Two Gentlemen of Verona doesn't appear to have much merit. The plot is unlikely, even for a comedy; the motivations of the characters — Proteus, in particular — are so mercurial that an audience finds them hard to accept; and, finally, the ending seems absurdly unexpected, not so much through design, it seems, as through a desire to have done with the plot in a conventional and "satisfactorily" happy manner. Several Shakespearean critics take Shakespeare to task for his "uncertainty of metrical expression," but this matter seems to deal more with Shakespeare's poetics than with his sense of drama and comedy.
On the surface, the plot of this play seems promising, particularly at the beginning: a young man, Valentine, sets out in the world to seek his fortune and to find true love; meanwhile, his best friend, Proteus, remains at home to accomplish the same things. Very soon, however, this premise turns sour. The adventuresome young man falls immediately in love with a woman whom he can never wed because her father has promised her to another suitor. This is standard fare, and it could furnish both bittersweet romance and comedy, particularly if the lovers tried unsuccessfully to rendezvous a number of times. But the play begins seriously to wane as a comedy when Shakespeare metamorphoses the adventuresome young man's best friend, Proteus, into a villain. Originally, one supposes, Shakespeare was interested in the comic possibilities of the many things that might go awry when best friends fall in love with the same woman. This premise is sound. Shakespeare's play, however, fails to amuse us as soon as Proteus eagerly denounces his best friend, an act which results in Valentine's banishment — on threat of death. Moreover, Proteus was once deeply in love, we were led to believe, with Julia. However, when he sets eyes on the beautiful Silvia, he forgets about Julia entirely. Then, at the play's end, we are supposed to forgive this fraudulent cheat and be happy when he realizes that he really does love Julia, a young woman who has somehow managed to remain in love with him all this time.
The beautiful Silvia is not the real stuff of light comedy. Faithlessness, unscrupulous behavior, and fraud make poor comic fare. Then, there is also the business of the banished Valentine being forced, as it were, to play Robin Hood to a band of ill-organized forest brigands.
The critic Quiller-Couch is absolutely convinced that Shakespeare was not responsible for writing the play's ending with a sudden double wedding in the offing. His arguments are convincing. Surely Shakespeare realized that he had created a villain in Proteus; after all, he renounces his best friend, Valentine, and his (allegedly) beloved Julia, and he tries to force Silvia to marry him. In contrast, oddly enough, Shakespeare was wholly successful in his Sonnets (written approximately the same time as this play) when he dealt with the vagaries and the complexities of love and friendship. But in the Sonnets, Shakespeare was being serious. His intent here is quite different; he wants to explore playfully both themes and present their comic aspects. To a large degree, Shakespeare fails; one laughs, but neither with gusto nor joy.
Perhaps the value of this play lies most in Shakespeare's first versions of characters who appear later in his more mature plays. Silvia's having to deal with a suitor whom she does not love and whom her father forces upon her foreshadows Juliet's distress; likewise, Valentine's banishment parallels Romeo's — but those two lovers were key characters in a tragedy. The comic Launce in Two Gentlemen prefigures Launcelot Gobbo (The Merchant of Venice), and Julia's disguising herself as a man in a dramatic convention that Shakespeare will later use with Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica (all in The Merchant of Venice), as well as with Rosalind (As You Like It) and Viola (Twelfth Night). The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, then, ultimately less of a successful comedy than it is an apprentice piece, containing the blueprints for later, more well-rounded characters. Most of all, the mastery which Shakespeare achieves in just a few years, when compared to his handling of this play, helps us to measure his genius.