The Two Noble Kinsmen
By William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
Summary and Analysis
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Type of Work      Composition and Publication      Sources      Authorship      Setting      Characters      Plot Summary      Climax
Who Was Theseus?      Who Was John Fletcher?      Themes      Essay: Bard's Worst Play?      Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008..
Type of Work

The Two Noble Kinsmen is a stage play in the form of a tragicomedy, containing elements of both comedy and tragedy. One of the central characters, Arcite, dies in an accident after winning the hand of Emilia. The other main character, Palamon, then marries Emilia.

Composition and Publication

Date Written: Between 1612 and 1614. The British Library provides additional information on the composition of the play as well as on its performance history.
First Printing: 1634 as part of a quarto edition


Shakespeare's main source was "The 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.


William 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 1 and 5 and Fletcher, the other three acts. It is not known which author broached the idea of writing a collaborative play.


The 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 in the play suggest a later time. The play, therefore, has a timeless, fairytale atmosphere. 

Theseus: Duke of Athens.
Hippolyta: Amazon bride of Theseus.
Emelia: Sister of Hippolyta.
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.
Jaylor (Jailer): Keeper of the prison holding Palamon and Arcite.
Jaylor's Daughter: Young woman who falls for Palamon.
Jaylor's Brother and Friends
Emelia's Woman: Attendant of Emlia.
Three Valiant Knights
Hymen: Torch-bearer at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Nymphs: Participants in the wedding.
Nel: Freckled woman.
Master Gerrold: Schoolmaster.
Valerius, Perithous
Other Characters: Herald, gentleman, messenger, servant, wooer, keeper, doctor, countrymen, wenches, taborer (Drummer).

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Three queens bear a sad tale to Theseus, Duke of Athens: 

Cruel 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–Arcite and Palamon–fought with great valor and ferocity.

By th' helm of Mars, I saw them in the war,
Like to a pair of lions smear'd with prey,
Make lanes in troops aghast. . . . 

Theseus 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–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.

In 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.

After Arcite returns with meat and wine to rejuvenate Palamon–and files to remove his shackles–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–including Emilia and Hippolyta–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,

What ignorant and mad malicious traitors,
Are you, that gainst the tenor of my laws
Are making battle, thus like knights appointed,
Without my leave, and officers of arms?
By Castor, both shall die.

The 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:

If she refuse me, yet my grave will wed me,
And soldiers sing my epitaph.

Emilia 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–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


The climax occurs when Arcite defeats Palamon in the contest for the hand of Emilia.

Who Was Theseus?

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.

Who Was John Fletcher?

John Fletcher (1579-1625) was an English playwright who wrote for various acting companies–including the King’s Men, the same company for which Shakespeare wrote–between the early 1600s (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’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.


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.
Friendship and gallantry triumph over rivalry and bitterness. Palamon and Arcite reconcile at the end of the play.

Shakespeare's Worst Play?
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Within 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 play.
Doubters–a goodly passel of them admirers of Shakespeare–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 

Of 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–Acts I and V and the first scene in Act III–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. 

The Kinsmen also lacks character development: Palamon and Arcite, Theseus, Emilia–in fact, every character in the play–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. 

Before 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.  

It’s all good fun, the stuff of an American romance film–but not good Shakespeare. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • In what ways does The Two Noble Kinsmen exhibit the spirit of chivalry?
  • Before dying, Arcite gives Emilia to Palamon. Why doesn't Emilia object to being passed from one man to another?
  • If you agree with Theme 1, write an essay defending it.
  • If you disagree with Theme 1, write an essay arguing why it is wrong.