Act 1, scene 1
Two Gentleman of Verona begins in Verona, Italy, with a conversation between two young men, Valentine and Proteus. They are close friends, and Valentine is about to set off to Milan. Proteus wishes him well and says he will pray for his friend’s safety. Proteus is staying at home because he is in love. Valentine holds romantic love in low esteem and thinks that Proteus will end up making a fool of himself. For a few moments Valentine tries to convince his friend of the foolishness of love, but quickly realizes that he is wasting his time. The two men part and promise to write to each other with their news. After Valentine exits, Proteus reflects on how he has neglected his studies and ignored good advice, all for the love of the lady, whose name is Julia.
Valentine’s page Speed enters. He has lost track of his master and is worried that he has already left. Proteus asks him if he has delivered a letter he wrote to Julia. Speed says he has, and Proteus asks him what Julia said. Speed won’t say until Proteus gives him some money, and then offers the opinion that Proteus will not be able to win the lady because she said nothing and gave him no money for delivering the letter, and he concludes from that that she is as hard as steel. Proteus dismisses him, and says that he must send his letter through a better messenger. He thinks Julia didn’t read his letter because Speed must have made such a bad impression on her.
The first scene introduces the two protagonists and two themes of the play: the pleasure and obligations of male friendship and the ups and downs of romantic love. Valentine and Proteus are friends, but they are being separated because Valentine is more interested in furthering his horizons by travel, and confident in his belief that the kind of love Proteus seeks is not worth the trouble. Later events will show that he is not as wise as he thinks he is.
An Elizabethan audience would have been keenly aware of this incipient contrast between the steadiness of friendship and the dangerous passions unleashed in romantic love. There is much Elizabethan literature in praise of friendship, including Shakespeare’s sonnets. In some respects, friendship was valued more highly than love, so an Elizabethan audience would immediately have been intrigued about how friendship and love were going to be presented in the play. Which would prove to be the higher ideal?
Modern audiences may find little amusement in the kind of word play, involving many puns, that Valentine’s servant Speed indulges in. Speed himself seems to be ironically named, since he is slow to catch up with his master, but in fact he is quick-witted. Together with Proteus’s man Launce, the two servants will play an important role in the play, their words and actions providing ironic commentary on the actions of the main characters.
Act 1, scene 2
Julia asks Lucetta, her waiting-woman, which of the many gentlemen who court her is the most worthy. Julia mentions first Sir Eglamour and then Mercatio, but Lucetta does not have a high opinion of either of them. Then Julia asks about Proteus, and Lucetta replies that he is the best. Julia says that she has never cared for him, but Lucetta tells her that Proteus loves her the best of all. Julia says that she wishes Proteus would say more to her about his feelings.
Lucetta then hands her Proteus’s letter, which she intercepted from Speed. (This reveals that Speed wasn’t entirely honest with his master when he said the letter had been personally delivered to her.) Julia is angry that Lucetta took charge of a letter addressed to her and then delayed its delivery. In a fit of pique, she tells Lucetta to return it unread to Proteus.
After Lucetta exits, Julia regrets her hasty decision because she is curious about what is in the letter. She calls Lucetta back, but when Lucetta hands the letter over, Julia tears it up. After Lucetta has gone, Julia once more regrets her actions, and she tries to piece the scraps together. When she reads the words “love-wounded Proteus,” she is touched, and indicates that she is willing to return his affection. She also seems to despise herself for the way she has acted. Lucetta returns and at Julia’s request picks up the remaining scraps of the letter.
In this scene, the audience gets its first sight of Julia. She is clearly considered beautiful and desirable, since she is courted by a knight (Sir Eglamour) and a rich man (Mercatio), as well as Proteus. But her behavior is erratic, to say the least, and is the play’s first example of the instability generated by the search for romantic love. Julia appears not to know her own mind. At first she rejects Proteus and is quick to get angry with her maid. Also, she acts impulsively, in a way that does not serve her own interests, by tearing Proteus’s letter up, even though she really wants to read it. Like all young people, Julia wants to find love, and by the end of the scene she shows that she does not have a heart of stone and can be moved by words of love. Proteus would appear to have everything he wants now.
Act 1, scene 3
Proteus’s father, Antonio, is told by his servant Panthino that Antonio’s brother is wondering why Antonio allows his son to spend all his time at home rather than sending him off explore the world. Since Proteus has never traveled, his uncle thinks it would be a good idea if he did so now. Antonio agrees and asks Panthino’s advice about where he should send Proteus. Panthino suggests that the young man be sent to join Valentine at the court of the Emperor, where he will gain a lot from being in noble company. Antonio accepts the suggestion and decides that Proteus should depart the very next day. Since there is already a party of travelers set to depart that day, Proteus will have some traveling companions.
Proteus enters reading an affectionate letter he has received from Julia. When his father asks him what he is reading, he is worried that his father may not approve of his affection for Julia. So he says it is a letter from Valentine, who reports that he is happy at the Emperor’s court and wishes Proteus were there with him. Antonio tells him that he is to depart for the court the following day. Taken aback, Proteus asks for a delay, but his father insists on sticking to what he has planned.
After Antonio and Panthino exit, Proteus is left to reflect on how his lie to his father created the situation (or so he thinks) in which he must leave his love behind. He does not want to go to Milan but knows he has no choice.
This short scene helps to move the plot forward. Shakespeare wants to quickly reunite his two main characters and show what happens when love strikes unexpectedly. This scene also shows that Proteus is not in the habit of telling the truth, a character trait that will soon be even more readily apparent. It seems that up to now, Proteus has led a sheltered life. For some reason his father has not forced him out into the world and only does so when prompted by his brother. Proteus will turn out to be a badly flawed character, but it seems that his perhaps over-indulgent father has not given him the best of starts in life.