The Two Noble Kinsmen
By Dennis Abrams
After the political intrigue of Henry VIII, it would be difficult to imagine a play more different than the one which followed it onto the stage. The Two Noble Kinsmen concluded Shakespeare’s professional theatrical career, and although it was also co-written with John Fletcher, their collaboration seems to have been much less intimate than before. And despite being elegant and courtly – its source is Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” its dramatic language heavily influenced by the elaborate Jacobean masques of the time – the tone of Kinsmen is mixed, and often difficult to gauge. While the story of two men who fall in love with the same women stirs memories of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, most obviously The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in this play resolution proves strikingly difficult to achieve. The “kinsmen,” Palamon and Arcite, claim to be closer to each other than anyone alive, but their conversion from extravagant devotion to bitter hatred undermines the chivalric ideals both claim to serve – and in the handful of professional performances the play has received, they have often been completely overshadowed by another character, the nameless Jailer’s Daughter, who falls hopelessly and tragically (of course) in love with Palamon. Dominated by loss and compromise – never more so than its gruesome, troubling conclusion – Kinsmen feels a world away not just from Henry VIII, but from the renunciations and reconciliations offered by Shakespeare’s ‘last plays,” especially The Tempest, often thought of as Shakespeare’s cordial farewell to his art.
Featuring Shakespeare’s last writing for the professional stage, The Two Noble Kinsmen was first performed in 1613-14, possibly at the indoor Blackfriars theatre.
Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” is the play’s key source, as for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – another influence. The masque in Act Three is “lifted” from Francis Beaumont’s Masque of the Inner Temple (1613).
One of several Shakespeare plays not to make it into the First Folio (1623), Kinsmen was printed in a 1634 quarto edition proclaiming that it was co-written with John Fletcher – a plausible excuse for its earlier exclusion. Though regularly published in editions of Fletcher, it was not generally believed to be Shakespeare’s work until the nineteenth century.
From Harold Bloom:
“Ultimately the supremacy of Shakespeare consists in his unmatched power of thinking. Since this is poetic thinking, and usually dramatic in its nature, we tend to consider it as imaging rather than arguing. But here too Shakespeare-as-inventor encloses us. His is the largest form of representing thought, as well as action, that we have known. Can we truly distinguish his thinking from his representations of thinking? Is it Shakespeare or Hamlet who thinks not too much but much too well? Hamlet is his own Iago just as he is his own Falstaff, because Shakespeare has made Hamlet the freest of all his ‘free artists of themselves,’ to use Hegel’s phrase. Shakespeare’s eminence among all strong poet is that, compared even to Dante or Chaucer, he enjoys and manifests the greatest degree of freedom in fashioning his free artists of self. Nietzsche implied that the Dionysian Hamlet perished of the truth, presumably after abandoning art. The Hamlet of Act V is certainly not the poet-playwright-director of Acts II and III, and Shakespeare allows the dying prince to hint that he possesses a new kind of knowledge not yet available to us. Such knowledge would have come from a different thinking that began with Hamlet’s sea change, on the abortive voyage to England. Our only evidence for differences in Shakespeare’s own thinking ensues from intimations that his greatest plays induced sea changes in their own author. The experience of composing Hamlet and King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest left traces available to us in his final work, The Two Noble Kinsmen, of a new Shakespeare, who chose to abandon writing after touching, and transgressing, the limits of art, and perhaps also of thought.
As far as we can know, the Shakespearean portions of The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) constitute the final writing of any sort by the author of Hamlet and King Lear. I have never seen a performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen, and don’t particular want to, since Shakespeare’s contributions to the play are scarcely dramatic. Critics of The Two Noble Kinsmen generally disagree, but I find Shakespeare’s style, in this final work, to be subtler and defter than ever, though very difficult to absorb. His purposes here are very enigmatic, he abandons his career-long concern with character and personality and presents a darker, more remote or estranged vision of human life than ever before. Pageant, ritual, ceremony, whatever one chooses to call it, Shakespeare’s share in The Two Noble Kinsmen is poetry astonishing even for him, but every difficult poetry, hardly suitable for the theater. It contrasts oddly with the rest of the play, written by John Fletcher, in perhaps the third collaboration between the two. Since we do not have their Cardenio, and since Fletcher may have written relatively little or even none of Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen is their only certain joint enterprise. Shakespeare’s colleagues, editing the First Folio, included Henry VIII but not the final play, thus conceding it to Fletcher (then their resident playwright, as Shakespeare’s successor). Scholars now mostly agree that Shakespeare wrote Act I, the first scene of Act III, and Act V (excluding the second scene). Three-fifths of the play is evidently Fletcher’s, and is both lively and rather silly. Shakespeare’s two-fifths is somber and profound, and perhaps gives us a better entrance into Shakespeare’s inner life, in his final phase, than is provided by Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.
