“The Two Noble Kinsmen” was Shakespeare’s last play, co-written with John Fletcher around three years before his death in 1616. It takes its plot from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”, written around two centuries earlier. It’s thought that an earlier version of the story, author unknown, may have influenced Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1595), and there are certainly parallels, including the location.
Playwrights tended to be attached to a particular company in Shakespeare’s day, one of a number of theatre troupe employees (or share-holders) tasked with work other than performing. The playwright would put together his script, then sell it to the company (the going rate was £2), in this way forfeiting any further rights to the script.
John Fletcher is believed to have been Shakespeare’s successor as playwright to the King’s Men. Curiously, his reputation throughout the seventeenth century seems to have been stronger than that of his mentor. Naturally this state of affairs didn’t last, and he is now accorded a more appropriate status, an acolyte or apprentice to Shakespeare, as evidenced by this play.
Scene by Scene
Prologue (Written by John Fletcher)
The Prologue points out that the next “two hours” were inspired by the “noble” Geoffrey Chaucer.
Act One Scene One (Written by Shakespeare)
Three queens beg Theseus of Athens to invade Thebes to recover the bodies of their dead husbands.
Theseus agrees to their request, resolving to make war on the cruel Theban leader Creon.
Act One Scene Two (Shakespeare)
Arcite feels a stranger in Thebes and encourages his cousin Palamon to join him in leaving.
Palamon agrees that their uncle Creon, the ruler of Thebes, is a villain and a tyrant.
Learning that Thebes is being invaded by Theseus, they accept their duty is to fight for their country.
Act One Scene Three (Shakespeare)
Pirithous is sad to leave Emilia in Athens but ready to join his old friend Theseus in invading Thebes.
Their relationship reminds Emilia of a friendship she had as a girl with the now-dead Flavina.
Emilia agrees with her sister Hippolyta that she will never “Love any that’s call’d man”.
Act One Scene Four (Author uncertain)
Theseus has won the battle, and instructs the three queens to recover their husbands’ remains.
Theseus catches sight of Arcite and Palmon among the prisoners and praises their warrior spirit.
He directs that they be taken back to Athens, and nursed back to health and fitness.
Act One Scene Five (Author uncertain)
The three queens are able to recover their husbands’ bodies, and reflect that death comes to all.
Act Two Scene One (Shakespeare)
The jailer tells his daughter’s suitor that his very limited wealth will go to his daughter when he dies.
The (unnamed) daughter reports that the two prisoners are of noble character and in high spirits.
She clearly enjoys observing them, and reflects on the different qualities of some men over others.
Act Two Scene Two (Fletcher)
Trapped in their cell, Palamon and Arcite lament the many human experiences they will never know.
But at least they have each other, and at least the cell is a kind of refuge from the sinful fallen world.
They pledge to be everything to one another – “father, friends, acquaintance … families”.
Suddenly Emilia and her servant appear in the garden below, transfixing the two prisoners.
Palamon, describing her as a goddess, now feels for the first time what it is to be imprisoned.
Palamon argues that because he saw Emilia first, he has the prior claim on her affections.
He accuses Arcite of being “a traitor”; Arcite replies he is being “so unlike a noble kinsman”.
Amid a blizzard of threats to one another, the jailer announces that Arcite is required by the Duke.
The jailer announces Arcite is to be freed from jail, banished from Athens and returned to Thebes.
Meanwhile, Palamon is informed he is to be moved to a cell with no window overlooking the garden.
Act Two Scene Three (Fletcher)
Arcite relieved to be free, envies that Palamon can still observe the beautiful woman in the garden.
He resolves to risk death and remain in Athens under cover in order to win Emilia before Palamon.
He encounters some country folk who are heading to “the games” presided over by Duke Theseus.
Trusting to his skills at wrestling and running, he resolves to join them in hopes of seeing Emilia.
Act Two Scene Four (Fletcher)
Back in Athens, the jailer’s daughter reflects on her developing emotions towards Palamon.
She admired him, she pitied him, she loved him, she desired him – and now she intends to free him.
Act Two Scene Five (Fletcher)
Vague and evasive, Arcite makes a good impression on Theseus (“You are perfect”) and his retinue.
Ironically in view of what happens later, he claims his “best piece” is horsemanship.
He is assigned to Emilia to protect her honour (presumably) on self-chosen pain of death.
Theseus flirtatiously tells Emilia that Arcite would serve him well as a husband were he a woman.
