The Two Noble Kinsmen
One of Shakespeare's least known plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen is believed to have been written by both Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Although most scholars accept the idea of joint authorship, some critics claim that Shakespeare had no part in the writing of the play. Not only is the question of the nature of Fletcher and Shakespeare's collaboration a topic of critical debate, but the concept of collaboration itself has been examined as a theme of the play. Other areas of critical investigation include the theme of friendship and the play's genre. In his introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, G. R. Proudfoot (1970) discusses the ways in which the play diverges from the formula of tragicomedy, noting that unlike other contemporary tragicomedies, The Two Noble Kinsmen sustains its somber quality through the play's ending. After reviewing the play's relation to Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, and surveying its themes, Proudfoot concludes that the play is notable not for its characters, but for its masterful control of tragicomic effects. In reviews of modern productions of The Two Noble Kinsmen, the portrayal of the relationship between the two kinsmen, Palamon and Arcite, is frequently of major interest.
The issue of collaboration, in terms of the authorial relationship between Shakespeare and Fletcher, and as a theme in the play, has been explored by critics such as Charles H. Frey (1989) and Donald K. Hedrick (1989). Frey argues that the play exhibits a strategy designed to deflect the audience's attention away from the nature of the authors' collaboration (with each other and/or with their source material) in order to direct attention to the more important collaboration between the producers of the play and the audience. Hedrick takes a different approach to the issue of collaboration, claiming that The Two Noble Kinsmen's thematic exploration of the nature of artistic rivalry suggests that Shakespeare did not collaborate in the writing of the play. Hedrick goes on to explain that Fletcher's coauthor “is wholly unskilled in the degree and kind of indirect, inferential, second-order speech acts characteristic of Shakespeare.” Additionally, Hedrick employs the feminist theory of homosociability as a tool for dissecting the play's depiction of collaboration as a subtext, maintaining that such an approach further underscores the improbability of Shakespeare's joint authorship. Just as Hedrick's analysis includes a discussion of the homosocial relationships in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Alan Stewart (1999) similarly investigates the nature of the idealized male friendship between Palamon and Arcite. Stewart examines the failure of their friendship, and suggests that the relationship is doomed because of the conflict between humanist and chivalric notions of male friendship, and the realities of male relations and kinship bonds in Jacobean England.
The nature of the relationship between Palamon and Arcite is just as fascinating to modern producers of the play as it is to Shakespearean scholars. One production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, directed by Tim Carroll and performed at the Globe Theater, has been assessed by Matt Wolf (2000) and Lois Potter (2001). Potter praises the performances of Jasper Britton as Palamon and Will Keen as Arcite, observing their ability to establish a good relationship with the audience and applauding their treatment of the relationship's mixture of tragic and comic elements. Potter additionally states that Kate Fleetwood's performance as the Jailer's Daughter underscored the serious issue of the character's madness, and comments that as a whole the production was satisfying. In Wolf's favorable appraisal of the production, he offers high praise for Britton's Palamon and describes the production as “enchanting.”