Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788
Act I The historical period in which the dramatic action occurs is not specified—it may be the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The first act takes place in the Italian city of Verona. As the play begins, two young men—close friends since childhood— are bidding each other farewell. One of them,...
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The historical period in which the dramatic action occurs is not specified—it may be the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The first act takes place in the Italian city of Verona. As the play begins, two young men—close friends since childhood— are bidding each other farewell. One of them, Valentine, is about to leave for Milan, to learn the sophisticated ways of courtly society. He says he regrets that his friend Proteus will not be going with him, though he understands that love keeps him in Verona. The setting shifts to a garden outside a villa, where Julia, the object of Proteus's love, is talking with her maid Lucetta. When Lucetta tries to give her mistress a letter from Proteus, Julia pretends to be outraged by her maid's boldness and sends Lucetta away. Immediately regretting this, she calls her back. When Lucetta gives her the letter, Julia takes one look at it, then tears it into pieces and sends Lucetta away again. Julia picks up some of the pieces from the ground where she has thrown them and reads the words written on the fragments, treating each scrap with passionate tenderness. The scene shifts once again, this time to an unspecified location, where Proteus's father Antonio and Antonio's servant Panthino are deep in conversation. In the course of their talk, Antonio decides that Proteus ought to be traveling or studying at a university instead of remaining at home, and he resolves to send Proteus to Milan the very next day. Proteus enters, reading a letter from Julia. He pretends to his father that it's from Valentine, urging him to come to Milan. Antonio tells Proteus that's precisely what he wants him to do and that he should prepare to leave immediately.
At the duke of Milan's palace, Valentine's young page Speed makes fun of his master, telling him that he shows all the signs of being madly in love with Silvia—the duke's daughter. Silvia joins them presently, and Valentine gives her a love letter she has commissioned him to write, on her behalf, to someone she loves but will not name. Silvia hands the letter back to Valentine, telling him the words "are for you" (II.i.127). He fails to understand, but when Silvia leaves, Speed explains to him that Silvia was expressing her love indirectly by having Valentine write a letter to himself. Back in Verona, Proteus and Julia meet briefly as he is about to set off for Milan. They exchange rings in token of the constancy of their love for each other. On a street in Verona, Proteus's servant Launce appears, weeping and leading his large dog Crab. Launce describes to himself the heart-rending scene that took place when he parted from his family; everyone was grief-stricken except Crab, who, to Launce's disgust, shed not one tear. Panthino appears and drags Launce away to the ship that will take him and his master to Milan. Sometime later, at his palace in Milan, the duke announces to Valentine, Silvia, and Sir Thurio—one of Silvia's suitors—that Proteus has arrived. Valentine introduces Proteus to Silvia, who welcomes him to her father's house. When they are alone, Valentine, tells Proteus that he's in love with Silvia and that they're engaged to be married. Unfortunately, explains Valentine, her father wants her to marry Thurio, so the young couple has made plans to elope. When Valentine leaves, Proteus reveals in a soliloquy that he is now in love with Silvia himself. On the day that has been fixed for the elopement, Proteus speaks in another soliloquy of his intention to warn the duke about Valentine and Silvia's plans. Back in Verona, Julia tells Lucetta that she intends to travel to Milan to be with Proteus. She asks her maid to help her put together a masculine disguise to wear on the journey.
In Milan, Proteus tells the duke about the elopement, including the fact that Valentine will use a cord ladder to carry Silvia away from her chamber in a tower. Valentine enters, and Proteus leaves. The duke, a widower, invents a story about a woman he loves and wants to marry. He leads the unsuspecting Valentine to give him advice about how to court her and gain admittance to her room, which, he says, is high above the ground. The duke removes Valentine's cloak and finds a letter to Silvia and the cord ladder Valentine means to use for the elopement. The duke rages at Valentine and orders him to leave Milan at once. Proteus and Launce come upon the grieving Valentine. Proteus tells him that Silvia has heard of his banishment and pleaded with her father to change his mind. The duke is so angry with her, Proteus reports, that he has made her a virtual prisoner in her chamber. Proteus offers to accompany Valentine to the north gate of the city, and they depart, ordering Launce to find Speed and tell him where they're headed so he can meet them there. However, when Speed appears, Launce draws him into an extended conversation about a woman he is thinking of marrying. When he finally gives Speed the message from Valentine, the boy races off. Back at the palace, the duke assures Thurio that now, with Valentine banished, Silvia will bestow her affections on him. Proteus joins them, and the duke asks him to assist Thurio in courting Silvia. Proteus advises Thurio to gather a consort of musicians together and serenade Silvia outside her chamber window. Thurio regards this as excellent advice. He says he has already written a sonnet that will serve the purpose, and he and Proteus go off to find musicians to provide an accompaniment for it.
