“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is quite likely Shakespeare’s first comedy. To create a dependable time-line for his works at this distance is unrealistic, but the simplicity of the structure, characterisation, invention and ideas in this play suggests that scholars seeking Shakespeare’s juvenilia – his early work, of the kind most mature writers would prefer forgotten – might do worse than look here.
Shakespearean scholars have not always been kind to this play. Harold Bloom describes it as “very experimental” and condemns it as “the weakest of all Shakespeare’s comedies”. Peter Ackroyd calls the play a “febrile drama, with a very silly ending”, and adds that “it seems to have been written quickly”. A.D. Nuttall is straightforward in his assessment of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: it is “Shakespeare’s weakest play”.
Nonetheless, though it is a work of apprenticeship rather than maturity, there are a number of signposts to the mature playwright in the text. The action is divided between the court and the forest – a common division in the comedies – and though the court seems more civilised, in practice a resolution only comes once the action transfers to the forest. The play ends, as the comedies routinely do, with a reconciliation, though as Ackroyd suggests, it is less than satisfying.
The action moves from court to forest because Valentine has been banished from Milan (thus anticipating Romeo’s fate, banished from Verona), and when he is waylaid by forest outlaws, he is followed there by Silvia, who has fallen out with her father. In this she anticipates a host of Shakespearean daughters (Juliet, Desdemona, Jessica) who will suffer a similar breakdown in family relations. In trying to make sense of events in Milan, Julia disguises herself as a page boy, and paves the way for a range of Shakespearean heroines (Portia, Rosalind, Viola) who disguise themselves as male.
Like many of Shakespeare’s mature works, this play features a villain who (like Richard III, Edmund and Iago) delivers soliloquies that are as unsettling as they’re compelling. As a result of these, the audience will enjoy, before many of the characters, a full picture of what is happening and what is going to happen: dramatic irony will prove to be among the most common and effective of Shakespeare’s mature techniques – not only in his comedies.
In one important way, however, the play is an outlier. Shakespeare’s comedies tend to obey the convention that closure comes with boy and girl united in love. But the reconciliation here is between two males who have fallen out, and the female characters are somewhat incidental. To modern audiences this conclusion leaves something of a sour taste – which perhaps explains why the play is now rarely performed and (as was noted above) still more rarely admired.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Valentine tells his friend Proteus he is leaving Verona to avoid becoming “sluggardized at home”.
He believes Proteus is a victim of “fond desire”, and that to be in love is to be “yoked by a fool”.
Valentine departs to be “shipp’d” to Milan, leaving Proteus to rue the difference between them.
I am only interested in romantic love, Proteus reflects, whereas Valentine “after honour hunts”.
Speed appears looking for his master Valentine, fearing that he is too late to “embark for Milan”.
Proteus asks him for a reply to the letter Speed took to his lover, but is told she is “as hard as steel”.
Act One Scene Two
Julia asks her maid Lucetta for advice about her suitors, to be informed that Proteus is the “best”.
Julia replies that “he has never moved me”, only for Lucetta to announce that he has written to her.
Julia’s anger with her maid conceals her “inward joy” at hearing of Proteus’s romantic interest in her.
She tears up the letter, then relents, and as she retrieves the pieces, realises Proteus’s love for her.
Act One Scene Three
Antonio reveals he has been “hammering” his son Proteus to leave home and experience the world.
He agrees with his servant Panthino that Proteus should follow Valentine and leave for Milan.
Proteus appears with a love letter from Julia, which he tells his father is news from Valentine.
Antonio informs Proteus he is leaving tomorrow for Milan despite his son’s evident reluctance.
Proteus reflects ruefully that “this spring of love” is an “uncertain glory” that cannot be counted on.
Act Two Scene One
In Milan, Speed has noticed – without being told – that his master Valentine is in love with Silvia.
He has noticed numerous changes in Valentine and compares him now with how he was before.
Speed discusses Silvia with Valentine, and joshes his master that he cannot see since love is blind.
Valentine reveals Silvia has asked him to write a love poem for someone to whom she is attracted.
When she appears she reads the poem but is indifferent to it and pledges to “trouble you no more”.
When she leaves, Speed explains that Silvia has given him a love letter – though written by himself.
