The Two Noble Kinsmen (Vol. 70)
The Two Noble Kinsmen
For further information on the critical history of The Two Noble Kinsmen, see SC, Volumes 9, 41, 50, and 58.
One of Shakespeare's least known plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen is believed to have been written by both Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Although most scholars accept the idea of joint authorship, some critics claim that Shakespeare had no part in the writing of the play. Not only is the question of the nature of Fletcher and Shakespeare's collaboration a topic of critical debate, but the concept of collaboration itself has been examined as a theme of the play. Other areas of critical investigation include the theme of friendship and the play's genre. In his introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, G. R. Proudfoot (1970) discusses the ways in which the play diverges from the formula of tragicomedy, noting that unlike other contemporary tragicomedies, The Two Noble Kinsmen sustains its somber quality through the play's ending. After reviewing the play's relation to Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, and surveying its themes, Proudfoot concludes that the play is notable not for its characters, but for its masterful control of tragicomic effects. In reviews of modern productions of The Two Noble Kinsmen, the portrayal of the relationship between the two kinsmen, Palamon and Arcite, is frequently of major interest.
The issue of collaboration, in terms of the authorial relationship between Shakespeare and Fletcher, and as a theme in the play, has been explored by critics such as Charles H. Frey (1989) and Donald K. Hedrick (1989). Frey argues that the play exhibits a strategy designed to deflect the audience's attention away from the nature of the authors' collaboration (with each other and/or with their source material) in order to direct attention to the more important collaboration between the producers of the play and the audience. Hedrick takes a different approach to the issue of collaboration, claiming that The Two Noble Kinsmen's thematic exploration of the nature of artistic rivalry suggests that Shakespeare did not collaborate in the writing of the play. Hedrick goes on to explain that Fletcher's coauthor “is wholly unskilled in the degree and kind of indirect, inferential, second-order speech acts characteristic of Shakespeare.” Additionally, Hedrick employs the feminist theory of homosociability as a tool for dissecting the play's depiction of collaboration as a subtext, maintaining that such an approach further underscores the improbability of Shakespeare's joint authorship. Just as Hedrick's analysis includes a discussion of the homosocial relationships in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Alan Stewart (1999) similarly investigates the nature of the idealized male friendship between Palamon and Arcite. Stewart examines the failure of their friendship, and suggests that the relationship is doomed because of the conflict between humanist and chivalric notions of male friendship, and the realities of male relations and kinship bonds in Jacobean England.
The nature of the relationship between Palamon and Arcite is just as fascinating to modern producers of the play as it is to Shakespearean scholars. One production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, directed by Tim Carroll and performed at the Globe Theater, has been assessed by Matt Wolf (2000) and Lois Potter (2001). Potter praises the performances of Jasper Britton as Palamon and Will Keen as Arcite, observing their ability to establish a good relationship with the audience and applauding their treatment of the relationship's mixture of tragic and comic elements. Potter additionally states that Kate Fleetwood's performance as the Jailer's Daughter underscored the serious issue of the character's madness, and comments that as a whole the production was satisfying. In Wolf's favorable appraisal of the production, he offers high praise for Britton's Palamon and describes the production as “enchanting.”
Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. “The Actor's the Thing at Shakespeare's Globe.” Variety 380, no. 3 (4-10 September 2000): 32-4.
[In the following excerpted review, Wolf assesses Tim Carroll's production of The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe Theater, offering his praise of Jasper Britton's performance as Palamon and finding the production as a whole “enchanting.”]
Among the various criticisms made of Shakespeare's Globe over the four seasons that the rebuilt playhouse has been attracting summertime hordes, one lament has more or less stuck: the theater's inability to attract name performers to a venue seemingly bigger than any individual who might appear there. (Vanessa Redgrave's presence this summer as Prospero was very much the starry exception, not the rule.) Still, as the Royal Shakespeare Co. learned ages ago, if you're not going to entice the heavy hitters, why not do the next best thing and create them? With that in mind, one will remember the Globe's Y2K repertoire as the season that cemented artistic director Mark Rylance's very real stature even as it heralded the thirty something Jasper Britton as a star.
Son of Tony Britton, the long-established English thesp, Britton fils is hardly unknown. Last season, he was a more-than-reliable participant in Trevor Nunn's inaugural National Theater ensemble, playing (among other roles) Shakespeare's sore-ridden Thersites and, later,...
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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “This Distracted Globe: Summer 2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 124-32.
[In the following excerpted review of The Two Noble Kinsmen, directed by Tim Carroll for the Globe Theater, Potter comments on the director's excising of the text, noting that Carroll valued simplicity over spectacle.]
The Globe season of 2000 paired two famous Shakespeare plays about madness, metatheatricality, and exotic travel (Hamlet and The Tempest) with two rarities: a Fletcher-Shakespeare collaboration (The Two Noble Kinsmen), whose most popular character has always been an Ophelia-like madwoman; and The Antipodes, a Brome comedy of the next generation about the cure of a hero who has gone mad from reading travel literature. Whether these interconnections were intended or merely the product of casting needs and directorial schedules, the result was a season of unusual coherence, though, at the same time, each play could be enjoyed on its own terms. Even if metatheatricality had not been a theme of the plays, it would have been a theme of the season, since the Globe rarely fails to make one conscious of its ongoing experimentation with the relationship between actors and audience.
The Two Noble Kinsmen, directed by Tim Carroll, was the second production by the Red Company—without Vanessa Redgrave but with Yolanda...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Proudfoot, G. R. Introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, edited by G. R. Proudfoot, pp. xxi-xxiv. London: Edward Arnold, 1970.
[In the following excerpt, Proudfoot reviews the themes and characters found in The Two Noble Kinsmen, observing that the play's impressiveness stems not from its characters, but from its adroit handling of tragicomic effects.]
