(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Probably the last play with which Shakespeare was associated, the title page of The Two Noble Kinsmen attributes authorship to both him and John Fletcher, Shakespeare's successor as playwright for the King's Men (the most favored acting company in the Jacobean period). Incongruities in the text due to joint authorship and the seeming predominance of writing attributed to Fletcher, coupled with the play's absence from the authoritative First Folio, have led to the play's neglect for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, recent critics have argued for the play's importance in the canon. Glynne Wickham (1980) cites several themes in the play that continue the thoughts of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Other critics, such as Cyrus Hoy (1962) and C. H. Hobday (1965), have studied the play's language and imagery to distinguish the parts written by Shakespeare and Fletcher, and argue that Shakespeare played a larger role in its authorship than had been previously believed.

In his influential Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1965), Paul Bertram claims that Shakespeare was the play's sole author. Most contemporary critics, however, recognize the play to be a joint venture and see Fletcher's portions of the text—as well as Shakespeare's—as a valuable contribution to English literature. Eugene M. Waith (1986) sees in the contributions of both Fletcher and Shakespeare valuable comments on traditional medieval views of love and friendship. Barry Weiler (1989) claims that The Two Noble Kinsmen appropriates and twists the opinions of its medieval source materials—especially Chaucer and Boccaccio—on love and friendship, and envisions the Jacobean ideals that were gaining acceptance at the time of the play's composition.

The estimation of the play's importance to western literature has indeed grown since its appearance. Douglas Bruster (1995) claims that the character of the jailer's daughter is "a pivotal figure in Jacobean drama" because Shakespeare and Fletcher used her character to comment on social and cultural changes that shaped later dramatic efforts. Richard Abrams (1985) and Laurie J. Shannon (1997) both argue that the figure of Emilia positions Shakespeare and Fletcher against the popular ideals of women at the time of the play's composition and advances different social values centered around female conceptions of friendship. For such critics, the wealth of recent scholarship that distinguishes the contributions of Shakespeare and Fletcher provide a valuable tool for understanding the development of Shakespeare's world view; but the importance of the play to Shakespearean scholarship should not diminish its larger importance to the development of western drama. The Two Noble Kinsmen represents a decisive break with the very source materials which it drew upon and signals a new direction in the portrayal of ideals of love and friendship, a reconception of gender roles, and more complex methods of characterization that would be central to later dramatists.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Glynne Wickham (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Two Noble Kinsmen or A Midsummer Night's Dream, Part II?," in The Elizabethan Theatre VII, edited by G. R. Hibbard, P. D. Meany Company Inc., 1980, pp. 167-96.

[In the following essay, originally presented at the Seventh Waterloo Conference in 1977, Wickham briefly surveys the critical history of The Two Noble Kinsmen and examines the similarities between it and A Midsummer Night's Dream, claiming that the former continues themes introduced in the latter.]

It will not be my purpose to devote time to further discussion of Shakespeare's and Fletcher's respective contributions to this play. To dispose of that question at the outset, therefore, let me simply say that I accept (with only modest reservations) Littledale's assumption of the Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean scenes, supplemented by Alfred Hart's vocabulary tests, and thus base this paper on their findings. Rather do I wish to pursue a line of thought about The Two Noble Kinsmen first raised by Muriel Bradbrook (appropriately also in Canada) at the first International Shakespeare Congress at Vancouver in 1971.

On that occasion she suggested that the play owed much of both its form and content to two historical events—the death of the heir apparent, Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales on 6th November, 1612, followed by the wedding of his sister, the Princess Elizabeth, to Count Frederick v, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, on 14th February, 1613. This singular coincidence—the two events following within a mere three months of each other with the funeral forcing postponement of the wedding—thus made it literally rather than metaphorically possible for funeral bakemeats to furnish the marriage feast and for the latter to be celebrated with one auspicious and one dropping eye. Professor Bradbrook suggested accordingly that The Two Noble Kinsmen exactly mirrored the mood of the Court at this joyous yet tragic moment in time and was deliberately intended to do so.

