Theseus is the Duke
of Athens and presides over the events of the main plot. He sets an
example of noble action when he aids the royal widows who petition him in
1.1; in doing so, he undertakes a war against Creon of Thebes, in the
course of which he captures the title characters, Arcite and Palamon,
creating the basic situation of the plot. In 3.6 he intervenes in the
quarrel between them, overseeing their duel for Emilia; and at the play's
close, he sounds the note of dignified acceptance of fate that is the
play's central lesson. Recognizing that the fortunes of humanity are
incomprehensible, and that we have no choice but to live with them, he
rhetorically addresses the gods: '0 you heavenly charmers, / What things
you make of us! ... Let us be thankful / For that which is, and with you
leave dispute[s] / That are above our question' (5.4.131-136). He adds, in
the play's final words, 'Let's go off, / And bear us like the time'
(5.4.136-137)—that is, accept our circumstances.
particularly dominant in Acts 1 and 5, written by Shakespeare, while in
Acts 2 to 4, written by John Fletcher, he is a less significant figure and
his speeches are far less powerful as poetry. Theseus' importance as a
model of nobility is particularly notable in Act 1, where he establishes a
tone of magnanimity that would perhaps have dominated the play, had
Shakespeare written it in its entirety. Throughout Shakespeare's portions
of the play, Theseus' actions are quintessentially chivalrous: he aids the
widowed Queens at their request; having triumphed in their cause, he
offers to cover the expenses of their husbands' funerals; he demands the
finest treatment for his noble prisoners of war; he orders the most
opulent temple preparations for the 'noble work in hand' (5.1.6), the
duel; he 'adopts' (5.4.124) Palamon's seconds at the play's close; and his
concluding remarks offer an example of serene courage. On the other hand,
the somewhat ignoble provision that the loser be executed was devised by
With respect to
aristocratic birth—a necessary component of nobility in chivalric
romance—Theseus is literally of supernatural stature and can casually
refer to 'Hercules our kinsman' (1.1.66). He is pointedly contrasted with
the vicious Creon, to his considerable advantage, and the Second Queen
says that he was 'Born to uphold creation in that honour / First Nature
styled it in' (1.1.82-83). As the highest-ranking figure in the play's
world, and especially since he is presented as a strikingly noble leader,
Theseus carries great moral weight; his closing remarks are thereby
clearly signaled as the play's essential position.
Hippolyta is the
Queen of the Amazons, fiancé and later wife of Theseus, Duke of Athens.
Hippolyta helps establish the tone of magnanimous nobility and pity that
dominates Act 1, but she is unimportant thereafter. In 1.1, when her
wedding to Theseus is interrupted by the pleas of the royal widows who
seek the duke's aid, Hippolyta speaks in their support, insisting that her
anticipated marital joy must be postponed in their cause. In 1.3 she
describes the friendship between Theseus and Pirithous, which offers a
parallel to the relationship between the title characters, Palamon and
Arcite, and which also signifies nobility of spirit. She herself displays
a serene spirit in observing without jealousy, in fact approvingly, that
Theseus might be unable to choose between Pirithous and herself. In Acts
2-4, where her part is written by John Fletcher, she is an ordinary
aristocratic figure, graciously attending the duke at court. She is
presumably married to Theseus by this time, although the rescheduled
wedding is never mentioned. In Act 5 Hippolyta hardly speaks, but she
makes a significant point after the duel fought by Palamon and Arcite for
Emilia, when she offers a tender acknowledgement that the play's
developments provoke 'Infinite pity' (5.3.144-145).
Emilia is the sister
of Hippolyta and the beloved of both Palamon and Arcite, the title
characters. The subject of the obsession that destroys the friendship of
the kinsmen, Emilia is to some extent a pawn of the plot. At first
unconscious of the situation, she is inconsequential; later, as the
cousins prepare to duel for the right to marry her, she is emotionally
distressed, but the focus remains on the men. However, as a virtuous and
noble figure, she is a potent symbol, and she is finally, in her
helplessness, an important illustration of the play's central theme, that
human beings are unable to control their destiny but must strive to
maintain dignity as they confront their fate.
introduces Emilia as an attractive, serious young woman. In 1.1 her pity
and magnanimity as she responds to the pleas of the three widows establish
her as a noble person. In 1.3 she tenderly recalls a close childhood
friendship with a girl who has died, and she is quietly confident that she
will never love a man as much; later, we realize that her expectation was
all too appropriate, for her part in the play's love story is tragically
However, as a
character, Emilia suffers from the defects of the play, which was written
collaboratively by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Shakespeare's Emilia is
a promising figure, but Fletcher, who wrote all other scenes in Acts 2-4,
did not develop her; at first she is simply another young woman of the
court, interested in flowers in 2.1, when the two kinsmen fall in love
with her beauty, and politely agreeable to the disguised Arcite in 3.5.
Then Fletcher alters her radically, but the change is entirely artificial.
She agonizes over her choice of lovers in a highly rhetorical passage
(4.2.1-54) that introduces the arrival of the duelists in a melodramatic
manner, but reduces her to a mere illustration of hysteria. Nevertheless,
the speech furthers the course of the play, for it demonstrates that she,
like the kinsmen, is trapped by destiny. As she puts it, 'my reason is
lost in me, /1 have no choice' and 'I am sotted, / Utterly lost'
(4.2.34-35, 45-46). Emilia embodies humanity's helplessness, both here and
in Act 5, where she is again Shakespeare's creation and a more dignified
and credible character.
In 5.1, before the
duel, Emilia addresses the goddess Diana, seeking assistance in her
quandary. She asks the goddess to make sure the winner is the cousin who
genuinely loves her the most, adding that she would prefer to remain
unmarried. In response, a rose tree with a single rose appears on the
altar; supposing that its singleness means she will not have to marry
either cousin, Emilia is delighted, but then the rose falls. Chagrined,
Emilia remains hopeful, closing touchingly with the plea, 'Unclasp thy
mystery.— I hope she's pleased; / Her signs were gracious' (5.1. 172-173).
In 5.3 she is too distracted to watch the duel, which is reported to her
by a Servant, and we cannot help but sympathize. When she is awarded to
Arcite and Palamon is sent to be executed, according to the rules for the
duel, Emilia cries out, 'Is this winning? / 0 all you heavenly powers,
where is your mercy?' (5.3.138-139). This despairing cry is the nadir of
the play; however, Emilia immediately accepts her fate, rejecting suicide
in the next line, because the gods' 'wills have said it must be so'
(5.3.140). By the play's end Emilia can accept the final twist of
fate—Arcite dies accidentally and Palamon wins her by default—with
equanimity. She has learned the lesson that Theseus declaims in the final
line: we must 'bear us as the time' (5.4.137).
Pirithous is a friend
of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Pirithous attends Theseus in every scene in
which the duke appears; he also provides commentary on Arcite in 2.4 and,
as a messenger, dramatically halts the execution of Palamon in 5.4.
However, he is significant only as the subject of a conversation in his
absence. In 1.3 Hippolyta reflects on the long friendship of Theseus and
Pirithous, saying 'Their knot of love, / Tied, weaved, entangled ... May
be outworn, never undone' (1.3.41-44). This striking parallel to the tie
between Palamon and Arcite helps establish the theme of male friendship
that is woven through the play. Hippolyta's remarks also spark a variant
on the theme, the account by Emilia of her similar childhood friendship
with a girl.
Palamon is one of the
title characters and cousin of Arcite. As introduced in 1.2, Palamon and
Arcite are young noblemen whose chief concern is with their knightly honor
and whose lives revolve around their friendship with each other. However,
while prisoners of war in Athens, they both fall in love with Emilia, the
beautiful sister-in-law of Duke Theseus, and they argue over who saw her
first. Eventually they fight a duel for Emilia, in which, following
Theseus' rules, the loser is not to be killed but rather executed
afterwards. Palamon loses, but just before he is to be beheaded, Arcite is
killed by a--"runaway horse, and Palamon prepares to marry Emilia at the
play's close. As stylized knightly protagonists, Palamon and Arcite
resemble each other fairly closely, but Palamon can be distinguished as
the generally more belligerent of the two. On the other hand, he also
seems somewhat disillusioned at the close of their story, making him the
more interesting character finally.
