“I saw her first.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act Two
By Dennis Abrams

the two noble kinsmen photo act 2 2Act Two: In jail in Athens, Palamon and Arcite are busy consoling themselves with the closeness of their friendship when Palamon suddenly sees the beautiful Emilia (Hippolyta’s sister) gathering flowers outside. Both men fall instantly in love with her, but Palamon claims that since he saw her first, he gets precedence, and the two begin to argue. Their quarrel stops only when Arcite is suddenly released. Though banished from Athens, Arcite takes the opportunity to appear in disguise at Theseus’s games, where he impresses everyone with his wrestling skills (not to mention his noble bearing). His reward, fittingly, is to be bestowed on Emilia as a servant. Meanwhile, the Jailer’s Daughter has arranged Palamon’s escape in the vain hope of winning his love.

But even though the play is properly Chaucerian, it is also convincingly a Shakespearean one as well. As well as taking its cue from Chaucer, the story of cousins Palamon and Arcite gestures back to early comedies such as The Two Gentleman of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which close (even intimate) male friendships occupy a central position in the drama. In Kinsmen, nowhere is this clearer than after the battle between Theseus and Creon that occurs in the middle of Act One. Despite the fact that the kinsmen have been captured by Theseus following the Theban defeat and thrown into prison, their Athenian jailer and his daughter are amazed by the prisoners’ jovial spirits. “They eat well, look merrily, discourse of many things, but nothing of their own restraint and disasters,’ the Jailer’s Daughter wonderingly observes (2.1.38-40), and it soon becomes clear that what sustains the two men, “dearer in love than blood,” is their own friendship (1.2.1). Arcite describes it extravagantly. “Even from the bottom of these miseries,/From all that fortune can inflict upon us,” he declares,

I see two comforts rising – two mere blessings,
If the gods please, to hold here a brave patience,
And the enjoying of our griefs together.
Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish
If I think this is our prison.

Their intimacy is such that it overcomes physical hardship, and Palamon echoes not only his friend’s thoughts but his high-flown way of expressing it. “Let’s think this prison holy sanctuary,” he agrees,

To keep us from corruption of worse men.
We are young, and yet desire the ways of honour,
That liberty and common conversation,
The poison of pure spirits, might, like women,
Woo us to wander from. What worthy blessing
Can be but our imaginations
May make it ours? And here bring thus together,
We are in an endless mine to one another:
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are in one another, families…

This doctrine of mutual self-sufficiency is incredible in every sense of the word. Rewriting their imprisonment as something they have chosen voluntarily, like life in a monastery, Palamon suggests that they provide the substance of each other’s lifes – friends, family, even spouse. Though it’s undeniably more grandiose (or overblown), this pact does seem to each the “deep oaths” signed at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost by the King of Navarre and his three lords, and like those ivory-tower fantasies it will prove, not surprisingly, totally unsustainable. Palamon and Arcite, though they persuade themselves otherwise, are only this close because circumstance has brought them together, and now circumstance will tear them apart.

The transformation comes more immediately than anyone – even perhaps the audience – expects. Just a few minutes later Palamon and Arcite are joined onstage by Emilia, Queen Hippolyta’s sister, who appears outside the prison picking flowers. “She is wondrous fair,” says Arcite, and Palamon echoes him, sighing, “She is all the beauty extant.” (2.2.148). So closely attuned to each other that they boast of being each other’s “wife,” the cousins, with the most ironic inevitability, fall for exactly the same woman. But it isn’t long (naturally) before the pair find themselves exchanging terms of high sentiment and refinement for something less noble: “What do you think of this beauty?” Palamon asks, suddenly suspicious.

‘Tis a rare one
Is’t but a rare one?
Yes, a matchless beauty.
Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t! Now I feel my shackles.
You love her, then?
Who would not?
And desire her?
Before my liberty.
I saw her first.

Palamon’s childish interject here is genuinely funny, but it also indicates just how easy it has been for these two young men to renounce the vows they swore so passionately just a few minutes earlier.

Palamon and Arcite are not alone in feeling the violent tremors created by love. When Arcite is suddenly banished from Greece, Palamon is left alone in prison – an arrangement that suits the Jailer’s Daughter, who is earnestly trying to catch the stranger’s eye. Acknowledging the social gulf between them, she admits that “to marry him is hopeless,/To be his whore is witless’ (2.4.4-5) but can see no other way out. Then an idea strikes. “Say I ventured/To set him free?” she wonders,

What says the law then? Thus much
For law or kindred? I will do it,
And this night or tomorrow he shall love me.

The play does not make things that easy, however, her lover remains indifferent and aloof, seeming not to realize even when she helps him escape that her motivation is the hope of marrying him.


To continue with Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 2 1“Shakespeare, more grimly than ever before, declines to glorify war, and gives us a truly shocking speech by the Amazon Hippolyta, as she and her sister Emilia bid farewell to Pirithous, cousin and closest friend of Theseus, as he goes off to join the Duke in battle:

We have been soldiers, and we cannot weep
When our friends down their helms, or put to sea,
Or tell of babes broached on the lance, or women
That have sod their infants in – and after ate them –
The brine they wept at killing ‘em.

