Categorized as a ‘romance,’ and widely believed to have been co-authored by John Fletcher, this play is often left out of the Shakespeare canon entirely. But if The Riverside Shakespeare, I will, too. And since I’m reading alphabetically, this penultimate play in my project follows Two Gentlemen of Verona (TGV).
I called the title of that ‘comedy’ a miscue because only one of the title characters deserves the moniker. In this play, the title seems at first to mislead again. But, although the eponymous cousins act, at times, rashly and foolishly, they acknowledge it and work in concert to resolve their differences while maintaining their bond.
No matter how absurd their conflict and proposed solution may seem, they maintain their ‘nobility’ throughout. The word “noble” appears 40 times in the play, almost as if to remind us of their pervasive and consistent attribute. Google dictionary defines noble as: “having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principals and ideals.” This describes Palamon and Arcite even at their worst. It doesn’t describe Proteus at his best.
As the play opens, three mourning queens interrupt King Theseus of Athens’ marriage to the amazon Hippolyta to implore that he vanquish the tyrant King Creon of Thebes and allow them to properly bury and honor their dead husbands, slain by Creon. He agrees and leaves mid-wedding to defend Thebes and the queens’ honor.
We meet Palamon and Arcite, Creon’s nephews, sifting through the wreckage of their home and lamenting their uncle’s bad behavior. They sound wise beyond their young years, speaking of the strength of their bond and the men they hope to become: “‘Tis in our power…to/Be masters of our manners.” (I,ii,43-4) Even after Theseus captures and incarcerates them, they stay true to their core value of nobility. Despondent at first, they lament their fate and what they stand to lose. But they quickly end the pity party and reframe their plight in what could be a scene from the Broadway musical Anything Goes; I envision them singing and tap dancing to the Cole Porter song Friendship. They wax poetic about how their imprisonment is really a good thing because they’ll always have each other. “Yet, cousin,/Even from the bottom of these miseries,/From all that fortune can inflict upon us,/I see two comforts rising, two mere blessings,/If the gods please – to hold here a brave patience,/And the enjoying of our griefs together./Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish/If I think this our prison.”(II,ii,55-62)
Alas, had the jail windows been higher, they might have continued to view the “prison our holy sanctuary.” (II,ii,71) But like in TGV they both espy and fall instantaneously in love with, and conspire to win over a woman: Emilia, sister to Hippolyta.
And like in TGV, their friendship goes to shit from there. But interestingly, unlike in TGV, their integrity and respect for one another remain in tact – until the bitter end. It is this that makes them noble.
Palamon is struck first by Eros’ projectile: “Behold, and wonder!/By heaven, she is a goddess.”(II,ii,133) But Eros soon shoots Arcite, too: “I love her with all my soul.” (II,ii,176) This deep and immediate infatuation is almost beyond love at first sight. There can be no other explanation than Eros’ divine intervention here. Their feelings are instantaneous, all-consuming, and pit them – cousins, compatriots, and friends – against one another. How will their ‘nobility’ survive Eros’ slings and arrows of love? Will they just fall down into the mud so they can fling it at each other as they fall in love? The notable thing about this play is that the answer to both is a resounding ‘no.’
They separately get out of jail and reunite in the forest, where Palamon hides in the bushes, still shackled, to confront each other. They thoughtfully, albeit emotionally, acknowledge their dispute but do not let it degenerate into incivility or violence. They engage in remarkably open and honest communication. Palamon questions Arcite’s love for him and accuses him of being “rough with me.” (III,i,102) But Arcite bridles at this claim: “Plainly spoken,/Yet pardon me hard language.” (III,i,105) He warns him to hide again to avoid danger even as he promises to bring him food, water, armor, and a weapon so they can properly duel over the damsel.
When he returns with the weapons of their destruction he greets Palamon thus: “Good morrow, noble Kinsman,” (III,iv,17) and Palamon shows concern for Arcite’s efforts on his behalf: “I have put you/To too much pain, sir.” (III,iv,18)
Their duel interrupted and identities revealed, their fate falls into Theseus’ hands. He, his now wife Hippolyta, and Emilia – the target of the cousins’ affections and unwitting cause of all this strife – struggle to arrive at a just resolution. The seemingly unsolvable enigma leaves all of them desolate. When they finally agree on a public duel to the death, the cousins part to prepare with these words: Palamon: “I am friends again till that hour,” and Arcite: “I embrace ye.” (III, vi,299-300) A member of Theseus’ court notes “They are all sons of honor,” (IV,ii,142) and Emilia laments “Go weep, for whoever so wins/loses a noble cousin.” (IV,ii,156)
I won’t reveal the outcome or the twist that accompanies it. We may find it hard to believe that two such close, loyal men could come to blows over a woman they barely know, except as a literary device to quickly create drama. But if we put that aside in both TGV and TNK, the glaring difference between the plays is how the characters deal with the conflict. In the former – a ‘comedy’ – one gentleman acts very badly. In the latter – a ‘romance’, they both act nobly. I’m not sure if the category of the play dictated their reactions, or if their comportment created cause for the plays’ categorization, but in the case of The Two Noble Kinsmen, the title stands as valid.