The hymeneal opening scene of The Two Noble Kinsmen keeps decorum in being crossed by the dark pageant of three mourning queens, whose plea for their dead husbands brings funeral rites to the wedding postponing the festivities.1

In summarizing her argument she remarked,

To condemn the whole play as "nothing more than frivolous" is to ignore its dual character—an old, native heroic setting for an avant-garde hit.2

Since then, however, one of my graduate students at Dalhousie, Miss Mavis Reimer, has drawn my attention to the fact that it is Theseus's wedding which is interrupted by the dirges of the mourning queens, not Emilia's—a point which Professor Bradbrook either did not notice or elected not to examine: yet it is the story of Emilia, Palamon and Arcite that provides what Professor Bradbrook calls "an old, native heroic setting for an avant-garde hit"; and it is this story therefore that should reflect in the mirror of "game", or stage-action, the "earnest" or real-life situation of the royal bride. I regarded this observation as substantial enough to merit closer examination, and it is the results of this examination that I wish to discuss now.

In general Emilia has had a bad press from the critics as a character who was sketchily conceived to serve the plot rather than designed to exist as an individual in her own right: by and large, the two youths, Palamon and Arcite, have fared almost as badly, being dismissed as virtually interchangeable emblems of Platonic love and chivalric courtesy—Tweedledum and Tweedledee as Kenneth Muir once called them—though I do not regard them myself as any worse in that respect than Demetrius and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nor have Theseus and Hippolyta, the prime movers in the marriage market, emerged from the refining fires of criticism with much credit.

Dr. F. J. Furnivall described Emilia a hundred years ago as "a silly lady's maid or shop girl, not knowing her own mind, up and down like a bucket in a well".3

Half a century later, Professor Tucker Brooke, quoting Furnivall, added his own gloss:

Note, for instance, her really revolting wishy-washiness and ingrained sensuality in what are perhaps her best scenes—Act IV, scene 2 and Act V, scene 3.4

Turning to the play as a whole he concluded:

rich as the language and verse are in Shakespearean reminiscence, there is practically nothing in characterization or dramatic structure which points to the author of The Tempest; while such defects as the ambiguous personality of Emilia, the failure properly to distinguish between Palamon and Arcite, and the low dramatic pitch of the doubtful scenes render their ascription to the mature Shakespeare all but unpardonable.5

Since then, Professors Marco Mincoff, Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards have rallied to the play's defence with articles respectively in English Studies, Shakespeare Survey and The Review of English Literature More recently, Paul Bertram in Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1965) has daringly, if rashly and ultimately indefensibly, challenged readers to consider the whole play as Shakespeare's own.7 On the other hand, when Professor Kermode as recently as 1963, can state as he does in Shakespeare: The Final Plays,

although he probably wrote a great deal of the play, Shakespeare had nothing to do with its plot8

one is bound to wonder by what criteria he thinks he is judging Jacobean plays and playmakers. From that remark you might judge—and you would be correct—that it is this very question of the plot that I think warrants closer scrutiny than critics have been wont to give it—more especially in conjunction with one factor related to it which, thus far, only Professor Bradbrook and my student at Dalhousie have noticed—the probability that the play came into existence to mark an occasion, an historical event the significance of which affected the whole of Europe. I refer of course to the marriage of the only surviving daughter of Shakespeare's patron, James VI and I, to the Elector Palatine of the Rhine, subsequently King of Bohemia, and frequently referred to as the Palsgrave.9

Granted the fact that with James's accession, and the accompanying Patent issued by him in May, 1603, incorporating the Burbage/Shakespeare company of actors into the Royal Household as Grooms of the Chamber, the company was expected to justify its existence by preparing at least one play each year that reflected matters of major concern at Court, the dramatist most likely to have been called upon to fulfil this assignment in 1612/13 was Shakespeare. This hypothesis gains substantial support from what we know of the plays Shakespeare wrote between 1603 and 1613. First, in 1603/4, comes Measure for Measure, a play constructed around a disputation about the administration of justice, a subject singularly appropriate to a new monarch as yet untested in the realities of balancing the letter of the law against its spirit, and cast in as sophisticated a language as any of John Heywood's plays constructed on the same principle.10 Next, in 1604/05, King Lear, opposing the consequences of an earlier division of Great Britain, against the present reunification of the dismembered parts. Then, in 1605/06, Macbeth, with its many allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and the escape of the patron and his family.