In 1.2 Palamon is a
shallow fellow whom Arcite criticizes for his narrow military outlook. In
2.1 he insists that their enthusiasm for the same, seemingly
unapproachable woman is grounds for unsparing enmity, despite Arcite's
efforts to find some other approach. Palamon escapes from prison with the
help of the warden's Daughter—whom he immediately abandons—and in Act 3 he
persistently pushes Arcite to duel, until Theseus intervenes and
establishes the rules under which they finally fight.
Palamon's long prayer
to Venus in 5.1 marks a turning point, for instead of the enraptured plea
for Emilia's heart that we might expect, he vents a satirical recital of
the ridiculous behavior love inspires. He mocks the tyrant who weeps to a
girl and the old man who is confident his young wife is faithful, and he
recites all the ugly betrayals and offences a lover might commit, though
he disclaims them. The pleasant aspects of love are not mentioned. He
closes his prayer by apostrophizing the goddess as one 'whose chase is
this world / And we in herds thy game' (5.1.131-132). Such cynicism
reflects the weight that the conflict has had—he wears Venus' 'yoke, . . .
[that is] heavier /Than lead itself [and] stings more than nettles'
(5.1.95-97), for in the end he loses his friend. At the close, engaged to
Emilia, he addresses his dead cousin with a plaint that typifies the
confusion and helplessness of humanity in the hands of unpredictable fate,
the play's most important theme: '0 cousin, / That we should things desire
which do cost us / the loss of our desire! that naught could buy / Dear
love but loss of dear love!' (5.4.109-112).
Arcite is one of the
title characters and the cousin of Palamon. In 1.2 Arcite and Palamon are
affectionate friends, both nobly concerned with maintaining their honor as
chivalrous knights. However, while prisoners of war in Athens in 2.1,
both fall in love with the beauty of Emilia, sister-m-law of Duke Theseus,
and their friendship crumbles as they dispute who may claim her as their
loved one. They eventually fight a duel over Emilia, with the stipulation
by Theseus that the loser not be killed in the fight but instead executed.
Arcite wins the duel but he then dies, crushed by a runaway horse, and
Palamon gets Emilia.
As the protagonists
of a stylized chivalrous romance, the two cousins are very similar, and
their characterizations tend to blur even more given the unevenness of the
play, a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Nevertheless,
some distinctions can be drawn. In 1.1 Arcite is the leader of the two
introducing the idea of fleeing the corrupt court of Thebes and attempting
to broaden Palamon s military orientation. When they are obliged to fight
for Thebes Arcite draws the deepest conclusion from their situation.
Declaring that they will have to trust 'th'event, / That never-erring
arbitrator (1.1.114-114) he presents an important theme of the play,
humanity's helplessness to direct destiny. When their quarrel over Emilia
arises, he is the more reasonable of the two, attempting to smooth things
over in 2.1, when they meet again in 3.1, and as they prepare to duel in
3,3 He is also more sensible about the approach of Theseus, proposing that
Palamon hide and they fight later. Nevertheless, he is perfectly willing
to fight it out when Palamon insists, and when the combatants offer
petitions to the gods in 5.1, Arcite speaks to Mars, the god of war. At
his death. Arcite is simply a pawn of the plot, asking forgiveness with
his lasting personality is still further obscured by the fact that in Acts
2 to 4, Shakespeare probably wrote only one scene (3.1), and Fletcher's
Arcite is a somewhat different character from Shakespeare’s. A
sentimentalist, he laments in 2.1 the fact that imprisonment means the
cousins will not find 'The sweet embraces of a loving wife' (2.1.84) or
produce children, and he thinks achingly that 'fair-eyed maids shall weep
our banishments' (2.1.91). When in 2.2 he decides to enter the wrestling
and running competition to gain the attention of the duke's court, he is
nothing more than a stereotypical hero-in-disguise. Perhaps in light of
this, Shakespeare gives him a beautiful meditation on Emilia at the
opening of 3.1. However Arcite’s inconsistencies merely reflect the
failings of the play as a whole.
