Wells thinks this is Shakespeare's "first surviving play" (40) partly because of its slightness (e.g., it has the smallest cast list). Bloom declares it "the weakest of all Shakespeare's comedies" (36), at best maybe an "experimental comedy" (Bloom 36), and Goddard acknowledges it "contains some of the most boring 'wit'" (I 42). Asimov even wonders if "the version we now have is a mangled copy of the real play" (465). But this is the play being presented to Queen Elizabeth near the start of Shakespeare in Love, and as Henslowe says of it and its audience, "Comedy. Love and a bit with a dog. That's what they want."
The play contains numerous themes and moments that will remind you of other more famous, and better, Shakespeare plays, to which it serves in some ways as a "limping forerunner" (Anne Barton in the Riverside introduction 177). In this respect, it is "an anthology of bits and pieces waiting to be crafted into more compelling drama (Garber 43). Julia, for example, seems to be the first instance we have of Shakespeare putting a female character in male disguise. But the "orchestration" of these themes is crude at this stage (Barton 178).
The closest source of the play seems to be Diana Enamorada, written in Spanish by the Portuguese Jorge de Montemayor in 1542 but not translated into English until 1598 (Asimov 465). The Felix and Felismena story had other incarnations, such as Felix and Philiomena (1585) and in Part I of Don Quixote in which the Valentine character is named Cardenio (Barton 178). The friendship theme, or friendship vs. love, could be found in the Palamon and Arcite stories, and perhaps Damon and Pithias (credited to Richard Edwards in 1565) was an influence (Barton 178).
In Oxfordian studies, although the elder Ogburns favor an early 1570s date (Ogburn and Ogburn 971), Eva Turner Clark considers the play from the late 1570s and reads it as a loose allegory to the state of affairs between Queen Elizabeth (Silvia) and the Duke of Alençon (Valentine) with Verona representing Paris, Milan as London, and Mantua as Flanders. Proteus she reads as envoy Simier, who was to conduct marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and Alençon but began wooing her himself. Speed, she says, is Christopher Hatton, but Thurio is more likely, I'd say. (Speed is too sharp.) There's another Oxfordian speculation that the title translates into Two Gentlemen of Ver-Ona, or The Two Gentlemen from One Vere (Ogburn and Ogburn 222, 979; Ogburn 521), a psycholiterary notion that may begin to explain the bizarre features of the last scene.
Even orthodox critics detect phases of revision (Barton 177), which makes Oxfordian sense. The admitted "lyrical grace" (Wells 41) of the play would "suggest that it was the work of a man still more at home with narrative or lyrical verse than with drama" (Barton 178). Wells praises this "appealing verse, passages of which would be entirely at home in the poetical anthologies of the period" (Wells 41) -- perhaps, for example, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres.
The setting is Verona in north-central Italy. Valentine wants his longtime friend Proteus (consider the implications of the names) to travel with him to Milan, "To see the wonders of the world abroad / [Rather] Than (living dully sluggardiz'd at home) / Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness" (I.i.6-8). [This is all very much the de Vere theme of the 1570s (Farina 26).] But Proteus is in love and wants to stay in Verona. The two exchange wit about drowning and pun on the word "boots." Valentine is skeptical about love:
Even so by love the young and tender witThat Valentine refers to being immediately "shipp'd" (I.i.54) has caused critics to insist that Shakespeare is ignorant of or reckless with Italian geographical details: how can Valentine take a sea-voyage from Verona to Milan when both are inland cities? Ogburn speculates that "Valentine's being shipped from Verona harks back to the dramatist's own embarkation from one Italian port to another, perhaps to an original conception of the play, before Verona was decided on" (308). But even Asimov acknowledges that the Adige river would have sufficed (467), and Farina reminds us of the significant inland waterways and canals making intercity travel not only possible but common (27).
Is turn'd to folly, blasting in the bud,
Losing his verdure, even in the prime,
And all the fair effects of future hopes.
Proteus remains committed to love, not adventures or "honor" (I.i.63), and he anticipates Valentine, a mocker of love (despite his name), will be smitten at some point. It seems as if we are expected to take a "sympathetic if slightly patronizing interest" in these two (Wells 41). "These young men are at a crucial stage of life, the stage at which the demands of love are beginning to take precedence over youthful camaraderie" (Wells 40). So the play begins just barely with the "paradisal twinship prior to differentiation" (Garber 44). Valentine departs and Proteus notes to himself that Julia has "metamorphis'd" him (I.i.66). [The rare word is "reminiscent" of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the first English translation of which was managed by Oxford's uncle, Arthur Golding (Clark 307).]
Valentine's servant, the cheeky Speed, banters with Proteus a while about sheephood. [Use of the terms "sheep" and "mutton" call to mind Sir Christopher Hatton -- these were Elizabeth's nicknames for him (Clark 305-306; Ogburn and Ogburn 226).] The casting of a young, pathologically cheery boy on the part of the BBC production is ill-advised, considering Speed's occasionally bawdy jokes (e.g., I.i.79f) and the drinking alluded to later. Proteus had sent Speed on an errand to deliver a love letter to Julia, but Speed has received a cold reaction and irks Proteus with punning and chop-logic. Speed is a "trifler and trickster with words" which quickly grows tiresome (Goddard, I 44), as it seems Shakespeare himself eventually will feel too. Proteus dismisses Speed: "Go, go, be gone, to save your ship from wrack, / Which cannot perish having thee aboard, / Being destin'd to a drier death on shore" (I.i.148-150). The notion is proverbial and occurs in The Tempest too.
Julia discusses with her waiting-woman Lucetta the advisability of love. [The two seem like cutesy prototypes of Portia and Nerissa from The Merchant of Venice, or Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and the elder Ogburns think that intervening events in the late 1570s shifted de Vere's attentions from this play to the early version of The Merchant of Venice (Ogburn and Ogburn 229).] Lucetta thinks Julia's suitor Sir Eglamour is okay, and Mercatio is rich, but Proteus is best. Much of this dialogue occurs in rhyming verse:
Julia: They do not love that do not show their love.Julia, feigning haughty indifference, acts alternately irritated and sympathetic about Proteus' letter (which we were led to believe he had delivered directly to her: another example of botched revision?). After some intelligent musical wordplay, Julia tears up the letter, then immediately regrets it: "O hateful hands, to tear such loving words!" (I.ii.102). She examines fragments with amusingly sentimental anthropomorphism, so that it is as if love text has come to life: much like this play itself. Lucetta calls Julia off to dinner.
Lucetta: O, they love least that let men know their love.
Proteus' father, Antonio, listens to his servant Panthino explain that Antonio's brother (Valentine's father) is surprised that Antonio has Proteus remain home "While other men, of slender reputation, / Put forth their sons to seek preferment out" (I.iii.6-7). The term "importune" occurs a couple times (I.iii.13, 17), suggesting that Oxford is thinking of a poem echoed later in the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 973). Antonio agrees that Proteus should join Valentine at the court of the "Emperor" in Milan -- he'll be a Duke later; aristocratic titles are "hazy" at this point (Wells 40). (This is also another de Vere advertisement for travel.) Proteus arrives in a love-fog with a letter from Julia: "Here is her hand, the agent of her heart" (I.iii.46) -- a line prefiguring something similar in Much Ado About Nothing. Proteus tells Antonio the letter is actually from Valentine; nevertheless, Antonio decides Proteus must prepare to go abroad. Proteus reflects briefly on his plight.