The Two Noble Kinsmen Two Distincts, Division None: Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen of 1613
by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher

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Two Distincts, Division None: Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen of 1613

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Philip J. Finkelpearl, Wellesley College

The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare and Fletcher's adaptation of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale," can be dated in 1613 with some precision.1 The date is of some importance because several distinguished scholars have recently linked the play to the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and to other events of the same year.2 Here, in an essay honoring the most rigorous biographer Shakespeare has ever had, I want to consider the precise sense in which The Two Noble Kinsmen can be related to topical matters.

This marriage of Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, was central to the plans of the recently deceased Henry, Prince of Wales, for creating a Protestant alliance to curb the Catholic Habsburgs' power. For the marriage the prince had devised, according to Roy Strong, "a splendid series of spectacles, expressly designed to establish the Stuart court in the eyes of Europe as the fount of revived Protestant chivalry."3 Although the project never fully materialized because of the prince's death, Strong shows that the prince's aims can be detected in various surviving works. One of these was a wedding masque about Virginia by George Chapman for the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn that endorsed the anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic, and Protestant aspects of British imperialistic expansion. Another masque, commissioned for the same occasion by the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn and performed a few days after the wedding, was by Francis Beaumont. The preface Beaumont wrote for the published text of his masque indicates that his aims were similar to Chapman's. He designed the dance of mythological figures representing the Rhine and the Thames in the first antimasque and of "Common People" in the second antimasque (later adapted for The Two Noble Kinsmen) to register approval of the match. In the main masque Beaumont presented the political message of the prince through an elaborate fiction about the revival of the Olympic games since "The Olympian games portend to the Match, Celebritie, Victorie, and Felicitie."4 "Victorie," it seems fair to say, is not a term normally associated with marriage. From the viewpoint of would-be heroes—young students at the Inns of Court were particularly critical of King James's pacific foreign policy—"Olympian games" on foreign fields, preferably battlefields, were in desperate need of revival and would be a highly desirable by-product of this match.5

Since The Two Noble Kinsmen, written after the princess's marriage, included a passage from Beaumont's marriage masque and opens with a masque celebrating the marriage of a prince and princess, it has spawned conjecture—there is no document specifically making the connection—that the play was one of the many dramatic celebrations of the courtly occasion. However, Beaumont, who would have been the natural continuator of the impulses behind the masque, had nothing to do with the play. Indeed, the astonishingly prolific, very young playwright—in 1613, twenty-eight years old but responsible for part or all of at least twelve plays over the past six years—produced no more work for the theater. It had been generally assumed that his marriage to an heiress in 1613 had obviated the need to write for a living, but recently I discovered that soon after the masque Beaumont suffered an incapacitating "apoplexe," or a stroke. He lingered until 1616, dying about a month before Shakespeare.6

This unexpected turn of events must have created a problem for the King's Men. That they were experiencing some kind of serious trouble seems to be confirmed by the last line of the prologue of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which speaks apprehensively about the possibility that if this play does not succeed, "Our losses fall so thick we must needs leave" (32).7 After The Tempest in 1611 all evidence points to Shakespeare's spending most of his time in Stratford and curtailing, if not altogether stopping, his writing. His retirement would hardly have seemed...

(The entire section is 5,680 words.)