We can never know for sure what Elizabethan audiences would have made of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but they would almost assuredly have registered the play’s uncanny shifting between dramatic registers. Aristocratic soliloquies couple with staccato comic dialogues, perhaps for the first time; the scene shifts from home to court to woods with whirlwind speed; at two points, the clown Launce literally stops the show by talking to his dog. And I haven’t even mentioned the play’s songs. If scholars are right, and Two Gentlemen is Shakespeare’s earliest play, then he had already mastered the art of giving the people what they want. The play exhausts the possibilities of stage entertainment in the early 1590s, and his later romantic comedies would follow the same structural template.

In fact, Two Gents is probably the first instance of romantic comedy, a genre evolved from the pastoral and romantic traditions of Renaissance literature, and one which Shakespeare would perfect into a new art form. The play is immensely concerned with the dreams and desires of young adults, and unusually so with those of its women, who anticipate the heroines of later Shakespearean comedy. The spirited Julia, who dresses up as a page to pursue the man she loves, foretells the cross-dressing Viola, Rosalind and Imogen. And Silvia, a love object who says little but whose words carry much weight, just as clearly anticipates Much Ado’s Hero and As You Like It’s Celia.

But if the women are the play’s heart, the men are its troubled emotions. Valentine foreshadows no one so much as the true-hearted Romeo, who dies for his romantic passion. And Proteus does not resemble a comic wooer at all. Like his namesake in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he is capable of theatrical transformations, sudden shifts of desire and calculating, self-dramatizing behavior. Proteus has two extended soliloquies in the play, and in them we are drawn uncomfortably close to his scheming and manipulative mind. In fact, he sounds much like one of Shakespeare’s other chameleons, Richard III, who notes in Henry VI Part 3:

            I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school. (3.2.191-3)

When Proteus reasons, “I to my self am dearer than a friend, / For love is most precious in itself” (2.6.23-4), he speaks with the self-justifying rhetoric of a political villain. In the mouth of a comic lover, Shakespeare has planted the words of a murderous Machiavel.

Why would Shakespeare depict such a character in this earliest of plays? If Two Gents was a play written by a very young Shakespeare, then it was a play written about young people. Teenagers. Like all playwrights, Shakespeare was fascinated by metamorphoses, and he had an incredible gift for imaginative empathy. In adolescence, Shakespeare seems to be saying, we are all potential villains. Our bodies change, and with them our minds and our desires become suddenly – and dangerously – protean, chameleonic. We are traitors to our friends, Machiavels to our loves, and most of all we are mysterious to ourselves. Shakespeare’s ability to place himself in the dark recesses of minds such as Proteus and Richard III, and later figures such as Iago and Edmund, is one of the reasons his plays still remain ahead of their audience, fascinating us with a glimpse of unknown desires.

These forbidden desires come into conflict in the last act, which is an exceptionally strange one, unique in the Shakespearean canon. Proteus and Valentine, two childhood friends with an intensely strong bond, come into romantic conflict. And Shakespeare moves them from the backwaters of Verona to the adult world of Milan to the wilderness outside Mantua, plunging them into an evermore chaotic and violent world of adult emotions. In the last scene, the simmering tension between the two gentlemen erupts into acts of intense emotional (and physical) violence. The negotiation of this perilous crux brings the play to its eventually harmonious ending, but the hurt feelings and confused emotions seem to linger long after the play has ended. It is one of the most controversial scenes in theatre history, and there is a long and rich tradition of altering the scene for performance.

The end of the play is Shakespeare’s challenge to Proteus’ adolescent selfishness, and implicitly to the selfishness of adolescence. He forces the character to make a choice about the kind of person he is going to be. It is a difficult ending, and in some senses it is difficult to watch, but it is also misunderstood. The self may be an especially mutable thing in those years before adulthood, but it is shaped, as in this play, through the hardnesses of life.