The Two Noble Kinsmen (Masterplots, Revised Second Edition)
During the marriage ceremony of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, three widowed queens begged Theseus’ aid. Creon, king of Thebes, had slain their husbands in battle and would not permit their bodies to receive decent burial. Theseus commiserated with the queens, but provided small comfort for their grief when he directed that his nuptial ceremonies be continued. The queens persisting in their pleas, Theseus conceded to the extent of ordering an expeditionary force to be readied to march against Thebes. Not to be denied, the distracted queens finally persuaded him to champion their cause. He appointed Pirithous, an Athenian nobleman, to stand in his place for the remainder of the ceremony, kissed Hippolyta farewell, and led the queens away toward Thebes.
Meanwhile, in Thebes, the cousins Palamon and Arcite, nephews of Creon, found their uncle’s tyranny unbearable and stultifying, and decided to leave Thebes. No sooner had they made this decision then they learned that Thebes was threatened by Theseus. The cousins, loyal to Thebes if not to Creon, deferred their departure in order to serve their city.
When the opposing forces met, Palamon and Arcite fought with great courage, but the Athenians were victorious in the battle. Theseus, triumphant, directed the three widowed queens to bury their dead in peace. Palamon and Arcite, having been wounded and left for dead on the battlefield,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Athens. Ancient Greek city that is the scene of much of the play’s action, Athens is ruled by Duke Theseus, whose marriage to the Amazon leader Hippolyta is interrupted by three royal widows who ask Theseus to avenge their husbands by attacking Creon, the tyrant of Thebes. Several significant events also occur in the countryside outside the city, the most significant of which are the fight between Palamon and Arcite, their discovery by Theseus and his entourage, and the tournament between the two Thebans for the hand of Emily.
Athens is also the location of a temple containing shrines to Mars, Venus, and Diana. In contrast to the depiction of these shrines in other writers’ renditions of this story, these shrines are all located within a single temple.
Thebes (theebz). Greek city against which Theseus is persuaded to lead an army. His army overthrows Creon and captures Palamon and Arcite, who are members of the Theban royal family. From their Athens prison, the two noble kinsmen see the beautiful Emilia, sister-in-law of Theseus, and fall in love with her. Their rivalry for her affection drives the rest of the story.
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The conflict between love and friendship dramatized in The Two Noble Kinsmen is not an issue limited to one period of human history or to one culture. Friendships—particularly those that begin in childhood or adolescence—have always been among the most meaningful relationships in a person's life. But what happens if two friends love the same person? Today such friends would probably stop short of trying to kill each other, but it's likely that anger and resentment would threaten their relationship. When a young man or woman becomes involved in a love affair, he or she will usually have less time to spend with old friends. Thus love may put a strain on friendship or limit its expression. On the other hand, the loved one may be jealous of the lover's old friends. The friendship between Theseus and Pirithous continues even after Theseus marries Hippolyta, and it seems apparent that she is not always confident that she is the most important person in her husband's life. Even when a couple is as rational as they are, doubts may arise about conflicting loyalties. Sometimes a friendship ends tragically, as with Emilia and Flavina (Emilia's childhood friend who died when the girls were eleven). How might this affect the surviving friend's outlook on life and love? Persons who die young are likely to be idealized, and those who survive may have difficulty establishing new friendships, because none can ever measure up to the romantic images that live in our...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bawcutt, N. W. Introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, 7-46. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977. Bawcutt provides a lengthy discussion of the ways in which The Two Noble Kinsmen shows that human lives are manipulated by impersonal or superhuman powers. In Bawcutt's judgment, the play demonstrates that although "we may not understand the ultimate order that governs life," we should not question or condemn that order. He points to Thesus as the character most committed to playing out the role life has assigned him.
Berggren, Paula S. "'For What We Lack, We Laugh': Incompletion and The Two Noble Kinsmen." Modern Language Studies XIV, no. 4 (Fall 1984): 3-17. Berggren believes that the play demonstrates the difficulty of moving gracefully and naturally from innocence to experience. An important part of her discussion of interrupted or disconnected action in The Two Noble Kinsmen centers on Arcite's death, which she views as undeserved and lacking justice.
Brownlow, F. W. "The Two Noble Kinsmen." In Two Shakespearean Sequences: "Henry VI" to "Richard II" and "Pericles" to "Timon of Athens," 202-15. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Brownlow regards the play as a dramatization of the conflict between lust and violence on the one hand, and reason and order on the other. He sees Theseus as the spokesman for "a state of...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bertram, Paul. Shakespeare and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965. Discussion of the play, usually thought to be written by Shakespeare in collaboration with John Fletcher. Discussion of earlier critical works.
Donaldson, E. Talbot. The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Compares several of Shakespeare’s plays and their sources in Chaucer’s poems. “The Knight’s Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen” compares Chaucer’s story with Shakespeare’s play.
Hillman, Richard. “Shakespeare’s Romantic Innocents and the Misappropriation of the Romantic Past: The Case of The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In The Tempest and After, edited by Stanley W. Wells. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Considers the characters’ responses to their notions of romance.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Comic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. The essay on The Two Noble Kinsmen discusses the authorship of the play. There is also critical discussion of the play.
Waith, Eugene M. “Shakespeare and Fletcher on Love and Friendship.” In Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, edited by...
(The entire section is 204 words.)