The Two Noble Kinsman
Love triangles make for intriguing relationships from afar but are not so interesting if you're part of the wacky relationship. In the last play that Shakespeare was involved in writing, two young cousins, best friends and dutiful soldiers, fall in love with the same woman. The Two Noble Kinsman, written in collaboration with the Bard's protoge John Fletcher sometime in 1614, follows closely the Romance type story structure of tragedy and reconciliation, but with darker and more uneven tones that are very apparent from two very different writers. Most scholars believe that the two playwrights took about half of the play each with Shakespeare taking Act 1, Scene 1, Act 3, and Act 5, Scene 2 and was never attributed to Shakespeare during his lifetime. The first mention is of any Shakespearean connection is made when the quarto below was licensed for printing. The claim has been disputed by scholars ever since and only in the last century has the play won general acceptance as one of Shakespeare's accepted works.
The play's first appearance in print, a quarto version in 1634.
Picking up around the same time of A MId Summer Night's Dream with the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, the play takes a darker turn as three queens arrive and ask for Duke Theseus assistance in helping to defeat the evil King Creon who has attacked their homeland. Theseus agrees and leads an army to defeat Creon, in the process two nobleman from the rival army are captured, Palamon and Arcite. Though the two were on their way out of Thebes, they were caught up in the ensuing battle. As the two lay in prison, they dispair their current circumstances however, take comfort in the knowledge that they are better off than most men since they have their friendship and long history together to weather these hard times. That is until both of them spot Emilia, the sister of Hipplolyta, Thesus bride, in the prison garden. Both of them fall immediatly in love and chide the other for doing so. Jealousy for a woman they haven't met slowly burns into the two men, who continue to swear loyalty to each but pine for this one woman.
Fate intervenes as Arcite is banished from the court while Palamon is left to rot in jail, each thinking the other has the best advantage to win Emilia. The jailer's daughter falls madly in love with him and he uses her to escape from jail. Arcite assembles arms and returns disguised to win Emilia and battle for her if necessary. The two meet and begin a long battle despite their shared past and friendship. The fugitive pair are found by Duke Theseus when out hunting (a repeat from a Mid Summer episode) and they are sentenced to fight each at a tournement instead. Emilia is dumbfounded as she learns of the cousins affections and cannot bring herself to choose one. It is decided that the victor of the event will win Emilia's hand, the decision being left up to the gods. Though Arcite is victorious, he thrown from his horse after the event and dies in Palamon's arms giving up any right to Emilia. Palamon is spared execution and Emilia goes to him, feeling it was divinly ordained.
The story follows very closely the story of The Knight's Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. While, in A Mid Summer Night's Dream, the same source is used just for setting, the actual plot comes into play for 'Two Kinsman'. While it does follow the Romance story structure and its classical source, Arcite's death at the end leaves many disturbed rather reconciled to the fate of Palamon and Emilia. Even the play's epilogue seems to indicate that the story may not have been sufficient to Fletcher as the actor speaks of presenting a better play at another viewing. In many ways the play seems like two plays in one and while it has interesting character studies and interplay between Palamon, Arcite, Emilia and the Jailer's Daughter and scenes of great action and pagentry, the overall story remains somewhat contradictory. As with all of Shakespeare's works, it works more effectively on stage than read. The play was most likely left out the First Folio because it was thought more to be a work of Fletcher's, but actually suffered on his part as well as the play was not added in his collected works until his second folio. Aside from a couple of passing performances in the 17th century, the play was produced again until the 20th century and only in the last few years has it been repeatedly done due mostly to its now acceptance into the canon, most notably the 2000 production at the Globe Theater in London. The play is best seen as a final collaboration that works well as a spectacle play, but does include a very haunting farewell which were the last lines that Shakespeare ever wrote for a play.
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