Shakespeare wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona very early in his career, possibly even before he went to London. It’s a short play full of, for him, early-career clumsiness. The ending is sudden and not very believable, and that’s saying a lot for a writer who once ended a play by having a statue come to life. There is a truly appalling scene involving a near rape followed by the intended victim’s boyfriend offering to give her to the would-be rapist. Give. Like an old coat. Critics have explained that scene as an attempt at comedy, or have said the author intended to emphasize a point he implies everywhere else in the play, that the two male leads are in love with each other. Just calling this a “comedy” is a problem; in later, more serious plays Shakespeare offers much more insight about sexual violence and the question of property vs. personhood. I can only read with modern eyes; scholars also say contemporary audiences might have objected to the rape, but not seen the giveaway as any serious violation of the social code.
But The Two Gentlemen of Verona is also the play where Shakespeare first introduced the cross-dressing woman, the bromance with (probably) benefits, and the forest as a place where class disappears and you’re free to lust in all directions without judgement. So much of what we love Shakespeare for is here in kernel form in this, I’ll just say it, awful play.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Don’t fall in love with your best friend’s girlfriend.”
What happens in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Proteus and Valentine are best friends. Valentine leaves Verona to go to Milan. Proteus stays behind to be with his girlfriend Julia.
Valentine meets Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. The Duke has already arranged for her to marry another man, but she and Valentine fall in love.
Proteus also goes to Milan. He sees Silvia and decides he must have her, despite having exchanged rings with Julia five minutes ago. I may as well point out that Proteus’ name could be interpreted to mean he is a fickle weasel with no concept of loyalty to friend or lover and probably terrible breath.
The Duke banishes Valentine to the forest, where he bluffs his way into a band of thieves and becomes their leader.
Proteus pursues Silvia, who runs away into the forest to be with Valentine and his merry men.
Julia disguises herself as a boy and goes to Milan. The entire cast of a play with Verona in its name is now in Milan. She gets a job as Proteus’ page, where she can keep an eye on him. She learns about his feelings for Silvia. She doesn’t take the news well.
Proteus and Julia-in-disguise find out about the Silvia-Valentine forest adventure. There is some relief for Julia: Silvia is still in love with Valentine and does not seem interested in Proteus. Proteus and Julia-in-disguise “rescue” Silvia from the thieves.
Proteus pushes himself on Silvia more relentlessly than ever and finally threatens to rape her. Valentine intervenes. Proteus is instantly remorseful. Valentine is so overcome by his friend’s remorse that he offers to “give” Silvia to Proteus.
Julia-in-disguise faints. Remember, she is still dressed as a boy. Proteus (remember, to call him a fickle weasel would be an insult to the fickle weasel community) decides he loves Julia after all. One suspects this is related to either the unconscious state or the boyish disguise, because one has concluded by now that the second-burningest love affair in the play is obviously between Valentine and Proteus.
The Duke appears out of nowhere to give Silvia and Valentine his blessing. They get married. Proteus and Julia get married. The audience, and it has a lot of patience because most of the time it likes Shakespeare, departs numbly for the shower.
For more, there’s a nice breakdown of key scenes and famous quotes on the Royal Shakespeare Company site, not to mention a very fetching dog and Patrick Stewart.