Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu. Think on thy Proteus when thou haply seest Some rare note-worthy object in thy travel. Wish me partaker in thy happiness When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger, If ever danger do environ thee, Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers, For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine. (1.1.11-18)
It's pretty clear from the play's beginning that Valentine and Proteus are devoted friends. As the two bosom buddies say goodbye, Proteus promises to pray for Valentine and says he hopes Valentine will think of him during his travels.
In Shakespeare's day, male friendship was considered one of the most sacred and important bonds. In a famous book published in 1531, Thomas Elyot writes that "he semeth to take the sun from the world, that taketh friendship from man's life" (The Book Named the Governor, 2.11).
VALENTINE I knew him as myself; for from our infancy We have conversed and spent our hours together. (2.4.62-63)
Here, Valentine explains why he and Proteus are so close – the pair have known each other since infancy and have spent their entire lives together. When Proteus says "I know him as myself," he means to suggest that he knows Proteus as well as he knows himself. At the same time, the phrase, "I know him as myself" seems to also suggest that Proteus and Valentine are like two halves of the same being. Valentine seems to be echoing a common sixteenth-century idea made famous by Thomas Elyot's The Book Named the Governor. In Book 2, Chapter 11, Elyot says that friendship makes "two persons one in having and suffering. And therefore a friend is properly named of philosophers the other I. For that in them is but one mind and one possession" (2.11).
This passage from Two Gentlemen of Verona also reminds us of the childhood friendship between Leontes and Polixenes's in Shakespeare's later play, The Winter's Tale. When Polixenes describes his friendship with Leontes, he says they were like "twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun" (Winter's Tale,1.2.10), which is a very sweet way to describe the "innocence" and joy of a carefree childhood friendship between two boys. It also implies that Polixenes and Leontes were so close that they were practically identical ("twinn'd").
PROTEUS Even as one heat another heat expels, Or as one nail by strength drives out another, So the remembrance of my former love Is by a newer object quite forgotten. […] She is fair; and so is Julia that I love—
That I did love, for now my love is thawed; […] Methinks my zeal to Valentine is cold, And that I love him not as I was wont. O, but I love his lady too too much, And that's the reason I love him so little. (2.4.202-205; 209-210; 213-216)
Uh-oh. This is where Proteus tells the audience he's fallen in love with his best friend's girlfriend, which means he's fallen out of love with Julia. He's also lost his "zeal" for Valentine. Notice the way Proteus talks about falling in and out of love as losing "heat" (passion, love, desire, etc.) and going cold? Proteus says his love for Julia has "thawed" and his "zeal to Valentine is cold" (our emphasis). Question: why do you think Proteus uses the same terminology to describe falling out of love with his girlfriend and loving his best friend "so little"?
DUKE What might we do to make the girl forget The love of Valentine and love Sir Thurio? PROTEUS The best way is to slander Valentine With falsehood, cowardice and poor descent, Three things that women highly hold in hate. (3.2.29-33)
Once Proteus loses his "zeal" for Valentine (see above passage), he quickly stabs his friend in the back. At this point, he has not only gotten Valentine kicked out of court (by telling the Duke Valentine planned to elope with Silvia), he's also resorted to "slander" in the hopes that trash talking Valentine to Silvia will help him win her heart.
SILVIA The more shame for him that he sends it me; For I have heard him say a thousand times His Julia gave it him at his departure. Though his false finger have profaned the ring, Mine shall not do his Julia so much wrong. JULIA She thanks you. (4.4.142-147)
As one critic puts it, Shakespeare is definitely interested in "celebrating" male friendship in this play. But, when we read this passage from Two Gentlemen of Verona, we can't help but think that Shakespeare hints that women are capable of friendship too. Here, Silvia refuses to accept the ring Proteus has sent her (by way of Julia, who is disguised as a page boy, "Sebastian"). Silvia insists that she would never do "Julia so much wrong," which gestures at Silvia's capacity for loyalty and solidarity with another woman. (Unlike Proteus, who is busy stabbing his best friend in the back.)
VALENTINE I dare not say I have one friend alive; thou wouldst disprove me. Who should be trusted when one's own right hand Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus, I am sorry I must never trust thee more, But count the world a stranger for thy sake. The private wound is deepest. O time most accursed, 'Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst! (5.4.69-77)
Immediately after Valentine prevents Proteus from raping Silvia, Valentine lays into his friend. The surprising thing is that Valentine doesn't yell at Proteus for being a potential rapist. He yells at him for being such a disloyal friend. Valentine is more upset about not being able to "trust" his pal than he is outraged that Proteus would assault a woman. What's up with that?
My shame and guilt confounds me. Forgive me, Valentine. If hearty sorrow Be a sufficient ransom for offense, I tender 't here. I do as truly suffer As e'er I did commit. (5.4.78-82)
After being caught red-handed trying to rape Silvia, Proteus immediately apologizes…to Valentine. Proteus never expresses remorse for his crime against Silvia. He feels bad because he hurt Valentine's feelings and betrayed his friend's trust. If you think that's bad, keep reading, because it gets even worse.
Then I am paid; And once again I do receive thee honest. Who by repentance is not satisfied Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased; By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased. And, that my love may appear plain and free, All that was mine in Silvia I give thee. (5.4.83-89)
Valentine forgives Proteus for trying to rape Silvia pretty quickly. What's interesting about this passage is the way Valentine seems to offer to "give" Silvia to his friend as a peace offering and a gesture of friendship. Despite Proteus's behavior and despite Valentine's love for Silvia, Valentine prioritizes his friendship with Proteus over all else – especially his girlfriend.
This is similar to what happens in one of Shakespeare's main literary source for his play. In the story of Titus and Gisippus – related first by Boccaccio and later retold in Thomas Elyot's Book of the Governor (1531) – Gisippus gives his best friend, Titus, the woman he is supposed to marry after Titus falls in love with her (Book Named the Governor, 2.12).
DUKE Thou art a gentleman and well derived; Take thou thy Silvia, for thou hast deserved her. VALENTINE I thank your Grace, the gift hath made me happy. I now beseech you, for your daughter's sake, To grant one boom that I shall ask of you. […] These banished men that I have kept withal, Are men endued with worthy qualities. Forgive them what they have committed here And let them be recall'd from their exile: (5.4.158-162; 164-167)
Gosh. Valentine and the Duke sure are buddy-buddy in this passage. We also notice that when the Duke offers to let Valentine marry his daughter, Valentine seems more interested in helping out his new outlaw friends than in celebrating his engagement to Silvia.
Come, Proteus; 'tis your penance but to hear The story of your loves discoverèd. That done, our day of marriage shall be yours. One feast, one house, one mutual happiness. (5.4.183-186)
In the end, Proteus falls back in love with Julia (who takes him back) and Valentine and Silvia are engaged with the Duke's blessing. (This is typical of Shakespearean comedy. At the end of his comedies, Shakespeare always marries someone off, which you can read more about by going to "Genre.") Here, Valentine tells Proteus they should all celebrate by having a double wedding. Does this mean that Valentine's bromance with Proteus is being replaced by his marriage to Silvia? Not necessarily. Valentine says the double wedding will be "one feast, one house, one mutual happiness." "One mutual happiness"? Is Valentine talking about the mutual happiness between husband and wife? Or is he talking about the mutual happiness between him and Proteus?