The Two Noble Kinsmen
Theseus — the Duke of Athens
Palamon — nephew of the king of Thebes
Arcite — nephew of the king of Thebes
Pirithous — an Athenian general
Artesius — an Athenian captain
Valerius — a noble of Thebes
A Jailer — oversees the imprisonment of Palamon and Arcite
A Doctor — ordered by Theseus to tend to the wounds of Palamon and Arcite
Gerrold — a schoolmaster
Hippolyta — wife of Theseus
Emilia — Theseus's sister
Three Queens — their husbands were killed by Creon, ruler of Thebes
Jailer's Daughter — in love with Palamon; frees him from the jail
The Two Noble Kinsmen was written at the end of Shakespeare's career, as a collaboration with the rising young dramatist John Fletcher. Chaucer's story of Palamon and Arcite was based on Boccaccio's Teseide. Boccaccio in turn based his work on material by Statius. Richard Edwards wrote Palamon and Arcyte as early as 1566, and it was performed before Elizabeth I by Oxford students on the occasion of the queen's visit to the university that year. The account of this lost comedy, published in John Nichols's Progresses of Elizabeth, suggests that it was a very different kind of play from The Two Noble Kinsmen. Nothing is known of the Palamon and Arsett mentioned by Henslowe as having been acted at the Newington theater in 1594.
The Two Noble Kinsmen was first published in 1634 in quarto format, although scholars date it to sometime around 1613. The title page ascribes the play to “the memorable Worthies of their time; Mr. John Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakspeare” [sic]. Most modern critics accept this attribution.
Because the play was excluded from the 1623 First Folio some critics dispute Shakespeare's role in the play's composition. However, Pericles was also excluded from the First Folio, and Troilus and Cressida was included in only some editions, having been stitched into the binding between King Henry VIII (another coauthored play) and Coriolanus, and is subsequently absent from the title pages of those editions. When the second Beaumont and Fletcher folio was published in 1679, an additional eighteen plays were included, including The Two Noble Kinsmen.
It was not included in a complete Shakespeare edition until 1841 (The Pictorial Shakespeare) and only during the twentieth century has it been included in most of the major modern collections of Shakespeare's works: the Oxford, Riverside, Arden, Norton, Cambridge, and Penguin editions.
Curiously, of all the single-edition versions of the play in the twentieth century, only one, the Regents Renaissance Drama edition (edited by Richard Proudfoot, 1970), bears the names of both Shakespeare and Fletcher on the front cover. Now the New Arden edition of that play overcomes that silence with its twenty-first-century edition.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is essentially an adaptation of Chaucer's Knight's Tale. In this story, the two kinsmen are Palamon and Arcite, who are captured while fighting for Thebes against Athens. While imprisoned, the two cousins find themselves attracted to Emilia, Theseus's unmarried sister-in-law. Their professed “eternal friendship” is severely tested as the two cousins woo her. Theseus finds out what's going on, exiles Arcite from Athens, and leaves Palamon in jail.
Once he is free, Arcite disguises himself as a peasant in order to keep an eye on Emilia. Meanwhile, the Jailer's Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and helps him to escape and hide in the forest.
He runs into Arcite again, and the two men resume their argument over Emilia. They decide to fight a duel for her. However, as they prepare for the duel, the two cousins are discovered by Theseus. He condemns both to death, but after pleading from both Emilia and her sister Hippolyta, the duke decides to banish them both.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is a play that needs to be seen for the masquelike splendor of some of its scenes to be fully realized. It contains elements of classic legend, medieval romance, Elizabethan comedy, and Jacobean masque, and in the union of these varying elements, we can recognize the genius of a dramatist who could subdue all things to harmony.
Both Palamon and Arcite refuse. Theseus tells Emilia she must choose between them, and the loser will be put to death. Emilia, however, can't make up her mind, so Theseus declares that the matter will be settled by combat after all. In one month, Palamon and Arcite will fight for Emilia's hand, and the loser will be executed.
Meanwhile, the Jailer's Daughter has gone mad because of her unrequited love for Palamon. Theseus pardons the Jailer, realizing he had no part in Palamon's escape, and forgives his deranged daughter. A doctor tries to help restore her sanity by getting her fiancé to pretend he's Palamon.
The time for the contest comes about, and Arcite defeats Palamon. However, while Palamon awaits execution, a messenger arrives bringing news that Arcite's fatally injured himself in a horse-riding accident. Arcite gives Emilia's hand to Palamon before he dies.
Neglected until recently by directors and teachers, the play deserves to be better known for its moving dramatization of the conflict of love and friendship. While one of the kinsmen braces himself for execution, the shocking accident that frees him seems to make nonsense of the belief that we are responsible for our own fates. This concept is reinforced by Theseus's closing speech in the last scene, where he tries to convince us that Palamon had the better right to the lady because he saw her first. The enduring impression the play leaves is that humans are but puppets of fortune.
The Two Noble Kinsmen follows Chaucer's Knight's Tale closely, but the dramatists, deferring to the seventeenth-century taste for a realistic subplot to a romantic theme, added the story of the Jailer's Daughter. The play has problems. Palamon and Arcite are not particularly distinguished from each other; Theseus is a stilted and a vacillating figure; and Emilia is a poor copy of Chaucer's “Emelye the sheene.” Finally, the subplot reminds us of a poorly revisited Ophelia (in Hamlet).
The authorship is clearly a problem. But to the play's credit, it's tough to say who wrote what exactly. Critics are agreed that one of the two authors was Fletcher, and that to him may be allotted most of acts II, III, and IV. This includes the whole of the subplot, with the possible exception of the two prose scenes, but that is only a small, and comparatively unimportant, part of the main story.
The whole of the first act, the first scene in act III, and almost the whole of the last act are clearly not by Fletcher, and the choice of authorship seems to fall to Shakespeare. The profusion of striking metaphors, the profound thoughts, and the extreme conciseness of writing the scenes bear a marked resemblance to Shakespeare's later plays.