The Two Noble Kinsmen (Vol. 58)
The Two Noble Kinsmen
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Two Noble Kinsmen, see SC, Volumes 9, 41, and 50.
Most likely written and first performed in 1613, The Two Noble Kinsmen is generally regarded as the result of a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, although some debate continues regarding the extent to which each dramatist contributed to the play. The play's prologue cites its debt to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, written circa 1387, which itself is an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseide (c. 1340). Modern criticism is concerned with the way the issues of love, friendship, and sexuality are explored in the play, particularly in the relationships of Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia. Other areas of interest to modern critics include The Two Noble Kinsmen's language and structure, as well as the play's relation to its source, The Knight's Tale.
There are many relationships portrayed in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and they all seem to become entangled during the course of the play. The friends Palamon and Arcite pine and later battle for Emilia, who longs for the company of her childhood friend, Flavina. Many critics focus on these interactions, although the relationship of Hippolyta and Theseus, as well as those involving the jailer's daughter in the subplot, also generate critical discussion. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1989) studies how the women in the play threaten the way the men define themselves. The threats to male self-definition and patriarchal order posed by female virginity and lasciviousness, explains Roberts, are embodied in the characters of Emilia and the jailer's daughter, and are subdued through marriage. Like Roberts, Richard Mallette (1995) comments on the role of marriage in the play. Mallette finds that while marriage appears to win ascendancy over same-sex desire, the play stresses that violence results from the dominance of marriage, and that desire is destroyed in the process. Taking a different approach, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1998) centers her analysis on the Platonic relationships in the play, specifically, the Platonic love and spiritual friendship between Palamon and Arcite, and Platonic love in the form of courtly love in the relationship between Palamon and Emilia. Simonds discusses the Renaissance views regarding such Platonic relationships and maintains that Renaissance tragicomedy traditionally ended with the celebration of temperance, a Platonic virtue, and the marriage between a man and a woman. Simonds also identifies the satiric way Platonic love is treated in the play, as in the case of Emilia and Palamon.
The Two Noble Kinsmen makes no secret of the fact that its source is Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, and many critics seek to explore the particulars of the relationship between the two works. E. Talbot Donaldson (1985) investigates some of the ways the play differs from its source poem, specifically in the area of characterization. Donaldson discovers that in Chaucer's work, the gods possess an objective existence absent in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and that while Palamon's role changes little, Arcite's role is significantly altered. Arcite loses the common sense he possessed in The Knight's Tale, explains Donaldson, who also notes that Emilia is a more fully drawn character in the play than in the poem. Lois Potter (1997) analyzes not only the play's relation to Chaucer, but the use Chaucer made of Boccaccio's work. Additionally, Potter comments on the dramatists' inclusion of the subplot involving the jailer's daughter, and observes that the play's attitude toward courtly love and friendship is clouded by Chaucer's ambivalence toward the topic.
Given that the play was composed by two dramatists, its language and structure are especially interesting to critics. Paul Bertram (1965) offers an overview of the play's arrangement, noting that it is structured around three primary movements—the war against Creon, the May Day contests, and the final tournament. Bertram challenges the commonly held notion that The Two Noble Kinsmen suffers from an absence of controlling organization or consistency of development. A. Lynne Magnusson (1987) limits her study of the play's language to two of Shakespeare's parts, the first and final scenes of the play. The critic contends that these scenes are marked by particularly ornate and eloquent language. Magnusson attempts to discover the purpose of such language, and finds that both scenes use the eloquence as stylistic ornamentation designed to hide a “failure of substance.”
Criticism: Language And Structure
SOURCE: “The Composition of the Play,” in Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen, Rutgers University Press, 1965, pp. 264-82.
[In the following excerpt, Bertram surveys the arrangement of the play and contends that contrary to common assumption, the play possesses a controlled organization and is consistently developed.]
THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE STORY
The story itself has evidently given trouble to some critics, Theodore Spencer for example:
The story of Palamon and Arcite, whether told by Boccaccio, Chaucer, or Shakespeare and Fletcher, is intrinsically feeble, superficial, and undramatic. For there is no real difference between Palamon and Arcite; they are both noble individuals, and the only reasons Palamon, rather than Arcite, wins the lady whom they both love are (a) that he saw her first and (b) that he had the sense to pray for success to Venus rather than to Mars.1
Spencer goes on to suggest that “these reasons … may have been more forceful in Chaucer's day … than they were in Shakespeare's,” but a reply to his objections had better not fuss over history: an audience in Chaucer's, Shakespeare's, or our own day might well be less interested in the final score than in the progress of the game. Two young men, equally gifted with every aristocratic grace, fall in love with...
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SOURCE: “The Collapse of Shakespeare's High Style in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XIII, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 375-90.
[In the following essay, Magnusson examines the language and style of the eloquent first and last scenes of The Two Noble Kinsmen. In both scenes Magnusson finds that Shakespeare's stylistic ornamentation is designed to conceal a dearth of substance.]
The ornate eloquence of Shakespeare's share in The Two Noble Kinsmen has often drawn tributes to a play that has not recommended itself to directors:1
The first and last acts … of the Two Noble Kinsmen, which, in point of composition, is perhaps the most superb work in the language, and beyond all doubt from the loom of Shakspeare, would have been the most gorgeous rhetoric, had they not happened to be something far better. The supplications of the widowed Queens to Theseus, the invocations of their tutelar divinities by Palamon and Arcite, the death of Arcite, &c. are finished in a more elaborate style of excellence than any other almost of Shakspeare's most felicitous scenes. In their first intention, they were perhaps merely rhetorical; but the furnace of comparison has transmuted their substance … into the pure gold of poetry.2
Thomas De Quincey raises no questions about the...
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Criticism: Love, Sex, And Friendship
SOURCE: “Crises of Male Self-Definition in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, University of Missouri Press, 1989, pp. 133-44.
[In the following essay, Roberts maintains that the way in which the males in The Two Noble Kinsmen define themselves is threatened by female virginity and lasciviousness, represented by Emilia and the jailer's daughter, respectively. These threats, states Roberts, are subdued by marriage.]
The appearance of an Amazon in the scenario of a classical or Renaissance tale is an infallible clue to an area of male anxiety, a signal of threatened erosion to a systematically constructed patriarchal world view.1 As a virginal or only rarely sexual (and then exclusively for procreation) female, the Amazon is impervious to male charms; living without men, she fights them as their equals or superiors; as horsewoman, archer, and hunter, she impinges on and sometimes invades male domains, threatening even such strongholds of civilized (patriarchal) sanctity as Athens itself.2 For the Greeks she was an intriguing and terrifying male nightmare. For the Elizabethans, the Amazonian image was revivified by the real presence of a queen whose formidable virginal power conjured up but never completely coincided with memories of the classical myth. Although it surely hovered in the background, the identification of...
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SOURCE: “Same-Sex Erotic Friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XXVI, 1995, pp. 29-52.
[In the following essay, Mallette investigates the play's exploration of love, friendship, desire, and marriage, asserting that the dramatists stress the ruin of same-sex desire rather than the ascendancy of marriage.]
At the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen, having vanquished his cousin and friend Arcite in chivalric contest for the hand of Emilia, Palamon belatedly grasps the irony of his triumph:
O cousin, That we should things desire which do cost us The loss of our desire! that nought could buy Dear love but loss of dear love!
Palamon's bitter sense of the price of victory goes to the heart of the play's dilemma. The Two Noble Kinsmen makes strenuous efforts to balance competing sets of desires—in the cousins' case, between friendship and romantic love. But, as Palamon notes, the achievement of one “dear love” entails the loss of another. On the one hand, the play insists on the ascendancy of marriage over friendship: the kinsmen renounce their amity and become violent rivals for the affections of the beloved. On the other hand, the play equally asserts the price of that ascendancy: if marriage prevails over same-sex...
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SOURCE: “Platonic Horses in The Two Noble Kinsmen: From Passion to Temperance,” in Renaissance Papers, 1998, pp. 91-101.
