Michael J. Cummings...©
queens bear a sad tale to Theseus, Duke of Athens:
Creon, ruler of Thebes, has killed their husbands. Furthermore, he refuses
them a decent cremation to "urn their ashes." With Theseus are his Amazon
bride, Hippolyta, and her sister, Emilia. All three sympathize with the
queens, and Theseus vows vengeance. When war clouds gray the sky, they
disrupt the lives of two noble kinsmen, Arcite and Palamon, the very best
of friends. Although they are cousins of Creon, they loathe him passionately.
Creon is bad news. Nevertheless, when Creon calls them to arms to fight
the forces of Theseus, they bow to honor and duty and take up arms. Theseus
wins the war, and the three queens get to incinerate their husbands. After
the battle, Theseus reports that two enemy soldiers~ez_ndash~Arcite and Palamon~ez_ndash~fought
with great valor and ferocity.
th' helm of Mars, I saw them in the war,
to a pair of lions smear'd with prey,
lanes in troops aghast. . . .
orders his best surgeons to tend to their wounds, declaring, "Their lives
concern us much more than Thebes is worth." Nevertheless, because they
are enemies, he jails them. At the prison, the jailer's daughter casts
a roving eye upon Arcite and Palamon, who ripple with youthful good looks,
and says, "It is a holiday to look on them." While keeping company with
the walls of their cell, the two
men remain in good cheer~ez_ndash~until they espy Theseus' sister, Emily, in a garden
below their cell window. She is the vision of visions, with enough beauty
to blind the sun. Both men fall in love with her at first sight, then commence
fighting over her. "I saw her first," Palamon says. When Arcite stakes
his claim, their friendship disintegrates, and Palamon threatens to brain
Arcite with his shackles. Before they come to blows, the jailer hauls Arcite
off to the duke, who banishes him from Athens. Palamon remains behind in
the cell. While in exile in a forest near Athens, Arcite keeps thinking
about Emilia. Unless he acts fast, he decides, Palamon will have her all
to himself. Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter falls hopelessly in love with
Palamon and frees him. He takes refuge in the same forest that hides Arcite.
the forest, Arcite encounters a lively group of countrymen scheduled to
perform in games of wrestling and running before the duke in Athens. After
they leave, Arcite disguises himself, catches up with them, and joins their
company so that he can re-enter Athens and glimpse lovely Emilia. When
he wrestles and runs in the games, still in disguise, his performance is
so extraordinary that the duke, Emilia and Hippolyta shower accolades upon
him. Later, after returning to the forest, he encounters Palamon in shackles,
weary and hungry. The former friends wag wicked tongues against each other
as they again declare their love for Emilia and vow to fight for the right
to woo her. However, Arcite generously allows Palamon to rest up and regain
his strength. What is more, Arcite promises to bring him food and drink.
The lovesick jailer's daughter, meanwhile, combs the forest for Palamon.
So intense is her yearning for him that she goes mad. In her pitiable state,
she is not unlike Arcite and Palamon: They, too, are madly in love with
a person they hardly know.
Arcite returns with meat and wine to rejuvenate Palamon~ez_ndash~and files to remove
his shackles~ez_ndash~they renew their fight over Emilia. In another part of the
forest, the countrymen recruit the mad jailer's daughter, who has demonstrated
her ability to dance. They believe she would make an entertaining addition
to their troupe. When the duke and his entourage~ez_ndash~including Emilia and Hippolyta~ez_ndash~enter
the forest to hunt deer, the countrymen appear and perform a lively dance.
Nearby, Arcite and Palamon are about to cross swords when the duke happens
upon them and says,
ignorant and mad malicious traitors,
you, that gainst the tenor of my laws
making battle, thus like knights appointed,
my leave, and officers of arms?
Castor, both shall die.
kinsmen readily admit their crimes (violation of the decree of exile and
escape from jail). But they also disclose that their crimes had a common
cause, a noble cause: their love for the fair Emilia. Both want to be close
to her. Both want to win her. Both are willing to die fighting for her.
Their story touches Emilia and Hippolyta, and the duke decrees that Emilia
must choose between them. The man not chosen must die. Arcite says:
she refuse me, yet my grave will wed me,
soldiers sing my epitaph.
tells the duke she cannot choose between them because "They are both too
excellent." The duke then orders the kinsmen to return in a month for a
contest of strength. The winner gets Emilia; the loser gets beheaded. On
the day of the contest, the struggle shifts back and forth~ez_ndash~now favoring
one, now favoring the other. In the end, Arcite wins. As Palamon prepares
to lay his head on the chopping block, he inquires about the fate of the
jailer's daughter and learns that she is to marry a wooer (disguised as
Palamon). Then news comes that Arcite, while "trotting the stones of Athens"
on his horse, fell off and suffered mortal injury. Before dying, he reconciles
with Palamon and bequeaths him Emilia, saying Palamon was the better match
for Emilia all along. Athens then prepares for a wedding and a funeral.
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Theseus: Duke of
bride of Theseus.
Emelia: Sister of
Palamon, Arcite: Two
noble kinsmen captured by Theseus in a battle against the forces of Creon.
While in captivity, the two men, the best of friends, both fall in love
with fair Emelia. This development puts them at odds.
Three Queens: Widows
who complain to Theseus that Creon killed their husbands.
Keeper of the prison holding Palamon and Arcite.
Young woman who falls for Palamon.
Jaylor's Brother and
Emelia's Woman: Attendant
Three Valiant Knights
at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
in the wedding.
Nel: Freckled woman.
Master Gerrold: Schoolmaster.
Other Characters: Herald,
gentleman, messenger, servant, wooer, keeper, doctor, countrymen, wenches,
Shakespeare and playwright John Fletcher jointly wrote The Two Noble
Kinsmen. It is uncertain how much of the play Shakespeare wrote, but
the best conjecture indicates that he completed Acts I and V and Fletcher,
the other three acts. It is not known which author broached the idea of
writing a collaborative play.
