The Two Noble Kinsmen is probably the least known of Shakespeare's plays, in good part because (in the opinion of all but a few scholars) much of it was written by someone else, probably John Fletcher. It has rarely been performed or even published over the centuries, though modern commentators' growing interest in Shakespeare's Romances encompasses this work.
Considered separately, the parts of The Two Noble Kinsmen written by Shakespeare present the germ of a better and more interesting work than the play as a whole turned out to be. Shakespeare wrote Acts 1 and 5_with some exceptions—plus 3.1 and perhaps some other minor passages. With the beginning and the end of the play, he could introduce characters and themes and bring them to the climax of the action. Scenes 1.1 and 5.1 are especially strong, containing much good poetry and several spectacular theatrical effects. Shakespeare's only substantial contribution to the development between these phases is the encounter between Arcite and Palamon, when they prepare to duel even as they recognize their profound affection for each other. A number, of fine passages of verse in 3.1—especially Arcite^ lyrical praise of Emilia sharpen the audience's appreciation that the developing story is more than an assemblage of cliches about knighthood and courtly love enlivened by a comic subplot.
In Shakespeare's portions of the play, The Two Noble Kinsmen displays many of the characteristics of his other late works, and it is properly grouped with the romances. The playwright was clearly employing the techniques of spectacle, exotic characters and settings, and bizarre plotting with much the same intention as in other romances—to demonstrate humanity's dependence on providence in the face of inscrutable destiny and to evoke the nobility of the human spirit in the face of this knowledge.
The spectacular is less dramatic and effective in The Two Noble Kinsmen than in, say, The Tempest, but it is nonetheless present. Theseus and Hippolyta's elaborate wedding opens the play on a ceremonious note, only to be interrupted by the extraordinary sight of the three Queens, all in black and thus contrasting strikingly with the wedding party's festive finery. The Queens' manner is sternly formal, as they first address Theseus and receive his response, then do the same in turn with Hippolyta and Emilia. This ritualistic exchange makes the gravity of their plea unmistakable. The effect is augmented as the plea is repeated with variations: when they receive a promise of support, they demand instant action; when Artesius is assigned to the task, they demand Theseus. The importance of this presentation becomes clear when we consider how Shakespeare has altered his source. In Chaucer’s tale (see 'Sources' below), Theseus is already married, only a single Queen pleads—and only with him—and he consents immediately. In contrast, Shakespeare delayed the process, for action is less important in The Two Noble Kinsmen than emotion, here manifested in an almost religious atmosphere of courtliness and mystery. It is appropriate that the first character on stage should be Hymen, a god.
This religious atmosphere recurs in the funeral procession of 1.5. Throughout the play, references to rituals of various sorts, along with manifold allusions to the pagan gods, both singly and collectively, maintain our awareness of the need for harmony with the divine, a consideration that underlies the action. In 5.1 the play's evocation of religion and mystery is at its most intense. The three petitions to pagan gods and the divine responses are in themselves meaningful, as we shall see, but they are also important for the atmosphere they create. Highly elaborate, with startling sound and physical effects—doubtless devised with an eye to the increased technical capacities of the Blackfriars Theatre—they evoke awe and wonder appropriate to the extraordinary twists of fate in the coming climax. The supplicants' prayers comprise the best poetry of the play, and the divine responses are gratifymgly spectacular. They are mysterious yet, as the baffled Emilia observes, 'gracious' (5.1.173). The exotic beauty of this scene is generally considered the high point of The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Such spectacle is effective simply for its own sake Shakespeare was certainly inspired in part by the increasing popularity of the Masque—but it also helps further the themes of the play. As in the other late plays, the central proposition of The Two Noble Kinsmen is that humanity is dependent on providence. In the face of a destiny we cannot understand, we can only accept our fate and hope the gods will refrain from destroying us. This point of view is less pessimistic than it sounds when reduced to its essentials, for the nobility of humanity's continuing survival in the face of such knowledge is impressive. At least, we see the potential for such nobility in each individual.
We are repeatedly reminded of fate's importance Even the celebratory, flower-filled opening hymn finishes with a sinister hint of fatality in its allusions to birds of ill omen. Theseus recalls the wedding day of the grieving Queen and rhetorically addresses destiny, '0 grief and time, / Fearful consumers, you will all devour!' (1.1.69-70). In 1.2 Palamon declares that Creon is corrupting Thebes by making 'heaven unfeared' (1.2.64); nevertheless, the young men seem powerless to avoid entanglement in Creon's corruption. Admitting that helplessness, Arcite entrusts their future to 'th'event, / that never-erring arbitrator' (1.2. 113-114). Hippolyta hopes that Theseus, in combat, will be able 'To dure ill-dealing fortune' (1.3.5), and a defeated knight, facing execution, declares that the winners have 'Fortune, whose title is ... momentary' (5.4.17). Even after victory Theseus speaks of'Th'impartial gods, who from the mounted heavens / View us their mortal herd' (1.4.5). Using a different metaphor for human helplessness before fate, Pirithous describes Arcite's flagging life as 'a vessel . . . that floats but for / The surge that next approaches' (5.4. 82-84). At the end, reviewing the final twist of fate, Theseus declares, 'Never fortune / Did play a subtler game' (5.4.112-113). Fortune is omnipresent in the play's world, yet it is entirely beyond human control or understanding.
Tellingly, the gods answer the eloquent prayers of 5.1, but not in a way that could have been anticipated-fortune is certain but unpredictable. Arcite prays that he may 'Be styled the lord o'th'day' (5.1.60), and he is indeed declared the winner of the duel, but he loses Emilia and his life, as the horse she gives him proves deadly. Palamon asks Venus for victory as 'true love's merit' (5.4.128), but he only gains Emilia through Arcite's accidental death. Emilia prays that the cousin who loves her best should win. This would appear to be Palamon, for he is associated with Venus rather than Mars; moreover, since he saw her first and is more rightly her lover—as Arcite finally admits—he is more truly fighting in the cause of love, with Arcite more intent on defending his personal honour. Yet it is Arcite who wins, even though Emilia does in the end have her wish granted. As expectations are upset and then fulfilled, but fulfilled only tragically, our sense of the incomprehensibility of providence is compounded.
The play, however, counters any implicit fatalism by repeatedly stressing the importance of human nobility. The emphasis begins in the Prologue with the assertion that the story being told has in itself a 'nobleness' (Prologue, 15) that the creators of the drama are striving to uphold, and that Chaucer was its 'noble breeder' (10). The nobility of Palamon and Arcite—explicit in the play's title—is repeatedly confirmed by the other characters. Their friendship is bound up in their appreciation of each other's noble qualities, and it is itself conventionally noble in a literary tradition that was still very much alive in Shakespeare's day. From medieval times into the 17th century, intense friendship between noble young warriors, especially when disrupted by heterosexual love, was the subject of many novels, poems, and plays—including Two Gentlemen of Verona and some of the Sonnets. The theme of these works was the essential nobility—the spiritual superiority—of such a relationship. Arcite and Palamon had been celebrated in this light before—even before Chaucer—and Shakespeare obviously intended to do so again. The theme is paralleled in Hippolyta's description of the friendship of Theseus and Pirithous in 1.3.26-47, and in Emilia's touching account of her own childhood relationship with the deceased Lavinia in 1.3.49-82.
Emilia herself is another instance of nobility. In Act 1 she and Hippolyta demonstrate their inherent magnanimity in their response to the Queens, and in Act 5 Emilia displays a noble combination of heightened emotion and disinterested concern for honourable propriety, which is pointedly isolated by the playwright in 5.3, when the duel is held off-stage and reflected in her responses.
It is Theseus, however, who is the central figure at the play's opening and again at its end (although he is a less significant figure in Fletcher's portions of the play). His nobility is strongly emphasized. At least in Acts 1 and 5, his actions are strikingly courtly and generous at every turn: towards the Queens, towards his wounded prisoners of war, in his arrangements for the religious petitions of the duelists, and in his responses to them after the duel and its tragic aftermath Most important, at the play's close, he adopts a pointedly serene and courageous attitude towards the buffetings of fate to which the play's world has been subjected. This stance has great moral weight, not simply because Theseus closes the play—as its highest-ranking figure, he would do that anyway in the theatrical protocol of Shakespeare's day—but because he has been established as a highly noble man.