If once cannot weep at mother’s boiling, in their own salt tears, their own infants for dinner, one can perhaps laugh, in psychological self-defense. Since this grotesque vision is cause for neither woe nor wonder on Hippolyta’s part, we can surmise that Shakespeare again achieves an alienation effect, in the mode of his own Titus Andronicus of two decades before. But that play was an outrageous send-up of Marlowe and Kyd. What is this sentiment doing in The Two Noble Kinsmen? Neither Hippolyta herself nor Emilia seems to take this hideous image as other than merely factual, which is another mark of Shakespearean distancing in this uncanny play. It would be at least as difficult to gauge Hippolyta’s lack of jealousy when she considers the depth of the Pirithous-Theseus relationship:

They two have cabined
In many as dangerous as poor a corner,
Peril and want contending; they have skiffed
Torrents whose roaring tyranny and power
I’th’ least of these was dreadful; and they have
Fought out together where death’s self was lodged;
Yet fate hath brought them off. 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 undone. I think
Theseus cannot be umpire to himself,
Cleaving his conscience into twain and doing
Each side like justice, which he loves best.

To say that your marriage may outwear but never outdo your husband’s relation to his closest male companion is again to manifest an uncanny dispassionateness, particularly since Hippolyta evidently does not care which one Theseus loves best. Emilia’s reply is both polite and even more dispassionate: ‘Doubtless/There is a best, and reason has no manners/To say it is not you.’ Unless Shakespeare means to parody his major excursions into jealousy, including Othello and The Winter’s Tale, he is giving us an entrance into an Amazonian consciousness very different from anything he has portrayed in his women. All this is prelude to the most moving account that Shakespeare ever rendered of love between young girls. Rosalind and Celia, as their respective lusts for Orlando and Liver evidence, were early inseparables of a very different order than were the older Emilia and the departed Flavina, lost when each lady was just 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. This rehearsal –
Which every innocent wots well comes in
Like old emportment’s bastard – has this end,
That the true love ‘tween maid and maid may be
More than in sex dividual.

We see why Emilia, more even than Chaucer’s Emily, will be so despairingly passive as to whether she will be awarded to Arcite or to Palamon. The length, weightedness, and complexity of this declaration is unique in Shakespeare, and deserves to be better known as the locus classicus in the defense of such love in the language. Emilia’s speech is much Shakespeare’s most passionate in the play, as Hippolyta dryly observes. Hippolyta’s courtly irony cannot lessen the poignance of Emilia’s paean to the dead Flavina, or more precisely to the perfect love of the two pre-adolescent girls, each finding her entire identity in the other. The contrast between this union of serenities and the murderous violence of the Palamon-Arcite strife for Emilia could not be more persuasive. With a mordant wit, Shakespeare concludes the scene with a sisterly debate as gravely courteous as it is disquieting:

You’re out of breath,
And this high-speeded pace is but to say
That you shall never – like the maid Flavina –
Love any that’s called man.
I am sure I shall not.
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.
I am not
Against your faith, yet I continue mine.

The key phrasing is ‘a sickly appetite/That loathes even as it longs,’ a superb expression of acute ambivalence. It is difficult not to conclude that the ambivalence is very much that of the forty-nine-year-old Shakespeare, who seems to intimate his own newfound freedom – if not from desire, then from its tyranny – and seems also to manifest a nostalgia for other modes of love. Shakespeare’s sexual complexity, which may have chastised itself in the elegy for Will Peter, breaks bounds in The Two Noble Kinsmen, if only in some ironic grace notes, since he avoids celebrating anything like the Emilia-Flavina ecstasy of oneness in his accounts of the Pirithous-Theseus and Palamon-Arcite relationships.

The victorious Theseus, having captured the wounded Palamon and Arcite vows to heal them and then to hold them prisoner,, for reasons that Shakespeare keeps implicit but that have about them a touch of sadistic and homoerotic possessiveness, a pride at having in one’s power two such superb defeated warriors. Shakespeare’s first act comes full circle, with the reappearance of the three Queens, now burying the remnants of their husbands, and keening a memorably enigmatic couplet:

This world’s a city full of straying streets,
And death’s the market-place, where each one meets.

This may be Shakespeare’s most direct response to The Knight’s Tale’s warning that we are always keeping appointments we have never made. We then go off to prison with Palamon and Arcite, but since this is part of John Fletcher’s share in the play, we can evade it, except for noting that the cousins fall in love with Emilia at first sight, thus destroying their own friendship forever, as in Chaucer.”


