The primary theme addressed in Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the conflict between loyalty to friends and submission to passion. While the play ultimately aligns itself with the tradition of espousing one side of the debate (the reestablishment of the friendship between Valentine and Proteus leads to a resolution of the non-platonic relationships), the moral twists and turns that each character takes in order to reach the drama's unlikely conclusion involve a host of other themes. Additionally, by writing a play about friendship versus love, the young bard was entering into a debate with writers who, at the time, were more established than he--namely, Chaucer, Lyly and Francis Bacon. By offering a view that challenged the works of these household names, Shakespeare presented himself as a competitor to the moral and narrative stance proposed by the great writers of his time.
The servants Launce, Speed, and Lucetta act as foils to their respective masters Proteus, Valentine, and Julia. By examining the servants' characteristics and behavior, the reader comes to understand their masters better as well. Launce's pragmatic reasoning about love illuminates the hunger for status and money permeating the aristocrats' staid romances. Lucetta, by advising Julia in the practical matter of disguising herself as a man, demonstrates her knowledge of socially-accepted gender roles. Lucetta understands that while it is expected that a young man will stray from his love, it is socially unacceptable for a young woman to be wanton. Since the higher status characters cannot honestly confront the social influences that guide their choices (and limit their options), the discussion of weighty issues (sexuality, money, class) falls to the servants.
The forest, significant throughout Shakespeare's plays, is important as a setting in which social norms are suspended. As in the fairy-infested thickets of A Midsummer Night's Dream , social status dissolves when characters are plucked from the rigidity of their traditional social settings and transplanted into the ambiguous realm of the forest. Individuals are judged as individuals in this setting, and the breakdown of traditional structure permits the flow of currents of behavior (homosexuality, merit-based social mobility, etc.) that run counter to established norms.
The quick and somewhat puzzling simplicity of The Two Gentlemen of Verona's conclusion allows thematic ambiguities to linger. In Proteus' feeling that Julia, still appearing male, is more attractive than Silvia and Valentine's deep devotion to Proteus, both sexual and gender identities are blurred. Julia's assumption of maleness gives her access to the male world, testing the boundaries of socially-perceived gender roles; that she maintains her outward maleness challenges Elizabethan sexual mores. Likewise, Valentine's willingness to yield his beloved, Silvia, to Proteus, hints at latent homosexual desires. Though Shakespeare resolves the play's outward tensions, he leaves the exploration of deeper issues, which resurface throughout his works, incomplete.