(Shakespearean Criticism)

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."

Social Class

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard Abrams (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Two Noble Kinsmen as Bourgeois Drama," in Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, edited by Charles H. Frey, University of Missouri Press, 1989, pp. 145-62.

[In the following essay, Abrams argues that The Two Noble Kinsmen reflects the values of the bourgeois class in that the kinsmen, despite their apparent aspirations to antiquarian noble ideals, treat love in a mercantile, commericalized manner.]

The work of an age of chivalric nostalgia and mercantile ambition, The Two Noble Kinsmen constantly grinds the one against the other. Presenting himself to Theseus, Arcite avows that he hopes "To purchase name, and do my ablest service / To such a well-found wonder as thy worth" (2.5.26-27). Noble titles are not literally for sale in Theseus's court, as they were in James's England.1 But Arcite's metaphor captures the spirit of a world in which name must now be "bought," can no longer be won through disinterested service. The cohesiveness of The Two Noble Kinsmen's mercantile images, occurring in scenes attributed both to Shakespeare and to Fletcher, signals a wider artistic unity; though I shall not pursue an argument for unity here, I hope by example to encourage study of the play as a seamless web able to stand up to the scrutiny to which Shakespeare's undivided works are routinely subjected. Beginning with the Prologue's complaint of the difficulty of marketing Chaucer's Knight's Tale to a modern audience, I relocate the spirit of bourgeois London in the world of the dramatis personae. Like the Prologue, the kinsmen aspire to noble ideals of antiquity, but their pursuit of commercialized versions of love and honor reveals an underlying coarseness. Indeed, the final couplet of act I suggests the centrality of commerce to human society and the consequent futility of lofty aspiration: "This world's a city full of straying streets, / And death's the market-place, where each one meets" (1.5.15-16). Tracing the mediations of the marketplace in the lives of the principal characters I turn afterward to a discussion of dramatic structure, reading the interplay of loss and gain in the main plot and subplot as an authorial excursion in that favorite bourgeois form, the balance sheet.


A study of The Two Noble Kinsmen as bourgeois drama may properly begin with the Prologue's admission of a pecuniary motive. Conjuring a contemporary London hostile to heroic endeavor, this impresario-figure sets the tone of the action that follows. Though the play's title promises men performing noble deeds, the first lines compare the play to a marketable maiden, plunging us into a world of trade:

New plays and maidenheads are near akin—
Much follow'd both, for both much money gi'n,
If they stand sound and well. . . .

(Pro. 1-3)

Crassly commercial, these lines offer a candor significantly lacking in Theseus's later auction of Emilia's favors. But soon, the Prologue mends his speech; his simile of a bought woman mutates toward married respectability (Pro. 4-8) as he admits a motive coequal with profit. Because the play's story derives from an honored ancestor, "Chaucer (of all admir'd)" (Pro. 13), an unsuccessful adaptation may cause The Knight's Tale's "noble breeder" (Pro. 10) to turn in his grave, menacing his latest heirs:

If we let fall the nobleness of this [Chaucer's tale],
And the first sound this child [the play] hear be a hiss,
How will it shake the bones of that good man [Chaucer]
And make him cry from under ground. . . .

(Pro. 15-18)

"This is the fear we bring," the Prologue stresses (Pro. 21), to allay which, he invites the audience to participate in a rite of propitiation, assimilating the noble breeder to the sociable middle classes. Already coopted by the phrase "that good man"—at once a euphemism placating an irascible spirit and a bourgeois formula of respect—Chaucer may enjoy "sweet sleep" (Pro. 29), lulled by the hum of business as usual, if the audience will play its part.

That part consists of recognizing that,

it were an endless thing,
And too ambitious, to aspire to him [Chaucer],
Weak as we are, and almost breathless swim
In this deep water. Do but you hold out
Your helping hands, and we shall tack about
And something do to save us.

(Pro. 22-27)

By reaching forth their hands as if to save a drowning swimmer or propel with winds of applause a becalmed ship, the spectators step out of their initial scripted roles of customers, becoming fully active in the drama's production. No longer the play-following leisure class of the opening lines, they become a group of honest tradesfolk mirroring the hardworking actors. In short, improving upon a cash nexus ("much money gi'n"), the Prologue suggests a friendly barter arrangement: our time for your time, our labor for yours. By collaborating in the play's production, the spectators may achieve "Content" (Pro. 30) beyond that gained by passive viewing, for in working with their imaginations they relieve the boredom of "A little dull time" (Pro. 31)—that "period of slack trade"2 in which shopkeepers wait idly for business. Though the play affords "Scenes . . . below [Chaucer's] art," the audience may glean pleasures "Worth two hours' travail" or the players will bear the cost, their losses fall so thick [they] must needs leave" the profession of acting (Pro. 28-29, 32).3

So saying, the Prologue departs, and the scene shifts to an Athens as yet untained by modern commercial values. Three widowed Queens of Thebes disrupt Theseus's and Hippolyta's wedding—decorously, to be sure, though presently amid reminiscences of the Prologue (bridal, burial, deep water in the Queens' flood of tears), the formality of the scene breaks down; the spirit of workaday London intrudes on noble antiquity. Applauding a crying queen's soliloquy, Emilia echoes the Prologue's comparison of marketable plays and maidenheads, facetiously offering to "buy" her interlocutor (1.1.121-24). This in turn opens a door to further commercial usage such as the metaphor of "business" for both warfare and marriage (1.1.162, 196), and, in echo of the Prologue's fear of lost labor, the Queens' threat of "bootless toil" if Theseus delays battle (1.1.153). Finally, when Hippolyta "lend[s]" the supplicant Queens her marital "fee" of her spouse's services (1.1.198), even Theseus succumbs to the language of bourgeois enterprise. Losing chivalric definition in the very act of declaring martial service, the noble duke speaks like a harried businessman settling his domestic affairs (1.1.215-17, 220, 225) as he departs for Thebes to "make . . . work with Creon" (1.1.150).

Thebes also suggests the Prologue's London; its citizens affected in gait, voice, and appearance (1.2.44-58) recall the free-spending, fashion-following audience of the Prologue's first lines;4 and even the kinsmen, critical of such comportment, display a kind of materialism. Arcite's first speech, echoing the Prologue's anxiety of falling short of a heroic standard, couples the metaphor of swimming in "deep water" (Pro. 25) with the notion of an entrepreneurial setback. Concerned that he and Palamon will "let fall the nobleness" of their princely breeding if they remain in corrupt Thebes (Pro. 15), he counsels leaving at the earliest opportunity:

for not to swim
I'th' aid o'th' current were almost to sink,
At least to frustrate striving, and to follow
The common stream, 'twould bring us to an eddy
Where we should turn or drown; if labor through,
Our gain but life and weakness.


