The Two Noble Kinsmen
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Separated from the royal party while out celebrating May Day, Arcite is suddenly confronted by Palamon. The two argue over Emilia once again, before agreeing to fight a duel over her. At the same time, the Jailer’s Daughter, is desperately searching the woods for Palamon when she comes upon a group of countrymen rehearsing an entertainment. Realizing that she has seemingly lost her mind, the performers include here in their masque, which they then present to Theseus and his companions. And in yet another part of the wood, Arcite brings his cousin armor but no sooner do the two begin go fight when they are interrupted by Theseus and his party. When the Duke condemns them to death, Emilia pleads for the sentence to be commuted to banishment, but the kinsmen turn down the offer (both preferring to die rather than never see her again). Theseus then demands that Emilia choose between the two, but when she is unable to do so, he agrees to supervise a final contest to win her hand.
Shakespeare and Fletcher took the story of the Jailer’s Daughter (for whatever reason they gave her no other name) from the tiniest of hints in the “Knight’s Tale” – there it is merely a mysterious “freend” who helps Palamon escape – but what they made out of it becomes utterly crucial to the play. (And as we read, the Jailer’s Daughter is Bloom’s favorite character in the entire play). Against the narrative of the two kinsmen, which becomes more and more contorted than ever – Arcite manages to work his way into Theseus’s court is disguise, while Palamon hides in the forest – the two playwrights (I’m guessing mostly Shakespeare) set four haunting scenes that trace her emotional collapse. “Let not my sense unsettle,” she begs when she is unable to find her beloved (3.2.2(, but a scene later her fears have been realized. As she addresses the audience in soliloquy (virtually the only character in the play to do so), it becomes clear that her sanity is gone. “I am very cold,” she shivers,
and all the stars are out too,
The little stars and all, that look like aglets –
The sun has seen my folly. Palamon!
Alas, no; he’s in heaven. Where am I now?
Yonder’s the sea and there’s a ship – how’t tumbles!
And there’s a rock likes watching under water –
Now, now, it beats upon it – now, now, now,
There’s a leak sprung, a sound one – how they cry!
Open her before the wind – you’ll lose all else.
Up with a course or two, and tack about, boys.
Good night, good night, you’re gone.
As we’ve seen, Shakespeare is usually credited with Act One of Kinsmen, the first two scenes of Act Three and three scenes in Act Five, including the play’s very last – but even if this soliloquy is Fletcher’s handiwork (and I really can’t see – or hear – that it is), it reads like a collection of Shakespearian motifs. Mumbling scraps of folk ballads, the Jailer’s Daughter reminds of Hamlet’s Ophelia, though her habit of repeating words resembles nothing less than that of King Lear. More tragically even than these, her rambling voice also resembles that of the equally nameless maiden in A Lover’s Complaint, a poem of Shakespeare’s also given over to the story of a grief-stricken and isolated young woman.
“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. Shakespeare began writing again by supplying a first scene to Act III, where Arcite, long since liberated by old acquaintance with Theseus’s friend Pirithous, is wandering lovelorn in the woods, while everyone else is off a-maying. On this fateful Mayday, the still-shackled Palamon, freshly escaped from prison, confronts Arcite, and the two agree on a fight to the death, the winner take Emilia. The scene has a mad, irrealistic charm, as Shakespeare juxtaposes their high rhetoric of chivalry with their mutually insane, regretful need to immolate one another. It is difficult to describe the comedy of their encounter, parallels being few, but some lines of Arcite’s catch the flavor:
Honour and honesty
I cherish and depend on, howsoe’er
You skip them in me, and with them, fair coz,
I’ll maintain my proceedings. Pray be pleased
To show in generous terms your griefs, since that
Your question’s with your equal, who professes
To clear his own way with the mind and sword
Of a true gentleman.
This intricate mix of pomposity and courtesy disappears when Fletcher takes over for the duel, which is interrupted by Theseus and his entourage, Emilia included. After the furious Duke threatens the two erotic madmen with the prospects of death or banishment, a tournament is agreed upon, each dualist to be backed by three knights of his choice, the victor to receive Emilia, the loser (and his supporters) to suffer beheading, so that Theseus is bound to achieve his dubious satisfaction.”
