Act 5 is where Two Gentlemen comes together, or falls apart, or both. First, let’s recap what leads up to the ending. Silvia, disgusted by Proteus and Milan, has decided to flee to the very forest where Valentine has become the leader of a merry band of outlaws (who are a little too reminiscent of Monty Python’s Dennis More and company to take seriously, and who describe themselves as “gentlemen,” 4.1.43). She does so in the very brief 5.1. In 5.2, learning that Silvia has fled, the enraged Duke pursues her into the forest, dragging Proteus and Thurio with him, as Julia tags along (“And I will follow, more to cross that love/Than hate for Silvia, that is gone for love,” 5.2.53–54). Note how Shakespeare has arranged things so that everybody except the servants and Crab will soon end up in the same place. Actually, you can’t help but notice it; it’s that crudely done.
Silvia is captured by the bandits in 5.3 (as are Proteus and Julia, offstage). They take her to “our captain’s cave” (12), at which prospect Silvia interjects “O Valentine, this I endure for thee!” (15). Valentine hides himself as the little party, now including Proteus and Julia, approaches. So he is eavesdropping on the following scene (5.4). Remember, he sees and hears it all.
Proteus brazenly comes on again to Silvia (“Unhappy were you, madam, ere I came/But by my coming I have made you happy,” 5.4.29–30), only to meet another vehement rejection:
Had I been seized by a hungry lion,
I would have been a breakfast to the beast
Rather than have false Proteus rescue me.
. . .
I do detest false perjured Proteus.
Therefore be gone, solicit me no more.
But not only does Proteus not take no for an answer, he thinks that no means yes:
Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form,
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love—force ye.
SILVIA. O heaven!
PROTEUS. I’ll force thee yield to my desire.
Let’s pause for a moment and be absolutely clear about what just happened. Proteus, that gentleman of Verona, has just tried to rape the woman he says he loves.
I’m ashamed to acknowledge that we live in a world where this really happens. Rape is all too real and too prevalent (though even once is too often.) But in late 2014, at least we can say that it is a crime, however underreported and underprosecuted. And that morally a rapist or attempted rapist like Proteus places himself beyond the pale. Not only can we not approve of his act, we can no longer approve of him. We especially can’t regard him as anything like the hero of this play or as deserving anything other than punishment for what he’s done.
Note also that a play that has at best skirted the edge of frivolity for its entire length suddenly lurches into brutal reality. A play with a rapist as one of its comic heroes is—to say the very least—extremely problematic. It is no longer a comedy. We cannot laugh at what Proteus has done.
So what happens next? Valentine finally decides that the time is ripe to reveal himself, and denounces Proteus savagely. Not because he tried to rape a woman. No, Valentine is miffed that Proteus has betrayed their friendship:
Thou common friend, that’s without faith or love,
For such is a friend now! Treacherous man!
Thou hast beguiled my hopes. Naught but mine eye
Could have persuaded me. Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou wouldst disprove me.
Who should be trusted, when one’s 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 accurst,
‘Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!
I’ve quoted this whole speech to show you that there’s not a word about Silvia. But then, why should there be? She’s property, as will be underlined later. This is between the two gents, and it’s pure bromance. Proteus responds with the abasement appropriate to an offending bro:
My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine; if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender‘t here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.
We can wonder, and many have, whether Proteus is even sincere, but he certainly gets the response he wants—the passage that has caused more dropped jaws than any other in Shakespeare:
VALENTINE. 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 th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.