As the Prologue feared a profitless venture and Theseus bootless toil, so Arcite fears ill-paid "labor"—a fear exemplified by the plight of the unemployed soldier "who did propound / To his bold ends honor and golden ingots, / Which though he won, he had not" (1.2.16-18).5 Of course the kinsmen, as aristocrats, fight for honor rather than ingots; yet they conceive this ideal materialistically.6 When Theseus approaches "to seal / The promise of his wrath" (1.2.92-93)—metaphorically, to conclude a commercial transaction—Arcite the anxious investor frowns at the bad business of "Third[ing one's] worth" by fighting in an unjust cause (1.2.96), and Palamon concurs:

Let's to the King, who were he
A quarter carrier of that honor which
His enemy come in, the blood we venture
Should be as for our health, which were not spent,
Rather laid out for purchase.


Mercenary in spirit, the kinsmen resent being cheated of their due. Risking their lifeblood, they prefer a fair return on their capital outlay.

At first they seem to gain it; in battle the kinsmen purchase honor so palpable that its trappings are measurable by a material yardstick: Theseus orders the expenditure of Athens's "richest balms" in their recovery (1.4.31). But the duke's coin is counterfeit. Because Theseus regards his captives as a treasure "Worth a God's view"—"(millions of rates) / Exceed[ing] others" (1.4.21, 29-30)—and locks them away in prison where he alone can view their worthiness, his gesture savors more of investment and hoarding than of true reward. Though Arcite rationalizes that the kinsmen's cell is a rich "inheritance" (2.2.84), this rationalization is short-lived. Theseus's expenditure on their behalf, yet subsequent hiding of his prisoners from the world, robs the kinsmen of that noble remuneration, honor, for which they fought. Hidden discontent emerges when, gazing out their prison window, they glimpse Emilia, whom they dream of possessing in much the way that Theseus has seized on them.


"Dear," the first word spoken in the play by either kinsman, suggests the connection of love and commerce. "Dear Palamon," Arcite salutes his cousin, "dearer in love than blood" (1.2.1). If the commercial antecedents of this usage easily escape notice, they are unmistakable when woman, conceived as chattel, becomes the object of desire. In prison Arcite employs a telling parallelism: "Were we at liberty, / A wife might part us lawfully, or business" (2.2.88-89); and when immediately thereafter a prospective wife indeed parts the kinsmen, their rivalry takes the form of a business dispute for ownership of Emilia. The use value of the feudal order implicit in Arcite's initial salutation gives way to bourgeois exchange value; dearness becomes a reflection of market price:

To buy you I have lost what's dearest to me
Save what is bought, and yet I purchase cheaply,
As I do rate your value.


Frank in his covetousness, Arcite establishes a paradigm of bourgeois desire that then emerges more subtly in the disingenuous Palamon.

Claiming title to Emilia while in prison, Arcite on his release displays enterpreneurial zeal. Determined to "make . . . / Or end [his] fortunes" in Athens, he encounters, as a mirror of his ambition, the enterprising rustics, from whose "venture" to gain Theseus's patronage he forges his own (2.3.21-22, 70).8 Proclaiming his ability to outrace the wind that curls the "wealthy" fields of grain, he proposes to climb the social ladder, "ventur[ing]" in some "poor" disguise and winning royal "prefer[ment]" (2.3.76-79). Then, after his athletic success, he basks in the language of contracts and remuneration his victory has inspired. His dazzling triumph puts all Athens in debt, and as his "due" he gains an introduction to Emilia (2.5.30, 37). But he wants more: like Spenser's Guyon tempted by. Mammon's daughter Philotime, "the love of honor," he desires not only a wife rich in beauty but the status deriving from possession of a commodity in short supply. Amplifying his wish "To purchase name," he tells Theseus, "For only in thy court, of all the world, / Dwells fair-ey'd honor" (2.5.26-29). This female personification glances slyly at "fair-ey'd Emily" dwelling at Theseus's court (4.1.8) but also candidly expresses a deeper desire. For if Arcite seeks honor (victory in the May games) as an entrée to Emilia, he hopes reciprocally, by winning Emilia, to gain further honor. Like Demetrius of A Midsummer Night's Dream who thrives by winning not Hermia's love but Egeus's, Arcite courts the fair-eyed regard of Theseus, capable of awarding him Emilia's hand, and expects, by impressing the great duke, to win the wider respect of chivalric society.9

Arcite's desire to purchase name by prestigious sexual acquisition emerges still more clearly in his next scene. Giddy with success, he praises his Athenian benefactors for their policy of generosity—beyond enriching him, they "pay" dearly the "rite / They owe bloom'd May"—and pledges fealty to a Pecunia-like "Lady Fortune" who sets a "jewel" in his path (3.1.2-16). Arcite again strives less for intimate possession of a beautiful woman than for the honor deriving from conspicuous ownership. Even at his most lyrical, a nostalgia for the competitive male world of sporting occasions appears in his use of the comparative form of the adjective and in his mannerism of topping his own utterances:

O queen Emilia,
Fresher than May, sweeter
Than her gold buttons on the bough, or all
Th' enamell'd knacks o' th' mead or garden! yea
(We challenge too) the bank of any nymph,
That makes the stream seem flowers! thou, O jewel
O' th' wood, o' th' world. . . .


Emilia is not just fresh and sweet but fresher than this, sweeter than that; spoiling for challenges, Arcite conjures a host of rival beauties against whom to champion her claim. Similarly, exulting in the first fruits of his venture, he returns in imagination to the field of honor. Emilia has given him a brace of horses: "two such steeds might well / Be by a pair of kings back'd, in a field / That their crowns' titles tried" (3.1.20-22). Her gift, worthy of royalty, will win him universal admiration; more than that, because his fantasy of kings contesting titles transparently figures his rivalry with Palamon, Emilia's gift, affording him the edge in battle, seems to announce that she has chosen him her favorite. In this sense, Arcite's ownership derives savor from Palamon's lack. Though he is still but a "poor man" with respect to his ambitions (3.1.12), his progress differentiates him from "Poor cousin Palamon, poor prisoner" (3.1.23), and he desires only to publish their difference that Palamon's envy may crown his triumph.

Here Palamon enters to challenge both Arcite's claim to Emilia and the correlation of wealth and worth that claim supports. If Arcite credits his success to fortune and virtù, Palamon parades his poverty as the mark of moral scrupulosity. So poor that he is not even the "owner of a sword" (3.1.33), he begs Arcite to "Quit" him of his chains, "give" him a weapon, and "lend" him the "charity" of a meal (3.1.72-74). Arcite gladly assents, foregoing his advantage in order to restage his own rise to prosperity, this time by virtù alone. Amid legalisms (3.1.90, 112-15, 121-23) the kinsmen part, agreeing to a later meeting at which to settle what has become in Arcite's mind an inheritance dispute, determining "to whom the birthright of this beauty / Truly pertains" (3.6.31-32).

