The Two Noble Kinsmen
By Dennis Abrams
Prologue and Epilogue
Palamon and Arcite, cousins (the two “noble kinsmen”), both nephews of King Creon.
Theseus, Duke of Athens
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, later Theseus’s wife
Emilia, Hippolyta’s sister
A Woman, Emilia’s attendant
Pirthous, Theseus’s close friend
Artesius, an Athenian soldier
Three Queens, widows to kings killed at the siege of Thebes
Hymen, god of marriage.
Valerius, a Theban
Six Knights, attending Arcite and Palamon
A Jailer of Theseus’s prison
The Jailer’s Daughter and her Wooer
Six Countrymen led by the schoolmaster Gerald
Act One: In Athens, preparations for the marriage of King Theseus and Hippolyta are disrupted by the sudden appearance of three queens, whose husbands have died fighting the evil King Creon of Thebes. Denied the right to bury their husbands – whose bodies still lie on the battlefield – the women demand that Theseus take up their cause and attack Thebes. At that moment, Palamon and Arcite (Creon’s nephews) are debating whether to escape the corruption of Thebes when a messenger arrives with news that Theseus is threatening the city. Despite their disgust with their uncle, the two kinsmen decide to remain and fight. Theseus triumphs, however, and the wounded Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned.
As I mentioned in my introduction, it’s been suggested that The Two Noble Kinsmen is a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream part two: both plays draw heavily on Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” the graceful and courtly story told by the worthy, wise and “parfit gentil” Knight to the assembled gaggle of pilgrims as the first of The Canterbury Tales. But where the Dream merely takes up the Athenian setting of Chaucer’s narrative and the wedding between the duke Theseus and his bride Hippolyta, discarding the rest, Kinsmen is a full dramatization of the tale itself, that of two cousins, “yonge knyghtes” captured by Theseus as prisoners of war, who tragically fall for the same woman. That Shakespeare returned once more to a medieval author who had served him well before (most obviously in Troilus and Cressida as well as the Dream) attests not only to Chaucer’s continued popularity – an expanded edition of his works appeared a decade or so before Kinsmen reached the stage – but also to a Jacobean taste for medieval romance. The small, indoor Blackfriars became the King’s Men’s winter house from around 1609, and the refined audiences who attended that theatre a few years later would surely have been flattered to hear that “Chaucer, of all admired” was providing the night’s entertainment, as the Prologue announces. “If we let fall the nobleness of this,” he goes on,
And the first sound this child hear be a hiss,
How it will shake the bones of that good man,
And make him cry from under ground, ‘O fan
From me the witless chaff of such a writer,
That blasts my bays and my famed works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood?’ This is the fear we bring,
For to say truth, it were an endless thing
And too ambitious to aspire to him,
Weak as we are, and almost breathless swim
In this deep water.
Begging its audience not to ‘hiss’ – if only to preserve Chaucer’s ‘sweet sleep’ and keep him from spinning in his grave – the ‘child’ play attempts a similar trick to the earlier Pericles, apologizing for, yet also showing off, its prestigious paternity. The authors keep their promise, too: while in previous scripts based on Chaucer Shakespeare reworks his material intensively (Troilus and Cressida is the most obvious example), in Kinsmen he and Fletcher are more restrained. This is to be a properly Chaucerian play.
“The Two Noble Kinsmen begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue, thus bracketing its ceremonial, romantic, and tragic events from a faraway past with gestures towards the present-day audience. The Prologue is jaunty, bawdy, with gestures toward the present-day audience. The Prologue is jaunty, bawdy, and colloquial – a nice, and deliberate, contrast with the more formal, even hieratic scene that is to follow. The ‘breeder’ to which the Prologue alludes is the author of the play’s source:
New plays and maidenheads are near akin:
Much followed both, for both much money giv’n
If they stand sound and well. And a good play,
Whose modest scenes blush on his marriage day
And shake to lose his honour, is like her
That after holy tie and first night’s stir
Yet still is modesty, and still remains
More of the maid to sight than husband’s pains.
We pray our play may be so, for I am sure
It has a noble breeder and a pure,
A learned, and a poet never went
More famous yet ‘twist Po and silver Trent.
Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives:
There constant to eternity it lives.
If we let fall the nobleness of this
And the first sound this child hear be a hiss,
How will it shake the bones of that good man…?