The year 1606/07 appears to mark a break in this pattern;11 but it is bridged the following year with Pericles, hastily refurbished to mark the coming to Court of the Princess Elizabeth from Combe Abbey, near Stratford-upon-Avon, and the reunification of father and daughter and the ratification by Parliament of the Union of the Scottish and the English crowns. Cymbeline follows in 1608/09 with its gracious compliment to the three royal children and the suggestion in the final emblem of the Roman and British ensigns marching together that divided Christendom may yet be re-united through dynastic marriages. In 1610, the company offer The Winter's Tale marking, as I argued here in 1968, the investiture of Henry Stuart, Prince of Scotland, as Prince of Wales, and thus as heir apparent to a finally reunited Kingdom of Great Britain. Professor Geoffrey Bullough in his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare disallows my equation here, but shifts it to Cymbeline instead. I regard that as progress, even if I cannot agree. In the following year, 1611, when all eyes and ears at Court were strained to catch the latest gossip of one or more royal engagements, the company provide The Tempest with further stress laid on royal hopes of European alliances that will end the wars between Protestants and Catholics, Southern Europe and the North.12 Although written for presentation at Court, all three plays from the years 1609-11 have the stamp upon them of ready transferability to the newly recovered Blackfriars. Next, Henry VIII in 1612 with its overt allusions to James I in Cranmer's prophecy, and the attempt to rehabilitate Catherine of Aragon as a woman and Queen more sinned against than sinning: I regard this myself as written specifically for the Globe summer season, but with a clear eye on its suitability for transfer to Court if required. This play incorporates Shakespeare's own piaculous action, matching his Patron's own recent disposal of the two rival Queens—his mother and his Godmother—in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey surmounted with painted statues, and burying the past in the past while directing public attention to present peace and prospects of future prosperity.

Yet that very year, as everyone was aware from the King to his humblest subject, was to be marked by a royal marriage in the autumn, and it is unthinkable—at least to me—that the King's Men should not have known what was expected of them by way of a wedding present. What no one knew in the summer was that the flower of British chivalry—Ben Jonson's "Arcturus" and "Oberon", Daniel's "Meliadus" and Shakespeare's "Florizel"—Prince Henry himself, would be dead before the year was spent. With him died not only the high hopes entertained of him by the poets and the war-party at Court, but his sister's closest friend and constant companion: yet the Court was committed to proceeding with the wedding, whatever the Princess's feelings in the matter; and the bereaved country, following Prince Henry's sumptuous funeral on December 7th, seems to have turned its attention to the forthcoming wedding with increased awareness of the high seriousness and potential significance of this union.

The Princess's wedding in fact took place eight weeks and six days after the Prince's funeral: The Tempest and The Winter's Tale were among the "fourteene severall plays" performed by the King's Men before the bride and groom elect, and for which payment is recorded in the Chamber Accounts for May, 1613. One is bound to ask, therefore, whether the lost play, Cardenio, was the one originally commissioned from, and provided by, the King's Men to celebrate the occasion before Prince Henry's death, but which had then to be suppressed and replaced by another that fitted both the actual circumstances and the mood of the Court with better decorum. This The Two Noble Kinsmen does in more ways than the one to which Professor Bradbrook drew our attention in Vancouver. This becomes obvious to anyone who cares to read his or her way through the poetical effusions that accompanied the wedding itself and the departure of the bridal couple from Greenwich. It was by then public knowledge that Prince Henry had addressed his last utterance to his sister, "Where is my dear sister? . . ." No one dared tell him that she had visited him twice, disguised, "but could not be admitted, because his disease (typhoid fever) was doubted to be contagious." We also know that she thanked the coachman who took her to his residence "for escorting her on her secret errands" by paying him £1,—a very large sum in those days.13 Sir Simond D'Ewes describing the wedding adds, "the sad contenances of many did sufficiently show that her invaluable brother's death could not yet be forgotton." More pertinently, Robert Allyne, describes the departure of the bride and groom in his Teares of joy Shed at the happy departure from Great Britaine, of the two paragons of the Christian world. Fredericke and Elizabeth, prince, and princesse Palatines of the Rhine. Punning on the dead Prince Henry's second name of Fredericke (the Palsgrave's first name) he wrote:

Our Henry-Fredericke, lies in timeless toome,
Whose double name exprest not halfe his worth;

A Fredericke in his losse, supplies his roome,
And bearing halfe his name, one halfe sets forth
Of him, whose all, is hardly match'd by two,
And therefore is too much, for one, to do.
Yet thou (brave youth) of all the sonnes of men,
Was onely worthy, to be one of three,
Ranck'd in that roome, by him who brook'd it then,
And dying, did resigne the same to thee,
Who by a high instinct of heavenly grace,
Left not the world, till thou assum'd his place.
Go then, great Prince, and thou his other halfe,
Grace of his youth, and glory of his age,
Key of his secret thoughts, his second selfe;
Joy in his care, and comfort in his rage;
And each, in others debt, so deepe involved,
That Gordius knot can sooner be dissolved.15

I submit that this Elegy, and others like it (among them verses by Chapman, Heywood, Jonson, Tourneur and Webster), provide us with the key to unlock the cipher of the love of Palamon and Arcite for Emilia. This granted, Emilia becomes the dramatic emblem for the Princess in the Court hieroglyphics of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Palamon the emblem for the Palsgrave, Arcite for Prince Henry. By the same token Theseus and Hippolyta represent, in this world of play, James I and Queen Anne. Proceeding on this hypothesis, The Two Noble Kinsmen is not only superficially related in its external forms to the events it marks, as Professor Bradbrook suggested, but is organically connected to the emotional relationships of the five principal characters of the real-life funeral and marriage ceremonies. This is confirmed by an examination of its authors' choice of subject-matter and their treatment of their source material: and it is to this I turn next.

The only previous play in the Shakespeare canon that is generally acknowledged to have been written to celebrate a wedding is A Midsummer Night's Dream. Appropriately enough, that play discusses love in a wide context that ranges from love, lust and death to continence and marriage. As I have argued in "A Midsummer Night's Dream: the Setting and the Text"—a lecture delivered at Stratford, Ontario, in 196817,—Shakespeare was then a young man of thirty and chooses in that play to use the wood and the moon as emblems of Venus and Diana, the controlling polarities of human sexuality. The wood of sex is presented to the audience as something at once friendly and frightening, inviting yet dangerous: rashly handled by votaries of Venus—as Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius all show signs of treating their responses to its summons—sex can lead to those feelings of guilt and revulsion experienced by Titania on awakening to the bestial lasciviousness of her affair with Bottom, or to the disasters that overtook Pyramus and Thisbe. Rationally handled with that due respect for Diana already accorded to her in the first scene by Theseus and Hippolyta, and as the young lovers after their adventures in the wood will come to appreciate, love finds its fulfilment in marriage and children. The play ends on a lyric note with Oberon's blessing of the Palace.

Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
And the blots of Nature's hand
Shall not in their issue stand.

How singular, then, that when Shakespeare was again called upon to write a play in celebration of a marriage, he should have chosen another aspect of the same story of Theseus and Hippolyta, and begun it at the very point where the earlier play had ended! Indeed, Hymen's song which opens The Two Noble Kinsmen echoes the very sentiments expressed in Oberon's song which I have just quoted and which brings A Midsummer Night's Dream to its close.

All deere natures children sweete,
Ly fore Bride and Bridegroomes feete,
Blessing their sence.
Not an angle of the aire,
Bird melodious, or bird faire,
Is absent hence.

The Crow, the slaundrous Cuckoe, nor
The boding Raven, nor Chough hore
Nor chattring Pie,
May on our Bridehouse pearch or sing,
Or with them any discord bring,
But from it fly.18

The same incantatory ritual and the same appeal to nature, even to the very metre of the verse, is stamped upon both songs: where Oberon censes the bridehouse with "field-dew consecrate", Hymen strews it with "field flowers". The consistency of mood and moment is very striking. Then, just as the opening calm of the earlier play is dispelled by the jarring note of Egeus's accusations against Lysander and Hermia, the lyrical start of the later one is rudely interrupted by the procession of the mourning Queens with its echoes of the last act of Coriolanus.

