Love versus Friendship
The play explores the dual demands of love and friendship. It poses the questions, Which is the ideal? Which is more important and valuable? The “two gentleman” of Verona are presented at the outset as fast friends. They are probably about the same age and social rank. Valentine refers to his friend in the first scene as “loving Proteus,” and Proteus calls him “sweet Valentine.” Valentine would prefer that Proteus travel with him to Milan, but he accepts that since Proteus is in love with Julia, he will prefer to stay at home. They promise to stay in close touch.
The test is, how will their seemingly ideal friendship stand up, now that Proteus has conceived an overwhelming love for a woman? Valentine thinks that Proteus will make a fool of himself through love, and he is partly correct. But Proteus does more than make a fool of himself; he betrays his friend without remorse when he travels to Milan and falls in love with Silvia, the woman who has also captured the heart of his friend. In his mad desire to possess Silvia, his friendship with Valentine seems to mean nothing to him. He casts it aside almost without a thought; “Valentine I’ll hold an enemy,” he says (Act 2, scene 6, line 29). Proteus deceives his friend and then, after Valentine is exiled, Proteus slanders him to Silvia, who fortunately does not believe a word of what Proteus says. It seems that friendship between men counts for nothing when the forces of passion for the opposite sex are released. But in forfeiting his ideal of friendship, it is clear that Proteus is the loser, because he gives in to the worst elements of his character. He lies and cheats, and ignores his conscience, doing everything he can to acquire the woman who has so aroused his passions. It appears that romantic love may be more powerful than friendship, but it also encourages people, at least men, to depart from their ethical ideals and their responsibilities to their friends, and to themselves.
In the end, however, Proteus is saved from himself by the generosity of Valentine, who has never felt pressure to reject Proteus because he knew nothing of his friend’s disloyalty. When he does finally discover it, in the final scene, he is devastated. He can scarcely believe that his friend could be guilty of such treachery and says that he will never trust him again. It appears as if romantic love has ruined friendship, but then Shakespeare tries to turn things around and reassert the primacy of the friendship ideal. In one dramatic gesture, after Proteus begs for forgiveness, Valentine not only forgives him, he offers him his beloved, Silvia. This sudden turnaround may be hard to believe from a realistic standpoint, but it affirms that Valentine values his friendship with Proteus more highly than he does his love for Silvia.
This conclusion may feel unsatisfactory to the audience, coming as it does so suddenly and in spite of the fact that Proteus hardly deserves such generous treatment. In the end, when Proteus comes to his senses, no choice between love and friendship has to be made, since the two friends can now marry their respective lady loves and remain friends themselves.
In this early play, Shakespeare has attempted a delicate balancing act. He has tried in a few lines in the final scene to affirm the primacy of male friendship, but he has also shown almost throughout the play the devastation that love can wreak on such bonds. Friendship may have survived due to a supreme act of generosity on the part of Valentine, but it may appear to readers and audiences that it is love rather than friendship that presents itself as the irresistible force.