Instead of the ‘hiss’ of a dissatisfied audience, the Prologue sues for applause (in a figure recognizable from Prospero’s Epilogue in The Tempest): ‘Do but you hold you/Your helping hands and we shall back about/And something do to save us’ (Prologue 25-27). The play, he assures the audience, ‘is ‘[w]orth two hours’ travel,’ whyere ‘travel’ is the same as ‘travail’ (effort or labor). The phrase recalls the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ from the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet. The result, at least for a modern audience, is to suture this play to the framing techniques of other, more familiar ‘Shakespeare’ plays, and also to replace the narrator figure of Gower (in Shakespeare’s earlier medieval romance, Pericles) with a free-standing actor, the Prologue, who will then disappear into the action.
The Epilogue, spoken by a different actor and coming almost immediately after the onstage death of Arcite, one of the play’s attractive eponymous ‘kinsmen,’ will be even more colloquial and flirtatious (Lois Potter in the Arden edition writes that ‘the most likely speaker is a boy actor dressed as a woman’), more closely resembling Rosalind than Prospero:
I would now ask ye how ye like the play,
But, as it is with schoolboys, cannot say.
I am cruel fearful. Pray yet stay awhile,
And let me look upon ye. No man smile?
Then it goes hard, I see. He that has
Loved a young handsome wench, then, show his face –
‘Tis strange if none be here – and if he will,
Against his conscience let him hiss and kill
If the tale we have told –
For ‘tis no other – any way content ye,
For to that honest purpose it was meant ye,
We have our end…
Prologues and epilogues of this kind are, of course, present in numerous early modern stage plays, and the evocation of the modes of address of Prospero, Rosalind, and the Romeo and Juliet Prologue here is meant to be indicative rather than exhaustive.
The play contained between these two audience-engaging parentheses begins with a broken ceremony. The stage direction to act 1, scene 1, like those in Henry VIII is highly detailed, and both descriptive and prescriptive:
Music. Enter Hymen with a torch burning, a BOY in a white robe before, singing and strewing flowers After Hyman, a nymph encompassed in her tresses, bearing a wheaten garland. Then THESEUS between two other nymphs with wheaten chaplets on their heads. Then HIPPOLYTA, the bride, led by [PIRITHOUS] and another holding a garland over her head, her tresses likewise hanging. After her, EMILIA holding up her train.
The occasion is the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Emilia (Chaucer’s ‘Emily,’ a character deriving from his source, a tale by Boccaccio) is Hippolyta’s sister, and Pirithous a friend of Theseus. Hymen – also present in the wedding finale of As You Like It – is the classical god of marriage. But before the ceremony can take place, it is interrupted by the arrival of three queens, dressed in black, seeking Theseus’s assistance in the war against ‘cruel Creon’ of Thebes, who has slain their husbands and refuses to yield up the bodies for burial. Theseus at first declines to interrupt his marriage ceremony, and its erotic aftermath, for this mission of mercy, but he is importuned by Hippolyta and Emilia, and by the eloquent widowed queens. ‘O when/Her twinning cherries shall their sweetness fall/Upon thy tasteful lips, what wilt thou think/Of rotten kings or blubbered queens?’ (1.1.176-179), one of the queens demands of him with pathos and pertinence. Hippolyta lends the force of her own persuasion, sounding, as she does so, rather like Portia sending Bassanio off to rescue Antonio before he comes to her wedding bed – or like Othello postponing his own wedded pleasure in order to quell the Turks in Cyprus. Here is Hippolyta:
Though much unlike
You should be so transported, as much sorry
I should be such a suitor – yet I think
Did I not by th’abstaining of my joy,
Which breeds a deeper longing, cure their surfeit
That craves a present medicine, I should pluck
All ladies’ scandal on me [Kneels] Therefore sir,
As I shall here make trial of my prayers,
Either presuming them to have some force,
Or sentencing for aye their vigour dumb,
Prorogue this business we are going about, and hang
Your shield afore your heart – about that neck
Which is my fee, and which I freely lend
To do these poor queens service.
Theseus charges Pirithous to ‘[k]eep the feast full,’ to go on with the festivities, and prepares to assist the queens: ‘As we are men,/thus should we do; being sensually subdued/We lose our human title’ (1.1.230-232). This, too, echoes the Othello theme of the subjugation of private sensuality to public service.
The scene then shifts to Thebes, and the two ‘kindsmen,’ Palamon and Arcite, cousins and best friends, are introduced. They lament the ‘decays’ of Thebes and the fallenness of the city, ‘where very evil/Hath a good colour; where every seeming good’s/A certain evil’ (1.2.38-40), Affectations of style, speech, and dress have overtaken the court of Creon, and the two young men are determined to ‘leave his court that we may nothing share/Of his loud infamy’ (1.2.75-76). No sooner have they made this declaration, however, than the situation changes. The announcement of Theseus’s approach turns the two men into patriots, who will fight for their city’s honor rather than for its dishonorable tyrant: ‘Our services now stand for Thebes, not Creon’ (1.2.99). Palamon and Arcite go to battle to defend Thebes against Athens, are injured, and are treated kindly by Theseus, who orders that they be tended back to health, and imprisoned. Described by a herald as ‘[m]en of great quality…/sisters’ children, nephews to the King’ (1.4.15-17), ,they are taken to an Athenian jail and cared for by a jailer and his daughter. ‘[T]he prison itself is proud of ‘em, and they have all the world in their chamger,’ rhapsodizes the Daughter, echoing a common theme of Renaissance lyric from Raleigh to Donne to Lovelace. ‘It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the difference of men!’ (2.1.22-24, 50-51). The stage is set for a move from pageantry to love comedy, and then, via the Daughter’s unrequited love for Palamon, to madness.
In Athens, meanwhile, those left behind discuss male and female friendship, and articulate strong models of same-sex allegiance, akin to those articulated in other Shakespeare plays (Antonio and Bassanio; Hermia and Helena; Leontes and Polixenes; and so on). In our discussion of The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Winter’s Tale, we touched upon the Renaissance ideal of friendship and its Platonic and erotic associations. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, as in most – though not all – Shakespearean instances, these discussions locate the ideal model of friendship in the past, as something to be accommodated to the changed circumstances of marriage (in the case of Theseus and Pirithous) or as something lost and perhaps irreplaceable (in the case of Emilia and her friend Flavina, who died when she was eleven years old). It is worth examining the ways in which these two paradigmatic friendships are described, early in the play, since these models will have a bearing on the relationship between Palamon and Arcite, and the manner in which that ‘ideal friendship’ will be breached, first by competitive love for the same woman, Emilia (a version of Rene Girard’s concept of ‘mimetic desire’), and then by death. Shakespeare’s plays use the pattern of mimetic desire over and over, as we have seen in the early comedies. In The Two Noble Kinsmen this triangular desire underwrites much of the action, coloring eroticism with rivalry – and rivalry with eroticism.
‘How his longing/Follows his friend!’ exclaims Emilia about Pirithous, whose mind seems divided between thinking of the absent Theseus and fulfilling his injunction to keep the festivities alight (1.3.26-27). Hippolyta is happy to agree: ‘Their knot of love,/Tied, weaved, entangled with so true, so long,/And with a finger of so deep a cunning,/May be outworn, never outdone’ (41-44) This reflection reminds Emilia of her own loss, which she describes in one of those passages of exposition that are plainly for the audience’s enlightenment. Hippolyta, though she listens with every evidence of close attention, makes it clear that she has heard this tale before:
I was acquainted
Once with a time when I enjoyed a playfellow;
You were at wars when she the grave enriched,
Who made too proud the bed; took leave o’th’ moon –
Which then looked pale at parting – when our count
Was each eleven.
You talk of Prithous’ and Theseus’ love:
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,
More buckled with strong judgement, and their needs
The one of th’other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love; but I
And she I sigh and spoke of were things innocent,
Loved for we did, and like the elements,
That know not what, nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she liked
Was then of me approved; what not, condemned –
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts – O then but beginning
To swell about the blossom – she would long
‘Till she had an other, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where, phoenix-like,
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern. Her affections – pretty,
Though happily her careless wear – I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol’n some new air, or at adventure hummed one,
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn – rather, dwell on –
And sing it in her slumbers…
In short, Emilia speculates, ‘true love ‘tween maid and made may be/More than in sex dividual’ (1.3.81-2). Hippolyta intercedes to interpret, translating Emilia’s thoughts: ‘[T]his high-speeded pace is but to say/that you shall never, like the maid Flavina,/Love any that’s called man’ (1.3.83-85). To which Emilia replies promptly and roundly, ‘I am sure I shall not’ (86).
We might pause here to note the oddity of this conversation, in which Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen, maintains the view of heterosexual love and marriage, while her sister insists upon her ‘faith’ in the fact that she will never love a man as she loved the dead Flavina. Hippolyta’s peroration, in which she gently advises her sister that she will change her mind one day, may seem contrary in spirit to the idea of a Shakespeare imagined as limning powerful patterns of same-sex love – and, indeed, from that of a Fletcher memorably described as sharing a bed and a wench with his best friend and frequent collaborator Francis Beaumont – but it is nevertheless quite in line with the usual plots and practices of Shakespeare’s plays. Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It, are first twinned, then divided. Each chooses a husband, although that choice does not invalidate either the passion, or the eloquence, or their romantic friendship. In Twelfth Night Olivia’s love for the cross-dressed Viola – whom she knows as the boy ‘Cesario’ – is transmuted, by the machinations of the plot, into a marriage with Viola’s twin, Sebastian, and the embrace of Viola herself as a ‘sister.’ The Two Noble Kinsmen revisits this classic Shakespearean scenario in which passionate childhood loves between persons of the same sex, while they may be rhetorically reconfirmed at the play’s end, are also formally augmented or superseded by heterosexual marriage.
Now alack, weak sister,
I must no more believe thee in this point –
Though in’t I know thou doest believe thyself –
Than I will trust a sickly appetite
That loathes even as it longs. But sure, my sister,
If I were ripe for your persuasion, you
Have said enough to shake me from the arm
Of the all-noble Theseus, for whose fortunes
I will now in and kneel, with great assurance
That we more than his Pirithous possess,
The high throne in his heart.
Hippolyta’s ‘we’ is the personal plural, what is sometimes called the ‘royal we.’ She is confident that she, and not his childhood friend Pirithous, is Theseus’s chosen partner.
Perhaps it is enough that Shakespeare does allow the alternative view to stand, at least for the moment – ‘I am not/Against your faith, yet I continue mine,’ says Emilia – and the form that these philosophical conversations always takes is dialogic, so that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to such a debate. But ‘never’ in such conversations serves almost always, especially in the comedies, as a kind of dare, waiting to be proved wrong. (‘That you shall never, like the maid Flavina,/Love any that’s called man’).
The ‘dead twin’ theme is a familiar one in the plays (compare Juliet and the dead Susan in Romeo and Juliet – ‘Susan is with God’ [Romeo and Juliet 1.3.21]; Viola Cesario and her imaginary sister who pined away ‘like patience on a monument’ in Twelfth Night; and the dead sister of the merry Catherine in Love’s Labour’s Lost). Empirical social history tells us that child mortality in this period was high, but we do not need recourse to the ‘real’ to see that dramatically and poetically the dead twin emblematizes a road not taken. Flavina dies at eleven, the partner and soul mate of her loving and beloved Emilia. But Emilia lives, and her life changes. Her definitive ‘I am sure I shall not’ dangles as a tantalizing piece of plot bait, waiting for its reversal – and this would be true no matter what she averred to be unalterably true. The reversal, in other words, is theatrical, not merely narrative and psychological.”
And from Harold Bloom:
“Chaucer’s heroes, Palamon and Arcite, are sworn brothers and chivalric idealists, until they gaze upon the superb Emily, the sister of Hippolyta, now married to Theseus of Athens. From that fatal falling-in-love onward, they are sworn rivals, determined to cut each other down, so that the survivor can possess Emily. Theseus sets up a grand tournament to settle the matter, but Arcite’s victory proves ironic, since he falls off his horse during a victory canter and is mortally injured. Palamon therefore gets the girl, and Theseus delivers an oration that insists all this was divinely ordained.
But Theseus does not speak for the narrating Knight, nor does the Knight speak for the poet Chaucer, though the differences between the three are subtle. For the Knight, love is an accident, and all life is accidental, including the ruin of the friendship of Palamon and Arcite. Talbot Donaldson interprets Chaucer as implying that pure chance governs everything, including love and death, which does not leave much of Theseus’s theodicy but bears out the Knight’s stoic acceptance of keeping appointments one has never made. Since Palamon and Arcite are virtually indistinguishable, while pure Emily is passive, the reader might not much care if it were not for Chaucer’s own subtle negations. Palamon, Arcite, and Emily pray respectively in the temples of Venus, Mars, and Diana, all of which are chapels of pain, replete with representations of victims and victimization. The Knight describes these with bland cheerfulness, but we shudder, and Chaucer clearly intends that we are to be appalled.
Talbot Donaldson wryly notes that ‘whereas the horrors in Chaucer seem mostly charged to the gods above, Shakespeare puts them back where they started, in the hearts of people.’ For The Two Noble Kinsmen, that is an understatement: eros is the authentic horror, the never-ending and ultimate illness, universal and afflicting all ages of men and women, once they have left childhood for the sorrows of sexual life. In fact, Shakespeare’s part of The Two Noble Kinsmen might make us doubt that life is anything except sorrows. Act I opens with three mourning Queens throwing themselves down at the feet, respectively, of Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia. These women in black are the widows of three kings among the Seven Against Thebes, whose rotting corpses surround the walls of Creon’s city, for the tyrant refuses them burial. The Queen’s supplicating laments are ritualistic, essentially baroque in their elaborations:
We are three queens, whose sovereigns fell before
The wrath of cruel Creon; who endured
The beaks of ravens, talons of the kites,
And pecks of crows in the foul fields of Thebes.
