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.”