‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ – love versus friendship


The Two Noble Kinsmen is a Jacobean1 drama of a medieval English tale2 based on an Italian romance version3 of a Latin epic4 about one of the oldest and most tragic of Greek legends5; it has two authors6 and two heroes7.”  [L Potter, Introduction, page 1]

Notes on the above:

1 Written and first performed circa 1613; first published in 1634.

2 Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale (in the Canterbury Tales)

3 Giovanni Boccaccio’s Teseida

4 Statius’s Thebaid

5 The rivalry between the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices over the right to rule Thebes; the siege of Thebes by seven warriors; and the eventual take-over of power by Oedipus’s brother, Creon

6 John Fletcher and William Shakespeare

7 Palamon and Arcite (cousins), who are rivals in love for Emilia, sister to Hippolyta, the bride of Theseus

Theseus, Duke of Athens, may be regarded as a hero too – or, in this play, rather, a judge.  There are, moreover, two heroines – Emilia and the unnamed  Daughter of the Jailer.


The main plot

Palamon and Arcite (Thebans) fight in the war and are heavily wounded.  Theseus orders (a) that they be treated and (b) that, once healed, they should be imprisoned.  Their rivalry commences when they espy Emilia from their shared cell. (The Jailer’s Daughter notices them.)  Later, they are both released, in turn.  They seize their first opportunity to arm and fight over Emilia (on stage).  Theseus interrupts their first fight and substitutes a deferred tournament (which takes place, offstage, in Act V).  The loser of the fight is to be executed, so that the rivalry will be ended, once and for all.

2 Notes on the above:

A Emilia sees merit in both her admirers but cannot, or will not, choose between them.

B Emilia is content with the single life.

C Emilia is not consulted about her choice, either by Theseus or her suitors.

D Compare the love rivalry of Valentine and Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and that of Lysander and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


1 In Act I, three widowed queens, forbidden by Creon to bury their husbands, killed in the Theban war, approach Theseus, interrupt his wedding procession, and beg him to “be advocate/For us and our distresses” (Scene 1, lines 31-2).  Theseus proceeds to wage war on Creon on their behalf (offstage); and the queens thank him when he returns victorious (Scene 4).  (This action is contained within Act I.)

2 The Jailer’s Daughter falls hopelessly and madly in love with Palamon: she releases him (offstage).  She is given four soliloquys, and also speeches reminiscent of Ophelia’s in Hamlet.  Her father arranges for her marriage to a ‘Wooer’, who pretends to be Palamon.

3 The Schoolmaster trains a party of country people to perform an entertainment for the nobles.  (Compare (a) Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and (b) Francis Beaumont’s Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn: the latter can be found in Appendix 3 of L Potter’s edition of Kinsmen (pages 340-9).)


In respect of its outcomes, Kinsmen is not a comedy: love is characterised by “turmoil and suffering” (Bawcutt, page 41); the Jailer’s Daughter loves Palamon but her love is not returned (is he aware of it?); Emilia does not return the love both Arcite and Palamon profess for her; the Daughter is diverted towards the ‘Wooer’; Arcite “wins” the hand of Emilia in the tournament but is killed in an accident (offstage) before he can wed her.

Many of the actions are interrupted, eg the first combat between Palamon and Arcite.

People are not in control of their destiny: people are subject to inscrutable Fate.


Editors apportion the play between John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, with a large measure of agreement.  (The two also collaborated on King Henry VIII and the lost Cardenio.)  In the Introduction to her edition of Kinsmen, L Potter points to several inconsistencies between the two contributions, as if sometimes the one playright had not seen the work of the other before he put pen to paper.

In his edition of Kinsmen, N W Bawcutt contrasts the styles of the two dramatists in this play.  Shakespeare, he says, offers us “ceremony and ritual”; Fletcher gives us “drama and excitement”, with the stress falling on “human psychology and mental conflict” and “the quarrel between Palamon and Arcite and the turmoil of the lovesick Jailer’s Daughter” (Introduction, page 28).


In Act V, Scene 1 – in lines attributed to Shakespeare – Arcite and Palamon pray to their respective gods, Mars and Venus, for victory in the tournament to come.   For her part, Emilia prays to Diana, asking that she be married to: “He of the two pretenders that best loves me/And has the truest title in’t” (lines 158-9).

As N W Bawcutt observes: “This is the high point of ritual in the play…The speeches are magnificently done” (Introduction, page 39).

In his prayer, Palamon attributes to Venus powers over mortals (curative or intoxicating? beneficial or dangerous?) that are greater than those of other gods:

  1. She has “the might /Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum/And turn th’alarm to whispers” (lines 79-81).
  2. She can “make/a cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him/Before Apollo” (lines 81-3).
  3. “the huntress/moist and cold, some say, began to throw/Her bow away and sigh” (lines 92-4) [a reference to Diana’s falling in love with Endymion].

Bawcutt sees here a “clear indication that love will triumph over chastity,” (Introduction, page 41): ultimately, Palamon, the protégé of Venus, will succeed and Arcite, the soldier of Mars, will fail.


Kinsmen makes for an interesting read, especially the scenes where the Jailer’s Daughter appears, and the prayers of Arcite, Palamon and Emilia in Act V, Scene 1.


L Potter states that “The Two Noble Kinsmen used to have no performance history at all” (page 78 of the Introduction to her Arden 3 edition, 1997).  But she goes on to discuss several late 20th century productions.  Referring to a 1994 staging in Oregon, she writes, “As in many productions, Act 1 had difficulty holding the audience” (page 87).


The main plot has a sudden and surprising end: Arcite is killed in an accident (offstage), when his horse is startled; and the other one is given permission to wed her in his place.  (In the source, Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, the gods are responsible for the startling of Arcite’s horse – and Venus’s hero, Palamon, wins the bride if not the fight.  In the play, what happens to Arcite is an accident.)   Before Arcite he dies, he consents to Palamon’s wedding to Emilia, and they are reconciled.  Theseus declares that what Fate has determined must be accepted.  Do WE readily go along with this?


David R Harries


My wife and I have just seen the Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-on-Avon.  This is partly successful.  Certain aspects come out clearly.  TNK  remains a curious mixture of comedy and tragedy that does not gel.  The writings of the two playwrights do not fully blend together.  There are hints of homo-erotic relationships in the text: these are made much of in this production.  The play probably needs editing (cutting).  A shorter version might give the actors to speak a bit more slowly and therefore more intelligibly.  I spoke to other members of the audience and I conclude that the beginning (the legacy of Oedipus and Creon and Antigone) is barely comprehensible.  Perhaps a new prologue could be devised, perhaps based on John Dryden’s translation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.