“O you heavenly charmers,/What things you make of us! For what we lack/We laugh, for what we have we are sorry; still/Are children in some kind.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act Five
By Dennis Abrams


the two noble kinsmen photo act 5 2Act Five: Palamon and Arcite, each accompanied by three knights, separately pray for success, while Emilia prays that whoever loves her best will emerge victorious. Back at the jail, the Doctor’s “treatment” of the Jailer’s Daughter seems to be working, and he encourage the Wooer to sleep with her. At court the contest begins, but Emilia refuses to attend and its progress is reported to her. Though at first it seems that Palamon will win, he is eventually defeated: Arcite wins Emilia’s hand while Palamon and his knights are condemned to death. But…just as Palamon is about to be executed, news arrives that Arcite has been fatally injured in a riding accident. The two noble kinsmen are briefly reunited, and Arcite “gives” Emilia to Palamon with his dying breath.

As the tournament draws near, the two rivals prepare themselves for combat. Once again gesturing toward the stylized devices of masque, the play has them perform elaborate (and lengthy) rituals of preparation (rituals that also guarantee theatre goers some impressive special effects): Arcite prays to Mars to the sound of clanging armor, Palamon invokes Venus accompanied by strains of mystical music – and even Emilia calls upon Diana for guidance, being rewarded with a blossoming rose tree that springs from the altar at which she kneels. Even when the competition finally arrives, though, the audience is kept guessing. The fight takes place off stage, with only background noise indicating what is going on. At first it seems that Palamon is winning, but then the cries for “Arcite” begin to filter through. When the news becomes more certain, the fretful Emilia greets the news with joy. ‘Half sights saw/That Arcite was no babe,’ she exclaims.

God’s lid, his richness
And costliness of spirit looked through him – it could
No more be hid in him than fire in flax.,
Than humble banks can go to law with waters
That drift winds force to raging. I did think
Good Palamon would miscarry, yet I knew not
Why I did think so.

She accepts Arcite gladly, and Theseus concurs, announcing that ‘the gods by their divine arbitrariment/Have given you this knight’ (5.5.107-8).

But in the play’s lurching final move Shakespeare and Fletcher show that the gods’ will is not always so easily interpreted. Palamon is about to be beheaded when a messenger bursts in, calling on the executioner to halt. Pirithous breathlessly follows, with news that it is Arcite who is on the point of death: the “hot horse, hot as fire” bestowed upon by Emilia as a token of her love has bolted, and crushed the victorious knight. In a supreme but troubling sacrifice that directly recalls the first play we read, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the dying Arcite insists that his kinsman should take his place: against all expectation it is Palamon, not his cousin, who is to marry Emilia. If the gods have declared their wish, as Theseus insisted before, their messages are very difficult to interpret. The Duke is permitted to address them one last time. “O you heavenly charmers,” he calls,

What things 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.

This scene is probably by Shakespeare, and as a conclusion to his career these halting words of Theseus are infinitely more painful than anything voiced by Prospero at the close of the Tempest. Everything is provisional, they seem to imply – and the human condition is one in which comedy and tragedy are so closely entwined that we may never finally know which is which.

Helen Cooper, “Jacobean Chaucer: The Two Noble Kinsmen and Other Chaucerian Plays”:

“Palamon’s unexpected salvation from execution is not the metaphorical resurrection of Shakespeare’s other late plays, but just one more turning that will delay for a little his arrival in the marketplace of death.”


From Marjorie Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 5 1“The battle that will be the play’s denouement is also, curiously enough, an ‘unscene,’ only reported to us – and to Emilia – by a servant (5.5). While this denies the audience the full enjoyment of a pageant and a rousing fight, it increases the sense of random chance, and also of the untrustworthiness of report. (A good comparison here is the early ‘unscene’ in Julius Caesar, in which Caesar is three times offered a crown – offstage – while the onstage characters try to guess at the tone and import of the events at one remove.) Emilia’s excuse is that she cannot bear to watch either of these brave men die. instead of following the hardier Theseus and Hippolyta, the audience is left behind with her, and gets its information from the servant and from period offstage shouts of “a Palamon’ (i.e., the fight is going Palamon’s way), “Arcite, Arcite! And finally – or apparently finally – ‘Arcite, victory!’ Emilia, like a sports fan listening to an event on the radio rather than watching it on television, is moved to supply her own mental pictures. One of these, of the two kinsmen merged into a single ‘composed’ entity, is memorable in its own right and closely akin to a phrase in another play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Henry VIII, describing another heroic offstage encounter. Here is Emilia:

Were they metamorphosed
Both into one! O why? There were no woman
Worth so composed a man: their single share,
Their nobleness peculiar to them, gives
The prejudice of disparity, value’s shortness,
To any lady breathing –

And here is a passage from Henry VIII, in which the Duke of Norfolk describes how the two kings of France and England met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold:

I was then present, saw them salute on horseback,
Beheld them when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement as they grew together,
Which had they, what four throned ones could have weighed
Such a compounded one?
(Henry VIII 1.1.8-12)

Arcite is the victor, and Palamon must die. But once Arcite has claimed his garland and his bride, and has departed the stage to be replaced by the pinioned Palamon and his knights, the play presents its audience with yet another reversal. Palamon, onstage, is generous in the face of death, giving money to the Jailer as a dowry for his daughter – Palamon’s knights following suit – and laying his head on the execution block, only to be rescued at the last minute by Pirithous and a messenger, who run in, the messenger crying, ‘Hold! Hold!’ ‘What/Hath waked us from our dream?’ asks Palamon, echoing a familiar Shakespearean theme that is also the theme of Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueno (Life is a Dream). The story is a tragic one, yet again recounted rather than shown: Arcite had been presented by his newly betrothed Emilia with a spirited black horse in honor of his victory. The horse, frightened by a spark, bucked and threw his noble rider to the ‘flinty pavement.’ The dying Arcite now requests to be brought to his cousin’s side:

O miserable end of our alliance!
The gods are mighty. Arcite, if they heart,
Thy worthy manly heart, be yet unbroken,
Give me thy last words. I am Palamon,
One that yet loves thee dying.

Take Emilia,
And with her all the world’s joy. Reach thy hand –
Farewell – I have told my last hour. I was false,
Yet never treacherous. Forgive me, cousin –
One kiss from fair Emilia – (they kiss) ‘tis done.
Take her; I die.

Those audience members familiar with Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” would perhaps recall that Palamon and Arcite are there distinguished by their differing allegiances to the classical gods. Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, while Arcite swears fealty to Mars, the god of war. In the poetic logic of the tale, both of them ‘win’: Arcite is the victor in the battle, Palamon gets the girl. In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s dramatized version, some of the hieratic ‘appropriateness’ of this division of spoils is inevitably lost, and the two kinsmen in this play have, it not more ‘personality’ in the modern sense, at least more homely and confiding moments, suitable for sustained dramatic action. Palamon does see Emilia first, which may give him a prior claim, assuming the lady has no opinion in the matter. So in this sense the play’s ending not only echoes Chaucer’s but is in some slim way ‘just.’

But poetic justice is not, or not always, dramatic justice. After witnessing the mad affections of the Jailer’s Daughter and Palamon’s admirable and stoic deportment at the supposed moment of execution, we are vouchsafed a glimpse of Palamon through others’ admiring eyes. And Theseus tries to shore up this sense in his closing words:

Your kinsman hath confessed the right o’th’ lady
Did lie in you, for you first saw her and
Even then proclaimed your fancy. He restored her
As your stol’n jewel, and desired your spirit
To send him hence forgiven. The gods my justice
Take from my hand, and they themselves become
The executioners. Lead your lady off,
And call your lovers from the stage of death,
Whom I adopt my friends…