And from Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 2 3“Part of the importance of [the scene between Emilia and Hippolyta] is the way it skillfully sets up a similar conversation between the imprisoned Palamon and Arcite in act 2, in which the noble kinsmen articulate the pattern of their friendship and the implications of their captivity. Palamon starts with the twin theme: ‘O never/Shall we two exercise, like twins of honour,/Our arms again.’ (2.2.17-19). Arcite sees the end of their hopes for a future, and for progeny:

Here we are,
And here the graces of our youths must wither,
Like a too-timely spring. Here age must find us
And, which is heaviest, Palamon, unmarried –
The sweet embraces of a loving wife
Loaden with kisses, armed with thousand Cupids,
Shall never clasp our necks; no issue know us;
No figures of ourselves shall we e’er see
To glad our age…
This is all our world,
We shall know nothing here but one another,
Hear nothing but the clock that tells our woes.

Still, there is some comfort in the fact that they are together. ‘Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish/If I think this our prison,’ Arcite says, and Palamon replied in the same spirit: ‘’Tis a main goodness, cousin, that our fortunes/Were twined together’ (2.2.61-62, 63-64). This leads Arcite to a further set of speculations and escapist fantasies (in the same vein as John of Gaunt’s counsel to his exiled son Bolingbroke, to suppose ‘the singing birds musicians’ in Richard II):

Let’s think this prison holy sanctuary,
To keep us from corruption of worse men.
We are young, and yet desire the ways of honour
That liberty and common conversation,
The poison of pure spirits, might, like women,
Woo us to wander from. What worthy blessing
Can be, but our imaginations
May make it ours? And here being thus together,
We are an endless mine to one another:
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…
Were we at liberty
A wife might part us lawfully, or business;
Quarrels consumes us; envy of ill men
Crave our acquaintance. I might sicken, cousin,
Where you should never know it, and so perish
Without your noble hand to close mine eyes,
Or prayers to the gods…

Palamon is overwhelmed with this vision: ‘You have made me –/I think you, cousin Arcite – almost wanton/With my captivity’ (2.2.96-97). The conversation ends on a note of certainty:

Is there record of any two that loved
Better than we do, Arcite?
Sure there cannot.
I do not think it possible our friendship
Should ever leave us.
Till our deaths it cannot.

Like Emilia’s ‘never,’ Palamon’s ‘not…ever’ invites a dramatic reversal, and that is exactly, and immediately, what it gets. Having rhetorically claimed that their captivity protects them from women who might seduce them away from the path of honor, that ‘[W]e are one another’s wife,’ and that ‘[a] wife might part us,’ Palamon and Arcite are about to become rivals for the love of a woman they behold from afar, as Emilia and her waiting-woman enter the garden below their prison window to admire the flowers that grow there, especially the one called ‘narcissus.’ (By this time Emilia has changed her views at least enough to critique the ‘fair boy’ who was ‘a fool/To love himself,’ for [W]ere there not maids enough? [2.2.120-121]).

‘Never till now was I in prison, Arcite,’ says Palamon (2.2.132), and shortly – having nothing better to do – these two noble kinsmen have both fallen in love:

Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t. Now I feel my shackles.
You love her then?
Who would not?
And desire her?
Before my liberty.
I saw her first.
That’s nothing.
But it shall be.
I saw her too.
Yes, but you must not love her.

And so on and on, putting their friendship, and their kinship in jeopardy. ‘Why then would you deal so cunningly,/So strangely, so unlike a noble kinsman,/To love alone? asks Arcite. ‘Speak truly. Do you think me/Unworthy of her sight? (2.2.193-195). Like another eponymous duo, the two gentlemen of Verona in Shakespeare’s play of that name, likewise sundered by their love for Silvia, Palamon and Arcite split apart over their ‘love’ for Emilia, to whom neither has ever spoken. When, shortly, Theseus sends for Arcite, gives him his liberty, but banishes him from Athens, Arcite’s first thought is that Palamon is far more fortunate, since he can look at Emilia every day from his prison window. ‘I will not leave the kingdom,’ Arcite resolves. ‘If I go he has her’ (2.3.19, 21). Learning from some rustic countrymen that ‘games’ are going forward and that Duke Theseus himself will be present, Arcite determines to put on a ‘poor disguise’ and enter the competition, hoping, he says, that ‘happiness prefer me to a place/Where I may ever dwell in sight of her’ (2.3.84-85). At the country sports, Arcite – like Pericles disguised in his play as ‘the mean knight’ – distinguishes himself as the fastest runner and best wrestler, identifies himself as a ‘youngest’ son (in the time honored spirit of fairy tales), and is presented to Emilia – whose birthday has, it turns out, inspired these celebrations, as her courtly servant. Theseus admires both the man and his prowess, and urges Emilia to supply Arcite with horses and to look upon him with favor, perhaps as a ‘master,’ or husband.”

Our next reading: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act Three
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “I saw her first.”

  1. pinterest says:

    First, Pinterest users should have more creative options to customize the home page.
    Google+ is a social networking site that has a range of different features that you
    can use to connect with patients and other healthcare professionals.
    For example, if your food business is dedicated to gourmet party appetizers your
    bio might be as simple as “Gourmet appetizers delivered right to your door.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s