Act Two Scene Two
Proteus bids a tearful farewell to Julia, and they exchange rings and kisses as tokens of their love.
Proteus belies his name and offers “my hand for my true constancy” before he is called away.
Act Two Scene Three
Preparing like his master Proteus to leave Verona, Launce reports his whole family is heart-broken.
The one exception is his dog Crab, described as “a stone” that “sheds not a tear” for his departure.
Amid more word-play, Antonio’s servant Panthino hurries Launce to leave or he will “lose the tide”.
Act Two Scene Four
Valentine, addressed as “servant” by Silvia, exchanges hostile banter with Thurio, his rival suitor.
Silvia’s father the Duke of Milan asks Valentine about Proteus – and is given misleading answers.
Valentine characterises his friend as a young man with “experience old” and “judgement ripe”.
The Duke reveals to Valentine’s delight that Proteus is to “spend his time awhile” in Milan.
Valentine describes Proteus as one whose mistress “Did hold his eyes lock’d in her crystal looks”.
Proteus is introduced to Silvia, presenting himself as a picture of modesty, duty and decorum.
Valentine politely asks after Proteus’s love Julia, only for Proteus to quickly change the subject.
Valentine reveals to Proteus that having fallen in love, he has known “mine own heart’s sorrow”.
He tells Proteus he believes Silvia superior to Julia – a boast Proteus condemns as “braggardism”.
Valentine notes that “love is full of jealousy”, then reveals that he is “betroth’d” to Silvia.
Valentine explains how he means to outwit her father’s restraints on her and “climb her window”.
In a soliloquy, Proteus reveals that he has lost interest in Julia and Valentine, and now loves Silvia.
Proteus pledges, if he can control himself with Silvia, he will – but if not, he’ll aim to “compass her”.
Act Two Scene Five
Speed welcomes Launce to Milan, and enquires into the relationship between Proteus and Julia.
Marriage seems inevitable. Meanwhile, Speed reports that “my master is become a notable lover”.
Act Two Scene Six
Proteus resolves to abandon Julia, betray Valentine and put himself first by winning Silvia.
Julia he dismisses, and Valentine he will betray to the Duke of Milan, before he outwits Thurio.
Act Two Scene Seven
Julia asks Lucetta for help in preparing to travel to Milan to meet up with “my loving Proteus”.
Lucetta suggests restraint, but Julia replies that to dam a current only gives it greater force.
Julia resolves to disguise herself as “some well-reputed page”, confident of a warm welcome.
Lucetta again advises against the journey, but Julia believes that Proteus’s “words are bonds”.
Act Three Scene One
Proteus tells the Duke that his friend Valentine intends to elope with his daughter that night.
The Duke explains that he keeps his daughter locked up at night in a tower, and he keeps the key.
Proteus reveals that Valentine has a rope ladder, and advises the Duke to “intercept him”.
The Duke tells Valentine that Thurio is to marry his daughter despite her evident unwillingness.
He adds that he has “a lady in Verona here” [sic] and asks Valentine for advice on how to court her.
Blind to the trap, Valentine explains how he would visit Silvia, with ladder concealed under cloak.
The Duke discovers the ladder and Valentine’s letter to Silvia, and banishes him from Milan.
Valentine cannot live without Silvia, he believes: without her, “There is no day for me to look upon”.
Proteus reports that Silvia knows of his exile, and offers to pass on letters from Valentine to her.
Launce discusses with Speed the faults and virtues of his partner before Speed rushes off, late again.
Act Three Scene Two
The Duke and Proteus both believe that Silvia’s sadness – and her aversion to Thurio – will soon pass.
Proteus suggests that Valentine be slandered with “falsehood, cowardice and poor descent”.
Proteus is easily persuaded that he should be the one to confront Silvia with Valentine’s failings.
He advises Thurio to compose “wailful sonnets” for Silvia and to bring minstrels to play for her.
Thurio is convinced and hastens to assemble “some gentlemen well versed in music” to court her.
Act Four Scene One
Valentine and Speed are ambushed by outlaws in the forest and invent an explanation for their exile.
The outlaws reply with their own back-stories, before inviting Valentine to “be our general”.
Valentine agrees to lead them on condition they do not attack vulnerable or impoverished travellers.
