Act 2, scene 1
In the Duke’s palace in Milan, it turns out that Valentine has fallen in love with a lady named Silvia, the daughter of the Duke. Speed, his servant, knows his master is in love, which surprises Valentine, but Speed goes on to explain that like Proteus, Valentine is exhibiting all the signs of the lover, such as sighing and weeping. The change has been so marked that Speed says he can no longer recognize his master. The two men talk about Silvia, Speed pointing out that it is because Valentine is in love that he sees Silvia as perfection itself. He cannot see her objectively because he is afflicted with the “malady” of love. He hints that Valentine is making a fool of himself. Valentine then says that he has written a letter for Silvia, at her request.
When Silvia enters, Valentine gives her the letter, which is addressed, again at her request, to a “nameless friend of yours.” Silvia toys with him, giving him the letter back and telling him that she would preferred it had the words been written more “movingly,” that is, with greater feeling. Valentine says he will write another one. The joke is that the “nameless friend” of Silvia’s, that she asked Valentine to write to on her behalf, is none other than Valentine himself. So in effect, as Speed points out to Valentine after Julia has left, he was writing a love letter, on Silvia’s behalf, to himself, which Silvia promptly presented to him. Valentine is slow to get the point and feels that Silvia has just been angry with him.
Valentine has now fallen for the same malady that he mocked in his friend Proteus, and he quickly shows that he does not have much skill in pursuing a lady. Inexperienced in love, he has no idea what games a lady might play with him as part of the courtship routine. Even when the wily Speed explains to him what is going on, he still does not understand. For the lady to be smarter than the gentleman who woos her is not uncommon in Shakespeare’s comedies. It happens also in As You Like It, in which Rosalind runs rings around her willing but not very bright lover, Orlando.
As often in this play, it is the servants who make the most salient points about love. Speed’s comment, “If you love her, you cannot see her,” means that no lover sees the beloved realistically, but only through the eyes of love, which distorts everything. Silvia is in this sense “deform’d” (altered) by Valentine’s infatuation.
Act 2, scene 2
Back in Verona, Proteus says goodbye to Julia. She gives him a ring to remember her by. He promises to be constant in his remembrance of her. After she exits, Panthino enters and tells Proteus it is time for him to depart.
Julia’s wordless departure speaks more about her feelings than the wordy promise that Proteus makes to her. Proteus will later show that he is slick in the use of words, but his emotions are fickle.
Act 2, scene 3
On a street in Verona, Launce, Proteus’s clown-like servant, reports that all his family is weeping at his imminent departure for the court. But then he grumbles that his dog does not seem to mind his going, while he, Launce, weeps to leave the animal behind. Panthino enters and tells him to hurry up because his master has already left and he must catch the tide so he can join him.
This short scene provides some comic relief but also emphasizes the themes of the play by contrast. The loyalty that Launce shows to his dog contrasts with the loyalty, or lack of it, that will soon be shown by his master to his lady.
Act 2, scene 4
In the palace in Milan, Valentine and Silvia are together with Thurio. Thurio is also a suitor of Silvia’s, but he is a foolish man who has little chance with her. On Speed’s advice, Valentine insults Thurio, mocking him as a fool. Thurio gets angry and implies that he may challenge Valentine to a duel. Silvia calls a halt to their quarrel as the Duke enters. The Duke tells Valentine that Proteus has arrived, and Valentine is full of praise for his friend.
Proteus enters, and Valentine asks Silvia to ensure that he is well entertained. After Silvia is summoned by her father, and exits with Thurio, Valentine and Proteus are left alone to catch up on each other’s news. Valentine asks Proteus about his relationship with Julia, and Proteus replies that he knows Valentine doesn’t really want to hear about such things. Valentine says that all that has changed now. He no longer condemns love, since he has fallen in love himself and is tormented by it. He speaks of his mistress with exaggerated words of praise as a “heavenly saint.” Proteus tries to bring him down to earth, with little luck. What Valentine does not notice, or at least not see the significance of, is that Proteus also speaks of Silvia in highly flattering terms, as an “earthy paragon,” even as he declares that he prefers his own mistress.
Valentine then explains the situation to Proteus. Silvia’s father favors Thurio as a husband for his daughter, only because Thurio is rich. But Valentine says that he and Silvia have agreed to marry and plan to elope. Valentine plans to reach her by climbing a rope ladder to her window. He asks Proteus to go with him to his chambers and advise him. Proteus agrees to help but says he must first sort out his belongings, since he has only just arrived.
After Valentine exits, Proteus speaks a soliloquy in which he confesses that he has fallen in love with Silvia . He has quite forgotten about Julia. He also says that his friendly feelings for Valentine are cooling, since he is in love with Valentine’s lady. He resolves to try and win her.
It appears in this scene that love has shown itself a more powerful force than friendship, at least for Proteus. Having fallen for Silvia, Proteus shows that he is ready to betray his friend Valentine and his lover (Julia) without a twinge of conscience. It also shows that Valentine’s praise of his friend to the Duke (lines 62-74), which includes the lines “He is complete in feature and in mind / With all good grace to be a gentleman,” is badly misplaced.
However, the excesses of romantic love are presented satirically, much as Shakespeare does in many of his comedies, especially As You Like It. Valentine’s praise of Silvia is as exaggerated as Proteus’ earlier praise of Julia. Now it is Valentine who has had to endure the traditional trials of the lover, “With bitter fasts, with penitential groans, / With nightly tears, and daily heart-sore sighs.” In presenting lovers in this way, Shakespeare was drawing on a medieval and Renaissance tradition in which poets declared their passionate love for a usually unobtainable lady, and frequently complained about how cruel their beloved was in spurning them—hence the “nightly tears.”
In his final speech in this scene, Proteus shows he is quite aware of what he is doing, but shows little desire to restrain himself. He is simply carried away by his feelings and cares nothing that he is behaving dishonorably. He is not likely to win the sympathy of the audience with behavior like this, which may well reduce the effectiveness of the inevitable happy ending of the play.