Act 4, scene 1
In a forest between Milan and Mantua, Valentine and Speed are waylaid by three outlaws who have been terrorizing travelers. The outlaws quiz Valentine about his situation, which he explains to them. But he does not tell the entire truth, saying that he has been banished from Milan because he killed a man in a fair fight, with no treachery. The outlaws appear to be impressed by this story, and by the fact that Valentine speaks several languages, and they try to co-opt him as leader of their outlaw band. They reveal that they are gentlemen who have been banished for various reasons. The first outlaw was banished from Verona for trying to elope with a lady; the second says he was banished from Mantua for killing a man. Again they ask Valentine to be their leader, saying that if he refuses, they will kill him. Valentine accepts their offer, provided they do not attack helpless women or poor people. The outlaws say they would never do such a thing.
This scene reaffirms for the audience the nobility of Valentine’s character. Although he has lost all he had, and is wandering in exile, the outlaws recognize him as a leader and install him as “our commander and our king.” Significantly, this scene is set in a forest. Forests often have special meaning in Shakespeare’s comedies. They represent the “green world” in which truth always emerges and the characters are able to become who they really are, beyond their social guises or disguises. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It is a good example of this technique. Thus Valentine’s status is immediately acknowledged by the outlaws, who turn out also to be gentlemen exiled from cities. In setting this scene in the forest, Shakespeare prepares the audience for the final scene, which also takes place in the forest, in which all the complications finally get unraveled and harmony is restored.
Act 4, scene 2
Proteus, alone on stage, reports that he has slandered Valentine to Silvia, but it has not had the desired effect. Instead, she has accused him of betraying his friend. When he tried to pledge himself to her, she rebuked him for breaking faith with Julia. But the more she spurns him, the greater he loves her.
Under Silvia’s window, Thurio enters with some musicians. Julia, disguised as the page Sebastian, enters at the side and listens to the musicians sing a song in praise of Silvia. The host of the inn where she is staying accompanies her, and he notices that the song makes her sad. She asks if Proteus often visits Silvia. The host replies that he has heard from Proteus’s man Launce that Proteus is in love with Silvia.
After Thurio and the musicians exit, Silvia appears at her window. Proteus has promised Thurio that he will woo Silvia on Thurio’s behalf, but he has no intentions of doing so. But he does not get very far, since Silvia tells him to go away, calling him disloyal and false and telling him to go back to Julia. She despises him. Proteus then resorts to a lie, saying that his former love is dead, a statement that the watching Julia/Sebastian hears. Silvia tells Proteus that even if that is true, it does not excuse Proteus’s disloyalty to his friend.
Proteus responds by telling her that Valentine is dead, too, to which she replies that her love is buried with Valentine. Undeterred, Proteus asks if he may have a picture of her. Silvia agrees to send him one, although she does it without affection.
Proteus and Silvia exit, and Julia/Sebastian laments her sad situation. She also finds out from the host that Proteus is staying at the host’s inn.
Shakespeare touches on themes and plot twists here that will be familiar to those who know his other comedies. The idea that the more spurned a lover is by his beloved, the more he loves her, as happens to Proteus in this scene, is familiar from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is part of Shakespeare’s satire of romantic love, but perhaps also reflects his accurate understanding of the psychology of this turbulent emotion. Romantic love will not obey rational rules, and is, as the characters often reveal by their crazy actions, a kind of madness.
The practice of one character wooing a lady on behalf of another, as Proteus is supposed to do here, is also familiar, since it occurs in Much Ado About Nothing. The disguising of a female character as a boy, as Julia disguises herself here, occurs in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare enjoys exploiting the drama inherent in such disguises, since he can present two characters on stage in situations full of irony and pathos. They are destined to be together, but at the moment, the plot is keeping them far from each other.