[In the following essay, Simonds contends that The Two Noble Kinsmen provides a “sophisticated and amused” analysis of several different kinds of love. Simonds focuses on the play's treatment of Platonic love—the love and spiritual friendship between two males, and the courtly love between a man and a woman—and argues that as tragicomedy the play's ending celebrates the Platonic virtue of temperance in the lawful marriage between a man and woman. At the same time, Simonds highlights the satirical aspects of the dramatists' portrayal of this type of Platonic love.]
The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher is a Renaissance tragicomedy concerned with different kinds of love.1 Our recognition of the genre is important since it will determine the final objective of the play. For example, the objective of tragedy is the communal celebration of a sacrificial death after some real or imagined fall from the ideal and a final catharsis of guilt for human imperfections. The objective of comedy is a celebration of lust, or that aspect of human irrationality which usually leads to marriage and fertility through the complex social rituals of sexual love. In contrast, the final objective of Renaissance tragicomedy is the controlling of...
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Criticism: Relation To Chaucer
SOURCE: “Love, War, and the Cost of Winning: The Knight's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 50-73.
[In the following essay, Donaldson studies the differences between the portrayals of Palamon and Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen and in Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, observing that Shakespeare and Fletcher eliminated distinctions between the two kinsmen that appear in Chaucer's poem.]
It is the chief misfortune of one who is considering the relation of Chaucer to Shakespeare that there is no way to avoid that most distressing of plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Though the play was written in collaboration with Fletcher, it still represents Shakespeare's most direct and unquestionable use of a Chaucerian source—as the Prologue to the play proclaims it to be—and it would be dereliction of duty for me to ignore it. It's not that it is a bad play (though I don't think it a very good one), but that it is a very unpleasant one in which the dark side that Shakespeare saw in The Knight's Tale when he was writing A Midsummer Night's Dream is fulsomely re-expressed. But rereading the play along with its source may enhance one's appreciation of it, as Philip Edwards' brilliant article “On the Design of The Two Noble Kinsmen” has demonstrated.1 I am both...
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, edited by Lois Potter, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edition, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1997, pp. 40-59.
[In the following excerpt, Potter reviews the sources from which Shakespeare and Fletcher drew in penning The Two Noble Kinsmen, focusing on the use the dramatists made of Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Additionally, Potter comments on Chaucer's source material.]
THE THEBAN STORY BEFORE CHAUCER
The history of Thebes is mythical. Its walls rose to the sound of music; its people sprang up from the ground when its founder Cadmus sowed the teeth of a dragon. The dragon-offspring immediately began killing each other, and fratricide and incest continued to dominate Theban history to the point where it became an archetype of the evil city. The story of Oedipus, which combines virtually all the great tragic themes, was the gods' revenge on the whole house of Cadmus. When Oedipus went into exile, his sons Eteocles and Polynices agreed to share the rule of the kingdom by turns. At the end of the first year, seized by the lust for power, Eteocles refused to give up the throne. Polynices made war on him, at the head of an army from Argos. At the siege of Thebes, he and all his allies were killed, as was Eteocles. Oedipus' brother Creon succeeded.
All three of...
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Cutts, John P. “Shakespeare's Song and Masque Hand in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” English Miscellany 18 (1967): 55-85.
Attacks the problem of authorship through an examination of the use of masque, music, and song in all of the plays the King's Men performed during the reign of James I, particularly focusing on The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Potter, Lois. “The Two Noble Kinsmen: Spectacle and Narrative.” In The Show Within: Dramatic and Other Insets. English Renaissance Drama (1550-1642): Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Montpellier 22-25 November 1990, edited by François Laroque, pp. 235-51. Montpellier: Publications de Université Paul-Valéry. 1992.
Studies the relationship between the play's elaborate ceremonies and its use of narrative, noting that the play emphasizes narrative over spectacle.
———. “Topicality or Politics? The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1613-34.” In The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After, edited by Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope, pp. 77-91. London: Routledge, 1992.
Questions whether or not The Two Noble Kinsmen can be viewed as “inherently political” and comments on the politics of theater and criticism. Potter argues that the political meaning of the play is a matter of context, and in this case, the...
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