Palamon and his knights (‘your lovers’) are freed and rewarded, and Theseus will make the best of the situation, decreeing ‘[a] day or two’ for the funeral of Arcite and then – shades of Gertrude and Claudius – moving right along to the marriage. His scene-clearing gesture, ‘Let’s go off/And bear us like the time’ (5.6.136-137), is a familiar gesture but also a somewhat unsettling one, since so much has happened so quickly, and one virtually identical suitor has been replaced by another. Emilia, we may recall, could not bring herself to choose between them, though she expressed to herself a strong preference first for the one, then for the other. The final love tableau, though, remains a triad rather than a dyad. Arcite takes Palamon’s hand, and Emilia’s kiss, before giving them to each other.

This play, written by two authors, seems to have as its ideal the melting of two (kinsmen, authors) into one. This would eliminate friction and rivalry but at the price of a death. It is fitting that the final tableau displays both the triangle of rivalry and, in the end, the death that thus anchors union.”


From Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 5 4“After the furious Duke threatens the two erotic madmen with the prospects of death or banishment, a tournament is agreed upon, each duelist 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. Shakespeare thus gets to write Act V (except for Fletcher’s weak second scene), and to improve on Chaucer only by giving both Arcite and Palamon wonderfully outrageous prayers delivered receptively to Mars and to Venus before the tournament begins. These two ghastly invocations are followed by Emilia’s chaste prayer to Diana, which can hardly compete with a Shakespeare wholly bent upon mischief in the prior effusions. Arcite begins with a preliminary virtual cheerleading, urging his knights (‘yea, my sacrifices’) to ready themselves for invoking Mars:

Our intercession, then,
Must be to him that makes the camp a cistern
Brimmed with the blood of men, give me your aid,
And bend your spirits towards him.

‘A cistern/Brimmed with the blood of men’ prepares us for the climax of Arcite’s rhapsody, where a Shakespeare who clearly enjoys being wicked goes almost too far to be funny.

O great corrector of enormous times,
Shaker of o’er-rank states, thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that healest with blood
The earth when it is sick, and curest the world
O’th’plurisy of people; I do take
Thy signs auspiciously, and in thy name
To my design march boldly. Let us go.

Shakespeare’s disgust with the London of James I, from which he is self-exiled, peeps through these hyperboles, which would have been excessive even for Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. The ‘enormous’ times are at once disorderly and unnatural, and the ‘o’er-rank states’ which include James’s notorious court, so overripe that it is rotten. To heal ‘with blood’ refers to the bad medicine of bloodletting, and the memorable phrase ‘plurisy of people’ plays upon both overpopulation and inflammation, a nation both too many and too diseased. The Falstaffian Shakespeare, subtle in his worries in Henry V, overreachers here to considerable effect, yet only as a warm-up to his most unsavory utterance, surpassing his own Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and yet all an idealistic paean. Here is Palamon celebrating Venus.

