By William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
Summary and Analysis
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008..
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.
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.
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.
By th' helm of Mars, I saw them in the war,
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
What ignorant and mad malicious traitors,
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shakespeare's Worst Play?
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.