Arcite's frequent resort to commercial metaphor seems to proclaim Palamon the unworthier suitor, one who wishes neither to gain honor by sexual conquest nor to excite envy. Many passages show Palamon to advantage. On initially beholding Emilia, the aspiring Arcite judges her a "rare" beauty worth possessing, while Palamon gushes, "Might not a man well lose himself and love her" (2.2.153-55). Later, Palamon elaborates this selflessness into a formal posture, reversing Arcite's metaphor of inheritance ("the birthright of this beauty") in telling of "bequeath[ing to Emilia his] soul" (3.6.148). Though Palamon guards his tongue against acquisitive implications, however, he is equally as covetous as Arcite, as his pattern of defensive assertions gradually makes apparent. In prison Palamon represents his interest in Emilia as custodial. Boasting of taking "possession / First with mine eye of all those beauties / In her reveal'd to mankind" (2.2.169-71), he implies that on the day Arcite proves worthy, he is prepared to walk away, ceding all claim (2.2.204). But in the same scene the truth of his desire emerges in metaphors of violated property rights (2.2.213-14), leading to his eventual blurted claim of "mine she is—"(3.1.118).10 Finally, though, it is less what Palamon says than his silence that convicts him. Assenting to Theseus's tournament arrangements, which permit him to obtain Emilia under cover of protecting her from a worse claimant, he stands revealed as Arcite's fellow traveler, profiting from the very ethos he denounces. Although the kinsmen pride themselves on mutual dissimilarity, their readiness to receive Emilia as an exchange object at Theseus's hands discloses them to be variations on a single cruel theme.

Yet if Palamon fails to provide a foil to Arcite, that function is fulfilled by Emilia herself, who in her first speech rejects exchange value in favor of a more compassionate reckoning of human worth. The third Theban queen has been disparaging her own oratorical skills, but Emilia assures her:

If that you were
The ground-piece of some painter, I would buy you
Tinstruct me 'gainst a capital grief indeed—
Such heart-pierc'd demonstration! but alas,
Being a natural sister of our sex,
Your sorrow beats so ardently upon me,
That it shall make a counter-reflect 'gainst
My brother's heart, and warm it to some pity,
Though it were made of stone.


Characterizing the queen as a precious artifact, Emilia quickly repudiates this depersonalizing representation, transferring the status of object to the stony heart of Theseus. Her vehemence is surprising, yet explicable as a proleptic defense against the male practice of commodifying women in evidence throughout the drama. For instance, in her next scene, Pirithous flatters her as a "precious maid," one of the heavens' "best-temper'd pieces" (1.3.8-10), prompting Emilia to venture a less objectifying account of her own beauty. Recounting a childhood intimacy, she describes her friend Flavina and herself as works of living art, not for the consumption of the marketplace but for mutual emulation and delight. Echoing the Prologue, this distinction between a vendible, well-tempered artwork and living art appreciable only by intimate involvement underpins a further distinction between the kinsmen's acquisitive desire for Emilia and her generous affection for them.11 "[T]wo fair gauds of equal sweetness," Emilia's suitors at first merely tickle her "child[ish] fancy" (4.2.52-53). But later, when the tournament approaches, her feelings deepen. Though to them she is a "prize" (5.1.42; cf. 5.3.16-17, 31-32), they to her are "precious," possessed of a "richness / And costliness of spirit" (5.1.155, 5.3.96-97), which not even their proprietary arrogance can vitiate. Transcending distress for her own plight, she suffers both with the "poor" loser of the tournament and with the winner, whose loss in his friend's death, she humbly acknowledges, her own "value's shortness" can never repay (5.3.104, 88).

Emilia's foreboding of a pyrrhic victory in which "whosoever wins / Loses a noble cousin" (4.2.155-56), experiencing grief beyond her power to compensate, proves correct. Intending gallantry, the triumphant Arcite balances Palamon's life against Emilia's hand and avows that he "purchase[s] cheaply" as he "rate[s her] value" (5.3.113-14). But the acuity of Emilia's rhetorical question, "Is this winning?" (5.3.138), appears in Arcite's dejected failure to reiterate his endorsement and in Palamon's later questioning of his own amatory enterprise:

O cousin,
That we should things desire, which do cost us
The loss of our desire! that nought could buy
Dear love, but loss of dear love!


Though dear love for dear love is fair exchange, to lose one's desire in the bargain puts the cost too high. Long denying his own covetousness, Palamon finally acknowledges his attempt to "buy / Dear love." His enterprise has been akin to Arcite's, and, like Arcite's, ends in loss.


But if Arcite loses life, he gains honor; and as the play expresses in an economic computation the grief of Palamon, whose loss outweighs the gain of victory, so it inquires whether Arcite ultimately profits from his mortal exchange. Announcing the tournament, Theseus promises the contestants symmetrical rewards: "who wins I'll settle here; / Who loses, yet I'll weep upon his bier" (3.6.307-08). One must die; yet Theseus's balanced construction obscures the cost of defeat by promising the vanquished a wealth of tears. This noble fiction of double victory, which Theseus will maintain to the end (5.3.131-33), is belied, however, by the humane wisdom of the characters of a lower social order, who view life as uniquely precious. Anticipating the tournament, one subplot character, the Jailer's Second Friend, acknowledges that Theseus's arrangements "are honorable: / How good they'll prove, I know not" (4.1.30-31). Another, the Doctor treating the Jailer's Daughter for madness, counsels her father, "Nev'r cast your child away for honesty" (5.2.21), obliquely commenting on the kinsmen's folly in casting life away for honor. Such solicitude sets the Daughter on the path to health. But finally she heals herself through a retrenchment in desire which provides the play's chief critique of mad love. Overextended in her pursuit of the noble Palamon, she accepts in his place the humble Wooer—a substitution of the "good" for the "honorable," which throws in relief Palamon's and Arcite's madness in courting death as the one fit indemnification against the loss of Emilia.

Considerations of social status dominate the subplot from the beginning. Introduced by her father's and Wooer's talk of dowry, the Daughter laments her class difference from the kinsmen, whose "constant nobility" affords them "no more sense of their captivity than I of ruling Athens" (2.1.33-38).12 As feelings of inferiority arise within her, she curses her lowly station:

Why should I love this gentleman? 'Tis odds
He never will affect me. I am base,
My father the mean keeper of his prison,
And he a prince.


Craving the glamour of association with a gentleman too dear for her possessing, the Daughter, fallen both from sexual and social innocence, hopes to raise her status by "venturing" boldly.13 Her act of freeing Palamon backfires, however; failing to win his love, she recognizes herself worse off than ever before (3.2.20-25). In response, "her brain coins" (4.3.40). Cognizant of the social cost of poverty (as in her observation that even in hell "you must bring a piece of silver on the tip of your tongue, or no ferry" [4.3.19-21]), she repays herself in fantasy for the pleasures of which she feels materially deprived. Recasting herself in a life of privilege, she dreams of finding an enchanted frog, sailing off on a cargo ship, and meeting a Pygmy king (3.4.12-16).

The larger significance of the Daughter's coinage of compensatory pleasures is suggested by a passage of the Prologue examined earlier, which may be useful to have in front of us again. If the players' desire to emulate Chaucer reverberates in the kinsmen's aspiration to retain their honor in ignoble Thebes, then the Prologue's proposal of an alternative project suggests the Daughter's adjustment:

it were an endless thing,
And too ambitious, to aspire to him [Chaucer],
Weak as we are, and almost breathless swim
In this deep water. Do but you hold out
Your helping hands, and we shall tack about
And something do to save us.

(Pro. 22-27)

Read Palamon for Chaucer, and these lines become a virtual allegory of the Daughter's struggles. Hers, too, is a seemingly endless,14 too ambitious quest through deep water (she is rescued from drowning by the Wooer), in whose course, helped by father and friends, she tacks about and saves herself. The latter maneuver is glossed by the Daughter's first mad speech, in which she instructs the crew of an imaginary ship to "tack about" or "lose all else" (3.4.9-10) and then follows her own advice. Dismissing the imaginary crew, she tacks deftly in midline (3.4.11), turning to diversions such as the enchanted frog, whose compensatory nature appears in her song of an abandoned girl promised a white horse to seek her faithless lover (3.4.22-23). Again, on her return home, the Daughter retreats into compensatory fantasy; she plans a noble wedding and later recruits a crew of "helping hands" (Pro. 26) to renew her love-quest, even repeating her signature command, "Tack about!" (4.1.152). Nominally, she still seeks "Palamon," but the object of her quest has become generic, permitting a final substitution. If she can accept her Wooer as a kind of Palamon, a realm of bourgeois comforts stands ready to receive her.

This realm is evoked by the Wooer's bustling talk of account keeping, bargaining, and contract sealing, which, following the Daughter's most fevered mad scene, sounds a pastoral note (4.3.66-69): "I. . . would account I had a great penn'-worth on't to give half my state that both she and I . . . stood unfeignedly on the same terms." But because the Wooer lacks verve, the Doctor superimposes on him the romantic figure of her imagined lover, producing a hybrid whose appeal to the Daughter is reflected in a final coinage. Palamon's wondrous horse is "like his master [the actual Palamon], coy and scornful" (5.2.62) and also like the Wooer, symbolizing her acceptance of him. For as her stolid friend "would account" that he and the Daughter had exchanged vows, and now keeps account of their kisses (5.2.6, 109), so the horse "casts himself th' accounts / Of all his hay and provender" (5.2.58-59). Basking in the prestige of Palamon's imagined gift, as Arcite in Emilia's brace of horses, the Daughter feels sufficient to resist the temptation of courtly greatness, as the horse itself has done. For though Theseus's mare has a great crush on Palamon's horse, "he'll ne'er have her"; she is a "poor beast" for all her wealth and stature (5.2.65, 62). On the one hand, the Daughter identifies with the rejected mare; on the other, she exults in her stallion, whose discrimination speaks volumes about her own nobility, reconciling her to her place in the social order.

The last we see of the Daughter, she is bargaining for kisses:

Wooer. Come, sweet, we'll go to dinner,
And then we'll play at cards.

Daugh. And shall we kiss too?

Wooer. A hundred times.

Daugh. And twenty?

Wooer. Ay, and twenty.

Daugh. And then we'll sleep together?

Doct. Take her offer.

Wooer. Yes, marry, will we.


In the Prologue's terms, the Daughter gropes her way beyond the desire for "nobleness" to a humble "content" (Pro. 15, 30). Returning to "the old business" of her marital contract with the Wooer (2.1.17) and negotiating for kisses, as she has negotiated with her desire from the onset of her madness, she arrives at a wholesome compromise. Though the Wooer appears comical in Palamon's oversized clothes, he proves worthier of love than his prototype through a gallant willingness to efface his identity, drawing in Palamon's "sequent trace," to save his beloved (1.2.59-60).15 Settling for this embodiment of the good rather than the honorable, the Daughter divides ways with the kinsmen, who in the final scenes embrace death as the only honorable exchange for love.

In emphasis of the notion of an exchange, the scene in which Palamon prepares to die features both mercantile metaphor and a literal monetary transaction. Pausing in his rehearsal of the benefits of dying young, Palamon fears that his retainers have "sold" their lives "too too cheap" (5.4.15), but they assure him that they die well compensated; apart from gaining "title" to "Fortune," their opponents "A grain of honor /. . . not o'erweigh us" (5.4.17-19). This assurance finds its mark; eager to believe, or reluctant to undermine others' belief, Palamon celebrates the profitable exchange of life for honor with an act of largess. To "quite" the girl who "gave [him] freedom" (5.4.35, 24), he gives the Jailer his purse, touching off a wave of generosity in the assistant knights. In gratitude the Jailer wishes them all a heavenly return on their investment (5.4.36), and they turn cheerfully to the business of dying in sight of their reward: to be well remembered on earth and to sip nectar with the gods.

Although the knights' prodigality buoys their spirits in the face of death, the transparency of their cheer suggests that a more reliable gain lies with the Jailer and his Daughter, materially profiting from the chivalric code. This suggestion is confirmed when the knights are given back their lives. Laying his head on the block, Palamon consoles himself that he dies spiritually solvent. But when his "dream" of bene moriendi is broken by the news of Arcite's accident (5.4.48), he appears relieved; moreover, the pathos of Arcite's end underscores Palamon's good fortune in survival. Carried onstage for a final session of account squaring, Arcite gives Palamon Emilia, and with her, he believes, "all the world's joy" (5.4.91), gaining in exchange Palamon's forgiveness. But neither the honor that Palamon promises in annual commemoration of Arcite's death (5.4.98), nor that which Theseus adds to it (5.4.124-26), diminishes the spectacle of foolish waste. Arcite dies indifferent to the glory accruing from his triumph, desiring only a human touch (5.4.91, 94). The survivors understand that life alone may be counted precious, and all quit the stage, fulfilling in their departure the economic prophecy of the Prologue's final line, "Our losses fall so thick, we must needs leave."


In the play's last two scenes, the kinsmen's gains and losses are scrupulously reckoned. As in the practice of double-entry bookkeeping that had recently gained vogue in England, their debits and credits are separately totaled, then balanced against each other in expectation of a zero-sum.16 The loser hopes to gain honor, repaying his loss of life, the winner to gain pleasure, repaying the death of his friend. In the end, however, this expectation of balance fails. Loss is compounded: Arcite dies without substantial compensation, and his death robs Palamon of desire. Prophesying such a result before the tournament, Emilia interprets Diana's emblem of a rose tree with a single bloom as a sign that "this battle shall confound / Both these brave knights, and I, a virgin flow'r, / Must grow alone, unpluck'd" (5.1.166-68). And if the rose's fall then suggests that she too must "be gather'd" (5.1.170), her prophecy of the men's double loss resulting in a woman's gain fulfills itself not in her own preservation of virginity but in the rise of her alter ego, the Jailer's Daughter. In the final section of this essay, I shall relocate the play's promised balance in the counterpoint of the tragic main plot and the comic subplot. The Daughter's happy ending will appear not just a counterweight to disaster but its mysterious source.

The play's iterative nautical images conveniently illustrate the interdependent fates of the characters of the main plot and the subplot. In the second act, Arcite's and the Daughter's decisions to venture for love evoke seafaring imagery similar to that in the Prologue connected with the players' theatrical enterprise. These images crop up at key points in the action. In the last spoken line of 4.1, the Daughter exhorts her father and friends to "Tack about!"—inverting Theseus's command to the kinsmen that concludes the preceding scene, "hold your course" (3.6.304). Humoring the Daughter by miming a ship's crew, her well-wishers tack sharply; combating falsehoods with falsehoods (4.3.93-94), they participate in madness to achieve a just end. But as a consequence of their swerving, the watery death meant for the Daughter shifts to the main plot. Arcite, holding course in his oath to Theseus, his loyalty to Mars, and his equestrian pride, falls heir to the Daughter's escaped fate. Crushed by his horse, he becomes the victim of a metaphorical shipwreck, "a vessel . . . that floats but for / The surge that next approaches" (5.4.83-84).17

To conceive the balance of the tragic and comic endings in economic terms is, as I said, to borrow a metaphor from the play's figuration of the kinsmen's interdependent fortunes. Yet an economic model comes to us already adapted to the relationship of main- and subplot characters in the purse-giving interlude staged just before the tragic denouement, in which money passes from the nobles about to die to the Jailer and his Daughter. This scene suggests the structural debt incurred in the larger artistic scheme by the Daughter's happiness. For her to prosper, someone else—either Palamon financially or Arcite mortally—must pay. Although the play does not directly explore class struggle, its contrapuntal plotting thus reveals a proto-Marxian awareness of one class thriving in another's misery, like that of a beggar in an Elizabethan tract smiling at the woes of the rich in plague time when "we poor people have mickle good":

Their loss is our luck; when they do become naked, we then are clothed against their wills; with their doles and alms we are relieved; their sickness is our health, their death our life.18

Similarly, the revenge of low on high, implicit in the comedy of the Jailer profiting from the knights' misfortune, reemerges in the play's conclusion. To borrow a phrase from the Daughter, as Palamon has been "kept down with hard meat and ill lodging" (5.2.97), so at play's end certain underclasses, "kept down" by reason of their divergence from a cultural norm of manly nobleness, rise up with Arcite's rearing horse.

That the role of nemesis should fall to the horse is explained by the last speech of the play's first scene. Theseus maps human differences on the difference between the human and the animal: "As we are men, / Thus should we do [support the Theban queens' cause], being sensually subdu'd / We lose our human title" (1.1.231-33). The notion of humanity deformed by insubordination of the beast within recurs frequently, as in Arcite's sneer at Palamon as a "beast" and in Palamon's own fear of lying "fatting, like a swine" (3.3.47; 3.6.12). These slurs culminate in Pirithous's description of Arcite's horse, failing in its aspiration to a noble human identity. "[O]f kind manage," its will an extension of the rider's on its back who has "put pride in him," the horse simulates rational mastery, "counting" the cobblestones it seems to float above (5.4.69, 58). But panicked by a spark, this aristocrat of animals reverts to bestial instinct; realizing Palamon's dread of swinishness by whining "pig-like" (5.4.69), it draws to itself images of a humanity "sensually subdued." Thus, as the snobbish schoolmaster decries the rustics' "[jean] judgments" (3.5.8), pronouncing his loutish wards ineducable, so the horse "Forgets school-doing" (5.4.68). And as the same schoolmaster fantasizes a night-marish phallic woman ("An eel and woman, / . . . unless by th' tail / And with thy teeth thou hold, will either fail" [3.5.48-50]), so the bucking horse brings this caricature to life; its "diff'ring plunges," which seek to "Disroot [Arcite] whence he grew," while Arcite keeps it "'tween his legs" (5.4.74-76), reinforce play-long fears of woman's volcanic sexuality.19 Epitomizing a degenerate humanity, the horse becomes a screen for slanderous projections, the creation of an oppressor race's bad conscience. All that chivalric man stigmatizes as base, gaining "human title" at the expense of, returns in this beastly incarnation to wreak revenge.20

As the horse becomes a repository of calumnious images of fallen humanity, so the Daughter, as a belowstairs denizen of Theseus's court, an advocate of deceived maids, and the leader of the rustics' dance, serves a similar integrative function, amalgamating the dissident energies of the play's outsider factions and channeling them toward release in the horse's violence. In her first scene, her sarcasm about the absurdity of herself "ruling Athens" and her declaration that it is "a holiday to look on" the kinsmen (2.1.38, 53) hints at insurrectionary tendencies, later realized in her assumption of the identity of a spirit of misrule distilling other characters' discontents. Pressured by Theseus to accept Arcite as her master in marriage, Emilia in the second act exits with a mildly insubordinate rejoinder; on her heels the Daughter enters, trumpeting rebellion—"Let all the dukes and all the devils roar" (2.6.1)—as though she has become the secret voice of Emilia's resentment. Conversely, the Daughter transmits to others the rebellious energy she attracts; her civil disobedience and subsequent inward departure from the "law and regiment" of sense (4.3.96) cue parallel manifestations—the pandemoniac "disensanity" of the "mad boys" at their country revels (3.5.2, 24), which drives the schoolmaster to spluttering distraction, and the lawless fighting of Palamon and Arcite, which prompts Theseus to roar in echo of Gerrold:

What ignorant and mad malicious traitors
Are you, that 'gainst the tenor of my laws
Are making battle, thus like knights appointed,
Without my leave and officers of arms?


Although Theseus charms the kinsmen's "mad" treason into orderly pageantry, the Daughter's madness cannot be so easily contained. Assigned a formal role in the country dance, she returns in the next act madder than ever. Then, almost to the end of the play, her relapse belies main-plot optimism, until finally, after Palamon's prayer to Venus, a version of her frenzy transfers itself to Arcite's horse.

A conspicuous early digression in Pirithous's narrative intimates the kinship of horse and Daughter. Scandalized by the horse's fall from noble breeding, Pirithous speculates on a possible predisposition to savagery, flirting with an explanation that smacks of social stereotyping. Taking the horse's measure in mercantile terms, he comments that in certain circles the horse would lack a purchaser, for its color "Weakens his price, and many will not buy / His goodness with this note" (5.4.52-53). Translated into human terms, this prejudice calls up the exclusionary social system that puts the Daughter at a disadvantage on the marriage market. As a natal accident annuls the horse's "goodness," deterring prospective buyers, so the Daughter's lowly birth undercuts her real value, rendering her ineligible to marry noble Palamon. Fearing rejection, she "run[s] mad" (4.2.12, 48), until Palamon's imagined love token confirms her worth. But if "Palamon's" imaginary horse, keeping accounts and dancing the morris, reflects her growing self-acceptance, then Arcite's horse, "counting / The flinty pavement [and] dancing . . . to th' music / His own hoofs made" (5.4.58-60), runs wild. "Venus" strikes; the "pranks and friskins of . . . madness" lately purged by the Daughter (4.3.80-81) seize on a new victim. Violence enters the main plot both as an incursion of the horse's lower nature and as an upward displacement from the subplot.21

As in social revolution, the horse's insurgence has a leveling effect. More than Palamon, who protested much but finally would not "offer / To Mars's so scorn'd altar" (1.2.19-20), Arcite holds his martial course throughout the action. But when his victor's wreath falls from his head, he appears to have mischosen his god. From the bourgeois standpoint of the Daughter and Wooer who attain what Arcite would scorn as a "gain" of "but life and weakness" (1.2.12), the struggle for chivalric eminence is discredited as profitless. Though Palamon gives his cousin a hero's farewell, Emilia eulogizes him, rather, as "a right good man" (5.4.97), her epithet establishing community, via Palamon's description of the Daughter as "A right good creature" earlier in the scene (5.4.34), with that stratum of common humanity from which Arcite sought to distinguish himself by noble deeds. Pursuing honor through "straying streets" (1.5.15), Mars's votary arrives, as the Third Queen obliquely predicted, and as Pirithous's mundane digression on the horse's price confirms, at "death's . . . market-place" (1.5.16), the inevitable rendezvous of high and low. And there, too, Theseus arrives in his final speech, which denies the distinction between possession and lack, each understood as entailing its opposite:

For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry, still
Are children in some kind.


