Two Noble Kinsmen is reported to be Shakespeare's final play; he died three years after it's production. Shakespeare co-wrote this play, based upon the Knights Tale written by Geoffrey Chaucer, with John Fletcher and published it in 1634. Shakespeare is credited with the bulk of the writing of the first and fifth acts while Fletcher is credited with the middle of the story.
This story begins with Duke Theseus and Hippolyta (last seen in Midsummer Nights Dream) about the celebrate their wedding day. Before they can get married three queens intervene and beg Theseus to get resolve their tragic dilemma. Creon, the king of Thebes, has killed these three queen's husbands and refuses to allow the men to be buried. This dishonor means that the three kings spirits are unable to pass into the afterlife.
Theseus says he will get involved after his wedding but the three queens are joined by Hippolyta and Emilia, the sister of Theseus in begging Theseus to put off the wedding until King Creon is deposed and the men's spirits can be put to rest.
Theseus brings his army to Thebes where he deposes of King Creon. There are two knights, Arcite and Palamon, who are kin to Creon. They do not agree with King Creon but they are duty bound to fight for him. They are imprisoned at the end of the war rather than executed.
The two kinsmen resign themselves to a life of imprisonment. But they console themselves that at least they will be able to keep each other company for the rest of their lives. They choose to reinterpret their imprisonment as a gift; the gift of inseparable companionship.
This inseparable companionship is destroyed immediately upon seeing Emilia, the sister of Theseus, from the window of their cell. Palamon immediately falls in love with Emilia at first sight. Unfortunately two seconds after Palamon sees her, Arcite decides that he is also in love with Emilia.
This competition leads the two kinsmen to decide they must kill one another in pursuit of their true love.
At this point Arcite is freed from prison but is banished from Athens. Rather than rejoice in his newly won freedom Arcite decides to sneak back in to Athens and compete in a series of olympic style wrestling games. In reward for his strength and victory he is given the job of guarding Emilia.
Meanwhile the Jailer's daughter falls in love with Palamon and decides that she will free Palamon from his confinement. She hopes that Palamon will fall in love with her and marry her as a reward but Palamon shows no interest beyond general gratitude and abandons the Jailer's daughter.
The Jailer's daughter, distraught from being abandoned by Palamon, goes insane. The Jailer, distraught over his daughter's plight, calls for a doctor. The doctor tells the Jailer that her former suitor (simply given the name "wooer" in the play) must pretend to be Palamon. She will fall in love with this false Palamon and when they marry this will cure her. The wooer agrees to this ruse and it appears to work as the play ends with the Jailer saying that she has been married.
Meanwhile Arcite and Palamon find each other in the woods. They begin to fight when they are found by Theseus, who had outlawed dueling. Theseus tries to get the cousins to accept banishment but they won't. He tries to get Emilia to choose one suitor but she will not. So Theseus decides that the suitor must return to Athens in one month, each with three close friends to support them. They will engage in a contest; the winner gets to marry Emilia and the loser dies.
The final act of the play shows each of the characters praying to their respective gods:
- Arcite prays to Mars, the god of war, for victory in combat.
- Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, to win the hand of Emilia.
- Emilia prays to Diana, the goddess of the hunt, for a sign that she might be able to stay in her service or that the one that loves her best marry her.
At the end each god is able to grant the prayers of their supplicants:
- Arcite wins the contest but dies soon after in an accident while riding his horse.
- Palamon loses and is about to be executed when the execution is stayed because of Arcite's mortal injury.
- Emilia is betrothed to Palamon, who Arcite, on his deathbed, relinquishes his claim, acknowledging that Palamon saw Emilia first and such had greater claim to her love.
The play ends with Arcite dying and Theseus proclaiming that Palamon and Arcite shall wed.
The Royal Shakespeare company made a beautifully designed, but ultimately shallow and uninformative, trailer for the play:
I get they are trying to draw a general audience in by suggesting that this is a flashy play. But if audiences went to see this play thinking that they were getting a Shakespearean version of the movie Gladiator they were surely disappointed.
Thoughts on the play
I fell in love with Shakespeare because of what his plays say about the human condition. But this play at first did not seem to say much about the human condition in a way that I could recognize.
There was nothing remotely human nature in the idea that you would fall in love right at first sight without knowing anything about the person you claim to love. There is nothing remotely natural about the person you claim to love best in life being willing to kill you over claiming the same woman.
Arcite and Palamon feel like incredibly flat and one dimensional characters. Actually everyone feels flat and one dimensional in this story. I don't see anything redeeming in anyone or any complex motivations or anything like the intricacies that I came to admire and respect from other plays I've read.
But as I thought through this idea I started to change my thoughts on who the main characters were and what the theme of this story is.
The danger of "winning at all costs"
I think this is story might ultimately be about the right and the wrong way to come to terms with losing.
Arcite decides that he is in love with Emilia immediately after Palamon decides that he is in love with Emilia. That suggests to me that Arcite wasn't in love with Emilia so much as he was in competition with Palamon. The fact that Arcite prays to Mars for victory tells me that he was more interested in beating Palamon for the sake of beating him than he was even interested in, much less in love with, Emilia.
Arcite was constantly bragging about his feats. His biggest boasting was about his horsemanship; ironic in a perfectly Greek way given that Arcite died riding his horse after beating Palamon.
So Arcite and Palamon represent the story of not accepting compromise. Neither man could accept winning the proverbial silver medal. Arcite immediately tried to one up his cousin with a declaration of love. Arcite could have backed down when he saw that Palamon got incredibly upset over his declarion of love for Emilia. Arcite could have accepted exile when he was freed. Conversely Palamon could have accepted that even if he had seen her first (not much of a claim to begin with) Arcite got a job guarding Emilia and thus presumably had gotten to know her better and now had a better claim to woo her. Neither man could accept backing down as an option and so the only option was victory or death.
Emilia on the other hand chose to look for a compromise. It is clear that Emilia did not want to get married. She was happy as a virgin devotee to Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt. Marrying would require Emilia to end her service to Diana. But Emilia was adamant that she did not want to be responsible for the death of either man. So she chose the best compromise she could under those circumstances; let me marry the one that truly loves me best.
If Emilia had chosen to place her honor above everything she would have committed suicide. But that was not the right answer. The right answer was to try and find the middle ground; something that you can live with even if it is far from your ideal outcome.
I guess Shakespeare is commenting upon the knightly virtue of chivalry and honor. I don't think he is completely devaluing it but he does seem to be saying something about a culture, like that culture of knighthood, that would prize honor above anything else. This exploration of "winning at all costs" and the implications of that mentality was far more important than the story itself.
Some renditions of the play have interpreted Arcite and Palamon as being gay and their conflict as one of sublimated love for one another. Emilia, the virgin devotee of Diana, has also been interpreted as being gay. I'm fine with this idea but honestly whether Shakespeare intended for them to be gay or if this is an attempt to appeal to a modern audience doesn't make the story more compelling to me.
I was far more invested in the story of the Jailer's Daughter. This story felt like a real comment on the human condition.
The Jailer's Daughter and the evolution of female choice
The Jailer's Daughter, like Palamon and Arcite, fell in love at first sight. She decided to free Palamon at great cost; she put herself and her father in danger for this decision.
When Palamon did not return her affections she went insane and was only cured by a scheme concocted by a doctor to fake a wedding between her and "Palamon" who was in reality a man who had been in love with the Daughter for quite some time but whose affections were never returned.
This story resonated with me and I think tells a much more interesting arc of growth.
We learn at the end of the play that the Jailer's Daughter is approaching eighteen. This is a rebellious time; an eighteen year old is a physical woman and she is in the throes of her desires - she makes it crystal clear that she is eager to lose her virginity. A man was in love with her but he is so non descript and uninteresting that Shakespeare never bothers to name him; he is simply "wooer". His dialogue is uninteresting. It is clear that he is in love and he seems like a kind enough man who is willing to go along with what the Jailer and the Doctor tell him to do.
In other words the wooer is a "nice guy". Nice guys have never gotten the girl. The 18 year old is not interested in the nice guy who wants to get married. She is interested in losing her virginity to the beautiful and dashing prince. Even when the gorgeous prince leaves her she still wants him.
Sexual selection is a principle in evolutionary biology. The basic principle is that one member of the species, usually (but not always) the female, is competed for by the males. Because male reproductive capacity is essentially limitless and female reproductive capacity is limited the female is the choosy one of the two. The principle of sexual selection says that the female will exhibit mating preference for the male that is most likely to display signals of strength and vitality because these traits will presumably increase their offsprings chances of survival.
