Two close friends, the gentlemen of the title, come together to part. Valentine is leaving Verona for Milan to take a position at court; Proteus is staying to be near Julia, his love. However, Proteus’ father decides that his son, too, should broaden his horizons and orders him to accompany Valentine. In a tearful farewell, Proteus pledges Julia his eternal devotion and the two exchange rings.
Valentine had mocked his friend’s “fond desire,” but once in Milan he quickly falls for the Duke’s daughter, Silvia. She returns his love, but the Duke has betrothed her to another, the wealthy, foolish Thurio. Determined to be together, Valentine and Silvia decide to elope. Naturally, Valentine lets his closest friend in on their plans. But Proteus betrays him. Smitten by his first glance of Sylvia, he decides he wants her for himself. And so he gets Valentine banished by secretly informing on him to the Duke.
The shaken Valentine leaves Milan only to be captured by outlaws, who make him their leader. Meanwhile, Julia, having disguised herself as a boy, comes to Milan to be with Proteus. Shocked to see him wooing Sylvia, she becomes his page to keep close to him. Proteus tasks her with delivering his love-tokens to Sylvia—including, unhappily, the ring Julia gave him when they parted. But Sylvia refuses the ring and scorns Proteus’ faithless affection. Indeed, refusing to believe rumors that Valentine is dead, Sylvia escapes Milan to find him.
The Duke and Thurio set out in pursuit, with Proteus and Julia following. Sylvia is captured by Valentine’s band of outlaws, but Proteus rescues her before they can bring her to their leader. Unaware that Valentine has caught up with them and is watching, Proteus presses his suit yet again. When Sylvia rejects him, he tries to rape her. A horrified Valentine intervenes, and Proteus, shame-struck, begs his forgiveness. Valentine not only grants it but also offers to give Sylvia to him. At this point, Julia reveals herself to Proteus. The sight of her rekindles Proteus’ love, which she accepts, as the Duke and Thurio enter. Valentine threatens to kill Thurio if he presses his claim to Sylvia, and the cowardly courtier retreats. Impressed, the Duke offers Valentine his daughter’s hand. Valentine then offers to share his wedding day with Proteus: “one feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”
And Sylvia? From the moment of her attack, she doesn’t say a word.