Hymen is the Roman god of marriage, as
portrayed by a celebrant in the interrupted wedding of Theseus and
Hippolyta. Hymen does not speak, he is described in the opening
stage direction as entering 'with a torch burning' (1.1.1). He
provides a not of formal dignity to the occasion.
Boy is a singer at
the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. In 1.1.1-24 the Boy sings the Song
‘Roses’, their sharp spines being gone' and strews flowers. He provides a
note of decorous festivity before the ceremony is interrupted by the
arrival of the three Queens.
Artesius is an officer under Theseus. When
Theseus' wedding is interrupted by the demands of the Three Queens for
vengeance against King Creon of Thebes, the Duke instructs Artesius to
prepare the army for war in 1.1.159-165. He then disappears from the play.
His only function is to lend a military air to the preparations.
Queens are any of
three characters in The Two Noble Kinsmen, deposed monarchs who
seek the aid of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The Queens interrupt Theseus'
wedding to tell him that their husbands have been defeated and killed by
King Creon of Thebes, who has refused to bury the kings' bodies, thereby
exposing their souls to torment. They ask Theseus to avenge this deed by
conquering Creon. The First Queen, as she is designated, implores Theseus;
the Second Queen addresses his intended bride, the Amazon Hippolyta, and
the Third speaks to Hippolyta's sister, Emilia. All three respond
favorably, but the Queens are not satisfied with anything but , instant
action, and their petitions are restated. Finally, the wedding is
postponed and Theseus sets out. In 1.4, the conquest completed, the Queens
thank Theseus, and in 1.5 they proceed with their husbands' funerals.
The Queens are part
of the ritualistic aspect of the play that links it to other Shakespeare
Romances. They are highly significant figures in 1.1, Shakespeare's
spectacular opening scene. Their sudden appearance, all in black at a
festive ceremony, is a coup de theatre, with a grand effect on stage.
Their repeated approaches, first to one character and then another, form a
dancelike, stylised sequence, a kind of liturgy that reinforces the high
seriousness of their purpose. In 1.5 they again offer an impressive
tableau, as Act 1 closes in tragic triumph.
Valerius is a
gentleman of Thebes and friend of Arcite and Palamon. In 1.2 Valerius
informs his friends of the challenge to King Creon of Thebes issued by
Duke Theseus of Athens, who intends to conquer Thebes and avenge the
king's evil behavior in refusing burial to his defeated foes. Valerius
thereby provides the link between the two title characters and Athens,
where, as prisoners of war, they will enact the main plot of the drama.
Having fulfilled this function, Valerius disappears from the play.
The herald is an attendant to Duke
Theseus. In 1.4, following the defeat of King Creon of Thebes, the
Herald informs Theseus of the identity of two of his noble prisoners of
war, Arcite and Palamon, the title characters of the play. The main
plot is thereby begun.
Woman is an attendant
of Emilia. In 2.1 the Woman converses with her mistress, who speaks of the
maidenly virtues. They are overheard by Palamon and Arcite, who fall in
love with Emilia. The Woman's decorous conversation simply offers openings
for Emilia in an incident that furthers the plot. Since most scholars
believe that 2.1 was not written by Shakespeare and most likely a creation
Messengers are any of three minor
characters that are bearers of news. In 4.2 a Messenger reports on the
arrival of Arcite and Palamon for their duel, describing the combatants
and their supporters in elaborately courtly terms. In 5.2 another
Messenger (probably played by the same actor, however) tells the Gaoler,
the Doctor, and the Wooer about the duel in a few brief lines. Scholars
generally agree that Shakespeare's collaborator John Fletcher wrote both
4.2 and 5.2, but that Shakespeare created the Messenger in 5.4, who
dramatically races on-stage to halt the execution of Palamon, crying
'Hold, hold, 0 hold, hold, hold!' (5.4.40), as Pirithous arrives with a
pardon. This bold coup de theatre advances the play to its final episode.