More lyrical than dramatic, The Two Noble Kinsmen’s Shakespearean portions manifest little action and minimal character portrayal. Instead we hear a voice, hardly, as in Henry VIII, in ‘the style of old age’ (Shakespeare being forty-nine) and yet more than a little weary of great passions, and of the sufferings of what Chesterton was to call ‘great spirits in chains.’ Prospero, Shakespeare’s anti-Faust, was his last great spirit. Theseus, who by the close of The Two Noble Kinsmen is almost Shakespeare’s surrogate, is in himself only a voice, one remarkably unlike that of the Theseus of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The earlier Theseus was Hippolyta’s inferior, this final Theseus is at least her equal. He is Shakespeare’s last poet, possibly reflecting what I suppose must be called the playwright’s staggered and uneasy retirement. Shakespeare seems to have gone home again, to Stratford, in late 1610 or early 1711, but then to have returned intermittently to London until sometime in 1713. After that, in the nearly three years before his death, he was in Stratford, writing nothing. The rest was silence, but why?
Only conjecture is available to us, and I suspect our best clues are in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare’s abandonment of his art is virtually unique in the annals of Western literature, nor can I think of a major composer or painter who made a similar retreat. Tolstoy gave up his true work for a time, and wrote religious tracts instead, but returned magnificently at the end with his short novel Hadji Murad. There are poets who should have stopped and didn’t; Wordsworth after 1807 and Whitman after 1865 wrote very badly indeed. Moliere died at fifty just after writing, directing, and acting the lead part in The Imaginary Invalid. Shakespeare possibly gave up acting as early as 1604, in his later thirties, and presumably directed all his plays through Henry VIII, though he may have stopped earlier, perhaps in 1611, since by then he lived mostly in Stratford. We can only guess whether he supervised The Tempest in 1611, or whether he was on hand to see the Globe Theater burn down during a performance of Henry VIII on June 29, 1613. Biographers surmise some of Shakespeare’s familial and financial activities during the last three years of his life, but they cannot help us to speculate as to why he chose to end after a dramatist’s career of a quarter century. Russell Fraser, my favorite Shakespeare biographer, wryly repeats Theodore Spencer’s fantasy that a deputation of the King’s Men called upon their old friend and urged him to leave the writing to John Fletcher, who by 1613 had begun to be much more in the mode than the old-fashioned Shakespeare. Indeed, I can imagine the players reacting with great puzzlement and frustration to the speeches provided them by Shakespeare in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Yet they would have known that Fletcher was an inkblot in comparison to Shakespeare, whose enormous success had been their fortune also.
In his final effort, the endlessly fecund experimenter goes beyond romance or tragicomedy into a strange new mode, which he founds upon Chaucer, his truest precursor, and still his only authentic rival in the language. Shakespeare returns to The Knight’s Tale, which had helped inform A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this time he engages it much more directly. Chesterton, who had a shrewd sense of the relationship between Chaucer and Shakespeare, remarked of The Knight’s Tale that
‘Chaucer does not himself to go prison with Palamon and Arcite, as Shakespeare does in some sense go to prison with Richard the Second. Nay, to some extent, and in some subtle fashion, Shakespeare seems to identify himself with Hamlet who finds Denmark a prison or the whole world a prison. We do not have this sense of things closing in upon the soul in Chaucer, with his simple tragedies; one might also say, his sunny tragedies. In his world misfortunes are misfortunes, like clouds in the sky, but there is a sky.’
But by The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare has no interest in going to prison (or anywhere else) with Palamon and Arcite, and the play (or Shakespeare’s part in it) is all clouds and no sky. Where Shakespeare based his own Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream more on Chaucer’s Knight than on Chaucer’s Theseus, the Theseus of The Two Noble Kinsmen is a harsh figure throughout, until at the close he seems to modulate into someone rather like Shakespeare himself. Chaucer’s Knight and Shakespeare’s earlier Theseus are chivalric skeptics; the final Theseus might be called a brutal nihilist, who nevertheless plays at maintaining the outer forms of chivalry. The ethos of Chaucer’s poem is condensed by one of the Knight’s couplets:
It is ful fair a man to bare him evene,
For alday meeteth men at unset stevene.
