Critical Evaluation

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As the prologue acknowledges, the primary source of The Two Noble Kinsmen is Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” (1387-1400), which was itself based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s romantic version in the Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974) of a story from Statius’s Latin epic Thebais (c. 90; Thebaid, 1767). Statius, in turn, derived his story from one of the oldest and most tragic Greek legends: the history of Thebes. Although the only book-length study of The Two Noble Kinsmen—Paul Bertram’s excellent Shakespeare and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” (1965)—argues that the play is solely the work of William Shakespeare, most scholars agree that John Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on the play. Shakespeare is thought to have written act 1, the first scenes of acts 2 and 3, and act 5.

Many scholars have noted the unity of image and purpose throughout the play and argue that the two playwrights collaborated throughout the writing of the script, even if one or the other is primarily responsible for certain parts. The scenes attributed to Shakespeare are generally criticized for their formal, ritualistic quality and lack of concern for character development. Fletcher’s scenes are acknowledged to be more dramatically effective but also more melodramatic.

The play revisits themes and concerns of Shakespeare’s earlier plays: the nature and influence of the patriarchy, the disruptive power of love, the movement from innocence to experience, and humanity’s relationship to fate and the gods. Shakespeare’s vision here is darker and more melancholy than in previous plays. Theseus, the champion of patriarchy, is rather cold and remote, and his determination to impose order on the chaotic forces within and without human beings is revealed as successful only in partial ways and only after the destruction or constriction of vital energies and forces. Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, is portrayed as diminished and bound by her marriage to Theseus. The chivalric contest Theseus imposes on Palamon and Arcite results in the failure of one and the death of the other. Order is restored at the end but only at great cost. The justice and civility achieved are not conducive to faith either in humanity’s ability to understand and control life or in the beneficent nature of divine providence.

Ostensibly, the play’s events enact a conflict between Mars and Venus. Arguably, the forces represented by these gods (male versus female, war versus love) are reconciled in the marriages of Theseus with Hippolyta and Palamon with Emilia. However, the conventional distinctions between masculine and feminine principles are challenged in curious ways. Hippolyta is not merely an elegant and beautiful woman; she is also a ruthless warrior, inured to violence and carnage. Emilia, perhaps the more feminine of the two, is nonetheless a skilled rider and hunter uninterested in marriage. The jailer’s daughter is impulsive, resourceful, courageous, and outspoken.

Palamon, once his enmity with Arcite has been established, is consistently associated with the feminine through word and image. Venus seems to be stronger and more disruptive than Mars. The jailer’s daughter, who proves to be the play’s most dynamic dramatic figure, is driven mad by her love for Palamon, yet her unrestrained passion is perhaps the most positive and selfless energy in the play. Palamon and Arcite’s devoted friendship and youthful innocence is shattered by their competing desire for Emilia.

The loves that the play seems to value without reservation are the youthful, same-sex friendships between Emilia and Flavina, Palamon and Arcite, and Theseus and Pirithous. Only the Theseus-Pirithous relationship has survived youth into maturity, but it is necessarily diminished (or so Hippolyta hopes) by Theseus’s marriage. Mature heterosexual love is...

(This entire section contains 785 words.)

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seen as being an enemy of both innocence and friendship and as requiring the sacrifice of profoundly valuable emotions and relationships.

Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” suggests that one can overcome fortune to a certain extent by accepting whatever happens, by controlling how one responds to life’s vagaries rather than attempting to control and order one’s life. The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the other hand, indicates that love and death are both accidents, that human beings are incapable of understanding not only the workings of providence but also their own inner drives and compulsions. Shakespeare’s Theseus is left resigned and melancholy by his flawed efforts to impose order on a world seemingly governed by mere caprice. The three widows in black, although they disappear from the stage after act 1, cast a pall over the entire play. The specter of death interrupts the marriage ceremony in the first act and taints the union of Emilia and Palamon in the final act. The Two Noble Kinsmen is flawed dramatically but is nonetheless an interesting and compelling play.

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Emilia's Argument: Friendship and 'Human Title'in The Two Noble Kinsmen