(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Most likely written and first performed in 1613, The Two Noble Kinsmen is generally regarded as the result of a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, although some debate continues regarding the extent to which each dramatist contributed to the play. The play's prologue cites its debt to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, written circa 1387, which itself is an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseide (c. 1340). Modern criticism is concerned with the way the issues of love, friendship, and sexuality are explored in the play, particularly in the relationships of Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia. Other areas of interest to modern critics include The Two Noble Kinsmen's language and structure, as well as the play's relation to its source, The Knight's Tale.

There are many relationships portrayed in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and they all seem to become entangled during the course of the play. The friends Palamon and Arcite pine and later battle for Emilia, who longs for the company of her childhood friend, Flavina. Many critics focus on these interactions, although the relationship of Hippolyta and Theseus, as well as those involving the jailer's daughter in the subplot, also generate critical discussion. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1989) studies how the women in the play threaten the way the men define themselves. The threats to male self-definition and patriarchal order posed by female virginity and lasciviousness, explains Roberts, are embodied in the characters of Emilia and the jailer's daughter, and are subdued through marriage. Like Roberts, Richard Mallette (1995) comments on the role of marriage in the play. Mallette finds that while marriage appears to win ascendancy over same-sex desire, the play stresses that violence results from the dominance of marriage, and that desire is destroyed in the process. Taking a different approach, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1998) centers her analysis on the Platonic relationships in the play, specifically, the Platonic love and spiritual friendship between Palamon and Arcite, and Platonic love in the form of courtly love in the relationship between Palamon and Emilia. Simonds discusses the Renaissance views regarding such Platonic relationships and maintains that Renaissance tragicomedy traditionally ended with the celebration of temperance, a Platonic virtue, and the marriage between a man and a woman. Simonds also identifies the satiric way Platonic love is treated in the play, as in the case of Emilia and Palamon.

The Two Noble Kinsmen makes no secret of the fact that its source is Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, and many critics seek to explore the particulars of the relationship between the two works. E. Talbot Donaldson (1985) investigates some of the ways the play differs from its source poem, specifically in the area of characterization. Donaldson discovers that in Chaucer's work, the gods possess an objective existence absent in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and that while Palamon's role changes little, Arcite's role is significantly altered. Arcite loses the common sense he possessed in The Knight's Tale, explains Donaldson, who also notes that Emilia is a more fully drawn character in the play than in the poem. Lois Potter (1997) analyzes not only the play's relation to Chaucer, but the use Chaucer made of Boccaccio's work. Additionally, Potter comments on the dramatists' inclusion of the subplot involving the jailer's daughter, and observes that the play's attitude toward courtly love and friendship is clouded by Chaucer's ambivalence toward the topic.

Given that the play was composed by two dramatists, its language and structure are especially interesting to critics. Paul Bertram (1965) offers an overview of the play's arrangement, noting that it is structured around three primary movements—the war against Creon, the May Day contests, and the final tournament. Bertram challenges the commonly held notion that The Two Noble Kinsmen suffers from an absence of controlling organization or consistency of development. A. Lynne Magnusson (1987) limits her study of the play's language to two of Shakespeare's parts, the first and final scenes of the play. The critic contends that these scenes are marked by particularly ornate and eloquent language. Magnusson attempts to discover the purpose of such language, and finds that both scenes use the eloquence as stylistic ornamentation designed to hide a “failure of substance.”

Paul Bertram (essay date 1965)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Composition of the Play,” in Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen, Rutgers University Press, 1965, pp. 264-82.

[In the following excerpt, Bertram surveys the arrangement of the play and contends that contrary to common assumption, the play possesses a controlled organization and is consistently developed.]


The story itself has evidently given trouble to some critics, Theodore Spencer for example:

The story of Palamon and Arcite, whether told by Boccaccio, Chaucer, or Shakespeare and Fletcher, is intrinsically feeble, superficial, and undramatic. For there is no...

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A. Lynne Magnusson (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Collapse of Shakespeare's High Style in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XIII, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 375-90.

[In the following essay, Magnusson examines the language and style of the eloquent first and last scenes of The Two Noble Kinsmen. In both scenes Magnusson finds that Shakespeare's stylistic ornamentation is designed to conceal a dearth of substance.]

The ornate eloquence of Shakespeare's share in The Two Noble Kinsmen has often drawn tributes to a play that has not recommended itself to directors:1

The first and last acts … of the Two Noble...

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Jeanne Addison Roberts (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Crises of Male Self-Definition in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen, University of Missouri Press, 1989, pp. 133-44.

[In the following essay, Roberts maintains that the way in which the males in The Two Noble Kinsmen define themselves is threatened by female virginity and lasciviousness, represented by Emilia and the jailer's daughter, respectively. These threats, states Roberts, are subdued by marriage.]

The appearance of an Amazon in the scenario of a classical or Renaissance tale is an infallible clue to an area of male anxiety, a signal of threatened erosion to a systematically constructed...

(The entire section is 6465 words.)

Richard Mallette (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Same-Sex Erotic Friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XXVI, 1995, pp. 29-52.

[In the following essay, Mallette investigates the play's exploration of love, friendship, desire, and marriage, asserting that the dramatists stress the ruin of same-sex desire rather than the ascendancy of marriage.]

At the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen, having vanquished his cousin and friend Arcite in chivalric contest for the hand of Emilia, Palamon belatedly grasps the irony of his triumph:

                                                                                O cousin,
That we should things desire which do...

(The entire section is 9783 words.)

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Platonic Horses in The Two Noble Kinsmen: From Passion to Temperance,” in Renaissance Papers, 1998, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Simonds contends that The Two Noble Kinsmen provides a “sophisticated and amused” analysis of several different kinds of love. Simonds focuses on the play's treatment of Platonic love—the love and spiritual friendship between two males, and the courtly love between a man and a woman—and argues that as tragicomedy the play's ending celebrates the Platonic virtue of temperance in the lawful marriage between a man and woman. At the same time, Simonds highlights the satirical aspects of the dramatists' portrayal of this type...

(The entire section is 4710 words.)

E. Talbot Donaldson (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “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, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 50-73.

[In the following essay, Donaldson studies the differences between the portrayals of Palamon and Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen and in Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, observing that Shakespeare and Fletcher eliminated distinctions between the two kinsmen that appear in Chaucer's poem.]

It is the chief misfortune of one who is considering the relation of Chaucer to Shakespeare that there is no way to avoid that most distressing of plays, The Two Noble...

(The entire section is 9521 words.)

Lois Potter (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, edited by Lois Potter, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edition, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1997, pp. 40-59.

[In the following excerpt, Potter reviews the sources from which Shakespeare and Fletcher drew in penning The Two Noble Kinsmen, focusing on the use the dramatists made of Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Additionally, Potter comments on Chaucer's source material.]


The history of Thebes is mythical. Its walls rose to the sound of music; its people sprang up from the ground when its founder Cadmus...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Cutts, John P. “Shakespeare's Song and Masque Hand in The Two Noble Kinsmen.English Miscellany 18 (1967): 55-85.

Attacks the problem of authorship through an examination of the use of masque, music, and song in all of the plays the King's Men performed during the reign of James I, particularly focusing on The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Potter, Lois. “The Two Noble Kinsmen: Spectacle and Narrative.” In The Show Within: Dramatic and Other Insets. English Renaissance Drama (1550-1642): Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Montpellier 22-25 November 1990, edited by François Laroque, pp. 235-51....

(The entire section is 304 words.)