My old friend, the great Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson, superbly paraphrased this as:
It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one
is constantly keeping appointments one never made.
That is not quite the stance of Theseus in the final lies of The Two Noble Kinsmen, as far as we know the last lines of serious poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote:
O you heavenly charmers,
What thing you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off,
And bear us like the same.
I will return to this passage when I conclude this chapter, but for now note that to ‘bear us like the time’ alludes to ‘bare him evene,’ while swerving away from the Chaucerian equanimity. Chaucer, a genial satirist, is also a very good-humored ironist; the ironies of The Two Noble Kinsmen, as we will see, are savage. One might have thought that Shakespeare had reached the limits of bitterness in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, but he extends those limits in his final play. Mars and Venus govern The Two Noble Kinsmen, and it would be difficult to decide which deity is more reprehensible, or whether indeed it is pragmatically responsible to distinguish between the two. ‘Make love, not war!,’ a popular chant of the sixties becomes sublimely insane in The Two Noble Kinsmen, since Shakespeare at forty-nine scatters organized violence and eros into a confusion not to be resolved.
In temperament and visions of reality, Shakespeare’s work from about 1588 through Twelfth Night in 1601 was profoundly Chaucerian. The dramatist of the problem plays, the high tragedies, and the late romances still rendered a kind of homage to Chaucer, but the final resort to this greatest of precursors hints at a third Shakespeare, from whom the genial spirit, even in irony, has departed. Had there been a theater to write for, perhaps Shakespeare would have left us another three or four plays, but he evidently sensed that no theater would or could have played them, and one can doubt that even his prestige would find a theater now for a nihilism surpassing The Two Noble Kinsmen’s, even if a darkness were possible. The Knight’s Tale evades the abyss of nihilism, though its implications are dark enough: pure caprice governs all of live.”
And from Garber:
“A late play, first published in 1634, The Two Noble Kinsmen is attributed, on its title page, to ‘the memorable worthies of their time, Mr. John Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakespeare, Gent.’ Both Fletcher and Shakespeare were dead (Shakespeare died in 1616, Fletcher in 1625) by the time the published version appeared, but the title page cites its first performance, ‘presented at the Blackfriars by the King’s Majesty’s servants,’ Shakespeare’s company. Only gradually, however, has the play entered the popular Shakespeare canon, regularly taught and staged. Shakespeare had collaborated with Fletcher before, in Henry VIII, and also, apparently, on a lost play called Cardenio. Neither Cardenio nor The Two Noble Kinsmen, however, is in the 1623 First Folio; the presence there of Henry VIII seems to indicate that the collaboration was no bar to a claim of authorship, and in fact many stage plays of this period were to some extent collaborative works, with additions offered by other playwrights, and by players, and sometimes with improvised bits that became regular parts of the acting script.
The chief course of the play is Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale,’ and the personae therefore have a certain commonality with Shakespeare’s earlier comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which likewise opens with the expectation of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his Amazonian bride, Hippolyta. Unlike Dream, a true comedy in which all dangers are averted or contraverted and everything ends (relatively) happily, The Two Noble Kinsmen, is a tragicomedy, so described by the publisher in the Stationers’ Register. One of its noble heroes dies, tragically and somewhat unexpectedly (at least to those unfamiliar with the plot of Chaucer’s tale). While the virtues and pleasures this play offers are very considerable – it is full of magnificent poetry, and also of the kind of theatrical spectacle that distinguishes Henry VIII – it will probably be more useful here to discuss patterns in The Two Noble Kinsmen that are both like and unlike better-known plays in the Shakespeare canon, not in order to assimilate and tame this play by suppressing all its interesting singularities, but rather to make it legible, so that its differences and special qualities are easier to discern and to appreciate.”
This is going to be interesting.
Our next reading: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning
And for those of you were going to join in the next reading adventure, the site for our reading of the best of Murakami is now up: The Wild Murakami Chase. Check it out here and subscribe here – we’ll kick it off in the beginning of May.