If winning and losing are kindred states, then heroic striving is vain. The duke is like the Daughter, the noblest of men mere "children in . . . kind." With this downward adjustment of the title notion of noble kinship, Theseus leads his friends from the stage.

Like Arcite's first speech, which extends the Prologue's fear of letting fall Chaucer's nobleness, Theseus's final gesture encompasses the world beyond the footlights: the marketplace of contemporary London invoked by the Prologue and now brought back into view by fifth-act allusions to the theatrical underpinnings of the action (5.3.134, 5.4.123) and by the Epilogue. Theseus had aspired to stage "deeds of honor in their kind, / Which sometime show well, pencill'd" (5.3.12-13), but finally he accepts the impossibility of modern epic achievement. His last line, which, within the fiction, commends the survivors to a time of mingled joy and sorrow—"Let's go off, / And bear us like the time" (5.4.136-37)—also leads them offstage beyond the fiction to the time of the audience when all must stand in awe of the "fam'd works" of antiquity (Pro. 20). For Theseus at this juncture to confess himself a child in kind is to acknowledge kinship not only with the Daughter but with the rural school-master who, in his epilogue, deferred to Theseus's own greatness, numbering himself among the "good boys" begging for favor (3.5.139). And it is to establish kinship with the speaker who will succeed him at center stage. Relinquishing ambition to produce "a noble work" (5.1.6), Theseus tacks about in chastened spirit, like the Prologue seeking what will bring contentment, and conjures, as an embodiment of his revised self-image, an echo of new self-doubts, the Epilogue, anxious as a "schoolboy" (Epi. 2) lest philosophical gains prove poor exchange for the noble actions in whose expectation the audience attends the play.

Presumably a single actor plays both Prologue and Epilogue. But no detail can better express the two hours' distance traveled in the course of the play than the difference between these two speakers: the one conscious of debts to a heroic past, the other single-minded in his concern to prevent economic disaster by ingratiating himself with the audience. Although love and war dominate the action of The Two Noble Kinsmen, these interests survive the play's final scene only in the faint mimicry of chivalric postures. Recalling the amorous kinsmen, the Epilogue bids the spectator who "has / Lov'd a young handsome wench" to behave decorously, not "hiss, and kill / Our market" (Epi. 5-6, 8-9). For if the audience shows belligerence, then the Epilogue too must assume a martial front: "Have at the worst can come, then!" (Epi. 10; cf. 3.6.131). The Epilogue, however, hopes to avert a confrontation. Acknowledging his vaunt to be out of character, he protests, "mistake me not: I am not bold" (Epi. II); and, as his swaggering pretense crumbles, he seeks amicable ground:

If the tale we have told
(For 'tis no other) any way content ye
(For to that honest purpose it was meant ye),
We have our end. . . .

(Epi. 12-15)

What contents us, what we "like" (Epi. I), is often idiosyncratic. That Emilia and Flavina "Lov'd for [they] did" (1.3.61) evidences an ability to convenant meaningfully outside the heroic sphere; and it is such a contract that the Epilogue wishes to strike in the play's final turning from the old ways of honor. Bourgeois pieties abound: though the players fall short of that "endless thing" of imitating Chaucer (Pro. 22), yet to offer "content" is to pursue an "honest . . . end" (Epi. 14-15), in whose perseverance they verge on the heroic. Although, on this occasion, the play may disappoint its audience, "ye shall have ere long / I dare say many a better, to prolong / Your old loves to us" (Epi. 15-17). Not only will new plays someday repay present losses, but the player-patron bond possesses a gratifying feudal solidity, captured in the allusion to "Your old loves." With this obeisance, ennobling the commercial contract that underlies the play's production, the Epilogue brings The Two Noble Kinsmen to a complacent close. Pledging his "might" and "service," he enfolds himself within the ranks of the bourgeoisie as in the bosom of a powerful clan: "Gentlemen, good night" (Epi. 17-18).


1 The controversy surrounding this royal practice heated up again at the time of The Two Noble Kinsmen's first performance. Although in 1610 King James apologized to Parliament for creating knights "by the hundreds," in the winter of 1612-1613 it was reported that Princess Elizabeth's followers, on the occasion of her marriage, "'make portsale of knighthoods and kepe as yt were open market to all commers for 150 li a man.' . . . A fortnight later, however, these hopes were dashed, for James refused to oblige and so 'mard the market, or rather raised the price to an extra-ordinarie rate'. In February it was said to be impossible to get a knighthood even for £300 or £400 and frustrated status seekers hurried off to Ireland where one could still be obtained . . . for between £100 and £150. In November of the same year the king was still reported to be 'very daintie of that dignitie, minding to raise the market and bring yt to 500 li for a knighthoode.'" Lawrence Stone, Crisis of the Aristocracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 79-80.

2 The gloss of G. R. Proudfoot, ed., The Two Noble Kinsmen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).

3 Is there a reminiscence in the travail/travel pun of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage? Note "hear" rather than "see" (Pro. 27) and "tale" (Epi. 12).

4 The act of following is significant. Echoing Pro. 2 ("Much follow'd both"), Arcite declares his reluctance to "follow / The common stream" (1.2.9-10), and Palamon declines "to follow him / Follows his tailor, haply so long until /The follow'd make pursuit [pursues legal remedies]" (1.2.50-52); yet in the scene's last line the kinsmen resolve to "follow / The becking of [their] chance" (1.2.115-16). Later, the idea of following becomes central to the play's treatment of emulous love.

5 Thus, Arcite's and Palamon's first speeches anticipate each other's fates. Palamon will win through to "life and weakness," a "gain" of dull survival; Arcite will win but have not the prize for which he fights. Palamon's "honor and golden ingots" recalls the Prologue's twofold anxiety to maintain Chaucer's "nobleness" and succeed commercially; his wish that Juno renew her anger "To get the soldier work" (1.2.23) recalls the Prologue's concern about heavy losses driving the players from the acting profession. Finally, the action of 1.2 presents Arcite's "frustrate striving," his struggle to return to the question of leaving Thebes (see 1.2.26-31, 34-35), as Palamon grumbles about the soldier's vain labor (1.2.33-34; cf. 1.1.153-54; 3.6.79).