The first critic to have noticed any resemblance between the two plays was Thomas Seward in the eighteenth century who remarked that the "Schoolmaster and his Fellow Comedians seem very like the Farcical clowns in Midsummer Night's Dream" and noticed the use made of hunting in both plays.19 A century later Walter Skeat, when editing the play, stated in his notes "the whole scene is copied from A Midsummer Night's Dream". Midway between Seward and Skeat, Hartley Coleridge drew attention to a similar resemblance between Emilia's duologue with Hippolyta about her girlhood friendship with Flavinia in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and that between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, remarking provocatively that the scene in The Two Noble Kinsmen was "a better piece of writing"; but he then extricated himself from the awkward position in which he had thus landed himself with that perceptive comment by adding, "it was not Shakespeare's way to emulate himself."20

If by "emulation" he meant "repetition", all sober editors, directors and critics would agree; but "emulation" does not rule out new variants on old themes, whether as simple redaction, or as consecutive plays sharing a common title like I and II King Henry IV, or as diametrical opposites like Love's Labour's Lost and Love's Labour's Won; nor does it exclude clusters of plays deployed around related thematic interests and concerns like Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Once this is admitted, comparison of The Two Noble Kinsmen with A Midsummer Night's Dream becomes a perfectly legitimate exercise, and one moreover where the differences we find may teach us what aspect of love and marriage had come to interest Shakespeare some twenty years after writing A Midsummer Night's Dream—more especially when writing for the company under pressure from their Patron to make this subject the central concern of their play. If then we first take the overall shape and pace of the action in The Two Noble Kinsmen we notice that the new play, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, is divided into three major movements which, for convenience, Paul Bertram labelled "Creon's War", "May Games" and "Tournament". Each is itself an emblem: the first of conflict provoked by the rivalry of Venus, Hymen, Diana and Mars; the second of Love guided by Venus; the third of Love, Honour and Chastity in conflict.

As with A Midsummer Night's Dream, the central movement is set in a wood near Athens: as with A Midsummer Night's Dream, the two flanking movements in The Two Noble Kinsmen are located in civic rather than rural settings: as with A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is in the forest that external appearances are exposed and replaced by inner realities; for it is in the forest that Palamon and Arcite bring love to blows, that Emilia is made a pawn of state diplomacy, and that the Jailor's Daughter is reduced to madness through desire in conflict with unrequited love. The civic flanking movements, which are admittedly rather more widely dispersed than in A Midsummer Night's Dream, provide, first, the necessary exposition and then the final resolution. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the character of Theseus serves the playmaker as the modulator and arbiter of all terrestrial events.

These similarities are, to me, so striking and consistent as to rule out all possibility of merely fortuitous echoes and reverberances. Rather are they the clearest signposts that the authors could give to their audiences of the way in which they wished their redaction of Chaucer's Knight's Tale to be interpreted—given the fact, as those audiences knew well, that this play took its being from the wedding of the Princess Elizabeth in conjunction with Prince Henry's funeral, the protective Prologue notwithstanding.

By this reasoning it becomes clear that the two plays part company—at least in the structural sense that I have been speaking of—when it comes to assigning a meaning to the word "Dream". Since both plays are romances built around different aspects of the fictional events surrounding Theseus's marriage to Hippolyta, they both possess a dream-like quality: but where fairies preside over mortal destinies in A Midsummer Night's Dream classical gods and goddesses have usurped their place in The Two Noble Kinsmen; and where the earlier play adopts a youthful and optimistic approach to the conflicting dictates of lust and love, and urges an orthodox approach to the social institution of marriage, the later one approaches both problems from a far more detached, contemplative and even cynical standpoint; it is a reverie rather than a dream. Even the assurance that characterizes the Tightness of Theseus's marriage to Hippolyta, which controls the whole form and meaning of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is lacking in The Two Noble Kinsmen and is placed in question by Hippolyta's discussion with Emilia of Theseus's relationship with Pirithous, his constant companion-in-arms, in Act I, scene iii.

Hippolyta I thinke
Theseus cannot be umpire to himselfe,
Cleaving his conscience into twaine and doing
Each side like Justice, which he loves best.
Emilia Doubtlesse
There is a best, and reason has no manners
To say it is not you.

(II. 51-6)

What a way for a bride in her wedding dress to talk to her chief bridesmaid and future sister-in-law, and vice-versa!

This exchange is then followed immediately by Emilia's long and tender description of her girlhood friendship with Flavinia which concludes with a startling affirmation.

This rehearsall
(Which ev'ry innocent wots well [,] comes in
Like old importments bastard) has this end,

That the true love tweene Mayde, and mayde, may be
More then in sex i[n]dividuall.

(II. 88-92)

Not unexpectedly in the circumstances, Hippolyta challenges this assertion, telling Emilia she will come to think differently in time: but she then undercuts that advice immediately by concluding the scene with this ambiguous reflection:

If I were ripe for your perswasion, you
Have saide enough to shake me from the Arme
Of the all noble Theseus, for whose fortunes
I will now in—[i.e. into the temple to pray]—and kneele with great assurance,
That we, more then his Pirothous, possesse
The high throne in his heart.

(II. 103-8)

To which Emilia adds, no less ambiguously,

I am not
Against your faith; yet I continew mine.

(II. 109-110)

This scene of one hundred lines brings discussion of platonic love perilously close to consummation in homosexual relationships, both male and female—a subject by no means remote in Jacobean Court circles where, by 1613, the King and Queen were maintaining wholly separate establishments at Whitehall and Denmark House respectively, and where Theseus's Pirithous had an all-too-evident counterpart in the young Scot, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. Here, however, the play's formality of structure, as Professor Bradbrook noticed, "the masque-like concern with roles rather than characters, allows the topic of homosexuality to become pervasive without being acknowledged".21 I agree; but I think we should be careful not to read this as meaning that Shakespeare is here claiming friendship to be a state superior to love and necessarily preventing entry into marriage. Emilia's views are those of a girl who has not yet been in love with a man: Hippolyta's are those of a woman who has, and who now is. Plot-exposition demands that the next two scenes be devoted to bringing Theseus back from the battle with Palamon and Arcite as his prisoners, and to the introduction of the Jailor and his daughter who will be their keepers whilst in prison. With that accomplished, the authors can then revert to the questions raised in Hippolyta's conversation with Emilia and illustrate it with an exemplum—the love of Palamon for Arcite.

As prisoners they must perforce abandon all the physical activities to which they had been accustomed and had expected to develop. Arcite concludes:

No, Palamon,
Those hopes are Prisoners with us; here we are
And here the graces of our youthes must wither
Like a too-timely Spring; here age must finde us,
And, which is heaviest, Palamon, unmarried.

Palamon agrees and laments their case; but to this Arcite supplies an answer:

Yet, Cosen,
Even from the bottom of these miseries,
From all that fortune can inflict upon us,
I see two comforts rysing, two meere blessings,
If the gods please: to hold here a brave patience,
And the enjoying of our greefes together.
Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish
If I thinke this our prison.

They then compact to enter into that same relationship that Emilia confessed she had enjoyed with Flavinia, and which Hippolyta discerns to exist between Pirithous and Theseus.

Heere [says Arcite] being thus together,
We are an endles mine to one another;
We are one anothers wife, ever begetting
New birthes of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are, in one another, Families.

Palamon agrees:

You have made me
(I thanke you, Cosen Arcite) almost wanton
With my Captivity

and concludes fifteen lines later,

Is there record of any two that lov'd
Better than we doe, Arcite?
Arcite Sure, there cannot.
Palamon I doe not thinke it possible our friendship
Should ever leave us.
Arcite Till our deathes it cannot;
And after death our spirits shall be led
To those that love eternally.

(II. ii 29-129)

Yet all these protestations are to be exposed as empty verbiage—an assumed virtue plucked from enforced necessity—a few lines later; for it is on this lyrical, platonic note that Emilia appears before them in the prison garden; and both of them promptly fall in love on seeing her. This garden is a literal hortus conclusus and thus a familiar emblem of chastity. "This garden," says Emilia, "has a world of pleasures in't". She and her gentlewoman talk first of Narcissus, the emblem of self-love; then of the Rose, which Emilia describes as,

the very Embleme of a Maide,
For when the west wind courts her gently,
How modestly she blowes, and paints the Sun,
With her chaste blushes!