And from Garber:
“There is, however, another love story in the making, one with a less ‘noble’ shape and – for a while at least – boding a far less happy ending. For the Jailer’s Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon, just as Palamon has fallen in love with Emilia. Smitten, the Jailer’s Daughter frees Palamon from prison. He encounters Arcite in the wood, where the two kinsmen determine to fight a duel for the right to claim Emilia as ‘my mistress’ (3.1.29) – a duel that takes place in act 3, scene 6, and constitutes the second of this play’s ‘broken,’ or interrupted, ceremonies.
As for the Daughter, she promptly goes mad, afflicted by melancholy or madness arising from passionate love. Her situation and her onstage response to it recall that of Ophelia, and she sings a similar song of unrequited passion and betrayal, with similar slips into sexual innuendo (‘O for a prick now, like a nightingale,/To put my breast against’ [3.4.25-26]). The Daughter will be recruited as a ‘dainty madwoman’ into an antic dance being staged by a pedantic schoolmaster and his countrymen and ‘wenches’ for the edification of the Duke (much in the spirit of the sheepshearing scene in The Winter’s Tale, or the pageant of the “Nine Worthies” staged by the pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost). Madwomen – and madmen – were regarded in some quarters as figures of entertainment in this period. Webster’s Duchess of Malfi features a dance of eight madmen (4.2). The Schoolmaster’s long rhyming preface to his entertainment staged in act 3, scene 5, as a play-within-the-play with Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia in the onstage audience, features dubiously chiming couplets (‘The body of our sport, of no small study,/I first appear, though rude and raw and muddy’) and some fearsome alliteration (‘dainty Duke, whose doughty dismal fame/From Dis to Daedalus’), and gives way to a morris dance, constituting a rustic spectacle in the middle of the play, between the ‘high’ ‘comic,’ or romantic, movement, in which the noble kinsmen fall nobly in love with an unattainable woman, and the ‘tragic’ movement, in which they fight for her to the death, and one of them actually dies.
But as for the daughter, her plight is less hopeless than it may at first have appeared – the play is, after all, a tragicomedy, not a tragedy like Hamlet. In fact, she is recovered to her wits by a piece of extended role-playing undertaken by her faithful Wooer, who is advised by the Doctor,
[T]ake upon you…the name of Palamon; say you come to eat with her and to commune of love…Sing to her such green songs of love as she says Palamon hath sung in prison; come to her stuck in as sweet flowers…Learn what maids have been her companions and play-feres, and let them repair to her, with Palamon in their mouths, and appear with tokens as if they suggested for him. It is a falsehood she is in, which is with falsehoods to be combated.
Like the trope of entertaining a mad world with madmen, this strategy has a peculiarly ‘modern’ feel. (‘It is a falsehood she is in, which is with falsehoods to be combated’) The ‘cure’ is effected in act 5, with the Doctor, the Jailer, the Wooer, and the Daughter all onstage, and the Doctor’s down-home sexual advise to the Wooer (‘Lie with her if she ask you./…in the way of cure’ [5.4.27]). The ‘low’ plot of the Jailer’s Daughter and the faux Palamon offers a nice counterbalance to the ‘high’ plot of Emilia and her two suitors, since Emilia has a little real cognizance of the individual qualities and natures of the courtly kinsmen Palamon and Arcite as the mad Daughter does of the difference between ‘Palamon’ and Palamon.
As for the duel scene (3.6), it is structured, as we have already noted, as a second broken ceremony, paralleling the interrupted wedding in act I, scene I. Again the women will kneel and plead with Theseus, and again he will ultimately yield to their request. The scene has some strong elements of comedy, a little reminiscent of the threatened duel in Twelfth Night between Viola/Cesario and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in which each for different reasons is terrified to fight the other. Palamon and Arcite have no such fear; they are defined, and they consistently define themselves, as soldiers (as Arcite says, ‘We were not bred to talk, man. When we are armed/And both upon our guards, then let our fury,/…fly strongly from us’ [3.6.28-30]). But they find themselves caught in a courtly dilemma and rather wish there were an honorable way out. ‘Your person I am friends with,’ Arcite tells Palamon, as he gives him a choice of swords and armors. ‘And I could wish I had not said I loved her,/Though I had died; but loving such a lady,/And justifying my love, I must not fly from’t’ (3.6.39-42). And Palamon replies, ‘Arcite, thou art so brave an enemy/That no man but thy cousin’s fit to kill thee’ (43-44). As they outfit themselves and each other – putting on armor is not a task that is easy for a man to do for himself – they chat in a homely and intimate way that is the opposite of martial confrontation:
Pray thee tell me, cousin,
Where gott’st thou this good armour?