Act Four Scene Two
Proteus is frustrated that Silvia insists on reminding him of his “falsehood” to Valentine and Julia.
Thurio and his minstrels arrive “under Silvia’s chamber”, trusting Proteus as his ally in seducing her.
Julia has arrived from Verona in disguise and is led by her host to “see the gentleman you asked for”.
Julia listens to the song to Silvia, but because it is “false” finds that it “grieves my very heart-strings”.
Julia asks how Proteus feels about “this gentlewoman”, and is informed he loves her “out of all nick”.
Thurio departs, leaving Proteus to hear Silvia describe him as “subtle, perjured, false, [and] disloyal”.
Silvia tells Proteus to return to “thy love”, but he replies (with Julia overhearing) that “she is dead”.
Silvia reminds him that Valentine – “thy friend” – is still alive, and that she is “betroth’d” to him.
Proteus claims to have heard that Valentine is also dead – in which case, says Silvia, I am dead too.
Proteus begs to be given her picture to adore, and since he likes to “worship shadows”, she agrees.
Julia discovers where Proteus lives, and reflects it has been the longest of nights and the “heaviest”.
Act Four Scene Three
The valiant (and celibate) Sir Eglamour has been summoned by Silvia to help her escape from Milan.
He agrees immediately and plans are laid to meet later that day after Silvia has made her confession.
Act Four Scene Four
Launce reveals his impatience with his dog, who repeatedly lets him down – yet he pays the price.
The dog has urinated under the Duke’s table, leaving Launce to claim responsibility and be whipped.
Launce lists a pattern of canine offences – sausages stolen, geese killed – for which he has suffered.
Proteus arrives to be told by Launce the gift of his dog to Silvia was spurned, and now the dog is lost.
Meanwhile he sends Julia – now Sebastian – as his page to give Silvia the ring Julia once gave him.
“Sebastian” explains her sympathy for the woman Proteus is now letting down, but he is unmoved.
Alone, Julia reveals her “pity” for Proteus, and accepts his instructions reluctantly, hoping to fail.
Silvia appears, and gives Julia the picture for Proteus, but she refuses to wear the ring he has sent.
“Sebastian” describes Julia to Silvia, remembering an occasion when she dressed in Julia’s gown.
Silvia is moved by the story, and hands “Sebastian” her purse “For thy sweet mistress’ sake”.
Alone again, Julia compares herself with the portrait, reflecting that love is “a blinded god”.
Act Five Scene One
Silvia suspects she is being followed by spies, but Eglamour reassures her that they will soon be free.
Act Five Scene Two
Proteus tells Thurio that Silvia is unimpressed by him physically, and has contempt for his character.
The Duke arrives to announce his daughter has fled to the forest, and instructs them to “follow me”.
Act Five Scene Three
Eglamour fled, but Silvia has been captured by the forest outlaws who will bring her to their captain.
Act Five Scene Four
Valentine sits alone in the forest yearning unhappily for the company of his “gentle nymph” Silvia.
Suddenly Silvia appears, accompanied unwillingly by “false perjured” Proteus, whom she “detests”.
She denounces him as “counterfeit to thy true friend” but “In love”, he asks, “Who respects friend?”
He threatens to force her to “yield to my desire” when suddenly Valentine emerges to stop him.
Valentine is mortified by the betrayal he has witnessed, and admits “I must never trust thee more”.
Proteus apologises immediately to Valentine, claiming “shame and guilt” alongside “hearty sorrow”.
Valentine, who has yet to greet Silvia, forgives Proteus and offers him “All that was mine in Silvia”.
Julia as “Sebastian” swoons, then announces that she still has the ring Proteus intended for Silvia.
But it emerges the ring is the one he gave to Julia – and as she is revealed as herself, they reconcile.
The Duke and Thurio appear, and Valentine warns Thurio against claiming Silvia for himself.
The Duke agrees to “Cancel all grudge” against Valentine and to bless his union with his daughter.
Valentine requests the outlaws be pardoned, and tells Proteus “our day of marriage shall be yours”.
The title of the play is “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”. The emphasis is on the first of these two nouns. So although both Valentine and Proteus will be paired with young women – Silvia and Julia – this is not a play about two couples: it’s about two male friends. This point is particularly important in understanding how the play ends.
