Act One of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a short one, just three scenes running a total of less than 400 lines. But in those 400 lines, we meet our main characters, see their personalities and priorities, kick off their story, meet one Gent’s love, and get our first change in plot trajectory.
Act One, Scene One puts us firmly in our city of title, Verona, with our two main characters–the two Gents of the title–in the midst of a conversation (this would be one of those “quieter” openings). Valentine tells his “loving” friend Proteus to stop trying to “persuade” (both I.i.1) Valentine from trying to leave the city, from which he is departing to “see the wonders of the world abroad” (I.i.6). So Valentine is off to see the world; he would love for his friend to come along, but he understands that Proteus is staying behind because he “lov’st” (I.i.9) someone; Valentine, on the other hand, hasn’t yet “to love begin” (I.i.10), and with no such entanglements of the heart, he is off to see the world.
There is some friendly and witty banter between the two on the respective merits of love. For Valentine (remember, he’s the one who’s yet to fall in love), “by love the young and tender wit // Is turned to folly” (I.i.47-48). And when Valentine leaves, Proteus admits to himself (and us) that love for his Julia has “made (him) neglect his studies, lose (his) time, // War with good counsel, set the world at nought” (I.i.67-68). So it seems that Valentine might be right about all this lovey-dovey stuff.
ignore the fact that both Verona and Milan are landlocked cities…
Proteus’ musings, however, are interrupted by the entrance of Speed, Valentine’s clownish servant, who is trailing his master on his way to the harbor for their trip to Milan.
There is some sheep/shepherd wordplay that turns into some bawdiness when Speed refers to Proteus’ love (to whom Speed has delivered a love letter from Proteus… thus causing Speed’s ironic tardiness to his master) as a “laced mutton” (I.i.97), slang for a prostitute, later regarding her as a woman “hard as steel” (I.i.157). Proteus sends the clown on his way, and (alone again) muses on his muse’s response to his letter: “I fear my Julia would not deign my lines, // Receiving them from such a worthless post” (I.i.147-148).
Act One, Scene Two transports us to Proteus’ love Julia, and her waiting lady Lucetta. It appears Julia is quite the hot commodity, as she has many suitors, so many in fact, that she must ask Lucetta to give her opinion of them before she can choose the “worthiest” (I.ii.6). While the other suitors are noted with only passing interest, Proteus is “lovely” (I.ii.19), but also the cause of “folly” (I.ii.15).
this is a recurring motif: love as folly
Lucetta finds Proteus “best” (I.ii.21), but only because of her “woman’s reason: // (She) think(s) him so because (she) think(s) him so” (I.ii.23-24). And while Julia does not share the opinion (“he, of all the rest, hath never moved” her [I.ii.27]), Lucetta thinks that Proteus “best loves” her (I.ii.28).
When Lucetta says that she has accepted a letter to her from Proteus (remember, delivered by Speed), Julia demands that Lucetta return the “wanton lines” (I.ii.42) to their sender, but once Lucetta is gone, Julia immediately rethinks her decision:
And yet I would I had o'erlooked the letter:
It were a shame to call her back again
And pray her to a fault for which I chid her.
Julia does call Lucetta back and takes the letter, but later ends up tearing the letter, only then to piece together the letter, as Lucetta returns again. Julia may not know her own feelings, or if she does, she’s trying to hide her feelings, but her lady Lucetta can see through her: “I see things too, although you judge I wink” (I.ii.139).
Act One, Scene Three takes us to the home of Antonio, Proteus’ father. Antonio decides to send his son on a trip similar to Valentine’s, as “he cannot become a perfect man, // Not being tried and tutored in the world” (I.iii.20-21). In fact, the plan is now to send Proteus to “the emperor” (I.iii.27) of Milan. where “Valentine… attends… his royal court” (I.iii.26-27). When Proteus enters with a letter, he is less than thrilled with the plan, first lying about the contents of the letter (Proteus claims it’s from Valentine), then claiming that he “cannot be so soon provided” (I.iii.72) for a trip to Milan.
When left alone, however, we learn that the letter is from Julia, and that Proteus feared showing his father the letter “lest he should take exception to (Proteus’) love” (I.iii.81). It appears that some time has elapsed since Act One, Scene Three; but more importantly, it seems that Antonio shares the same view of love as Valentine.
At least for now…