Gentleman is a messenger from Duke Theseus
of Athens to Emilia. In 4.2 the Gentleman informs the sorrowing Emilia
that Arcite and Palamon are prepared to duel for her love. He serves
merely to translate the scene from Emilia's soliloquy to the preparations
for the duel. Most scholars agree that 4.1 and the Gentleman were the work
of Shakespeare's collaborator, John Fletcher.
Servant is a member of the household of
Emilia. In 5 3 the Servant reports to his mistress on the progress of the
duel between Arcite and Palamon, who are fighting over her. In this way
the audience is able to experience the duel while the actual combat is
Gaoler is the
prison-warden whose Daughter goes mad with unrequited love for Palamon, a
prisoner of war and one of the title characters. The Daughter helps
Palamon escape, but when he returns to the aristocratic world, she loses
her mind. The Gaoler first appears in 2 1 where he agrees to the Wooer’s
suit for the Daughter's hand, and where he is a conventional warden to his
prisoners. He is unaware of his daughter s state when he reappears in 4.1,
worrying that he will be blamed for Palamon's escape. Once informed of the
Daughter's madness, he is helpless to ease her plight In 5.2 he objects
mildly to the prescription-that the Wooer disguise himself as Palamon and
sleep with her-but he goes along and reports her cure in 5.4. A simple
pawn of the plot. he is believed to have been the creation of
Shakespeare's collaborator, John Fletcher.
Daughter is the
deranged lover of Palamon and child of the Gaoler. Although she has
already agreed to marry the Wooer in 2.1 the Daughter falls in love with
Palamon, a prisoner of war in her father's prison. After remarking to her
father on the nobility of Palamon and his fellow prisoner, Arcite, in 2.1,
the Daughter appears alone for her next four scenes, all soliloquies. In
2.3 she declares that she will help Palamon escape, and in 2 5 she reports
that she has done so. In 3.2 she is alone in the woods, unable to find
Palamon and clearly going mad. She decides that Palamon has been eaten by
wild animals and contemplates suicide. Her fourth soliloquy in 3.4 is
frankly insane, as she gabbles of shipwrecks and a magic frog and sings
scraps of Song. In 3.5, wandering insanely through the countryside she is
recruited for the rustic entertainment directed by the Schoolmaster.
Finally, in Act 4 she returns home, where the Doctor prescribes that the
Wooer, disguised as Palamon, take her to bed. The treatment apparently
works, for her father later reports that she is is 'well restored, / And
to be married shortly' (5.4.27-28).
Though she resembles
Shakespeare's Ophelia—both are unlucky in love, both gather flowers by a
lakeside (see 4.1.54, 78), and both sing bits of song (in 4.1.108 the
Daughter names a song Ophelia sings in Hamlet 4.5.184)—the Daughter is a
very un-Shakespearean character. Her chief function is clearly as an
object of humor, for in Shakespeare's day insanity was regarded as highly
amusing. Her diatribes are conventional indications of madness, artificial
and unconvincing, and her cure is laughable, as it was doubtless intended
to be. She was almost certainly not created by Shakespeare but by his
collaborator John Fletcher, who probably wrote all the scenes she appears
in (though some scholars attribute 2.1 and the best of her soliloquies,
3.2, to Shakespeare).
In 4.1, the brother of Gaoler's
accompanies the Gaoler deranged Daughter who is returning home. He
is a mere pawn and was probably created by Fletcher, who wrote this scene
in the opinion of most scholars.
