For many audiences this play is one of the least satisfying in the Shakespearean canon. The key problem is character development, for neither hero is especially attractive, and one, Proteus, conducts a series of machinations that completely antagonize us. Even more problematical, his instantaneous apology at the end and Valentine's equally quick acceptance of that turnabout are, to many, dramatically unconvincing. The major question in analyzing this work is whether these difficulties are intrinsic to a unified vision on the playwright's part. The primary source of the play is the episode of Felix and Felismena in the pastoral romance Diana Enamorada ( 1542) by the Portuguese author Montemayor.
The opening scene presents two conventional Renaissance youths about to go separate ways. Valentine is preparing to depart from his home city, hoping to learn more of life: "To see the wonders of the world abroad . . ." (I, i, 6). He has tried to persuade his friend Proteus to join this excursion, but the latter is in love and unwilling to leave. Proteus adds that he will be with Valentine in spirit: "thy beadsman" (I, ii, 18). Valentine gently mocks Proteus's stereotypical infatuation:
To be in love -- where scorn is bought with groans; Coy looks with heart-sore sighs; one fading moment's mirth With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights: If happ'ly won, perhaps a hapless gain; If lost, why then a grevious labor won; However -- but a folly bought with wit, Or else a wit by folly vanquished. (I, i, 29-35)
A moment later he adds:
But wherefore waste I time to counsel thee That art a votary to fond desire? (I, i, 51-52)
Proteus has his own interpretation of their respective attitudes. Of Valentine he comments: