PROTEUS Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me, Made me neglect my studies, lose my time, War with good counsel, set the world at nought; Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought. (1.1.68-71)
From the play's beginning, it seems that male-female relationships are never any good. Here, Proteus says that his love for Julia has transformed him, and not in a positive way.
JULIA What fool is she that knows I am a maid And would not force the letter to my view, Since maids in modesty say 'no' to that Which they would have the profferer construe 'ay'! (1.2.56-59)
After Julia refuses Proteus's letter, she reasons that it would be immodest and improper of her to accept the love note. While Julia worries a lot about what's considered proper or improper behavior for a young woman, she will later throw caution to the wind by disguising herself as a boy and travelling to Milan to find Proteus.
PANTINO He wondered that your lordship Would suffer him to spend his youth at home While other men, of slender reputation, Put forth their sons to seek preferment out: Some to the wars to try their fortune there, Some to discover islands far away, Some to the studious universities. For any or for all these exercises He said that Proteus your son was meet, And did request me to importune you To let him spend his time no more at home, Which would be great impeachment to his age In having known no travel in his youth. (1.3.5-17)
Panthino advises Antonio that he should send Proteus to travel abroad like all the other young men from noble families. The idea is that travel will help round off a young man's education and make him a better person. This, of course, applies only to young men. Keep reading….
LUCETTA Madam, dinner is ready, and your father stays. (1.2.137)
In the previous passage, we saw how young noblemen are expected to travel the world in order to become well-rounded individuals. This theory does not apply to young women, who are expected to remain at home. When Lucetta informs Julia that her father has called her to dinner, this becomes even more apparent – Julia is called to the table while Proteus is sent abroad. But, Julia doesn't just sit around the house in the play. As we know, she dons a disguise and travels to Milan, which is a pretty gutsy thing for her to do.
VALENTINE I mean that her beauty is exquisite, but her favor infinite. SPEED That's because the one is painted and the other out of all count. (2.1.54-57)
According to Speed, the only reason Silvia looks like a "beauty" is because she covers her face with a "painted" mask. Speed's nasty little jab at women who wear makeup seems to suggest that all women who wear cosmetics are deceitful. The thing is, however, Silvia is most definitely not a deceitful woman. (Unless we count the part where she plans to elope with Valentine.) In fact, she remains loyal and true to Valentine throughout the play, despite Proteus's attempts to lure her away.
Brain Snack: We see Speed's attitude toward women and cosmetics in other plays like Hamlet, where, for example, King Claudius compares his "painted word[s]" (every lie he tells) to the way a "harlot" "plasters" her face with makeup:
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art, Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it Than is my deed to my most painted word: (3.1.4)
PROTEUS Sir Valentine my friend This night intends to steal away your daughter; Myself am one made privy to the plot. I know you have determined to bestow her On Thurio, whom your gentle daughter hates, And should she thus be stol'n away from you, It would be much vexation to your age. (3.1.10-16)
When Proteus tattles to the Duke that Silvia and Valentine plan to elope, he uses the language of theft to get Silvia's dad riled up. Valentine, he says, is going to "steal" the Duke's daughter, which suggests that young women are their fathers' possessions. We see also this kind of attitude in plays like Othello, where Iago tells Brabantio that he has been "robb'd" by a thief after Othello and Desdemona (Brabantio's daughter) elope (Othello, 1.1.7).
SPEED Item, She is slow in words. LANCE O villain, that set this down among her vices! To be slow in words is a woman's only virtue. I pray thee, out with 't, and place it for her chief virtue. (3.1.334-337)
When Speed helps Lance compose a list of Lance's girlfriend's virtues and vices, they argue about whether or not her "slowness in words" should be listed as a "vice" or a "virtue." This joke revolves around a common sixteenth-century belief – the so-called ideal woman was supposed to be virtuous, obedient, and silent.
JULIA, as Sebastian Madam, he sends your Ladyship this ring. She offers Silvia a ring.
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. (4.4.141-147)
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).
THURIO Why, this it is to be a peevish girl That flies her fortune when it follows her. I'll after, more to be revenged on Eglamour Than for the love of reckless Silvia. (5.3.51-54)
Hmm. Apparently, Thurio isn't attracted to Silvia's free spirit and willful nature. Here, he decides that her "peevish" nature prevents her from being wife material.
VALENTINE All that was mine in Silvia I give thee. (5.4.89)
Did Valentine just say what we think he said? For a lot of readers and literary critics, this line means that Valentine is offering to "give" Silvia to his friend (who just tried to rape her) as a peace offering that will secure Valentine's friendship with Proteus.
Some critics, however, have read the lines a bit differently and argue that Shakespeare is trying to reconcile the tension between male friendship and male-female romance. For these critics, Valentine means to say something like "all the love I feel for Silvia, I give to thee, too." In other words, Valentine could be saying that he will love his friend and girlfriend equally.
When it comes down to it, the lines are pretty ambiguous. If we were hoping for Proteus's response to Valentine's offer to clear up the meaning for us, we're out of luck, because Proteus never responds to this line – that's because Julia/Sebastian faints and turns everybody's attention elsewhere.
PROTEUS What is in Silvia's face but I may spy More fresh in Julia's, with a constant eye? (5.4.124-125)
Here, Proteus reveals that he's fallen back in love with Julia, who is still disguised as "Sebastian." For some readers, Proteus's renewed attraction to Julia raises questions about what it is, exactly, that Proteus is attracted to. He obviously recognizes Julia through the disguise, but it's not clear if Proteus is attracted to her because she looks like Julia, or because she looks like a boy. This moment also reminds us of the fact that the name "Sebastian" is commonly associated with male homoeroticism (as it is in Twelfth Night). Compare this passage to the ending of Twelfth Night, where Duke Orsino proposes to Viola (who is still wearing her "Cesario" disguise).