The Two Noble Kinsmen belongs to the vogue of tragicomedy that began about 1609 with the revival of the old play of Mucedorus and with the writing of Cymbeline and Philaster. It differs from these plays in sustaining to the end a somber note which they dispel in the resolution of their plots. The Knight's Tale prescribed the death of Arcite, but the death sentence imposed on the losers in the tournament is not in Chaucer and the emphasis on mortality which pervades Act I is present only at the end of the tale.
Where Chaucer is concerned with the subtle workings of Fortune, the play lays its emphasis on the destructive power of love. “Is this winning?” cries Emilia, as she is awarded to Arcite and Palamon is led to execution. Palamon too, when he is reprieved and Arcite is dead, is conscious mainly of regret:
O cousin, That we should things...
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SOURCE: Frey, Charles H. “Collaborating with Shakespeare: After the Final Play.” In Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, edited by Charles H. Frey, pp. 31-44. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Frey examines the issue of collaboration in The Two Noble Kinsmen, arguing that the play exhibits a strategy designed to deflect the audience's attention away from the nature of the authors' collaboration (with each other and/or with their source material) in order to direct attention to the more important collaboration between the producers of the play and the audience.]
Collaborate has two main meanings for us: (1) to work with another on a project to be jointly accredited; and (2) to cooperate with the enemy. If Shakespeare collaborated in the writing of The Two Noble Kinsmen (as the title page of the Quarto tells us he did), then to what degree should the project be “jointly accredited”? “Hardly at all” has been the main modern response to this question, for most of the scholarly energy, if not total human energy, devoted to this play has been concerned with separating out the respective contributions of the collaborators. This very effort not to “jointly accredit” suggests that the coauthors are in some crucial way dissimilar. The presumed collaborator of Shakespeare's is often described as a wretched contriver of...
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SOURCE: Hedrick, Donald K. “‘Be Rough With Me’: The Collaborative Arenas of The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, edited by Charles H. Frey, pp. 45-77. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Hedrick contends that The Two Noble Kinsmen's thematic exploration of the nature of artistic rivalry suggests that Shakespeare did not collaborate in the writing of the play. Hedrick focuses on the play's treatment of the subject of collaboration, and on the relationship between cooperation and competition explored in the play.]
To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary.
—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
I. COLLABORATION VERSUS AUTHORSHIP
In describing The Two Noble Kinsmen, one might well follow Pierre Macherey's prescription that a literary work be treated as “the product of a specific labor,” thereby avoiding an account of artistic creativity that in humanist fashion “omits any account of production.”1 I want to provide such a description, however hindered by the formidable obstacle that the historically specific circumstances of the labor producing this work—usually assumed to be a collaboration of Shakespeare and Fletcher—are wholly lost, as are...
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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “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.
[In the following essay, Potter explores the topical allusions in The Two Noble Kinsmen.]
The Two Noble Kinsmen is a play with an almost embarrassingly long literary past, balanced by a theatrical afterlife which is short even by comparison with Shakespeare's other Fletcherian collaboration, Henry VIII. We think of it as a dramatization of Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and the prologue invites us to admire it for his sake, but in fact everyone who tells the tale attributes it to someone else. It can be traced, in some form or other, as far back as the earliest Greek legends of Thebes. Antiquity seems to be one of its claims to attention in the first edition of 1634. Not only does the prologue refer to ‘Chaucer, of all admired’, it also calls Shakespeare and Fletcher (the latter less than ten years dead) ‘the Memorable Worthies of their Time’. Despite this pedigree, the play effectively disappears from theatrical history after its revival, heavily adapted by Davenant, in the early years of the Restoration. Subsequent revivals, where they occur, get so little critical attention as to make its stage history almost completely obscure. One reason, I think, is...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Alan. “‘Near Akin’: The Trials of Friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, pp. 57-71. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Stewart investigates the nature of the failure of Palamon and Arcite's idealized male friendship depicted in The Two Noble Kinsmen, suggesting that the relationship was doomed because of the conflict between humanist and chivalric notions of male friendship, and the realities of male relations and kinship bonds in Jacobean England.]
Critics have never been happy with The Two Noble Kinsmen.1 It has traditionally been regarded as an unsatisfactory play, compromised, in Ann Thompson's words, by ‘many tensions and inconsistencies’;2 to at least one critic, it remains ‘that most distressing of plays’.3 Despite its use of an archetypal story of two male friends brought into conflict over a woman, already tried and tested by Boccaccio (in the Teseida) and Chaucer (Knight's Tale), its telling here has seemed less than successful. Theodore Spencer went so far as to complain that the story of Palamon and Arcite ‘is intrinsically feeble, superficial, and undramatic’.4 The characters themselves have been ‘dismissed as virtually interchangeable emblems of...
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Bachinger, Katrina. “Maidenheads and Mayhem: A Morris-Dance Reading of William Shakespeare's and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Salzburger Studien zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik 16 (1990): 23-38.
Suggests a reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen that explains both its contemporary and modern appeal, and centers on the Morris dance, with its masque and antimasque elements, as a significant element in the play.
Cutts, John P. “Shakespeare's Song and Masque Hand in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In English Miscellany: A Symposium of History, Literature and the Arts, edited by Mario Praz, pp. 55-85. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1967.
Assesses the play in terms of its relationship to the other plays performed by the Kings Men under James I's reign, and examines the use of the elements of masque, music, and song in these plays.
Green, Susan. “‘A mad woman? We are made, boys!’: The Jailer's Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, edited by Charles H. Frey, pp. 121-32. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Examines the role of the Jailer's Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and discusses the way in which assessment of her role in the play speaks to the authorship controversy....
(The entire section is 338 words.)