The scene is Verona, where two well-born young friends, Valentine and Proteus, are taking leave of one another. "He after honour hunts, I after love" says Proteus, once Valentine has departed for Milan. The latter's efforts to persuade his friend to travel abroad with him have failed. He warned of love's caprices: "One fading moment's mirth [is bought]/With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights," and Proteus countered that love has a way of capturing even its cleverest detractors:
Yet writers say, as in the sweetest bud
The eating canker [worm] dwells, so eating love Inhabits in the finest wits of all. (42–44)
Proteus had sent Valentine's "clownish servant" to deliver a missive to his love, Julia, which Speed, as he is called, now reports on. The two banter for a short time before Proteus learns that his mistress acted "as hard as steel." "Henceforth carry your letters yourself," the irritated servant exclaims as he exits.
The first scene prepares a very conventional thematic contrast, one between the young man who boasts of his independence and seeks adventure as his "future hope," and the one who is hopelessly in love. Further, the background for a conflict between friendship and love is provided. Shakespeare was, no doubt, aware of numerous contemporary Romances, many adapted from Italian sources, which dealt with similar themes and materials. The conflict between loyalties of kinship, friendship, and love preoccupied him elsewhere too, notably in his sonnets and in another "Verona" play, Romeo and Juliet. Important in the opening dialogue is the tone of cheerful antagonism, two good friends "twitting' one another, rather than any serious debating between the two.
Shakespeare dramatically demonstrates Proteus's frustration by having Speed draw out the anxiously awaited "news" from Julia. By the end of the scene, Proteus bids him to be hanged ("destined to a drier death") for "failing" in his role as go-between. Typical of the exchanges between the two is the following, which draws on the stock "sylvan" imagery of Romantic tales for its comedy:
Speed: The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the
sheep the shepherd; but I seek my master, and
my master seeks not me. Therefore I am no
Proteus: The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the
shepherd for food follows not the sheep; thou
for wages followest thy master; thy master for
wages follows not thee. Therefore thou art a
Speed: Such another proof will make me cry "baa." (89–96)