The opening scene invites the reader to look sceptically at characters’ names. Valentine, whose name evokes thoughts of romance, condemns love as “folly” and “a fool”, while Proteus, whose name connotes change, appears to be a model of constancy. In the course of the play, these characteristics will engage reverse gear, and Valentine will fall in love, while Proteus changes with the wind. Meanwhile, in the second half of the opening scene, Speed is late.
How Shakespeare spent the “lost years” of the late 1580s, between (broadly) his twentieth and his twenty-fifth birthdays, is the subject of wide speculation. One theory is that, as the author in his maturity of around a dozen plays set in Italy, he may well have spent part of this time in that country. The opening scene of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, which implies that it is possible to sail from Verona to Milan, suggests that his knowledge of Italy’s geography was fragile. A similar nautical fantasy appears in “The Tempest” (1611).
It emerges in 1.3 that Proteus’s sudden and (to Julia) unexpected profession of love may have its origins in his home life. Evidently his father has been encouraging him to leave home and experience “being tried and tutor’d in the world”. Proteus seems rather to be anchoring his existence to Verona. When he appears with a love letter from Julia, he conceals it from his father, evidently expecting a negative reaction: “O, that our fathers would applaud our loves”, he exclaims, anticipating the news that his father has quite different ideas for the immediate future.
The opening four scenes of the play pair masters with servants and mistresses with maids. In all four scenes, Shakespeare invests the servants with individuality and character. The reaction of Antonio to Panthino in 1.3 is representative of many of these relationships: “I like thy counsel”, says Antonio to his servant, “well hast thou advised”. The same might be said of Speed in 2.1, who explains to his master Valentine the trick played on him by Silvia. As the play proceeds, the lower-class characters play a prominent role in a range of ways, a theme explored further in “Last Word” below.
The glove Speed hands to Valentine at the start of 2.1 is a reminder that Shakespeare’s own father was a glove-maker – gloves appear time and again in Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps as a result. Rings are common too, as tokens of love of course, but also as evidence, when events need to be pieced together in retrospect. In 2.2, Julia exchanges rings with Proteus in a gesture which will be picked up later in the play.
The second and third scenes of Act Two serve to compare and contrast two departures. In 2.2, sorrow is mixed with dignity as Proteus and Julia exchange “a holy kiss” in terms that evoke “Romeo and Juliet”. In the following scene Launce’s departure (as Proteus’s servant) delivers the other side of the coin – absurdity and farce in Launce’s regret that his dog is not the emotional type, and seems indifferent to their forthcoming departure: “my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands,” he reports, “yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear”. The servants are often used in this play by way of comparison with their masters and mistresses.
When towards the end of 2.4 Valentine reveals that he is “betroth’d” to Silvia, he alerts the modern audience to a nuance of Tudor marriage. Essentially there were three stages: the betrothal was a promise to marry, next came the engagement, which was a commitment; finally came the marriage itself. So to be betrothed was to agree to marry – as Valentine has done with Silvia – though without, at this stage, any formal societal backing or religious ritual.
Valentine shrewdly observes in 2.4 that “love is full of jealousy”, and Proteus’s soliloquy at the scene’s end supports his analysis. How else to explain Proteus’s extraordinary revelation that having only just met Silvia, he nevertheless “begin[s] to love her” – if not as the result of jealous rivalry? As mentioned in the Introduction, this soliloquy is the first of many in Shakespeare in which an unprincipled villain opens his heart to an audience who can hardly believe what he is telling them as he reveals his evil intentions – yet cannot tear their attention away from his compelling speech.
One theme in Proteus’s soliloquy in 2.6 is worth exploring briefly: he draws up an equation in which he loses Julia and Valentine but gains Silvia – and himself: “If I keep them”, he calculates, “I needs must lose myself” – presumably because he cannot be himself without Silvia. So the calculation continues: “I to myself am dearer than a friend”. The logic, relentless but heartless, is a reminder that all Shakespeare’s great villains are similarly self-obsessed, blind to the demands of family and friends, preoccupied with self.