Hail, sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power
To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage
And weep unto a girl; that hast the might
Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum
And turn th’alarm to whispers; that can’st make
A cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him
Before Apollo, that mayst force the king
To be his subject’s vassal, and induce
Stale gravity to dance; the polled bachelor,
Whose youth, like wanton boys through bonfires,
Have skipped thy flame, at seventy thou canst catch,
And make him, to the scorn of his hoarse throat,
Abuse young lays of love. What godlike power
Hast thou not power upon? To Phoebus thou
Addest flames hotter than his; the heavenly fires
Did scorch his mortal son, thine him; the huntress
All moist and cold, some say began to throw
Her bow away and sigh. Take to thy grace
Me thy vowed soldier, who do bear thy yoke
As ‘twere a wreath of roses, yet is heavier
Than lead itself, stings more than nettles.
I have never been foul-mouthed against the law;
Ne’er revealed secret, for I knew none; would not,
Had I kenned all that were; I never practiced
Upon man’s wife, nor would the libels read
Of liberal wits. I never at great feasts
Sought to betray a beauty, but have blushed
At simpering sirs that did; I have been harsh
To large confessors, and have hotly asked them
If they had mothers – I had one, a woman,
And women ‘twere they wronged. I knew a man
Of eighty winters – this I told them – who
A lass of fourteen brided. ‘Twas thy power
To put life into dust; the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture. This anatomy
Had by his young fair fere a boy, and I
Believed it was his, for she swore it was,
And who would not believe her? Brief, I am
To those that prate and have done, no companion;
To those that boast and have not, a defier;
To those that would and cannot, a rejoicer.
Yea, him I do not love that tells close offices
The foulest way, nor names concealments in
The boldest language, such a one I am,
And vow that lover never yet made sigh
Truer than I. O then, most soft sweet goddess,
Give me the victory of this question, which
Is true love’s merit, and bless me with a sign
Of thy great pleasure.
(Here music is heard and doves are seen to flutter. They fall again upon their faces, then on their knees.)
O thou that from eleven to ninety reignest
In mortal bosoms, whose chase in this world
And we in herds thy game, I give thee thanks
For this fair token, which, being laid unto
Mine innocent true heart, arms in assurance
My body to this business. Let us rise
And bow before the goddess. [They bow.]
Time comes on.

At sixty-seven I wince as I read this, its visions of seventy, eighty, and ninety partly reminding me that Shakespeare, at forty-nine, does not seem either to anticipate or to welcome reaching such gladsome stages of existence. This astonishing hymn to Venus is beyond irony, and is a negatively sublime coda to Shakespeare’s quarter century of dramatic poetry. How does one catch up to Shakespeare in what looks like a new mode even for him, and one that he declined to develop? No critical method will aid us to confront and absorb this perpetually new poetry, the farewell voice of the poet so much stronger than all others ever that his difference in degree from them works as a pragmatic difference in kind. And if men wince as they read Palamon’s prayer (and they should), it must be because it activates an all-but-universal guilt and shame. No passage in all of Shakespeare impresses me as being at once so painful and so personal, since Palamon speaks only for innocents like himself, and not for the rest of us, Shakespeare included. Suddenly, Palamon is endowed with personality, and is radically distinguished from Arcite, and from the male audience, except for some tiny saving remnant, if they are there. We live now in what is at once a shame culture and a guilt culture, and this uncannily powerful speech certainly will provoke both shame and guilt in many of us, if we have inner ears left after the visual assault that is our era. I am not exactly a moral critic, and my Bardolatry emanates from an aesthetic stance, so I turn now to a more purely aesthetic appreciation of this superb speech.

The terrible power of Venus is described here almost entirely in grotesque and catastrophic images, and yet Venus is being absolved of victimizing us, even as our wretchedness is so memorably portrayed. Chaucer has taught Shakespeare a final lesson beyond mere irony; Palamon is wholly admirable, but he does not quite know what he is saying, and only an authentic exemplar of the chivalric code could speak with his peculiar authority and not sound absurd. If Venus is not culpable, and only we are responsible for the insanity she provokes in us, then we need to ask (as Palamon will not) why we are unable to sustain her sway without disasters and disgrace. Palamon may possess original virtue, but most of us between eleven and ninety do not, and nothing in this play or in all the rest of Shakespeare gives support to a Pauline-Augustinian doctrine of an erotic original sin. On the probable evidence of The Two Noble Kinsmen and the Funeral Elegy for Will Peter, Shakespeare himself was well enough battered to be able to be out of it all, but simply to urge ‘true love’s merit’ upon us does not seem suitable for the ambivalent husband of Anne Hathaway. Palamon is an erotic realist, who precisely estimates and describes Venus’s dreadful power over, and terrible effects on, males from eleven to ninety, even as he rightly protests his merit as her chaste votary. Shakespeare does not allow one nuance within the speech to betray its grandest more-than-irony: like Emilia just after him, Palamon might as well be invoking Diana, since she is really his goddess.

