Even though the word “gentlemen” in its title would suggest that this play’s heroes are adults, the play is much more intelligible if we think of them as boys—boys who, as the play opens, are about to leave home on their own for the first time. Their longtime friendship has been dealt a double blow: one of the boys has developed a crush on a girl, though he hasn’t yet told her that he likes her; the other is being sent off by his father to the equivalent of a boys’ finishing school. In the course of the play’s action, both boys make the journey away from home, and both behave in ways that get them in terrible trouble.
Sent to “the Emperor’s court” in order to learn to be “perfect gentlemen”—to practice in “tilts and tournaments,” to learn how to make proper (male) conversation—Valentine and then Proteus are in turn derailed by overwhelming attraction to Sylvia, the ruler’s daughter. Valentine’s characteristic gullibility and mental denseness do not deter Sylvia from returning his love, but these weaknesses do render him incapable of eloping with her without getting caught—and banished. Proteus’ weaknesses—self-centeredness and the capacity for cold treachery—are triggered by his sudden love-at-first-sight desire for Valentine’s girlfriend, a desire which wipes out his former love for Julia and leads him into committing a series of despicable acts that win from Sylvia nothing but scorn and that wound (but do not drive away) Julia, who has pursued him disguised as a boy. When Sylvia follows Valentine into banishment (and into the forest), and Proteus follows Sylvia, and Julia follows Proteus, the stage is set for one of the more disturbing play-endings ever devised by Shakespeare. But the stage is also set for the play’s “gentlemen” to begin to take small steps toward mature manhood.
Lest we not recognize the inner weaknesses that bedevil Valentine and Proteus, Shakespeare provides each with a servant who, either explicitly or by example, points out their failings. Speed is as bright as Valentine is dim, and when Valentine is fortunate enough to have Speed present to explain things to him, he functions not too badly. And Lance is as loving and compassionate as Proteus is callous. Lance’s account of his farewell scene with his family—played out for the audience with the family roles represented by Lance’s left and right shoes, his walking staff, and his dog Crab—is among the funniest scenes in Shakespeare; and Lance’s later account of taking on himself the whippings earned by Crab (almost as funny as the “farewell” scene) comments pointedly, if indirectly and parodically, on Proteus’ failures of loyalty.
It is often hard to know how a modern reader or spectator should respond to this play. The scenes with the outlaws in the forest seem to parody any number of things, though it is hard to say how the scenes would have been perceived by an audience in the 1590s. The disturbing actions in the play’s final scene are hard to reconcile to today’s views of “natural” sexual and social relationships—as Jeffrey Masten explains in his essay. But it helps to view Valentine and Proteus as boys struggling to keep their balance in the face of new and unexpected desires—making terrible errors but, with the help of staunchly loyal girlfriends, coming through to a livable future.