The Two Gentlemen of Verona opens on a street in Verona as Valentine bids an emotional farewell to his dearest friend, Proteus. Valentine explains to Proteus that he must leave Verona for Milan because he believes that young gentlemen remain simple if they do not venture out to see the world. Proteus responds that his passion for Julia keeps him at home in Verona. Valentine chides Proteus for being so consumed with love, and hints that Proteus' devotion to love will ultimately make him a fool. Proteus promises to pray for his friend, and Valentine departs. Proteus muses that Valentine has set out to find honor, and that Valentine honors his friends by becoming more dignified himself. With melancholy in his voice, Proteus notes that he has abandoned his friends, his studies, and his rational thoughts, all for his love of Julia.
Proteus' mournful thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of Speed, Valentine's punning page. After a long, silly discussion about whether Speed is a sheep and Valentine a shepherd, Proteus asks Speed if he has delivered Proteus' love letter to Julia. More punning ensues, until Speed finally confesses that while he did indeed deliver the letter, he could discern no particular response from Julia since she simply nodded her head when she received the letter. Speed notes that Julia did not tip him for delivering the letter, from which he infers that Julia will be hard and withholding toward Proteus' as well. Proteus angrily sends Speed after Valentine's ship, worrying himself over Julia's cold reception to his love letter.Read a translation of Act I, scene i →
Proteus' musings after Valentine's departure summarize the main issue of The Two Gentlemen of Verona--whether a gentleman should value love or friendship more highly. Valentine, despite the amorous connotations of his name, seems to honor friendship first, whereas Proteus devotes himself to love. This tension between prioritizing either friendship or romantic love persists throughout the play. Many theorists are quick to note the homoerotic tension of Shakespeare's works, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona is certainly subject to such analysis. One can read the emotional farewell of Valentine and Proteus as hinting at a love that exceeds mere friendship; alternatively, one can read their friendship as being so profound as to surpass romantic love, ascending to the level of platonic love so highly-esteemed by the classical Greeks, and by extension, the thinkers of the Renaissance.
The opening act of The Two Gentlemen of Verona also introduces the play's chief flaws. Compared to his later comedies, this early work relies on a paltry number of comedic techniques. Rarely do more than two characters speak at a time, rendering the play a sort of endless duet. The structure is relatively uncomplicated, as the play slides into easy dualisms: love versus friendship, Proteus versus Valentine, and later, Julia versus Silvia. Additionally, with the later introduction of Proteus' own servant Launce, it makes little sense for Proteus to rely on Speed (Valentine's servant) to do his bidding. Critics surmise that Launce was a late addition to the cast, and that the unpolished Shakespeare, working on one of his first forays into drama, was not terribly concerned about introducing him logically.