So there is a biological imperative for women to be attracted to physically fit and dominant men, like a dashing knight when they are young and in their peak fertile years.
But why then would the daughter wind up marrying the wooer? from the principle of evolutionary biology it would seem that the most desired males are the least likely to commit to a monogamous relationship to any but the most desirable females. So from the standpoint of evolutionary biology it makes sense for a female to try and get the most attractive male that she can and then settle for the best male that she can, the one who is most likely to stay faithful.
So loving the prince in the beginning of the story and settling for the wooer at the end of the story is a common story in the life of many women; when they are young and can get lots of male attention they will be picky but as they get older they will be more willing to compromise on the qualities they desire. This comedy bit by Daphnique Springs really nailed (around the 3 minute mark) what I am trying to say when she said "the man you need don't look like the man you want".
At the end of the day the Daughter marries the Wooer when he pretends to be Palamon. We could interpret this to mean that she was tricked into getting married and that is certainly possible. But I prefer the interpretation to be that the wooer had to aspire to be like Palamon. He had to become more charming, interesting and attractive in order for the daughter to accept him.
Maybe I'm reading too much of my own early college years of getting rejected by dozens of girls who told me that I was just "such a nice guy" who would "make a lucky girl very happy some day". But I think Shakespeare is saying something about the romantic cycle of young women; the desire for someone who is gorgeous and makes them feel tingly when they are young and the willingness to settle for someone who doesn't meet that standard when they are older.
But it also says something about the mans journey - the gorgeous prince who does become kinder and more thoughtful as he grows (Palamon does speak kindly about the Jailer's daughter and rejoices when he hears that she married), and the nice guy who needs to grow a spine and become more like a hero in order to get what he wants. Ultimately the Jailer's daughter and the Wooer are the only ones in the story who have a happy ending.
This story felt more like a true story than the story of Arcite and Palamon.
Theseus and Hippolyta
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the return of Theseus and Hippolyta, who were also pivotal in A Midsummer Nights Dream. The characters were not married yet in this play so I assume that this is set before A Midsummer Nights Dream. I doubt Shakespeare was necessarily thinking about the connection between these two plays but as a person who grew up watching 20th and 21st century movies it is impossible for me to not think of this as a sort of "prequel" to Midsummer Nights Dream.
In both plays Theseus serves as the upholder of the law. Both plays begin with someone demanding Theseus enforce the law - whether it was a father demanding that her daughter marry the man he chose or the widows who demanded that Theseus deal with the man who broke the universal law against defiling the dead, Theseus was tasked with seeing to it that justice was served.
Theseus was a much harsher task master in Two Noble Kinsmen; he was more than willing to enforce the death penalty in Two Noble Kinsmen than in Midsummer Night's Dream even though technically both crimes were punishable by death. That seems to be an appropriate response given the nature of the crimes being addressed; murder and attempted murder should be dealt with more harshly than a willful daughter no matter how much she might frustrate her parents.
But in these two plays we get to see Theseus representing justice with a sword in Two Noble Kinsmen and justice with a proverbial olive branch in a Midsummer Nights Dream.
"I saw her first"
Palamon, Act II, Scene ii
I did laugh out loud when I read that. It was such a simple thing and I am almost sure that I know exactly how that sounded even when it was first uttered in its first live performance.
Otherwise nothing really stood out for me in this play in terms of language. Maybe it is because it wasn't written fully by Shakespeare. I certainly wouldn't claim that I would be able to tell who wrote which scenes but I didn't feel compelled to highlight any other phrase than the one above after reading the play.
I couldn't find a film version of the play to watch but YouTube has some college and community renditions of the play. I watched a version produced in 2014 by the University of Wellington in New Zealand. It was beautifully done for a college production and worth watching.
All in all I was mildly entertained. I would watch this play (although I suspect I would watch any Shakespeare play) but I don't anticipate feeling compelled to read this one again. I can see why this play is not one that has been produced a lot - it seems to be dealing with philosophical issues more than dealing with real human conditions, which makes it less timeless than A Midsummer Night's Dream or Hamlet.