(II. ii. 161-4)

This duologue recalls Emilia's earlier description of herself with Flavinia picking and exchanging flowers. It was this same emblem of chastity, the Rose, that Queen Elizabeth I had adopted as her own and which her god-daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, took over from her. As already noted, this vision and conversation serves instantly to translate Palamon's and Arcite's previous declaration of everlasting platonic love into a rivalry as keen as that which drove those closest of girlhood friends, Hermia and Helena of A Midsummer Night 's Dream, into the woods near Athens in pursuit of Lysander where hard words are brought to blows. To these same woods the authors of The Two Noble Kinsmen now bring Palamon and Arcite; the latter as an outlaw banished by Theseus, the former as a refugee assisted thither by the Jailor's Daughter. Both are now in love.

It becomes clear, therefore, that the authors intend to use the forest in the same emblematic sense—that of a testing-ground of adolescent sexuality—as it has been used in A Midsummer Night's Dream and in which, twenty years on, Milton will use it again in Comus. What is new and different in this instance is the disenchantment that the lovers will experience on emerging from the forest and on their return to Athens. Palamon will lose Arcite: Emilia will lose her freedom: Palamon will be obliged to marry Emilia at Theseus's bidding in place of the dead Arcite. In short, the passage from platonic to married love, from innocence to experience, will bring with it as keen a sense of loss as of gain. And to this bitter-sweet conclusion to the main plot, the fate of the Jailor's Daughter supplies a gloss for the sub-plot like the play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" does in A Midsummer Night's Dream—but as bitter in its tone and purpose as that is comic and sweet. In passing it is worth remarking that the device of figuring this aspect of the plot in terms of a poor girl who goes mad for unrequited love in a strictly physical sense—an idea so objectionable to many critics as to persuade them that Shakespeare had no hand in this play—is derived directly from A Midsummer Night's Dream in Puck's lines about Hermia—the missing member of the quartet in the wood in Act III, scene ii. When she finally turns up, scratched with briars and nearing despair, Puck explains,

Here she comes, curst and said:
Cupid is a knavish lad,
Thus to make poor females mad.

(II. 438-40)

What then, we are bound to ask, lies behind this pervasive sense of disenchantment and loss, if not the very events that occasioned the writing of this play—the Princess Elizabeth's loss of her brother and closest friend, the flower of British chivalry, Prince Henry, and the crude, diplomatic bargaining that for four years had been conducted by the King and Queen over her person as if that were some form of merchandise, and for which they had finally settled on a buyer in their choice of the Palsgrave as her bridegroom? No one could yet forecast the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, nor the sorrows that it would bring to the Princess in her future role of Queen of Bohemia; but everyone in 1612 was aware that the claims of at least five other princes (in terms of their religion, lands, titles and prospective inheritance) had already been carefully weighed and found wanting; everyone was aware that Prince Henry himself had to intervene forcefully and publicly in 1611 to block Queen Anne's plans to marry her to Philip III of Spain, and that Prince Henry had espoused the cause of Elector Frederick's claim to become his future brother-in-law;22 and some people at least must have asked, more humanely, whether this beautiful, clever and charming girl of sixteen had any wish to marry, more especially at the price of lifelong exile in a foreign land and consequent divorce from nearly all her friends.

Bearing this in mind let us return to the text of The Two Noble Kinsmen. The second movement of the play, the woodland May Games held in honour of Emilia's birthday, starts in a mood of optimism and rural ingenuousness with the local lads entering the wood at Venus' prompting and entertaining hopes of sexual adventures, with Arcite hoping to see Emilia again, and with the Jailor's daughter hoping to meet Palamon.

Arcite's success in the athletic games brings him again before Theseus who asks who he is and what are his credentials. Arcite replies:

A little of all noble Quallities:
I could have kept a Hawke, and well have holloa'd
To a deepe crie of Dogges: I dare not praise
My feat in horsemanship, yet they that knew me
Would say it was my best peece; last, and greatest,
I would be thought a Souldier.

(II. v. 16-20)

This young votary of Mars is thus depicted as closely in Prince Henry's colours as words can paint pictures, and wins from Theseus the brief comment, "You are perfect": Emilia agrees: "He is so." Yet some sixty lines later we are made aware that this admiration for Arcite is strictly sisterly, not sexual.