6 For honor as remuneration, see William Segar, Honor Military, and Civili (London, 1602): "The principall markes whereat every mans endeuor in this life aimeth, are either Profit, or Honour; Th'one proper to vulgar people, and men of inferior Fortune; the other due to persons of better birth, and generous disposition. For as the former by paines and parsimony do onely labour to become rich; so th'other by Military skil, or knowledge in Civill government, aspire to Honor, and humane glory." Cited in Charles Barber, "The Theme of Honour's Tongue," Gothenburg Studies in English 58 (1985): 7.

7 The locus classicus for the two senses of "dear" is Portia's notorious pun, "Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear" (Merchant of Venice, 3.2.313). Typically, Palamon's usage is more discreet than Arcite's. He intimates that he will "tender" Arcite's life, not tenderly, but as the currency to advance his own suit (5.1.25). Shakespeare occasionally puns on the two senses of "tender" (Richard II, 2.3.41-42) or plays legal "tender" off against sentimental "dear" (Hamlet, 4.3.41). Raymond Southall, Literature and the Rise of Capitalism (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973), chap. 2, studies the impact of the rivalry of exchange and use values on Renaissance love literature. For value-relativism in Shakespeare, see W. R. Elton, "Shakespeare's Ulysses and the Problem of Value," Shakespeare Studies 2 (1967): 9.5-111; Burton Hatlen, "Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice," in Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, ed. Henry Garvin (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 91-105. More generally, see Sandra K. Fischer, "Drama in a Mercantilist World," Mid-Hudson Language Studies 6 (1983): 29-39; Sandra K. Fisher, Econolingua: A Glossary of Coins and Economic Language in Renaissance Drama (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 18-20.

8 The rustics' longer scene teems with the language of commerce, echoing the Prologue and anticipating Theseus's entrepreneurial efforts in staging the tournament as a "noble work" (5.1.6). Thus, the Prologue's preproduction jitters are matched by the schoolmaster's when a girl dancer fails to honor her contract ("break[s]," 3.5.47; cf. 3.3.45, and the entry in Fischer, Econolingua, 45). The schoolmaster is certain that all have "washed a tile," "labored vainly," that their "business" has become "a nullity," that "the credit of [their] town" is lost (3.5.40-41, 54, 56). When the Daughter discharges the missing girl's role, their credit is redeemed; they are "made again," fixed for life (3.5.74; cf. 76, 102, 158; also Arcite at 2.3.21).

9 The effect of Arcite's prowess on Theseus is evident in Theseus's advice to Emilia, "you have a servant, / That if I were a woman, would be master" (2.5.62-63)-a sexual transformation that would render Theseus synonymous with the female personification "fair-ey'd honor." Arcite's triumph in so moving Theseus represents a reversal of Palamon's fantasy at 2.2.257-59. In keeping with Arcite's quasi-sexual appeal to Theseus, Emilia views him as Ganymede at 4.2.15; see my "Gender Confusion and Sexual Politics in The Two Noble Kinsmen," Themes in Drama: Drama, Sex and Politics 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 69-76.

10 At 3.6.55, Arcite admits to petty theft in another context, setting up an interesting associative pattern. In the Prologue, "that good man" Chaucer fears an incriminating linkage with the thief Robin Hood (Pro. 17, 21); correspondingly, Arcite, who is at least a petty thief (Palamon believes his theft more serious), gains final vindication as "a right good man" (5.4.97). Cf. too the recurrence of "chaff (Pro. 19) in adjectival form, coupled with "thief," at 3.1.41.

11 The call for the audience's "helping hands" in realizing "Scenes . . . below [Chaucer's] art" (Pro. 26, 28) further suggests, as a linking text with the Flavina soliloquy, Emilia's collaborative role as audience to the Third Queen, "stead[ing]" her in what the Queen deems an inadequate performance.

12 The Daughter's vision of "the diff'rence of men," to which she alludes at the end of her first scene (2.1.53-54), presumably owes to her upbringing. Note in the preceding lines her father's typically bourgeois attempt to mold her manners to the courtesy of the aristocracy ("leave your pointing. They would not make us their object" [2.1.51-52]). The Jailer's and Wooer's dowry arrangements at the beginning of the scene recall the traffic in women of Pro. 1-3 and anticipate Theseus's negotiation of Emilia's hand with the kinsmen.

13 The Daughter's social climbing parallels Arcite's; for example, "venture" (2.4.30; cf. 2.6.2, 33) echoes Arcite's usage at the end of the preceding scene (2.3.78), and Arcite's defensive affirmation of his own worth at the end of 2.3 cues the Daughter's fear of baseness at the beginning of 2.4. Arcite's success in 2.5 leads to the Daughter's in 2.6, after which Arcite keeps the Daughter's rendezvous with Palamon in the woods. Further parallelisms include 2.3.23 and 2.6.34; 2.3.82 and 2.6.35. Arcite's phrasing at 2.3.21-22 anticipates the rustics' attempts to "make" their fortunes in 2.3 and 3.5 (see note 8, above). If the Daughter's attempt to ennoble herself by daring deeds recalls Arcite's fortune hunting, her hope for a "noble" death in which she dies "almost a martyr" (2.6.16-17) recalls Palamon (e.g., 2.2.263, 276-77). Either way, she escapes the chagrin of social insignificance.

14 The desire to make an end is thematic in the Daughter's scenes: see 2.1.18-19; 3.2.21; and her sceneending remark, "the point is this—/An end, and that is all," 3.2.37-38; also 5.2.72.

15 The Daughter's right to broker her own hand at the end of 5.2 contrasts with Emilia's reduction to an exchange object at the beginning of 5.3 and suggests the former's relative good fortune in marriage. This sequence echoes the shift from Emilia and her handmaid's talk of an amorous "bargain," whose negotiators are self-proprietors, to the kinsmen's appraisal of Emilia as a "rare" beauty worthy of acquisition (2.2.152-54).

16 For discussions of English double-entry practice, see A. C. Littleton and B. S. Yamey, Studies in the History of Accounting (Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1956). Allusions to accountancy include 1.1.32-34; 4.3.66-69; 5.2.58-59; 5.3.22-28, 86-89.

17 The fates of the Daughter and Emilia also form a closed system. In 4.1 the Daughter aspires to Emilia's lot, assuming airs of a great lady preparing for her wedding, after which Emilia takes up the Daughter's refrain, "Would I might end" (4.2.57). Correspondingly, after the Daughter in 5.2 pledges her hand to the disguised Wooer, Emilia expresses a desire to marry her two suitors "metamorphis'd / Both into one" (5.3.84-85).

18 William Bullein, A Dialogue against the Pestilence (1564; 2d ed. 1573), excerpted in J. Dover Wilson, ed., Life in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), 135; cited in Kirby Farrell, Play-Death and Heroism in Shakespeare (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming). Cf. Gloucester on distribution undoing excess, "That I am wretched / Makes thee [Poor Tom] the happier," King Lear, 4.1.65-66; and, conversely, Coriolanus, 1.1.19-20, in which the sufferings of the poor enhance the satisfactions of the rich. For leveling tendencies in Shakespeare, see Annette Rubinstein, "Bourgeois Equality in Shakespeare," Science and Society 41 (1977): 21-35.

