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The Two Noble Kinsmen

A scene from The Two Noble Kinsmen

Introduction to the play

Written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen 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.

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Cover of the Folger Shakespeare edition of Two Noble Kinsmen

The Folger Shakespeare

Our bestselling editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems

Thou bringst such pelting, scurvy news continually,
Thou art not worthy life. I will not go.

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

The Two Noble Kinsmen in our collection

A selection of Folger collection items related to The Two Noble Kinsmen. Find more in our digital image collection

Title page of a 1561 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
Diana as moon goddess (Luna), earth goddess (Diana), and underworld goddess (Hecate). By Ottavio Rossi.
Mars and Cupid, from Emblemes of loue. With verses in Latin, English, and Italian. By Otto Van Veen
Venus and Cupid, from Emblemes of loue. With verses in Latin, English, and Italian. By Otto Van Veen.

Essays and resources from The Folger Shakespeare

Two Noble Kinsmen

Learn more about the play, its language, and its history from the experts behind our edition.

About Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen
An introduction to the plot, themes, and characters in the play

Reading Shakespeare’s Language
A guide for understanding Shakespeare’s words, sentences, and wordplay

An Introduction to This Text
A description of the publishing history of the play and our editors’ approach to this edition

Shakespeare and his world

Learn more about Shakespeare, his theater, and his plays from the experts behind our editions.

Shakespeare’s Life
An essay about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived

Shakespeare’s Theater
An essay about what theaters were like during Shakespeare’s career

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays
An essay about how Shakespeare’s plays were published

Related blog posts and podcasts

Teaching The Two Noble Kinsmen

Early printed text

The Two Noble Kinsmen was first printed in 1634 as a quarto titled The two noble kinsmen: presented at the Blackfriers by the Kings Maiesties servants, with great applause: written by the memorable worthies of their time. Mr. Iohn Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakspeare. Gent.

In 1679, it was included in the collection of plays by John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, but it was not until the 20th century that it came to be part of the standard Shakespeare canon.

Two Noble Kinsmen is thus, along with Pericles, one of the very few plays that was not included in the 1623 First Folio that is today recognized as Shakespearean.