He will not suffer us to burn their bones,
To urn their ashes, nor take th’ offence
Of mortal loathsomeness from the blest eye
Of holy Phoebus, but infects the winds
With stench of our slain lords. O, pity, Duke!
Thou purger of the erath, draw thy feared sword
That does good turns to th’ world; give us the bones
Of our dead kings, that we may chapel them,
And of thy boundless goodness take some note
That for our crowned heads we have no roof,
Save this which is the lion’s and the bear’s,
And vault to everything.
One could fit the matter of their plea into ten fewer lines, but the mannerism of their speech is more important. The luxuriance, not so much of grief, but of outrage, dominates. Outrageousness is the rhetorical tonality of Shakespeare’s final mode, where most voices carry the burden of being outraged: by injustice, by time, by eros, by death. Thomas de Quincy, the Romantic critic most attuned to rhetoric, found in Acts I and V of The Two Noble Kinsmen ‘the most superb work in the language,’ and commended Shakespeare’s more ‘elaborate style of excellence.’ What are the poetic motives of such extraordinary elaboration? Theodore Spencer, puzzling out these ‘slow rhythms’ and this ‘formal grace,’ suggested a choral effect, distanced from action:
‘There are, in the Shakespearean parts of The Two Noble Kinsmen, an unmistakable incantation, tone, and order: the incantation which accepts illusion, the tone which has forgotten tragedy, and an order melted at the edges into a larger unity of acceptance and wonder.’
Spencer, shoe lyrics closely imitated Yeats’s, seems to me to be describing late Yeats, not late Shakespeare. Illusion, acceptance, and wonder are neither the matter nor the manner of The Two Noble Kinsmen. The style of old age suits the Yeats of Last Poems and Plays or the Hardy of Winter Words, or the Stevens of The Rock, but not Shakespeare in this final play. If this greatest of poets is weary of passion, he is also estranged from the enormous panoply of styles he has previously created. Ellipsis becomes a favorite rhetorical figure, which is bewildering in so baroque a style; to elaborate while leaving out is a strange mode, yet it is perfectly appropriate for this play of destructive desire and obliterated friendship. Theseus reacts to the first queen’s litany by remembering the long-ago day of her wedding to the slain Capaneus:
you were that time fair;
Not Juno’s mantle fairer than your tresses,
Nor in more bounty spread her, your wheaten wreath
Was then nor threshed nor blasted; Fortune at you
Dimpled her cheek with smiles.
Himself about to be married, Theseus abruptly laments (rather unflatteringly to her face) the loss of the first Queen’s beauty:
O grief and time,
Fearful consumers, you will all devour!
It is that sense of loss, more than the entreaties of the Queens, and even of Hippolyta and Emilia, that makes Theseus decide to postpone his marriage, in order to march against Creon and Thebes. This first scene of heraldic intensity yields to an equally deliberate second, the introduction of Palamon and Arcite. Shakespeare wastes no art in rendering them at all distinct from each other; they seem, indeed, as inseparable cousins, to share the same high, somewhat priggish moral character, and to exhibit no personality whatsoever. Their interest for Shakespeare, and for us, is as a polemical thrust against the London of 1613, the city the playwright had abandoned for Stratford, and yet rather uneasily, since he kept a foot in the capital. In 1612, heretics and witches were still being executed, while in the next year Sir Thomas Overbury was poisoned in the Tower of London, at the behest of the Countess of Essex, whose marriage to James I’s catamite, Robert Carr, Overbury had protested. As always, the circumspect Shakespeare kept his comments both recondite and indefinite, though Creon’s Thebes rather clearly is the rancid London of James I:
This is virtue,
Of no respect in Thebes. I spake of Thebes,
How dangerous, if we will keep our honours,
It is for our residing, where every evil
Hath a good colour; where every seeming good’s
A certain evil; where not to be even jump
As they are, here were to be strangers, and
Such things to be, mere monsters.
To be ‘even jump,’ or ‘exactly,’ with the way things are in Thebes-London is to descend rapidly from the state of innocence that Palamon and Arcite continue to celebrate. Moral warriors, estranged nephews of Creon, they rejoice mutually in their ‘gloss of youth,’ and in being ‘yet unhardened in/The crimes of nature.’ Yet they are patriotic young men, and rally to Thebes when informed that Theseus marches against it; however noble his cause.”
More on this in my next post.
Our next reading: Act Two of The Two Noble Kinsmen
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.