Act Two Scene Six (Fletcher)
The jailer’s daughter reveals that she has sprung Palamon from prison, handcuffs intact.
She is concerned that he seemed reluctant to leave, and that he may not be in love with her.
Act Three Scene One (Shakespeare)
Arcite reports that Emilia has given him a pair of horses as a token of her esteem of him.
He imagines Palamon in his cell imagining him in Thebes – how angry he’d be to learn the truth.
But it’s Arcite who is wrong – Palamon appears in the forest to denounce him as a “traitor”.
Palamon exclaims that if he were not in irons still, he would take a sword to his former friend.
Arcite pledges to provide food for refreshment and armour and a weapon to resolve their dispute.
Palamon insists he owns Emilia – “For note you, mine she is“ – and looks forward to his “remedy”.
Act Three Scene Two (Fletcher)
The jailer’s daughter has brought the file but Palamon has disappeared, perhaps attacked by wolves.
She reports calmly that her father is to be hanged for having let his prisoner escape from jail.
But for Palamon she is beside herself with anxiety, has hardly eaten, drunk or slept for several days.
Act Three Scene Three (Fletcher)
Arcite’s generous gift of food and wine provokes Palamon ‘s suspicions that he is being poisoned.
The cousins remember past conquests as a friendly, jovial spirit re-emerges between them.
But as Palamon observes, their friendly relations are “strain’d mirth” – he calls Arcite a “traitor”.
Arcite has become equally insulting, denouncing Palamon as a beast” and “now too foul”.
Act Three Scene Four (Fletcher)
The jailer’s daughter believing Palamon to be dead appears to be losing her grip on reality.
Act Three Scene Five (Fletcher)
Gerald the school teacher is rehearsing his troupe of dancers for a performance for the Duke.
They encounter the jailer’s daughter who appears to have continued her descent into madness.
Next they run into Theseus hunting in the forest, who rewards them for their performance.
Act Three Scene Six (Fletcher)
Palamon alone in the forest feels revived and acknowledges that his cousin Arcite is a “fair foe”.
Arcite confesses that the armour he has brought for Palamon was stolen from the Duke.
They have just begun to fight their duel when hunting horns announce the arrival of the Duke.
Theseus condemns both men to death but Palamon reveals that they are fighting over Emilia.
Arcite confirms that if it is the act of a traitor to love Emilia then he is indeed a traitor.
Theseus confirms his verdict, at which Emilia, Hippolyta and Pirithous beg him to be merciful.
Theseus is unmoved but Emilia asks him how “any thing that loves me [can] perish for me”.
The two cousins are offered banishment but both refuse to accept it if it means giving up their love.
Theseus compromises and orders a public tournament in a month’s time, the loser to be executed.
Act Four Scene One (Fletcher)
The jailer is reassured to learn that he is not to be executed for allowing Palamon to escape.
The jailer’s daughter’s suitor tells her father that having overheard her singing, he fears she is mad.
He reveals that when he confronted her she attempted to drown herself, then made her escape.
The daughter arrives, babbling madly about Palamon to a mystified audience of friends and family.
Act Four Scene Two (Author uncertain)
Emilia is alone in the palace with portraits of the two kinsmen, reflecting on their appearances.
Arcite seems to be her favourite; Palamon in comparison is “but his foil … a mere dull shadow”.
But then on reflection, she is drawn to Palamon’s serious look, seeing Arcite as a “mere gypsy”.
She admits she is confused who she prefers, though Theseus is for Arcite and Hippolyta for Palamon.
Theseus enters to declare that the two lovers have returned, together with their retinues of knights.
The knights accompanying the two warriors are described in detail – “all the sons of honour”.
The scene ends with Emilia blaming herself for the fact that one of the “noble cousins” has to die.
Act Four Scene Three (Fletcher)
The doctor and the jailer stand by to watch the jailer’s daughter and try to diagnose her madness.
The doctor instructs the daughter’s suitor to pretend to be Palamon in an attempt to cure her.
Act Five Scene One (Fletcher, lines 1 – 33; Shakespeare, lines 34 – 173)
The cousins prepare themselves mentally for their conflict, and embrace before the hostilities begin.
First Arcite prays to Mars, reflecting his desire to be triumphant in the battle that is looming.
Palamon prays to Venus, asserting that he has never betrayed love but always admired its power.
Emilia prays to Diana that she be won by “He of the two pretenders that best loves me”.