Wooer is the suitor
of the Daughter of the Gaoler. In 2.1 the Wooer agrees with the Gaoler on
a marriage contract, saying that he has the Daughter's consent to marry
him. He is not seen again until Act 4, after the Daughter has gone mad
with unrequited love for the nobleman Palamon. Though unafflicted with
jealousy and sympathetic to her plight, the Wooer is helpless to ease it,
until in 4.3 the Doctor prescribes that he disguise himself as Palamon and
woo her, adding in 5.2 the instruction that he sleep with her, to which he
readily assents. He proposes to her and is accepted, but she suggests bed
before he can. The Doctor's ploy works, for the Daughter is later reported
to be 'well restored, / And to be married shortly' (5.4.27-28). Slightly
buffoonish, the Wooer is a gentle but undistinguished fellow, merely a
necessary part of the subplot. He is probably the creation of
Shakespeare's collaborator John Fletcher, to whom the scenes he appears in
Friends are either
one of two characters that are acquaintances of the Gaoler. In 4.1 the
Friends assure the Gaoler that Theseus, Duke of Athens, has forgiven him
for the fact that Palamon has escaped from his gaol with the assistance of
his Daughter, and they sympathize with him when the Wooer brings evidence
that the Daughter is deranged. The Friends, mere pawns of the plot, were
probably not Shakespeare's creations, for most scholars agree that 4.1 was
written by his collaborator, John Fletcher.
The physician who treats the Daughter when
she is obsessed with the nobleman Palamon, whom she helps escape from jail
but does not see again. in 4.3 the Doctor prescribes that her Wooer
humor her by pretending to be Palamon. In 5.2 he adds that the
disguised Wooer should sleep with her, to which the young man readily
agrees . In 5.4 the Gaoler reports that the Daughter is 'well
restored,/And to be married shortly' (5.4 27-28). The comic Doctor
was probably created by Fletcher to whom scholars usually assign both 4.3
peasants. In 2.2 four Countrymen tell Arcite of wrestling and running
competitions at a country fair. The outcast nobleman subsequently
distinguishes himself at the fair, coming to the attention of the court of
Duke Theseus, and thus meeting his beloved, Emilia. Six Countrymen appear
in 3.5, one of them dressed as a Bavian, or baboon, as part of the duke's
entertainment; five of them, with Nell and her friends, perform a dance
under the direction of the Schoolmaster. Most scholars agree that neither
2.1 nor 3.5 was written by Shakespeare; thus, the Countrymen are probably
the creation of John Fletcher.
The schoolmaster is the director of a
country dance performance. In 3.5 the Schoolmaster directs a group
of Countrymen and women, including Nell, in an entertainment presented to
the court of Duke Theseus. He is comically pedantic, both in
instructing his charges and in his prologue to the performance.
Since most scholars believe that Shakespeare did not write 3.5, the
Schoolmaster is probably a creation of Fletcher.
Nell is a country lass who performs in a
dance before Duke Theseus. In 3.5 the five young women assemble for the
dance; Nell is the only one who speaks, assuring her director, the
Schoolmaster, that they will do well. Her half-line—a scoffing 'Let us
alone, sir' (3.5.31)—contributes to the scene's sense of rustic festivity.
However, most scholars agree that Shakespeare did not write 3.5, so Nell
is probably the creation of John Fletcher.
The Taborer accompanies the Countrymen and
the lasses led by Nell in their dance performed before Theseus in 3.5.
Most scholars agree that neither 2.1 nor 3.5 was written by Shakespeare;
thus, the Countrymen are probably the creation of John Fletcher.
Bavian is a performer
dressed as a baboon, or bavian. The Bavian is part of an entertainment
performed before Theseus in 3.5. He speaks only two words, 'Yes, sir'
(3.5.37), in response to his director, the Schoolmaster, who tells him,
'My friend, carry your tail without offence / Or scandal to the ladies;
and be sure / You tumble with audacity and manhood, / And when you bark do
it with judgement' (3.5.34-37). This directive casts an amusing light on
English rustic entertainments of the 17th century. However, most scholars
agree that Shakespeare did not write this scene; the Bavian and his
instructions are probably the work of John Fletcher.
Executioner is the ax
man prepared to behead Palamon. The executioner does not speak as he
stands ready in 5.4; his presence merely serves to heighten the tension
with a visible reminder of Palamon's apparent end, before a pardon
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