January 4 – April 7, 2013

In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare and Fletcher audaciously re-tell Chaucer’s “The Knights’ Tale.” Two princely cousins, imprisoned by Duke Theseus, fall in love with the same woman: Emilia, the Queen of the Amazons’ sister. Prison breaks, county fairs, crazed lovers, dueling friends, and granted wishes ensue in this beautiful and bewitching late romance, perhaps Shakespeare’s final play.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • Theseus, the Duke of Athens, returns from a military campaign in which he defeated Hippolyta, Queen of Amazons.
  • Theseus and Hippolyta approach the temple to be married, but three queens whose husbands have been killed by Creon, the king of Thebes, interrupt the processional.
  • The Queens, seeking revenge for their husbands’ deaths, convince Theseus and Hippolyta to wage war on Creon.
  • Creon’s nephews, Palamon and Arcite, take up arms against Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s invasion, but are taken prisoner and brought back to Athens.
  • While imprisoned, Palamon and Arcite fall into great despair until they see Emilia, Hippolyta’s sister. Each man falls in love with Emilia and disputes the other’s right to love her.
  • The Jailer arrives with news that Arcite is banished from Athens.
  • The Jailer’s Daughter frees Palamon, and he escapes to the woods.
  • Arcite, in disguise, wins May games hosted by Theseus and Hippolyta and becomes an attendant to Emilia.
  • The Jailer’s Daughter wanders through the wood after Palamon, bringing him food, clothing, and files to remove his chains.
  • During May celebrations, Arcite stumbles upon Palamon’s hiding place in the woods. Palamon threatens Arcite for trying to woo Emilia.
  • The Jailer’s Daughter fears that Palamon is dead and becomes increasingly worried.
  • The two noble kinsmen agree to duel to decide their dispute over Emilia’s love.
  • May celebrations continue with a Morris Dance by some rustic countryfolk, but the Jailer’s Daughter interrupts their celebrations.
  • Palamon and Arcite duel, Arcite’s identity is revealed, Emilia is forced to make a choice between the two men, and the Jailer’s Daughter’s worry turns into obsession.
  • Assertions of entitlement, cures for lost loves, tough decisions, poor judgement, and profound sacrifices ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first peformed?

2. Where was the play first performed?
Probably the Blackfriars. The masque element, the delight in pageantry and spectacle, and the likelihood that this play was later presented at court all suggest a play aimed at the gallants who made the Blackfriars the place to be.

3. How does the play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
Could be his last. He was “retired” and more of the play is John Fletcher’s than his. He probably is responsible for the first part of the play and the last, but everywhere Fletcher is borrowing heavily from Shakespeare’s earlier work.

4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
It makes imaginative use of classical sources; it mixes comedy and tragedy; it looks with a wry smile at young male love and with a sympathetic one at young women in love. The play reminds us that, by this time, these features are evident in much of the work of his contemporaries, and that the influence between him and his contemporaries flowed both ways.

5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?
Tough question. It has a structure similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, like that play and Pericles, it cheerfully mixes the English and Classical worlds, but yet it seems more of a fairy tale.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
They have a growing admiration for it, and theatres are beginning to produce it more regularly. Because The Two Noble Kinsmen is not among the 36 plays in the First Folio and because “the cult of the author” had not yet begun to yield to the interest in collaborative work, this play has for many years been outside the magic circle of the “canon.” Now every edition of Shakespeare includes it.

7. Are there any controversies surrounding the work?
As with Henry VIII, scholars have spent some time trying to work out which parts Shakespeare wrote and which parts Fletcher.

8. What characters should I especially look out for?
In the wake of our 2012 Fall Season’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, it’s fun to see how Arcite and Palamon are like Proteus and Valentine before them: initially guileless young men with man-crushes on each other until love of a woman drives them apart.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
My favorite single scene is the one in which the tow young men are in prison vowing eternal friendship and then spot Emilia in the garden below: but I also delight int he four times the Jailer’s Daughter appears for a monologue.

10. What is the language like?
A quarter of a century had gone by since audiences first heard Christopher Marlowe’s “mighty line” – the blank verse of iambic pentameter – and this play shows how playwrights had learned to vary it to all ocsassions.