cut down, but revival is evident in the young green growth behind it.
When King Lear's Fool ventures a truthful comment, the displeased king threatens him with the whip: to which the fool replies:
" Truth's a dog must to kennel. He must be whipped out, When the Lady Brach* may stand by the fire and stink."King Lear was written some 15 years after "The Two Gentlemen..." The dog "Crab", one of the stars in the latter play, was an earlier prototype of this symbol. He too was threatened with whipping, only to be rescued by the devotion of his master, thus becoming the object of attributes that mark a true gentleman.
Compared to the glibness with which Proteus dismisses such considerations for his own best friend, the contrast between master and servant make for the ludicrous comedy.
Across the sunlit field are the long shadows of the servants that connect them to their masters, who are themselves but faded shadows of the originals.
The gullible Valentine is oblivious to the cunning intrigues of his "friend", whose foot rests on a stump devoid of any sign of regeneration. In his right hand is a sword poised at the landscape of "Truth", in an invisible connection with a tree branch that leads down to the staff in Lance's hand. On closer inspection, it seems the staff was broken from a limb of that very tree.
The upper figures are on the edge of a forest tangled with ominous trees on a somber, undulating background, relieved only by two shafts of light resembling sword blades.
Both of these aristocrats are morally deficient as evidenced by their actions and attitudes in the play.
It falls to the role of the two clown-servants to serve as the truthtellers and commentators on the human drama, or comedy, as the case might be.
In exercising these roles they attain a nobility of character that makes them the true gentlemen and their masters as counterfeits and shadows. This reversal is indicated in the opposite postures of the four characters.