Act Five Scene Two (Fletcher)
The jailer’s daughter has almost been convinced that her lover is Palamon – not her old suitor.
The doctor suggests he explore “the way of flesh” with her, “Whate’er her father says”.
Interviewed by the jailer, his daughter acknowledges that her suitor has many virtues.
Her suitor, convincing her he is Palamon, kisses her, and they agree to “sleep together” that night.
Act Five Scene Three (Shakespeare)
Emilia is strongly encouraged to go and watch the fight between the two cousins, but she refuses.
Alone she reflects on Arcite’s “gently visag’d” appearance and Palamon’s “menacing” expression.
Imagining she may have been a distraction, she is glad she has absented herself from the fight.
First it seems that Palamon has proved triumphant, then reports arrive that Arcite has prevailed.
Theseus reports that the conflict was close, while Emilia’s sympathy for Palamon closes the scene.
Act Five Scene Four (Shakespeare)
Palamon and his retinue, about to be executed, learn from the jailer that his daughter is recovered.
They collect together their purses and hand them to the jailer to be given to his daughter.
Suddenly Pirithous arrives to halt the executions and announce that Arcite is mortally wounded.
He explains that the horse given him by Emilia threw him, and his injuries are seemingly fatal.
Arcite extracts a last kiss from Emilia before handing her over to Palamon to marry, and dies.
Theseus acknowledges that Palamon had a right to win Emilia since he was the first to desire her.
The play closes with Theseus anticipating Arcite’s funeral and Palamon’s wedding to Emilia.
The epilogue suggests that many in the audience will recognise the experience revealed in the play.
The debt to “The Knight’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 – 1400) is acknowledged in the Prologue. Shakespeare’s plots came from many sources, including British history, Greek myth and earlier literary works, which he re-purposed for the stage. The theatre in Shakespeare’s day was in its infancy, and seeing enacted stories that had previously been necessarily read or narrated must have been a spellbinding experience.
The kinsmen hate Creon, the ruler of Thebes, and plan to escape his country if they can. But they are summoned to him – though advised to take their time while his anger subsides – his rage provoked by Theseus’s threat of war. Creon is of course their uncle: other unpopular uncles in Shakespeare include Claudius (in “Hamlet”) and Richard III.
Emilia tells Hippolyta about her love for the now dead Flavina. It seems she cannot now love any man. Quite an unpromising candidate for leading lady in a romance, perhaps. But in the event she proves open to the overtures of the two principal boys.
The two cousins lament their imprisonment in Athens but are reassured to have each other and take comfort from the fact that they are separated from the evil world beyond the prison walls. But when the kinsmen spot Emilia and her female servant through their cell window, these consolations are abandoned, they both fall for the beautiful woman while instantly falling out with each other over which of them has the prior claim on her.
In a soliloquy, Arcite envies Palamon that he is still in prison and will therefore still see the beautiful woman they saw together. The irony is of course that Palamon has by now been moved to a cell without windows, and dramatic irony lies in the fact that the audience know how empty Arcite’s words are here.
In a soliloquy the jailer’s daughter reveals her love for Palamon. This character, though not given the dignity of a name, is nevertheless allowed several soliloquies in which she is able to confide in the audience her otherwise somewhat mysterious personality.
The jailer’s daughter at the end of 2.6 is quite plain about her act of rebellion against her father: “Farewell, father; / Get many more such prisoners and such daughters, / And shortly you may keep yourself.” Shakespeare’s plays contain a rich and varied sequence of troubled father / daughter relationships. Notable examples include Juliet (“Romeo and Juliet”), Jessica (“The Merchant of Venice”) and Desdemona (“Othello”). Shakespeare himself lived in London, three days travel from his family (and his two daughters) in Stratford.
Improbable coincidence is an essential part of Shakespeare’s tool kit, as events in 3.1 suggest. Here, Arcite and Palamon happen to run into one another in the woods, each discussing and agonizing over the other. Athens and the forests round about would appear to be a small world.
Gerald the school teacher in 3.5 seems as drunk with polysyllables (and bits of Latin) as Holofernes the school teacher in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. It seems that Shakespeare was illustrating familiar contemporary archetypes about school teachers in these two portrayals, and even perhaps drawing on his own experience at Stratford Grammar School some forty years before.
One of the themes of the play is the way love overwhelms other states of mind and displaces prior loyalties: both the kinsman and the jailer’s daughter abandon old affections when the madness of love overwhelms them. Hippolyta makes this very observation when, watching the Knights as they prepare to do battle, she laments “Tis pity love should be so tyrannous.” Once again, it’s a familiar theme from plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello”.
