With Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t feel that there was any need for a plot summary; this is one of the few stories absolutely everybody knows, whether they’ve seen the play or not and whether they have all the details right or not. The situation is different with The Two Gentlemen of Verona (which, taking a cue from the good folks at Shakespeare in the Ruff, I will call Two Gentlemen or Two Gents or 2 Gents or something of the sort). Two Gents is not very well known even among Shakespeare enthusiasts (I’ve seen three productions, but over a span of about sixteen years), so it’s worth giving a plot summary, even though you could easily find one elsewhere. I’m going to be completely neutral and Cliff’s Note–y in the following. There will be plenty of commentary later.
We open on the titular two gents, Valentine and Proteus, young well-born men in Verona. Valentine is about to be sent to Milan for finishing. Proteus barely notices because he is so in love with his lady, Julia. He barely even notices Valentine’s admonitions about the foolishness of falling in love.
After some extended byplay between Proteus and Valentine’s servant Speed, we move to Julia, whose maid Lucetta transmits a letter from Proteus. Julia is in love with Proteus but plays hard to get—so much so that she tears up the letter without reading it. This conventional strategy backfires when Proteus’s father decides that he too needs finishing, so he should be sent to Verona with his pal Valentine.
In Milan, Valentine and Speed have some more byplay. Silvia has instructed him to write a letter as if by her, to one she loves. Valentine is too dim to realize he is the one for whom the letter is meant, although Speed gets the joke.
Meanwhile, Julia and Proteus part with an exchange of rings “and seal the bargain with a holy kiss” (II.ii.7). So Proteus comes to Verona. Predictably Valentine, despite lecturing Proteus about love in Act I, has fallen for Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. And despite his vows to Julia, Proteus also falls for her as soon as he lays eyes on her. In a soliloquy, he announces that he “will forget that Julia is alive” (II.vi.27) and do whatever it takes to steal Silvia.
Back in Verona, Julia decides that she must reunite with Proteus; since it’s too dangerous for a woman to travel alone, she will disguise herself as a man, becoming the first of Shakespeare’s cross-dressed heroines.
Valentine has foolishly confided in Proteus that he intends to elope with Silvia; Proteus sets his plans into action by spilling the secret to Silvia’s father, the Duke of Milan. The Duke then ambushes Valentine, forces him to confess, and banishes him from Milan. Proteus escorts him to the gates of the city, and returns to outwit his remaining rival, a fellow named Thurio whose dullness has won the Duke’s favor.
Valentine, alone in the woods outside Milan, is accosted by a gang of outlaws who turn out to be “gentlemen,” and accepts their proposal that he lead them.
Meanwhile, back in Milan, Julia has arrived just in time to hear Silvia serenaded by musicians hired by Thurio, after which Proteus makes his play for Silvia, who angrily rejects him. He claims that Julia is dead, something Julia doesn’t take very well since she is present—but she holds her tongue. Not only that, when to get rid of Proteus Silvia promises to give him a picture of herself the next day, Julia agrees to collect it—even though Proteus also gives her a ring to give to Silvia—the very ring Julia gave him when they parted in Verona.
Silvia, like Julia, has resolved to risk the woods to go to her lover. Instead of cross-dressing she brings a chaperone. They are pursued by Proteus and Julia (still disguised) but ambushed by Valentine’s merry band. Thus, when they’re brought to Valentine Shakespeare manages to get all four of the lovers together for the first time—except that Valentine has hidden himself so he can eavesdrop.
He hears Silvia reject Proteus even more vehemently than before, revealing himself only when Proteus tries to rape her. Proteus, abashed, apologizes and Valentine offers Silvia to him (“All that was mine in Silvia I give thee,” V.iv.83). Unsurprisingly, Julia faints at this, revealing herself once she revives. Proteus, even more abashed, switches gears and declares his love for her.
The merry band of outlaws brings in the Duke and Thurio, and a happy ending ensues. The Duke now knights Valentine and blesses his courtship of Silvia (“Thou are a gentleman,” V.iv.144); the merry band are pardoned; the two couples walk off to “one feast, one house; one mutual happiness” (V.iv.171).