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.
Date Written: Between 1612 and 1614.
Printing: 1634 as part of a quarto edition.
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.
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.
bride of Theseus.
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.
Emelia's Woman: Attendant
Torch-bearer at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
in the wedding.
Master Gerrold: Schoolmaster.
Herald, gentleman, messenger, servant, wooer, keeper, doctor,
countrymen, wenches, taborer (Drummer).
Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Three queens bear a sad tale to Theseus, Duke of
.......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.
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.
.......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
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.
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.
the notable plays he wrote with Beaumont are A King and No King,
Philaster, and The Maides Tragedy. Fletcher died in London of
Theme 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.
Shakespeare's Worst Play?
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
.......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