By William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Three queens bear a sad tale to Theseus, Duke of Athens:
.......Cruel Creon, ruler of Thebes, has killed their husbands. Furthermore, he refuses them a decent cremation to "urn their ashes." With Theseus are his Amazon bride, Hippolyta, and her sister, Emilia. All three sympathize with the queens, and Theseus vows vengeance. When war clouds gray the sky, they disrupt the lives of two noble kinsmen, Arcite and Palamon, the very best of friends. Although they are cousins of Creon, they loathe him passionately. Creon is bad news. Nevertheless, when Creon calls them to arms to fight the forces of Theseus, they bow to honor and duty and take up arms. Theseus wins the war, and the three queens get to incinerate their husbands. After the battle, Theseus reports that two enemy soldiers–Arcite and Palamon–fought with great valor and ferocity.
.......By th' helm of Mars, I saw them in the war,
.......Theseus orders his best surgeons to tend to their wounds, declaring, "Their lives concern us much more than Thebes is worth." Nevertheless, because they are enemies, he jails them. At the prison, the jailer's daughter casts a roving eye upon Arcite and Palamon, who ripple with youthful good
looks, and says, "It is a holiday to look on them." While keeping company with the walls of their cell, the two men remain in
good cheer–until they espy Theseus' sister, Emily, in a garden below their cell window. She is the vision of visions, with enough beauty to blind the sun. Both men fall in love with her at first sight, then commence fighting over her. "I saw her first," Palamon says. When Arcite stakes his claim, their friendship disintegrates, and Palamon threatens to brain Arcite with his shackles. Before they
come to blows, the jailer hauls Arcite off to the duke, who banishes him from Athens. Palamon remains behind in the cell. While in exile in a forest near Athens, Arcite keeps thinking about Emilia. Unless he acts fast, he decides, Palamon will have her all to himself. Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter falls hopelessly in love with Palamon and frees him. He takes refuge in the same forest that
.......What ignorant and mad malicious traitors,
.......The kinsmen readily admit their crimes (violation of the decree of exile and escape from jail). But they also disclose that their crimes had a common cause, a noble cause: their love for the fair Emilia. Both want to be close to her. Both want to win her. Both are willing to die fighting for her. Their story touches Emilia and Hippolyta, and the duke decrees that Emilia must choose between them. The man not chosen must die. Arcite says:
.......If she refuse me, yet my grave will wed me,
Emilia tells the duke she cannot choose between them because "They are both too excellent." The duke then orders the kinsmen to return in a month for a contest of strength. The winner gets Emilia; the loser gets beheaded. On the day of the contest, the struggle shifts back and forth–now favoring one, now favoring the other. In the end, Arcite wins. As Palamon prepares to lay his head on the chopping block, he inquires about the fate of the jailer's daughter and learns that she is to marry a wooer (disguised as Palamon). Then news comes that Arcite, while "trotting the stones of Athens" on his horse, fell off and suffered mortal injury. Before dying, he reconciles with Palamon and bequeaths him Emilia, saying Palamon was the better match for Emilia all along. Athens then prepares for a wedding and a funeral.
Theseus: Duke of Athens.
Hippolyta: Amazon bride of Theseus.
Emelia: Sister of Hippolyta.
Palamon, Arcite: Two noble kinsmen captured by Theseus in a battle against the forces of Creon. While in captivity, the two men, the best of friends, both fall in love with fair Emelia. This development puts them at odds.
Three Queens: Widows who complain to Theseus that Creon killed their husbands.
Jaylor (Jailer): Keeper of the prison holding Palamon and Arcite.
Jaylor's Daughter: Young woman who falls for Palamon.
Jaylor's Brother and Friends
Emelia's Woman: Attendant of Emlia.
Three Valiant Knights
Hymen: Torch-bearer at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Nymphs: Participants in the wedding.
Nel: Freckled woman.
Master Gerrold: Schoolmaster.
Other Characters:Herald, gentleman, messenger, servant, wooer, keeper, doctor, countrymen, wenches, taborer (Drummer).
William Shakespeare and playwright John Fletcher jointly wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen. It is uncertain how much of the play Shakespeare wrote, but the best conjecture indicates that he completed Acts I and V and Fletcher, the other three acts. It is not known which author broached the idea of writing a collaborative play.
The Two Noble Kinsmen takes place in Athens. Greece, and surrounding woods. The presence of Theseus and Hippolyta indicates that the time is the age of myth, but the chivalric ideals suggest a later time. The play, therefore, has a timeless, fairytale atmosphere.
Date Written: Between 1612 and 1614
The climax occurs when Arcite defeats Palamon in the contest for the hand of Emilia.
Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, was one of the great heroes of ancient Greek mythology. While still a teenager, he slew villains and monsters menacing the environs of Athens. Later, in a famous adventure, he killed the Cretan minotaur, a creature that was half-man and half-bull, and participated with Jason in the quest for the Golden Fleece. After his father died, Theseus ruled Athens wisely, showing compassion for the downtrodden, and helped unify the people of Attica, in southeastern Greece. Although married to a woman named Phaedra, he captured the Amazon queen Hippolyta and fathered a child by her. Later, Hippolyta died fighting at the side of Theseus.
John Fletcher (1579-1625) was an English playwright who wrote for various acting companies–including the King’s Men, the same company for which Shakespeare wrote–between the early 1600's (probably beginning between 1604 and 1607) and the year of his death, 1625. He sometimes collaborated with the dramatist Francis Beaumont and other writers, including William Rowley, Nathan Field, Philip Massinger, and, apparently, Shakespeare. He may also have collaborated with Ben Jonson and George Chapman. Fletcher generally focused more on plot twists than character development to generate audience interest. Among the notable plays he wrote without collaboration are The Loyall Subject, The Faithfull Shepheardesse, A Wife for a Moneth, The Chances, The Wild Goose Chase, The Mad Lover, The Humourous Lieutenant, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, Women Pleas’d, and The Island Princesse. Among the notable plays he wrote with Beaumont are A King and No King, Philaster, and The Maides Tragedy. Fletcher died in London of plague.
Theme 1: Love can breed enmity. Palamon and Arcite become bitter rivals when they both fall in love with Emilia. Shakespeare developed a similar theme in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is a tragicomedy. One of the central characters, Arcite, dies in an accident after winning the hand of Emilia. The other main character, Palamon, then marries Emilia.
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