Theseus Sister, beshrew my heart, you have a Servant,
That, if I were a woman, would be Master,
But you are wise.
Emilia I hope too wise for that, Sir.

(II. v. 82-5)

On this reflective and ominous note the scene abruptly ends. It is followed immediately, in the next scene, by the Jailor's Daughter's passionate declaration of her sexual attraction to Palamon, an attraction amounting to infatuation like Titania's for Bottom.

Let all the Dukes, and all the divells rore,
He is at liberty: I have venturd for him.
... O Love,

What a stout hearted child thou art!

I love him beyond love and beyond reason,
Or wit, or safetie: I have made him know it.
I care not, I am desperate.

(II. vi. 1-13)

The juxtaposition of these two sharply contrasted girls is so striking as to be an obvious device intended to alert the audience to mark it. From now on the authors can be seen to be manipulating their source material in order to bring Arcite's role into close proximity with Prince Henry's in real life, and Palamon's to resemble that of his brother-in-law elect (alias Cosen) the Palsgrave.23 The plot has been brought successfully to the same point of crisis arising from conflicting desires and contradictory purposes as is exemplified in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Lysander has come, through Puck's mischief, to exchange Hermia for Helena and so to have incurred Demetrius' wrath as to provoke a duel; with no Oberon in The Two Noble Kinsmen to reverse this situation, the action now afoot must fulfil its natural course and lead the Jailor's Daughter, and either Arcite or Palamon to disaster, and the survivor (together with Emilia) into a world of disappointment and loss.

This climactic and irrevocable moment follows next in one of the play's most poignant and memorable scenes—the Arcadian picnic when Arcite frees Palamon from his bonds, and shares a last supper with him before their duel—a duologue of happy reminiscence undercut throughout by irony and a suppressed sense of doom:

Arcite There was a time
When young men went a hunting, and a wood,
And a broade Beech: and thereby hangs a tale:—heigh ho!
Palamon For Emily, upon my life! Foole,
Away with this strained mirth

(III. iii. 52-6)

And no sooner have they made their separate exits than the Jailor's Daughter...

(The entire section is 15590 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Cyrus Hoy (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Shares of Fletcher and his Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon (VII)," in Studies in Bibliography: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, Vol. 15, 1962, pp. 71-90.

[In the following excerpt, Hoy surveys the linguistic evidence that distinguishes the work of Shakespeare and Fletcher in The Two Noble Kinsmen.]

This monograph concludes with an account of Fletcher's presumptive collaborations with Shakespeare, only one of which has a place in the standard Beaumont and Fletcher canon. About Fletcher's share in The Two Noble Kinsmen, there is no real...

(The entire section is 25944 words.)

Love And Friendship

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and Fletcher on Love and Friendship," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Review, Vol. XVIII, 1986, pp. 235-49.

[In the essay that follows, Waith explores the conflict between friendship and love in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and examines the differences between Shakespeare and Fletcher in their treatment of this theme.]

The loue of men to women is a thing common and of course: the friendshippe of man to man infinite and immortali.

These words of Eumenides in Lyly's...

(The entire section is 13411 words.)

Gender Roles

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Laurie J. Shannon (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Emilia's Argument: Friendship and 'Human Title' in The Two Noble Kinsmen;' in ELH, Vol. 64, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 657-82.

[In the following essay, Shannon examines the character of Emilia and claims that she "revises the definitional prejudices of the male model regarding both gender and sexuality. "]

The masculinity of ideal friendship in the Renaissance is as proverbial as the "one soul in two bodies" formulation that celebrates it. Extending Cicero's disqualification of women from ideal friendship in De Amicitia, Montaigne's influential essay "De l'amitié" argued that women's minds...

(The entire section is 14593 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Hamlin, Will. "A Select Bibliographical Guide to The Two Noble Kinsmen." In Shakespeare, Fletcher, and 'The Two Noble Kinsmen', edited by Charles H. Frey, pp. 186-216. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.

Annotated bibliography of secondary sources on The Two Noble Kinsmen written from the early eighteenth century through 1987.


Bertram, Paul. "The Composition of the Play." In Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen, pp. 244-82. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965.

Argues that Shakespeare is the sole author of The Two Noble Kinsmen.


(The entire section is 401 words.)