The Two Noble Kinsmen
It is widely agreed that The Two Noble Kinsmen represents the collaboration of Shakespeare with John Fletcher, although the precise nature of this arrangement remains a topic of critical debate. One of the most prominent features of the play is the contrast between social classes: that of the aristocratic characters, such as Theseus, Hippolyta, Emilia, and the kinsmen, and that of the "low" characters, such as the Jailer and the Jailer's Daughter. In addition to the class issues emphasized by the love of the Jailer's Daughter for the kinsmen Palamon, the Jailer's Daughter and the subplot centering on her activities are studied both due to the significance of their relationship to the main plot and the fact that they are not found in the source material, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Modern critics have also taken an interest in providing detailed comparisons of The Two Noble Kinsmen to its source, Chaucer's tale.
While many critics agree that issues pertaining to social status dominate both the main plot and subplot of the play, there is still considerable debate concerning the treatment of such issues by Shakespeare and Fletcher. Richard Abrams (1989) argues that even though the kinsmen claim to aspire to antiquarian ideals of chivalry and nobility, they nevertheless treat love with a mercantile, commercialized attitude. Such bourgeois values, Abrams maintains, are emphasized by characters of "lower station" in the subplot. In contrast, Richard Holbrook (1994) states that despite the occasionally ironic view of aristocratic culture presented in the play, The Two Noble Kinsmen nevertheless "offers a magnificently idealized version" of aristocratic life. In the subplot, the imaginative, natural mode of the pastoral is contrasted with the stylized and artificial nature of the aristocracy, Holbrook asserts. Taking a different approach all together, Douglas Bruster (1995) suggests that the issues related to social class and power, as reflected in the mad speeches of the Jailer's daughter, speak not only to the power balance in the play, but also to the social and cultural relationships in both the Jacobean playhouse and Jacobean culture. Bruster demonstrates that at the time The Two Noble Kinsmen was written, the emphasis on folk elements in theatrical productions was being replaced by more courtly, urban elements. At the same time, Bruster shows, the "gap between patrician and plebian" in Jacobean culture was widening. Bruster argues that the Jailer's Daughter's speeches, in their focus on "the rural world and its folk culture," suggest "a tension between the courtly idealism of the overplot and the decidedly non-heroic lives of those in the underplot."
Many critics have observed that the characters and events in the subplot are not found in the Chaucerian source material. For this reason, and for the notably sharp contrasts between the world of the main plot and that of the subplot, the subplot and its characters, particularly the Jailer's Daughter, are often the focus of critical study. Richard Allan Underwood (1993) offers a detailed analysis of the role of the Jailer's Daughter in the play, commenting that the two plots are linked through the Jailer's Daughter's involvement with Palamon. Underwood discusses the sexual overtones of the subplot, demonstrating that the subplot reinforces one of the themes of the main plot, that is, the theme of interchangeability. Just as Emilia finds Palamon and Arcite interchangeable, several men, Underwood suggests, including Palamon, the Wooer, and the doctor, become the interchangeable lover/abuser of the Jailer's Daughter.
While the Jailer's Daughter subplot may be the most frequently discussed variation of The Two Noble Kinsmen from its source, The Knight's Tale, it is not the only such aberration. Ann Thomson (1978) analyzes the play scene by scene, noting how Shakespeare and Fletcher made use of their source. Thomson argues that the two playwrights adapted The Knight's Tale quite differently, with Shakespeare's being a somewhat "free adaptation" while Fletcher's scenes sometimes involve a more faithful rendering of the source. In particular, Thomson notes that especially in the cases of Emilia and Palamon, the two playwrights present the characters inconsistently, and that Shakespeare takes pains to introduce and develop themes (such as the destructive nature of passion on other relationships) that Fletcher does not always attend to. Thomson explains that the differences between the approaches of Fletcher and Shakespeare can at least in part be attributed to Fletcher's desire to write a commercial tragicomedy and Shakespeare's interest in a thoughtful, serious reading of the poem. Peter C. Herman (1997) connects Shakespeare and Fletcher's interpretation of Chaucer to a contemporary event—the premature death of the young Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1613. Herman contends that Shakespeare and Fletcher's rendering of The Knight's Tale was "significantly influenced" by Henry's death and by the public disillusionment which followed. At the time, Herman states, The Knight's Tale was taken as a "noble tale," not at all subversive or ironic. Herman also explains that Prince Henry had been dedicated to portraying himself as "the epitome of chivalric virtues." The Two Noble Kinsmen was the first instance of Chaucer being interpreted in an ironic manner, Herman argues, as Shakespeare and Fletcher explore chivalry as a destructive force with the power to ruin friendships and threaten lives. Herman concludes: following Henry's death, the hope and glory of chivalric values perhaps died as well, and Shakespeare and Fletcher's critique of chivalry signaled "a shift in both the interpretive and the political climate, the altered political climate making possible, perhaps even inevitable, a new reading of Chaucer's text."