‘Tis the Duke’s,
And to say true, I stole it. Do I pinch you?
…use your gauntlets, though – those are o’th’ least.
Prithee take mine, good cousin.
Thank you, Arcite.
How do I look? Am I fall’n much away?
Faith, very little – love has used you kindly.
Such affectionate and even comical exchanges, born of long familiarity, give way to an awkward ceremonial: as the stage direction says, ‘They bow several ways, then advance and stand’ before they commence their flight. ‘Once more farewell, my cousin,’ says Arcite, and Palamon replies in kind: ‘Farwell, Arcite.’ But no sooner have they begun to trade blows in earnest than they are interrupted – yet another interrupted ceremony – by the hunting horns of Theseus and the arrival of Theseus, Hippolyta, Emilia, Pirithous, and their train.
The scene here will resemble both the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Theseus enforces the restrictive law of Athens, and the late scene in that same play when he and Hippolyta encounter the sleeping lovers in the woods. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Theseus demands:
What ignorant and mad malicious traitors
Are you, that ‘gainst the tenor of my laws
Are making battle, thus like knights appointed,
Without my leave and officers of arms?
By Castor, both shall die.
Theseus has forbidden the kind of individual armed combat in which they were about to engage if it were not under his control. Palamon’s reply is eloquent – as, indeed, is Arcite’s – as both undertake to explain the code of love that has inspired their ritual enmity. ‘We are certainly both traitors,’ acknowledges Palamon,
Of thee and of they goodness, I am Palamon,
That cannot love thee, he that broke thy prison –
Think well what that deserves. And this is Arcite;
A bolder traitor never trod they ground,
A falser ne’er seemed friend. This is the man
Was begged and banished; this is he contemns thee,
And what thou dar’st do; and in this disguise,
Against thine own edict, follows thy sister,
That fortunate bright star, the fair Emilia,
Whose servant – if there be a right in seeing
And first bequeathing of the soul to – justly
I am; and, which is more, dares think her his.
This is the ‘treachery’ that Palamon would combat. As for Arcite, he embraces the title of traitor:
Let me say thus much – if in love be treason,
In service of so excellent a beauty,
As I love most, and in that faith will perish,
As I have brought my life here to confirm it,
As I have served here truest, worthiest,
As I dare kill this cousin that denies it,
So let me be most traitor and ye please me.
For scorning of thy edict, Duke, ask that lady
Why she is fair, and why her eyes command me
Stay here to love her, and if she say, ‘Traitor,’
I am a villain fit to lie unburied.
‘Let’s die together, at one instant, Duke,’ proposed Palamon (his line here echoes, probably unconsciously, another famous Shakespearean ‘twinning ‘passage, Celia’s ‘WE still have slept together,/Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together’ [As You Like It 1.3.67-68]). ‘Only a little let him fall before me,/That I may tell my soul, he shall not have her.’ (3.6.178-179)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Athenians – all but Theseus – are swept away by this idealistic rhetoric. ‘O heaven,/What more than man is this!’ exclaims Pirithous when he hears Palamon. In a visual echo of the play’s opening scene, the two women, Emilia and Hippolyta, fall to their knees in supplication, and they are joined by Pirithous. ‘These are strange conjurings,’ observes the disconcerted Theseus, but he is persuaded – as is the way with Shakespeare’s over-strict law-enforcing Dukes – to seek a better solution. Asked how she would solve this problem, Emilia, the object of the noble kinsmen’s adoration, modestly suggests that they should both be banished and have nothing further to do with her, a suggestion that enrages both smitten men (‘forget I love her?/O all ye gods, despise me then’ [3.6.257-258]) and makes the rest of the company admire them. (‘These are men!’ exclaims Pirithous [3.6.264] Coming shortly after his ‘What more than man is this!’ this delirious approbation may suggest to a director a moment risibly over-the-top.)
In any case, Theseus, forced to rethink his harsh edict and avoid Emilia’s kindly meant but harsher one (as in Romeo and Juliet, the lover’s choices would have been death or banishment), ordains a new contest, under his own aegis, to replace the outlaw duel between the rival friends. In three months’ time they are to reappear before him, each accompanied by three knights, and participate in a challenge, a kind of jousting contest. Whichever of the men can force the other ‘[b]y fair and knightly strength’ to touch a pyramid installed by Theseus will win Emilia; the other will lose his head, as will his knightly friends.”
Our next reading: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act Four
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.