Palamon has a double vision of Venus; Shakespeare, like most of us, is an erotic monist, and though he preserves Palamon’s speech from any shadows of rhetorical irony, he takes care to gives us an undersong that severely qualifies this paean to a guiltless and flawless Venus. Chaucer, for all his ironic mastery, might not have trusted his auditors (to whom he read aloud, at court and elsewhere) as much as Shakespeare seems to trust the audience here, though I think it likelier that Shakespeare had despaired of all audiences by now, and composes the paradox of Palamon’s speech for himself and a few confidants. Such an attitude would lead to no more plays, and this indeed is Shakespeare’s prelude to the three years of dramatic silence that concluded his life. Chance is the presiding deity of The Knight’s Tale; Venus rather than Mars or Diana is the tyrant governing The Two Noble Kinsmen. In regard to Palamon’s grand oration, we should trust the song and not the singer, totally devout as this young warrior thinks himself to be. His Venus destroys inwardly, as Mars does outwardly; the litany of obliterations is absolute as Venus hunts all of us down. Wasted ole men (‘stale gravity’) perform the dance of death. Bald bachelors of seventy hoarsely sing love songs. Cripples cast their crutches aside. Phoebus Apollo dotingly allows his son Phaeton to drive the sun’s chariot, a fatal venture. Diana falls in love with Endymion and discards her bow. Best of all is the ‘anatomy’ of eighty with his bride of fourteen; here we are given the parody of God creating Adam in Venus’s ‘power/To put life into dust,’ resulting in a deliberate ugliness surpassing anything like it in Shakespeare.

the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture.

Eyeballs popping, feet and hands distorted, the lust-driven ‘aged cramp’ appears more a victim of torture than an enjoyer of pleasure. Palamon’s accent registers scorn, yet we feel terror. The angriest reaction to this provocative passage was that of Talbot Donaldson:

‘What part of Palamon’s prayer is not devoted to Venus’ power to humiliate and corrupt is devoted to praise of himself for never having conspired sexually against women or made lewd jokes about them, constantly reminding himself, like a good boy, that he had a mother.’

It is certainly a question of Shakespearean distancing, which here evaded a Chaucerian ironist. Following Chaucer, Shakespeare grants victory to Arcite, and Theseus implacably prepares to execute Palamon and his three champions. But Arcite’s horse throws the triumphant rider, and the fatally injured disciple of Mars graciously yields Emilia to Palamon. Since Shakespeare has emphasized that the heroine’s heart is in the grave with the eleven-year-old Flavina, we hardly rejoice at this turn of fortune. The last words are given to Theseus, who seems finally to be aware of the absurdity of it all, thus merging himself with Shakespeare:

A day or two
Let us look sadly, and give grace unto
The funeral of Arcite, in whose end
The visages of bridegroom we’ll put on
And smile with Palamon; for whom an hour
But one hour since, I was as deadly sorry
As glad of Arcite, and am now as glad
As for him sorry.

This amiable revisionism yields to the wonderful closing passage, in which Theseus seems to have vanished, and Shakespeare himself says goodbye to us forever:

O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have we 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 time.

Those ‘heavenly creatures’ scarcely seem Venus, Mars, and Diana; something more whimsical is being evoked. Palamon, Arcite, Emilia, Theseus – all these cartoons have been dismissed, and what remains is Shakespeare and ourselves. He had learned to laugh for what he lacks, and to be sorry for what he has: both lack and possession are very light, as in our own best moods when we were, or still are, children. The rest is not quite silence, for bearing us like the time means sustaining not just a particular moment but whatever time still remains. No concluding lines elsewhere in Shakespeare seem to me nearly as comforting.”



And that is that – our last play. What did you think? I’m going to have two more posts – Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning and Thursday evening/Friday morning, trying to sum up the last two years.

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1 Response to “O you heavenly charmers,/What things you make of us! For what we lack/We laugh, for what we have we are sorry; still/Are children in some kind.”

  1. serwery says:

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