Julia’s plans to travel to Milan, which she discusses with her servant Lucetta in 2.7, make forceful use of dramatic irony, since for all Julia’s faith in Proteus’s integrity, the audience knows better. So though Julia may protest that “His words are bonds” and that “His love [is] sincere”, the audience is still reeling from the cynicism and selfishness of Proteus’s soliloquy in 2.6. The play so far has been notable for the prominent roles assigned to the servants, and here again, Lucetta proves more insightful than her mistress, counselling caution in the matter of Proteus’s integrity and decency. More in Last Word.
The Duke’s denunciation of his daughter’s character in 3.1 is almost comical: she is “peevish, sullen, froward [contrary], / Proud, disobedient, stubborn, lacking duty” and so forth. In delivering this encomium, the Duke anticipates a long line of middle-aged men whom Shakespeare will depict as driven to distraction by their daughters. Shylock (with Jessica), Brabantio (with Desdemona) and Capulet (with Juliet) are among the more prominent examples of the type. In each case the daughter has her way, though not always to her longer-term benefit. In real life, the elder of Shakespeare’s two daughters was a source of strength in his last years. The younger of the two – not so much.
Many of the details in 3.1 will remind audiences of “Romeo and Juliet” (written around five years later) – particularly the fate of lovers to be parted by exile. But the scene also anticipates “Othello” in some sinister respects, especially the offer Proteus makes to his victim Valentine to pass on his letters to Silvia: a reminder of Iago’s role in tendering solicitous support to Othello to his face while destroying him behind his back. As often with Shakespeare, dramatic irony reinforces the audience’s pain at what they are watching.
When Launce and Speed come together to discuss Launce’s lover at the end of 3.2, the simplicity and clarity of their attitudes to romance are an antidote to the complexities we have been witnessing. Evidently Launce’s partner has many important assets: she can milk a cow, she can brew beer, she can knit, she can wash and scour, she can spin … in short, as Speed concludes, “She hath many nameless virtues”, and though there are some faults to consider, overall “I’ll have her”, Launce decides, and hope for the best. A very healthy approach (at least in the context of Proteus’s example).
Silvia calls Proteus “subtle, perjured, false, [and] disloyal”. Given his performance in 4.2, it is hard to disagree. In this scene, overlooked by his devoted (but horrified) lover Julia, he betrays all trust, reporting Julia and his friend Valentine as dead and – for what it’s worth – betraying his supposed ally Thurio in the process. In doing so he is also letting down the Duke of Milan, whom he has casually deceived. It is quite a performance. One shudders to think how heart-breaking this scene must be for Julia, who has come to Milan at great risk to herself to meet “my beloved Proteus” -whose words, she believes, “are bonds”. The comparison with the virtuous Sir Eglamour in 4.3 is instructive – though even Sir Eglamour lets fear get the better of him when confronted by forest outlaws in Act Five, and runs away. This is not perhaps a play in which Shakespeare’s admiration for the male of the species is most prominent.
When Julia as “Sebastian” meets Silvia in 4.4 to collect her picture for Proteus, “he” recounts a tale in which to mark a religious occasion “he” was required to dress up in Julia’s gown. It is worth bearing in mind that women were not free to appear on the Elizabethan stage, and that all female parts were played by young males. As a result, this scene features a young man playing a young woman (Julia) disguised as a young man (Sebastian) recollecting an episode where he dressed as a young woman. This sartorial Chinese box is taken a stage further in “As You Like It” – but it is striking to observe that Shakespeare evidently set out to challenge theatrical gender roles and dress codes from the very start of his writing career.
In the closing scene, Proteus, supposing himself alone in the forest with his page Sebastian, makes to rape Silvia. This act will compensate, he imagines, for her reluctance to abandon his best friend Valentine as casually as he has betrayed Julia. To modern eyes it is hard to imagine a more egregious charge list. Yet this scene appears to make light of it. Valentine emerges and prevents the rape, and in response to the most superficial mea culpa from Proteus, all seems forgiven.
Valentine’s response is particularly troubling: “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”. If this line means what it seems to mean – “As far as I’m concerned you may help yourself to Silvia’s charms” – then why does he announce two forthcoming marriages? Alternatively, if its meaning is ambiguous – “I hope you will find the same love and happiness with Julia as I have with Silvia” perhaps – then one might suggest that this is not the time for ambiguity. Either way, it is striking that Silvia has no more to say after Valentine appears, and that Julia is not asked whether she too forgives Proteus.
