Act 3, scene 1
At the Duke’s palace in Milan, Proteus warns the Duke that Valentine plans to elope that night with the Duke’s daughter. Proteus says he knows that the Duke plans to bestow his daughter on Thurio, and that it would be very troubling for him if Silvia went off with Valentine instead. The Duke thanks him, and says that he has been aware of the love between Valentine and Silvia . He considered banning Valentine from seeing her, but decided against it because he didn’t want to disgrace him. But he was aware of what might happen, so he keeps the key to Silvia ’s bedroom, thinking that this will keep her secure. Proteus replies that Valentine plans to ascend to her window by means of a rope ladder, and then tells the Duke where to intercept Valentine on his way. Proteus asks that the Duke not tell Valentine how he discovered the plot, and the Duke agrees.
Proteus exits and Valentine enters. The Duke engages him in conversation, saying that he plans to match Silvia with Thurio. Valentine praises Thurio and says it would be a good match. The Duke replies that nothing he can do can persuade her to like Thurio. He is so exasperated by his daughter’s refusal to do what he wants that he plans to marry and turn Silvia out of the palace, thus punishing her for her ingratitude. Valentine asks how he may help, and the Duke asks if he will assist him in courting a certain lady he has his eyes on, but who so far has not responded to his romantic overtures. Valentine tells him to send her a gift, but the Duke replies that he already did that, and she scorned it. Valentine suggests that he send her another one. He says that the lady is playing a courtship game with him, and he should just carry on praising and flattering her. The Duke then confesses that the lady has in fact been promised by her friends to a young, wealthy gentleman, and that it is not possible to get to see her during the daytime. Valentine has the answer: go by night, but the Duke says the doors are locked. Valentine suggests getting in by the window, and when he hears that the window is high, he tells the Duke to use a ladder. The Duke likes this idea, and Valentine says he will get him a rope ladder by seven o’clock that night. He will be able to conceal it under a cloak.
Then things go wrong for Valentine. The Duke reaches out and tries to take Valentine’s cloak, to try it out for size. He discovers that Valentine is carrying a rope ladder, as well as a letter addressed to Silvia. He reads the letter, in which he discovers Valentine’s plan (which of course, thanks to Proteus, he already knows about). He is furious and banishes Valentine from the court, warning of dire consequences if he does not leave immediately.
After the Duke exits, Valentine, alone on stage, bemoans his situation. He regards being banished as worse than death, since he cannot be with Silvia.
Proteus enters with Launce. In answer to Valentine’s question, Proteus says that Silvia has been informed of his banishment. She begged her father to rescind it, but he refused to listen to her and sent her to prison. The Duke also said that if Valentine were captured, he should be put to death.
Proteus advises Valentine to get out of the Duke’s realms and write letters to Silvia. He says that Valentine should send the letters to him, Proteus, and he will pass them on to Silvia. Proteus then says he will accompany Valentine to the city gate.
After the two men exit, Launce reflects on the fact that his master Proteus is a scoundrel. He also confesses that he is in love too—with a milkmaid. Speed enters, and the two servants engage in some banter. Speed examines the written list Launce has made of the virtues and vices of the girl he has fallen in love with.
Few of the characters come out of this scene with much credit. There is so much deceit going on that it is hard to keep track of it. Proteus betrays his friend Valentine by pretending to be more loyal to the Duke, and for some reason the Duke does not question why Proteus should be more loyal to him, whom he has only just met, than to his long-time friend. Proteus by this point, of course, will say anything at all as long as he thinks it will help him get Silvia. Then when Valentine enters, he is full of false praise for his rival Thurio. The Duke then reveals a darker side, too, in his plan to throw Silvia out of the house because he regards her as an ungrateful daughter. His pathetic attempts to win the hand of a younger woman in marriage give Shakespeare, this time through the advice Valentine offers the Duke, yet another opportunity to satirize romantic love and the courtship games men and women play. In Valentine’s eyes, the game consists of the fact that women do not really mean what they say. Valentine seems quite comfortable with the deceits lovers play, and happily advises the Duke that he does not have to be sincere in his feelings, he just has to use the words that will get the result he wants (“Though ne’er so black, say they have angels’ faces”). It is ironic that Valentine’s own deceit in plotting to elope with Silvia is found out by the deceitful stratagem he urges on the Duke, because that is what gives the Duke the opportunity to discover the ladder Valentine is concealing.
Act 3, scene 2
The Duke reassures Thurio that Silvia will love him now that Valentine has been banished, but Thurio replies that she is now more scornful of him than ever. The Duke tries to reassure him, saying that Silvia will soon forget Valentine.
Proteus enters, with the news that Valentine has left the city. The Duke, thinking that Proteus is his friend and ally, asks him for his advice: how can they make Silvia forget Valentine and love Thurio? Proteus replies that the best way would be to slander Valentine, accusing him of cowardice and falsehood. The Duke thinks that she will not believe such charges against Valentine, but Proteus says she will if they are uttered by someone who is known to be Valentine’s friend. The Duke tells him that he must be the one to do it. Proteus hypocritically pretends to be reluctant, but allows himself to be persuaded.
The Duke then points out that even if Silvia ceases to love Valentine, that does not mean she is going to love Thurio. Thurio tells Proteus that he must praise him to Silvia to the same extent that he disparages Valentine.
The Duke tells Proteus that he may have access to Silvia because he, the Duke, knows that Proteus is in love with another lady, so he can be trusted. Proteus then gives Thurio some instructions. He must write some sonnets to Silvia , saying that he sacrifices his heart to her, in order to win her. Then he should go to her window at night with some musicians and sing to her.
They all agree that their plans are good, and set about putting them into practice.
The men continue to demonstrate that their knowledge of female psychology is sadly lacking. Proteus descends even lower in his reprehensible conduct. Having betrayed his friend, he is now prepared to slander him as well. He acts like a scoundrel with no conscience. The dramatic irony is contained in the fact that the audience knows this about Proteus but the Duke and Thurio do not. They both believe that Proteus is an honorable man.
Proteus’s plan for Thurio to win Silvia is another piece of satire about the conventions of love, the idea that the lady can be won by heartfelt sonnets written by her aspiring lover and by being serenaded at her window. Proteus is a sufficiently shrewd assessor of Thurio that he can be confident that this blunderer is not likely to win Silvia’s heart whatever he does, but he needs to keep up the appearance of being helpful. With one rival apparently out of the way, he thinks it will not be long before he is rid of the other one.