19 Horse (jade) and woman are paired in the rustics' boasting at 2.3.27-33. Also note Arcite's Hotspurian substitution of his horse for Emilia at 2.5.47-48, after the failure of his attempted gallantry. Hippolyta's menace as overturner (1.1.77ff.) and seductress (1.1.175-86) lends ironic point to the etymological meaning of her name ("looser of horses").

20 Page duBois, Centaurs and Amazons (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982), discusses the Greek extrapolation of a cultural norm through relations of difference. The subject of the polis was not-barbarian, not-female, not-animal.

21 Emilia imagines herself running mad for love of Arcite, much as the Daughter runs mad for love of Palamon; more literally, however, running mad is the horse's response to the darted spark. In attempting to explain the horse's violence, Theseus looks upward to the gods, but Pirithous looks downward, insisting on the horse's animal nature and even personifying the "envious flint" on which the horse treads (5.4.61). Similarly, he demotes "old Saturn" to a mere simile (5.4.62), in which disenfranchised condition the father of the gods merges with the play's various underclasses and, arguably, with Chaucer himself, seeking vengeance from "under ground" (Pro. 18).

Peter Holbrook (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Two Noble Kinsmen," in Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare, University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 124-33.

[In the excerpt that follows, Holbrook examines the relationship between the conception of art in the play and social values, maintaining that the social sphere of the kinsmen reflects the stylized, artificial nature of aristocratic life, while in the Jailer's Daughter subplot, the pastoral and the natural are contrasted with the artificiality of the aristocracy.]

Let me turn now to some other Shakespeare plays that seem, by a significant manipulation of social interplay, to explore the social meaning of literary modes or art. I am not concerned here with plays that explicitly reflect upon the social-symbolic function of cultural modes. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to show that notions of art in The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613; pub. 1634), assumed to be a collaboration by Shakespeare and Fletcher, have an implicitly conservative social value, and contrast with the social and generic mixing experimented with in the lower-class plot of the Jailer's Daughter and her love for the noble Palamon. This is a play acutely conscious of the connections between literary and social distinctions, but it explores them without the overt interest of A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Taming of the Shrew. In Coriolanus (1607-8; pub. 1623) and King Lear (1606; pub. 1608, 1623) there is also no explicit reflection on the social symbolism of art and its modes, but I shall argue that in these plays, too, a commitment to a radical and demanding form of social interplay is central to a strategy for critically distancing elite life, and tends to problematize, on social grounds, the mode of tragedy itself. No doubt it is paradoxical to say of perhaps the greatest tragedy ever written that it problematizes its mode, but I shall suggest that much of the humanity of King Lear is predicated on this problematization. Again, my interest is in how these plays generate a detached perspective on the cultural modes of an aristocratic elite, a perspective we may suppose the privilege of a "bourgeois," or at least unaristocratic, author. In all three plays elite culture constitutes some kind of problem—and in Coriolanus and King Lear this means that a preeminent aristocratic mode, tragedy, is also a problem: both plays depart from some of the fundamental social assumptions of their modes. Once again, we return to the basic fact of Shakespearean drama, its dialectical energy or "comprehensiveness," for it is these plays' interest in the exploitation of (among other contrarieties) social distinctions that produces a detached attitude toward a traditionally exclusive or restrictive cultural mode.

The Two Noble Kinsmen has a strong interest in social rank. It gives an ideal, rather nostalgic picture of an aristocratic ruling class and its chivalric ideology. By contrast, the court of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its sophisticated, clever, and hedonistic courtiers, is more contemporary in feel, modeled less upon an idealized notion of ancient virtue. But the later play tries to suggest an exotic and ideal aristocratic culture. Ann Jennalie Cook has written illuminatingly on some Shakespearean explorations of the notion of "the gentlemen," plays, that is, which take up a problem (how to define a gentleman) extensively treated in nonfiction of the period.44The Two Noble Kinsmen is likewise preoccupied with gentility: thus the "noble" of the title should be given its full weight, for the play really is about the aristocratic ideal, and everything in it evokes that ideal as sensuously and magnificently as possible (so a good part of its diction—words like "clear," "virtuous," and "pure"—comprises synonyms for "noble"). The emphasis on nobility is plain: the First Queen's opening lines appeal to Theseus to right wrongs (Creon's refusal to allow the queens "to urn [the] ashes" of their "sovereigns" [1.1.44, 39]) for "true gentility's" and "pity's sake" (1.1.25). Characterization is extremely slight, even by the standards of late Shakespeare: the emphasis is really collective, on the nobility as a class rather than on individuals. Indeed, we may feel that the play takes a virtually anthropological approach to its subject—as if its real interest were in the culture of chivalry and nobility rather than in the characters themselves. At least, they are seen as the subjects of a specific, radically strange and exotic culture. Thus the paradoxical nature of Palamon's and Arcite's relations: nobility demands that, even as rivals in love, they honor each other (so the extraordinary scenes [3.3, 3.6] in which Arcite feeds and arms Palamon in order to self-respectingly kill him in combat: we can sense the interest here in probing the rigorous artificiality of a social code). So it is nobility that makes Theseus "prorogue" (1.1.196) his marriage to avenge "rotten kings" and "blubber'd queens" (1.1.180), and nobility again that sustains the great friendships of the play: Theseus and Pirithous, Palamon and Arcite, Emilia and "Flavina" (see 1.3.54-97). Of Palamon and Arcite it can be said that their every word and deed must be referred to this supreme cultural ideal. This isn't to...

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Relation To Chaucer's The Knights Tale

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ann Thompson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Two Noble Kinsmen," in Shakespeare's Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins, Liverpool University Press, 1978, pp. 166-215.

[In the following essay, Thompson compares The Two Noble Kinsmen, scene by scene, with its source, Chaucer 's The Knight's Tale, arguing that Shakespeare and Fletcher adapted Chaucer's tale in significantly different ways. Thompson goes on to suggest possible reasons why the two playwrights used the source material in the ways they did.]

This play, written in collaboration with John Fletcher about 1612-13, is the only other play in which Shakespeare's use of...

(The entire section is 26584 words.)

The Subplot

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard Allan Underwood (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Subplot," in The Two Noble Kinsmen and Its Beginnings, Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik der Universitat Salzburg, 1993, pp. 34-85.

[In the essay that follows, Underwood analyzes the role of the Jailer's Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen and studies the significance of the subplot in relation to the main plot. Focusing on the sexual overtones of the subplot, Underwood maintains that through the Jailer's Daughter and her relationship with Palamon, the playwrights emphasize the play's theme of the interchangeability of wooers to the wooed.]

It is interesting that one's first...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Donaldson, E. Talbot. "Love, War, and the Cost of Winning: The Knight's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen." In The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer, pp. 50-73. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Examines the relationship between The Knight's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen, noting that The Two Noble Kinsmen is "very unpleasant" in that Shakespeare fully expresses the "dark side" he saw in Chaucer's tale.

Finkelpearl, Philip J. "Two Distincts, Division None: Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen of 1613." In Elizabethan Theater: Essays in Honor of S. Schoenbaum,...

(The entire section is 452 words.)