The doctor observing the mad daughter in 4.3 is a reminder of the sleep walking of Lady Macbeth and the audience she has in that scene. As the doctor says here, “I think she has a perturb’d mind, which I cannot minister to.” But this scene is different in one respect: that the doctor, having said there’s nothing he can do, now suggests a remedy: that her suitor pretend to be Palamon. As things develop here, this remedy seems to work.
The play implies a contrast between the two female characters, the jailer’s daughter and Emilia. The former takes active steps to realise her love for Palamon, and goes mad with her passion. Emilia by contrast prays to Diana to request that “He of the two pretenders that best loves me / And has the truest title in’t, let him / Take off my wheaten garland.” In short, her desires are essentially passive: she is happy with either and willing to let events take their course.
Emilia is understandably reluctant to observe the fight between the two rivals for her hand. The authors may have felt the same on the audience’s behalf since the fight takes place off stage. It is worth bearing in mind that much of what matters in Shakespeare’s plays take place away from the prying eyes of the audience: the murder of King Duncan in “Macbeth” for example.
Arcite earlier boasted to Theseus that he liked a wild horse over a tame one. It’s a boast he makes a number of times – quite out of character. In the end it’s a wild horse that does for him.
Difficult for a modern audience to sympathise with his ideas of courting – he is more focused on his rival than on his love – but he is admirably high-minded within the moral codes he lives by: even Palamon calls him a “fair foe”. Understandably evasive in his first interview with Theseus he is otherwise open and plain-speaking, even boasting about his horsemanship – ironically enough, given how he meets his end.
Like his kinsman, possessed of a somewhat old-fashioned code of courtship, but hard-headed in other ways – for example he appears to feel little gratitude to the jailer’s daughter who enables him to escape from prison, and his rivalry with Arcite remains intense even after he is rescued in the forest. Though not exactly a Shakespearean villain it is not easy to warm to Palamon – even Emilia seems to feel ambivalent about his virtues.
A generous leader it seems, and an honourable enemy – he invades Thebes in the first act so as to restore to the three queens their husbands’ remains, and he is careful to ensure that the two kinsmen are cared for after their defeat. His subjects (for example the school teacher) seem to feel no anxiety about approaching him, and his family members are comfortable questioning his decisions and reversing them – for example in 3.6.
One of the problems of the text for a modern audience is the passivity of this central character. She is a trophy to be fought over, and she accepts this limited role – in the play and in life. In keeping with this trait, she can see the good in both the rivals for her affections, is alive to both sides of most questions (Palamon’s serious look does have its benefits, she feels), and she has a ready sympathy for those who suffer.
In contrast with Emilia, the jailer’s daughter is proactive and dynamic. She craves Palamon, so she frees him from jail. He will need a file to remove his irons and she will find one. Her father will hang for her actions, but she is focused on her desires. Her madness resembles in some ways that of Ophelia (“Hamlet”) and in others, that of Lady Macbeth – not least in the way she is observed and her case discussed. Her active role in the sub-plot chimes incongruously with the face that her character is not named.
- Give the name of the ruler of Thebes, uncle to Palamon and Arcite.
- What kind of tree do the kinsmen see through their prison window?
- What does the jailer’s daughter promise to bring after she has helped Palamon escape?
- What drink does Arcite bring to refresh Palamon when he is hiding in the forest?
- What punishment awaits the jailer for allowing Palamon to escape from jail?
- Whose portrait does Emilia hold against her left breast?
- What kind of dance is the schoolteacher rehearsing to perform for Theseus?
- How many knights must each of the kinsmen bring to their fight?
- To whom does Emilia pray before the two kinsmen begin their contest?
- What is the colour of the horse that bolts in the last act, mortally injuring Arcite?
Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage rather than the page. Still, after his death, John Heminges and Henry Condell, two members of Shakespeare’s old theatre company, decided that if they didn’t collect up all his plays and publish them in a single volume, they would probably be lost to history. The volume that resulted, The First Folio (1623), is probably the most famous book in history after the Bible.
But in fact it didn’t contain everything he wrote, and this play, co-written with his successor as playwright to The King’s Men, was not published until 1634, and even then, it was not immediately included in a collected Shakespeare but published as a single volume. One of that original print run was recently discovered in a Scottish Catholic College in Spain, and is probably the oldest volume of Shakespeare in that country.