Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: This is early Shakespeare, lacking profound language. The plot is crude and improbable and the actions of Proteus remarkably inexcusable and preposterous.
Per Bevington: One of the early romantic comedies, uses conventional plot devices of romantic fiction: inconstancy in love and in friendship, elopement, rings, disguises, banishment, etc. Chief sources are possibly "Diana" (a Spanish romance) and Elyot's "The Governor".
Verona. Valentine bids his lifelong friend Proteus goodbye, as he is traveling to Milan to see the wonders of the world. Proteus declines to go too because he is in love with Julia. Valentine has a clownish sassy servant Speed, as does Proteus his Lance. Lance has delivered Proteus' letter to Julia, but chastises his master for the parsimonious tip he receives in return.
Verona, Julia's house. Julia and her waiting-woman Lucetta discuss Julia's suitors, and she most favors Proteus. Lucetta hands his letter to Julia, but she initially declines it, then relents, later tears it up, then puts pieces of it in her bosom.
Verona. Antonio, Proteus' father, talks with his servant Panthino about wanting his son to get a broader education by going to join Valentine at the court of the Duke (or sometimes called the "Emperor") in Milan. He informs Proteus that he must leave immediately.
Milan. Valentine and Speed spar. Valentine is now in love with Sylvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. Speed recites the many humorous signs by which he can tell that Valentine is in love. Sylvia has requested that V. write a letter to one she [!] loves, which V. dutifully gives to her. She toys with him, then gives the letter back to him (i.e., it is a letter to one she loves), leaving V. wondering if she did not like it.
Verona, Julia's house. Proteus says goodbye to Julia, and they exchange rings and protestations of constant love.
Verona street. Lance enters with his dog Crab, griping that he too must go with Proteus to Milan. Panthino urges him to get to the boat (Shakespeare mistakenly assumes that the two cities are separated by a voyage.)
Milan, Duke's Palace. Valentine and his foolish rival for Sylvia's hand, Thurio, spar verbally until Sylvia puts an end to it. The Duke arrives to inform them that Proteus is coming, and Valentine praises his worth. Proteus arrives, and V. tells him of his love for Sylvia and their betrothal and intended elopement. After V. leaves, Proteus soliloquizes on his sudden love for Sylvia, how it has driven out his love for Julia and of V.
Milan street. Speed welcomes Lance to Milan and they discuss the lovers.
Proteus alone. Debates wronging his friend and Julia and excuses himself as acting under the irresistible influence of love. He resolves to inform the Duke secretly of the intended elopement to aid in winning Sylvia.
Verona, Julia' house. She is planning a trip to Milan disguised as a page to see Proteus, and has Lucetta help her prepare the costume. Lucetta has forebodings about the trip and fears what Julia will find there.
Milan, Duke's Palace. Proteus informs the Duke of the elopement plans. He keeps Sylvia in a tower under lock and key, but V. plans to use a rope ladder to bring her down. The Duke vows to turn her out of his house. V. arrives and the Duke appears to confide in him regarding the Duke's own planned liaison, but he tricks V. into recommending using a rope ladder, and finally forces him to reveal the ladder he has concealed under his cloak. He also discovers the letter V. has made out to Sylvia divulging their plans for elopement. He banishes V., who says he might as well die than be banished from her and flees. Lance encounters V. and informs him of the banishment proclamation, which Proteus professes to regret and offers to walk him to the city gate. Lance suspects his master's complicity, then discusses his own lower class love interest with Speed.
The Duke announces the banishment and asks Proteus' counsel in how to get his daughter to forget V. and to love Thurio. Proteus suggests to the Duke that he slander his old friend to Sylvia, and also advises Thurio to write a sonnet for her.
Forest in frontiers of Mantua. Three outlaws accost V., but prove to be banished gentlemen and decide to make V. their leader!
Under Sylvia's window. Proteus arrives with Thurio and musicians for a serenade. Proteus broods that Sylvia has chastised him for his unfaithfulness to V. and to Julia and has rejected his advances. Julia, disguised as a page and accompanied by the Host [of her inn?] watch without being seen. The musician sings "Who is Sylvia?" Julia asks the Host if Proteus frequents Sylvia's lodgings and begins to sense his unfaithfulness. Thurio leaves and Proteus tries to woo Sylvia. But Sylvia spurns him angrily for his deceptions and defends the love of Julia for him. Proteus tries to claim that Julia and V. are dead. Finally he asks her for a portrait of herself so that he may worship her from afar.
Sylvia enlists the help of Sir Eglamour to escape to V.
Lance tried to give his dog Crab to Sylvia (mistaking Proteus' instructions), but the dog urinates on her farthingale and is rejected—Proteus is distressed to hear this recounting. He gives the ring received once from Julia to a boy [Julia] to give to Sylvia. Julia sadly but faithfully delivers the ring to Sylvia, who refuses it, sparking increasing admiration in Julia.
An abbey in Milan. Eglamour meets Sylvia to begin their journey.
Palace. Thurio discusses with Proteus the progress of his suit with Sylvia. The Duke informs them that Sylvia has fled with Eglamour, by chance encountering Friar Laurence in the woods.
The forest on road to Mantua. Sylvia is captured by the outlaws. V. arrives, recognizes Sylvia, and stands in the shadows. Proteus arrives with the disguised Julia and tells Sylvia that he has saved her, but she detests him more than ever. He threatens to rape her, whereupon V. emerges and confronts him. Proteus asks for forgiveness and V. immediately grants it, even offering Sylvia's love to him! Julia swoons. She tries to give the ring to Sylvia as Proteus had recently requested [i.e., the one she had long ago given him] but mistakenly gives instead the one Proteus long ago gave to her. Proteus recognizes the ring and thus Julia, and is amazingly happy to be reunited with her! The Duke accepts V. as worthy of Sylvia and at Valentine's request also forgives the outlaw's banishment. A joint wedding is planned for Valentine and Sylvia, Proteus and Julia.