The Two Noble Kinsmen
It is believed that Shakespeare wrote the beginning act and the ending of this play while John Fletcher wrote most of the rest. We have no filmed versions, which is why we haven’t read it before, but it is included in all three of our Complete Works and so this time, our third time through of reading all the plays, we decided it’s time.
It’s worth reading. It has many themes one recognises from earlier Shakespeare – male friendship, female friendship, strong women, rivalry in romance, but all with a feeling of… more.
The story: On the day of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, three widows appeal to Theseus to go to war against Thebes because their husbands have not been given a proper burial. The two noble kinsmen, Palamon and Arcite, fight to defend their city but are captured. They both see Hippolyta’s sister Emilia from their prison window and though they have just declared eternal love and friendship for each other they both fall in love with Emilia and become rivals. Plot twists get them both out of prison. The jail keeper’s daughter goes mad with love for Palamon. Theseus demands that Emilia choose one of the two. She can’t so they must duel to the death for her hand. Arcite wins. Palamon is to hang. Arcita falls off his horse and dies. Palamon and Emilia are wed.
It’s funny to the point of parody and then suddenly it’s not. All this we recognise in Shakespeare. Fletcher was a good student.
I’m not going to do a great deep analysis, but I would like to mention a few points of interest.
- · Hippolyta is a strong character, though she has but few lines. The three queens at the beginning appeal not only to Theseus but to Hippolyta as well:
Most dreaded Amazonian, that hast slain
The scythe-tusked boar… (Act 1.1).
When the soldiers then head off to war Hippolyta says
We have been soldiers and we cannot weep
When our friends don their helms… (Act1.3).
Oh, that Shakespeare never wrote a whole play about Hippolyta! What a character he would have made her. Much more interesting than Cleopatra!
- · The two noble kinsmen’s love for one another is so passionate that I’m surprised this play hasn’t become a flagship for the Pride movement.
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love: we are father, friends, acquaintance.
We are, in one another, families:
I am your heir and you are mine…
Is there record of any two that loved
Better than we do, Arcite? (Act 2.2, Fletcher)
I suppose the fact that two minutes later they’re both madly in love with Emilia and deadly rivals brings their sincerity somewhat into question but still, I find the quotes a bit sweet.
- · The jailer’s daughter is very much an Ophelia character in her passion and madness. She shows, however, more insight and initiative. She has fallen in love with Palamon though she knows it is pointless:
Why should I love this gentleman?
He never will affect me: I am base,
My father the mean keeper of his prison,
And he a prince. To marry him is hopeless,
To be his whore is witless. Out upon’t!
What pushes are we wenches driven to
When fifteen once has found us! (Act 2.4, Fletcher)
Fifteen she may be, but she is also feisty:
Let all the dukes and all the devils roar,
He is at liberty: I have ventured for him
And out I have brought him, to a little wood
A mile hence I have sent him…
…there he shall keep close
Till I provide him file and food, for yet
His iron bracelets are not off (Act 2.6, Fletcher).
I could go on. As I write I discover that there is quite a lot of interest in this play. I wish Shakespeare had written it when he was in his most prolific and brilliant period – not to put down Fletcher, his writing isn’t bad either. I wish we had some filmed versions.
In any case, if you haven’t read it, do. It’s worth it.
PS The RSC has done a production in 2016. Perhaps a DVD is on its way?