Of course, we in the audience know that Proteus’s appeals to Love are as reliable as a straw house in a tornado. Launce, Proteus’s servant, sees well enough what’s afoot: “I am but a fool, look you,” he says, before offering the decidedly unfoolish comment, “and yet I have the wit to think my master is kind of a knave.” But it is less clear to us precisely what makes Proteus’s decision so damnable. It is, after all, easy to mock his pathetic rationalizations while mimicking them in far less dramatic ways in our own lives. We are none of us exempt from the temptation to break faith for the sake of Love. The unmarried teenager hoping to navigate his way successfully into a marriage must discover some reason to make the life-altering commitment to this
person rather than that,
at least if we are going to conduct our erotic attachments any differently than sheep. But how is he to know? There is no easy way to gain the power of telling true love from false; that is what makes love so much fun, and so destructive.
Shakespeare here provides at least one clue: The man who is inconstant cannot be a real lover. Love is faith’s crown, rather than its undoing. That relationship which is begotten through promises and oaths must be brought to its completion by love. There can be no love, no erotic attachment that divorces us from the obligations that we have willingly brought upon us; to love is to do one’s duty with gladness, to delight in being needed by another in such a peculiar way that no other can fulfill it. The depths of our love are not found out in the swearing of oaths—joyful as such ecstatic offerings can be—but in their performance. “Love never fails,” writes Saint Paul, who knows well the treacheries of the heart (1 Corinthians 13:8).
The enduring, constant nature of love is one reason why Proteus’s rationalizations fail so miserably: He gets things exactly backward. He does not gain himself by betraying his friend—he destroys himself. By dissolving those obligations and promises that had marked out his path, Proteus leaves himself bereft of his own past. He becomes homeless and adrift, throwing himself upon the uncertain and unreliable prospect of charming his best friend’s fiancé. It is through “covenants among men,” as theologian Paul Ramsey once described them, that we establish our personal identity in this world. Such relationships make us who we are. We are born into covenants with our parents, and make new ones with our neighbors. In each case, our identity and life consists of mutual obligations, of needing and being needed. Our glad assumption and fulfillment of such covenants expands the self; our biographies are written from the unrepeatable and irreplaceable gifts of ourselves that we offer one another. Proteus is right that his self is at stake in the decision to betray his friend. But he is wrong to say that his self can endure the dissolution of the world which formed it.“The man who is inconstant cannot be a real lover. Love is faith’s crown, rather than its undoing.”
When we break faith with one another, the only path to restoration lies through confessing the dissolution of ourselves that we had willingly undertaken and reversing our course. If we are undone by inconstancy, we are remade through repentance. Proteus’s reversal is admittedly sudden, but it is not less real for it. (In the play, the staging is all: what might seem like but seconds between Valentine’s astonishing judgment and Proteus’s lament may in fact be minutes.) He sees the full weight and tragedy of his betrayal:
My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine: if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender ‘t here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.
The humiliation of Proteus is not yet complete; his betrayed lover Julia will yet unmask herself, heaping coals of shame upon Proteus’s deserving head. Her judgment is also met with honesty by Proteus, who lays bare his fault for the world:
But constant, he were perfect. That one error
Fills him with faults; makes him run through all the sins:
Inconstancy falls off ere it begins.
Proteus’s penitential upheavals are met with forgiveness by both Valentine and Julia, an absolution that comes as suddenly and jarringly as the repentance. Yet the forgiveness is not without grounds, for “who by repentance is not satisfied is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleas’d.” In the truncated economy of the play, there is no extended timeline required to demonstrate penitence is genuine. We are meant to believe it so on the strength of Proteus’s laments and the depth of his self-abnegation. But then, repentance happens in a moment in our time as well. Though prudence may sometimes prompt us to delay the reestablishment of the relationship until we have seen the effects of such penitence, such a transformation is the outworking of a momentary revolution within the will. The humiliation at the heart of repentance takes no time at all.
And, perhaps as importantly, there is no time beyond which such repentance is allowed. Proteus is late: his degeneracy reaches shocking depths before he turns from his ways. But he is not too late, for he yet has breath. As his buffoonish servant Launce says in a moment of genius, “I reckon this, that a man is never undone till he be hanged.”