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.