The play's emphasis on nobility, while part of an old tradition of chivalric heroes in romance literature, also has a more immediate point: in the face of destiny, human beings are helpless, and it is necessary to accept this. In The Two Noble Kinsmen the nobility of the title characters lies in their unhesitating acceptance of their situation. Forced by circumstances to fight for Creon, they 'follow / the becking of our chance' (1.2. 115-116). Seized by an obsession, Arcite strives only to 'maintain [his] proceedings' and 'clear [his] own way with the mind and sword / Of a true gentleman' (3.1.53, 56-57). Palamon also accepts his fateful love, with its corollary of enmity to Arcite, 'As 'twere a wreath of roses, [though it] is heavier / Than lead itself, stings more than nettles' (5.1.96-97). The kinsmen's seemingly senseless system of honor provides them with a recourse: in the face of an inexorable destiny, nobility consists in accepting our losses and maintaining our dignity. Although Emilia can cry, 'Is this winning? / 0 all you heavenly powers, where is your mercy?' (5.3.138-139), she immediately concedes that if the gods' 'wills have said it must be so'(5.3.140), then she must accept it. In the play's last lines, Theseus addresses the divinities, '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). The characters in the play accept their circumstances, and therein lies their significance.
Had Shakespeare written the middle of the play as well as its introduction and close. The Two Noble Kinsmen might convey more of the mystery and beauty of human existence, with the power of The Winter's Tale or The Tempest. As it is, the play is greatly weakened by Fletcher's contribution. Shakespeare's resonant themes are diminished by a series of Subplots, and his emphasis on ceremony and ritual is abandoned in favor of melodrama, comedy, and pathos. The story of the Gaoler's Daughter is weakened by the omission of any contact between her and Palamon, and her madness is an unconvincing pastiche of conventional symptoms. The Doctor's lewd prescription is at best vulgar humor; it has no function but comic relief and bears no relation to lunacy, even to the unrealistic madness depicted. The second sub-plot, the presentation of the Schoolmaster's rustic entertainment, barely deserves to be called a sub-plot, for it is merely an excuse to present a popular dance number. Pleasant but irrelevant, it lacks the vigor of the real personalities that fill Shakespeare's equivalent scenes, most notably in The Winter's Tale.
More important, Palamon and Arcite are much less impressive figures. In 2.1, when they fall in love with Emilia and begin to quarrel, furthering the plot and observing the chivalric conventions, they are different men from the pair met in 1.2. Their revulsion at Thebes' corruption—their most prominent characteristic in 1.2—has been replaced by a nostalgia for 'our noble country' (2.1.61). The reliance on personal honor that permitted them to entrust themselves to the 'never-erring arbitrator' (1.2.114) is superseded by thoughts that 'fair-eyed maids shall weep our banishments' (2.1.91). Sentiment takes precedence over character. Shakespeare's maintainance of the cousins' nobility in 3.1 is utterly wasted in 3.3, a scene filled with stale jests about 'the wenches / We have known in our days!' (3.3.28-29). Only in 3.6, where they assist each other before beginning the duel and then face Theseus, do the kinsmen approach their earlier nobility. However, this scene is somewhat redundant thematically—combining the fondness and enmity already presented in 3.1—and Fletcher's poetry is distinctly more pedestrian than Shakespeare's.
The Two Noble Kinsmen has its virtues. It contains scattered passages of good poetry in Shakespeare's complex late style, especially in 1.1 and 5.1. The spectacles in 1.1 and 5.1, as well as the funeral procession of 1.5 and dance of 3.5, are theatrically impressive in a good production. Most important, enough of Shakespeare's premise comes through in Acts 1 and 5 that a fine performance permits an audience to experience some sense of awe at the inexorability of the human condition. However, one has only to compare this work with Shakespeare's undiluted efforts to realize how inadequate it is. It may be best seen as a business venture: Shakespeare, about to retire—possibly already living in Stratford—was called upon by his company, the King’s Men, to collaborate with its rising creative star, Fletcher, and the two produced a workmanlike job, which seems to have had at least a modicum of success. As such, it is an interesting demonstration of early 17th-century tastes, and since it incorporates what is quite possibly Shakespeare's last dramatic writing, it merits more attention than it would otherwise get.
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