In a forest somewhere between Milan and Mantua, Valentine and Speed encounter a band of outlaws, who threaten to rob them. Valentine explains that he has no money with him. He tells them he was banished from Milan for killing a man. Impressed by Valentine's appearance, and by his claim to be able to speak foreign languages, the outlaws ask him to be their leader. Given the choice between accepting the offer or being killed if he doesn't, Valentine agrees. Back in Milan, Julia, disguised as a page, has found lodging at an inn. She asks the innkeeper to take her to Proteus, and he leads her to the place outside the ducal palace where Thurio's serenade to' Silvia is about to begin. During the song—which is usually sung by the actor playing Proteus, though the text does not specify who the singer should be—Julia learns from the innkeeper that Proteus is reported to be in love with Silvia. The serenade over, Thurio and the musicians depart. As Julia stands hidden nearby, Proteus woos Silvia, but she rejects his suit and calls him a traitor to love. Proteus admits that he did once love another woman, but, he lies, she is dead. When Silvia reminds him that he's betraying his friendship with Valentine by courting her, Proteus says he's also heard that Valentine is dead. He begs her for a picture of herself, and she agrees, telling him to send a servant for it the next morning.
Early the following day, a courtier named Sir Eglamour arrives beneath Silvia's window, as she has asked him to do. She tells him that she means to follow Valentine into banishment and asks Eglamour if he will accompany her for protection. He agrees, and they arrange to meet that evening at the cell of a cleric, Friar Patrick. Sometime after Eglamour leaves, Launce appears, relating his disastrous attempt to deliver Crab as a present from Proteus to Silvia. He reports that the dog stole a chicken leg from Silvia's plate, farted under the table, and urinated on Silvia's dress. Proteus enters with Julia, still disguised as a page; she has introduced herself to Proteus as Sebastian, a young man seeking employment. Proteus is outraged to learn that Launce has lost the dog he bought for Silvia—a small, elegant one—and tried to replace it with the hulking Crab. He dismisses Launce and employs Julia in his place. He tells Julia to fetch the picture Silvia has promised him. Pulling from his finger the ring she gave him when he left Verona, Proteus instructs Sebastian/Julia to present it to Silvia. Proteus leaves, and Silvia enters. Silvia is unaware that the messenger from Proteus is Julia, but she will have neither the ring nor the letter he has sent along with it. Together, the two young women lament Proteus's inconstancy and Julia's unhappy fate.
At sunset, Eglamour meets Silvia at Friar Patrick's cell near the city walls, and together they leave the city. Back at the duke's palace, Proteus and Sebastian/Julia are jesting with Thurio when they are joined by the duke. He reports that a cleric, Friar Laurence, has encountered Silvia and Eglamour in the forest. Realizing that Silvia is on her way to find Valentine, the duke asks them to help him recover his daughter. In the forest, Silvia is captured by the outlaws, who report that her companion ran away so fast they were unable to catch him. In another part of the forest, Valentine hears people approaching and steps aside so they won't see him. Proteus appears, with Silvia and Sebastian/Julia. As Valentine listens, Proteus—who has rescued Silvia from the outlaws—renews his courtship of Silvia, but she continues to rebuff him. Proteus declares he will force her to love him and moves toward her menacingly, as if he means to rape her. Valentine intervenes and denounces Proteus as a traitorous friend. Proteus says he is overwhelmed by shame and guilt. Valentine forgives him and, as a sign that he regards Proteus as truly penitent, he offers to give Silvia to him. Julia faints. As they revive her, she shows them a ring. Proteus recognizes that it's the one he gave Julia when he left Verona, and the supposed page reveals her true identity. Declaring that man's greatest fault is inconstancy, Proteus turns to Julia, and they join hands. The outlaws suddenly appear, with the duke and Thurio as their prisoners. Seeing Silvia, Thurio asserts his claim to her, but quickly withdraws it when Valentine threatens to kill him. The duke declares that he's content to have Valentine as a son-in-law, and he revokes the banishment. Valentine calls for one more act of forgiveness: the outlaws, he says, are reformed and ready to return to society. The duke pardons every one of them, and the entire party sets off for Milan, where, Valentine predicts, they will celebrate two marriages and the prospect of mutual happiness.