Two Noble Kinsmen takes place in Athens. Greece, and surrounding woods.
The presence of Theseus and Hippolyta indicates that the time is the age
of myth, but the chivalric ideals suggest a later time. The play, therefore,
has a timeless, fairytale atmosphere.
Dates and Sources
Written: Between 1612 and 1614
Knight's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
(1340?-1400). The Two Noble Kinsmen follows Chaucer's story closely,
retaining many of the principal characters and much of the plot. Shakespeare
also drew upon the following sources: Il Teseida, by Boccaccio (1313-1375);
Greek mythology, including the account of Creon's refusal to allow Antigone,
daughter of Oedipus, to bury her brother Polynices
Printing: 1634 as part of a quarto edition.
The climax occurs when Arcite
defeats Palamon in the contest for the hand of Emilia.
Theseus, the son of the king
of Athens, was one of the great heroes of ancient Greek mythology. While
still a teenager, he slew villains and monsters menacing the environs of
Athens. Later, in a famous adventure, he killed the Cretan minotaur, a
creature that was half-man and half-bull, and participated with Jason in
the quest for the Golden Fleece. After his father died, Theseus ruled Athens
wisely, showing compassion for the downtrodden, and helped unify the people
of Attica, in southeastern Greece. Although married to a woman named Phaedra,
he captured the Amazon queen Hippolyta and fathered a child by her. Later,
Hippolyta died fighting at the side of Theseus.
Was John Fletcher?
John Fletcher (1579-1625)
was an English playwright who wrote for various acting companies~ez_ndash~including
the King~ez_rsquo~s Men, the same company for which Shakespeare wrote~ez_ndash~between the
early 1600's (probably beginning between 1604 and 1607) and the year of
his death, 1625. He sometimes collaborated with the dramatist Francis Beaumont
and other writers, including William Rowley, Nathan Field, Philip Massinger,
and, apparently, Shakespeare. He may also have collaborated with Ben Jonson
and George Chapman. Fletcher generally focused more on plot twists than
character development to generate audience interest. Among the notable
plays he wrote without collaboration are The Loyall Subject, The Faithfull
Shepheardesse, A Wife for a Moneth, The Chances, The Wild Goose Chase,
The Mad Lover, The Humourous Lieutenant, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, Women
Pleas~ez_rsquo~d, and The Island Princesse. Among the notable plays he
wrote with Beaumont are A King and No King, Philaster, and The Maides
Tragedy. Fletcher died in London of plague.
1: Love can breed enmity. Palamon and Arcite become bitter rivals
when they both fall in love with Emilia. Shakespeare developed a similar
theme in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
2: Friendship and gallantry triumph over rivalry and bitterness.
Palamon and Arcite reconcile at the end of the play.
Two Noble Kinsmen is a tragicomedy. One of the central characters,
Arcite, dies in an accident after winning the hand of Emilia. The other
main character, Palamon, then marries Emilia.
of Words in Complete Text: 29,375.
Michael J. Cummings...©
three years after completing one of his most remarkable plays, The Tempest,
William Shakespeare completed The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably his
most unremarkable play, in collaboration with John Fletcher. Whereas The
Tempest has enjoyed acclaim and popularity over the centuries, The
Kinsmen has enjoyed mostly the silence of library bookshelves. It reposes
at the end of the Shakespeare row as an oddity, a pariah play excluded
from the Shakespeare canon because of unresolved questions about whether
Shakespeare, in fact, participated in the writing of an undistinguished
goodly passel of them admirers of Shakespeare~ez_ndash~ask: How could the Stratfordian
have co-created a work largely vacant of the exceptional incandescence
and insight of his earlier plays? However, in recent times, these doubters
have begun to concede that Shakespeare indeed wrote part of the play, if
only because their research has failed to explain the byline on the title
page of the 1634 quarto edition: The Two Noble Kinsmen . . . Written
by the Worthies of their time, Mr. John Fletcher and Mr. William Shakespeare.
course, acknowledgment of Shakespeare as a co-author does not automatically
free the play from its bookshelf prison; it still must answer for its un-Shakespearean
writing. Sections believed to have been written by Shakespeare~ez_ndash~Acts
I and V and the first scene in Act III~ez_ndash~simply do not measure up. Something
is missing; the muse of fire seems only to smolder. One is hard pressed
to track down verses in the play that qualify as first-rate epigrams or
aphorisms. In Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo
and Juliet, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Henry V, Richard III, and
other Shakespeare plays, such lines crowd the texts, jostling for attention
and inviting readers to commit the lines to memory.
Kinsmen also lacks character development: Palamon and Arcite, Theseus,
Emilia~ez_ndash~in fact, every character in the play~ez_ndash~is a one-dimensional stick
figure; each remains virtually unchanged from beginning to end. This fault
would be pardonable if these characters laughed, cried, hated, or loved
with the believable zeal of a Richard III or a Volumnia (Coriolanus).
But they do not; as marionettes or manikins, they dress their parts, but
they do not become their parts. It is true that Palamon and Arcite fall
desperately in love with Emilia; but theirs is factitious love, infatuation,
fixed on skin-deep beauty.
they duel for her hand, Emilia agrees to marry the victor without ever
having conversed privately with either combatant. After Arcite prevails,
he wins Emilia, and Palamon loses his head. But, no, wait. On his triumphal
victory ride through the streets of Athens, Arcite falls off his horse
and dies. Emilia cries onion tears, then marries her backup beau, Palamon,
after Theseus pardons him before the axe falls.
all good fun, the stuff of an American romance film~ez_ndash~but not good Shakespeare.
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