|Thou bringst such pelting, scurvy news continually,|
Thou art not worthy life.
Act 2, scene 2, lines 342–343
For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still
Are children in some kind.
Act 5, scene 4, lines 155–157
Written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, this play tells the familiar story of a love triangle. Here, though, it seems distant and strange. The play is based on "The Knight's Tale" in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's tale comes from an Italian poem by Boccaccio. Thus in The Two Noble Kinsmen we have a late medieval narrative transformed into a seventeenth-century play.
Initially, the Theban knights Arcite and Palamon are devoted kinsmen, both serving their king, Creaon, who is defeated by Theseus, Duke of Athens. After they are imprisoned in Athens, they see Emilia, sister of the Duchess of Athens, through a window. They become rivals for her love, eager to fight each other to the death, even though she does not know they exist.
After Arcite is released and banished, and Palamon escapes, they begin their would-be fight to the death with chivalric ceremony. Theseus, happening on them, decrees that they must compete for her in a tournament, after which the loser will be executed.
Emilia is no willing bride; as a girl, she loved Flavina, who has died. Still, she tries to avert the tournament by choosing between Arcite and Palamon, only to find she cannot. The jailer's daughter, a character added by the playwrights, is infatuated with Palamon and helps him escape. But the social gulf between her and Palamon is unimaginably wide. Only the gods can bring the play to resolution.
The Two Noble Kinsman is thought to have been written in 1613, making it among the last of Shakespeare's plays. It was first published as a quarto in 1634. Shakespeare and Fletcher are named as the authors on the quarto's title page.
Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2010 Folger Shakespeare Library
Charles H. Frey, ed. Shakespeare, Fletcher, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, ed. Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Brian Vickers. Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Shakespeare. The Two Noble Kinsmen. London, 1634
Plutarch. Helmeted Theseus (detail). Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. London, 1579
Chaucer. Canterbury tales. Westminster, 1477
Inside the Collection
Quartos from the Collection: Two Noble Kinsmen