Perhaps this scene makes most sense in the context of a play about male friendship. Attitudes to friendship and relationships between the genders and within genders were different in Elizabethan England than they are now. Friendship between males was seen as the highest goal. Proteus’s betrayal of Valentine draws an emotional reaction from him (“The private wound is deepest” etc) and in fairness Proteus’s apology is immediate, as well it might be. Nevertheless the absence of any reaction from Silvia and the apparent indifference of the playwright to Julia’s feelings leave this conclusion inconclusive, and a closing scene designed to tie up loose ends leaves too much left unsaid – for modern eyes at least.
Characters / Who’s Who
Proteus is at first preoccupied with his love for Julia – a reaction, perhaps, to the pressure his father Antonio is imposing on him to leave home and follow the example of Valentine. So he keeps secret his love affair with Julia, though he craves his father’s endorsement. His name implies “change”, and his reflection at the end of Act One that the delights of love may be fleeting seems to herald the change that comes over him. Now, transferred to Milan, emerges the Proteus described by Silvia as “subtle, perjured, false, [and] disloyal”. Given the weight of his betrayal of friend and lover, his apology in 5.4 seems inadequate.
Julia, initially, strikes an unattractive note, bullying her maid Lucetta while disguising her feelings for Proteus – which seem indifferent at best. But her character develops, and the Julia we meet towards the end of the play is as changed as Proteus – though in a quite different sense: patient, self-controlled and very far from indifferent to him.
Valentine is intended to strike a contrast with Proteus. At first he is dynamic and impatient, determined to test himself and spread his wings. In Milan he is humble in his love for Silvia and stays loyal to Proteus, lying on his behalf to the Duke, assigning him virtues he doesn’t have. When he’s tricked by the Duke into revealing his approach to damsels locked in towers, he’s unsuspecting and open – much to his disadvantage. In the forest, his high principles are prominent as he persuades the outlaws not to attack the vulnerable, then speaks on their behalf to the Duke. His ambiguous remark to Proteus – “All that was mine in Silvia, I give thee” – casts a cloud of suspicion over him that was probably not the playwright’s intention.
How does Valentine intend to travel from Verona to Milan?
With which metal does Speed compare Julia in Act One Scene One?
What does Silvia ask Valentine to do for her in 2.1?
What is the name of Launce’s dog?
How does Proteus respond when Valentine asks him about Julia in 2.4?
Where does the Duke keep his daughter locked up at night?
What advice does Proteus give to Thurio to win Silvia’s heart?
What conditions does Valentine impose on his leadership of the outlaws?
Where does Proteus say Julia is when Silvia tells him to return to his love?
Who does Proteus send to give Julia’s ring to Silvia?
Write a love letter
He changes the subject
In a tower
Recite poems and play music to her
Not to attack the weak or the poor
She is dead
Julia, disguised as a page boy
The introduction to this page reflected on some of the ways this early play anticipates the work of Shakespeare’s maturity. A further similarity concerns the place of servants in these plays. Shakespeare is famous for the breadth of his vision, and many of his best-loved characters – the porter in “Macbeth”, the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet”, Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Costard in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, Launcelot Gobbo in “The Merchant of Venice” – are not blessed with pivotal roles in society.
Yet their place in the play is memorable, as if the author means to invest in them the respect and prominence their station in society withholds. The same might be said of characters encountered in this play – like Panthino, the Jeeves-like retainer of Antonio, Launce and his dog Crab, Julia’s wise maid Lucetta and Speed, who (as his name implies) is always late. Characters like these may not have mattered much but they mattered to the playwright and their place in the play is secure.
Shakespearean critics dispute to this day whose side he was on: was he an apologist for the Tudors or a closet radical inspiring insurrection? They explore the mood of the crowd in “Coriolanus” and “Julius Caesar”, and dissect the radicalism of Jack Cade in “Henry VI Part Two”. No consensus has been reached, which probably tells its own story. The evidence of plays like this, in which the lower orders are allocated roles as memorable as that given to the toffs, suggests that Shakespeare was conscious above all of his audience, and aimed to speak to and for every one of them.