The Two Noble Kinsmen

(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

The Story:

During the marriage ceremony of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, three widowed queens begged Theseus’ aid. Creon, king of Thebes, had slain their husbands in battle and would not permit their bodies to receive decent burial. Theseus commiserated with the queens, but provided small comfort for their grief when he directed that his nuptial ceremonies be continued. The queens persisting in their pleas, Theseus conceded to the extent of ordering an expeditionary force to be readied to march against Thebes. Not to be denied, the distracted queens finally persuaded him to champion their cause. He appointed Pirithous, an Athenian nobleman, to stand in his place for the remainder of the ceremony, kissed Hippolyta farewell, and led the queens away toward Thebes.

Meanwhile, in Thebes, the cousins Palamon and Arcite, nephews of Creon, found their uncle’s tyranny unbearable and stultifying, and decided to leave Thebes. No sooner had they made this decision then they learned that Thebes was threatened by Theseus. The cousins, loyal to Thebes if not to Creon, deferred their departure in order to serve their city.

When the opposing forces met, Palamon and Arcite fought with great courage, but the Athenians were victorious in the battle. Theseus, triumphant, directed the three widowed queens to bury their dead in peace. Palamon and Arcite, having been wounded and left for dead on the battlefield, were taken by the Athenians. The cousins, healed of their wounds and finding themselves in a prison in Athens, impressed their jailers with their seeming unconcern at being incarcerated. In their cell, however, they sadly bemoaned their fate to each other. Resigned to spending the rest of their lives in prison, they recalled with grief the joys of battle and the hunt, and they grieved at the thought of a future without marriage. Even so, they made some attempt to reconcile themselves to imprisonment by declaring that in their cell they had each other’s excellent company and that they were insulated from the evils that beset free men.

Emilia, Hippolyta’s beautiful sister, entered the prison garden. Palamon saw her and fell in love at once. When Arcite beheld her, he too fell in love. Palamon declared that Arcite must not love her, but Arcite answered that Palamon, who had called her a goddess, might love her spiritually; he, Arcite, would love her in a more earthly manner. Palamon maintained that this goddess they had beheld was his to love because he had seen her first. Arcite, in turn, insisted that he too must love her because of the propinquity of the pair. Palamon, enraged, wished for liberty and weapons so that he and Arcite might decide the issue in mortal combat.

The jailkeeper, on orders, took Arcite to Theseus. Palamon, meanwhile, was filled with despair at the thought that Arcite was now free to win Emilia. The keeper returned to report that Arcite had been sent away from Athens and that Palamon must be moved to a cell in which there were fewer windows. Palamon writhed in the knowledge that Arcite now seemed certain to win the hand of Emilia.

Arcite, banished in the country near Athens, felt no advantage over his cousin. Indeed, he envied Palamon, who he believed could see Emilia every time she visited the prison garden with her maid. Desperate, he assumed a disguise and returned to Athens to participate in athletic games in honor of Emilia’s birthday. Excelling in the games, he admitted that he was of gentle birth; but Theseus did not penetrate his disguise. Theseus, admiring Arcite’s athletic prowess and his modesty, designated him to be a serving-man to Emilia.

In the meantime the daughter of the jailkeeper fell in love with Palamon and effected his escape. In the forest, where the court had gone a-Maying, Arcite came upon the escaped prisoner. In spite of Palamon’s harsh words to him, Arcite promised to supply his cousin with food. Two days later he brought food and drink. When he left, he promised to return the next time with armor and weapons, that the two might decide their quarrel by combat.

Arcite having returned with armor and...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Athens. Ancient Greek city that is the scene of much of the play’s action, Athens is ruled by Duke Theseus, whose marriage to the Amazon leader Hippolyta is interrupted by three royal widows who ask Theseus to avenge their husbands by attacking Creon, the tyrant of Thebes. Several significant events also occur in the countryside outside the city, the most significant of which are the fight between Palamon and Arcite, their discovery by Theseus and his entourage, and the tournament between the two Thebans for the hand of Emily.

Athens is also the location of a temple containing shrines to Mars, Venus, and Diana. In contrast to the depiction of these shrines in other writers’ renditions of this story, these shrines are all located within a single temple.


Thebes (theebz). Greek city against which Theseus is persuaded to lead an army. His army overthrows Creon and captures Palamon and Arcite, who are members of the Theban royal family. From their Athens prison, the two noble kinsmen see the beautiful Emilia, sister-in-law of Theseus, and fall in love with her. Their rivalry for her affection drives the rest of the story.

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

The conflict between love and friendship dramatized in The Two Noble Kinsmen is not an issue limited to one period of human history or...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Shakespeare for Students)

Bawcutt, N. W. Introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, 7-46. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,...

(The entire section is 890 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bertram, Paul. Shakespeare and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965. Discussion of the play, usually thought to be written by Shakespeare in collaboration with John Fletcher. Discussion of earlier critical works.

Donaldson, E. Talbot. The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Compares several of Shakespeare’s plays and their sources in Chaucer’s poems. “The Knight’s Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen” compares Chaucer’s story with Shakespeare’s play.

Hillman, Richard. “Shakespeare’s Romantic Innocents and the Misappropriation of the Romantic Past: The Case of The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In The Tempest and After, edited by Stanley W. Wells. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Considers the characters’ responses to their notions of romance.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Comic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. The essay on The Two Noble Kinsmen discusses the authorship of the play. There is also critical discussion of the play.

Waith, Eugene M. “Shakespeare and Fletcher on Love and Friendship.” In Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, edited by J. Leeds Barroll. New York: Burt Franklin, 1986. Explores the conflict between love and friendship in the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher.