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The Two Noble Kinsmen /

Reading the Language of The Two Noble Kinsmen

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading the language of seventeenth-century drama can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with the words in the play. Four hundred years of “static” intervene between its speaking and our hearing. Most of its vocabulary is still in use, but some of its words are no longer used, and many now have meanings quite different from those they had in the seventeenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved, the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, understandable and meaningful, and we find ourselves caught up in the story being dramatized.


As you begin to read the opening scenes of a seventeenth-century poetic drama, you may notice unfamiliar words. Some are simply no longer in use. In the early scenes of The Two Noble Kinsmen, for example, we find the words meditance (i.e., meditation), visitating (i.e., visiting), unpanged (i.e., not afflicted with mental or physical anguish), and futurely (i.e., hereafter). More problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of this play, for example, the word undertaker is used where we would say “supporter, helper,” respect where we would say “pay attention to,” quaint where we would say “pretty,” and pretended where we would say “intended” or “planned.” Such words will become familiar as you continue to read seventeenth-century drama.

Some words found in seventeenth-century poetic drama are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that the writer is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of The Two Noble Kinsmen, for example, the playwrights construct a vivid confrontation between a royal Athenian wedding party with its “maiden pinks” and “oxlips” and “lark’s-heels trim,” on the one hand, and, on the other, three weeping queens whose language makes vivid the devastated world of Thebes from which they come, with its unburied corpses lying “swoll’n” in “th’ blood-sized field,” “blist’ring ’fore the visitating sun” and attacked by “beaks of ravens, talons of the kites,” their skulls “grinning at the moon.” The language of this dramatic world fills it not only with such “mortal loathsomeness” but also with mythological gods and heroes—with “Mars’s altar,” “Juno’s mantle,” “holy Phoebus,” “helmeted Bellona,” and “Hercules” tumbling down upon “his Nemean hide”—as well as with allusions to a familiar mythological past: to Hippolyta’s former life as the “dreaded Amazonian” who killed “the scythe-tusked boar,” to the renown of Theseus, whose “fame / Knolls in the ear o’ th’ world,” to (in scene 2) Juno’s “ancient fit of jealousy,” and to Phoebus Apollo’s past rage against “the horses of the sun.” Such language builds the world in which the adventures of “two noble kinsmen” are played out.


In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Seventeenth-century poetic drama frequently shifts sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm that is sought, sometimes to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns, or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of such a play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Sometimes such dramas rearrange subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In The Two Noble Kinsmen, when Hippolyta explains that she never before followed a path so willingly (“never yet / Went I so willing way”), she uses such a construction (1.1.114–15). So does Theseus when he later says “Now turn we towards your comforts” (1.1.275). The “normal” order would be “I went” and “we turn.” These dramas also frequently place the object or the predicate adjective before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit,” or, instead of “It is black,” we might find “Black it is”). Theseus provides an example of this kind of inversion when he says “But those we will depute” (1.4.12), and another example when he says “Troubled I am” (1.1.86). The “normal” order would be “we will depute those” and “I am troubled.”

Often The Two Noble Kinsmen uses inverted sentences that fall outside these categories. Such sentences must be studied individually until their structure can be perceived. Theseus’s comment, “Fortune at you / Dimpled her cheek with smiles” (1.1.72–73), is a relatively simple example of such an inversion. Its “normal” order would be “Fortune dimpled her cheek with smiles at you.” Arcite’s “[H]ere to keep in abstinence we shame / As in incontinence” (1.2.6–7) is more complicated. Its “normal” order would be, approximately, “We shame to keep in abstinence here as [much] as in incontinence.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in plays of this period. Often words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Like inversions, separations—of subjects and verbs, for example—frequently create a particular rhythm or stress a particular word, or else draw attention to a particular piece of information. Take, for example, Theseus’s “Hercules, our kinsman, / Then weaker than your eyes, laid by his club” (1.1.73–75). Here the subject (“Hercules”) is separated from its verb (“laid by”) by the subject’s two modifiers, “our kinsman” and “Then weaker than your eyes.” The first modifier provides a piece of information that contributes to the play’s mythological background; the second, extolling the First Queen’s youthful eyes as more powerful than legend’s strongest man, makes vivid Theseus’s memory of her when young. By allowing these modifiers briefly to shoulder aside the verb, the sentence calls attention to a bit of mythological context and to the contrast between the remembered powerful eyes of the young queen and the present “blubbered” eyes (1.1.208) of the widow. Or take the Second Queen’s

           this thy lord,

Born to uphold creation in that honor

First nature styled it in, shrunk thee into

The bound thou wast o’erflowing[.]


Here the subject and verb (“thy lord . . . shrunk”) are separated by a truncated clause ([who was] born to uphold creation in that honor first nature styled it in”), a clause that justifies the Second Queen’s affirmation of Theseus’s conquest of Hippolyta: Theseus, she claims, was born to preserve intact the superiority of the male, to uphold that which is right and proper in the natural world. By inserting this metaphysical clause between “thy lord” and “shrunk,” the queen presents this worldview as self-evident, not a point to be argued. On a first reading of sentences such as these, it is helpful to locate the basic sentence elements and mentally rearrange the words into a more familiar order; on later readings, or when attending a good performance of the play, we can fully enjoy the sentences’ complexity and subtlety.

Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages in which long interruptions separate basic sentence elements. When the Second Queen begs Hippolyta, as “soldieress,” to entreat Theseus to protect her and the other queens (“Bid him that we . . . Under the shadow of his sword may cool us”), she uses such a construction:


That equally canst poise sternness with pity,

Whom now I know hast much more power on him

Than ever he had on thee, who ow’st his strength

And his love too, who is a servant for

The tenor of thy speech, dear glass of ladies,

Bid him that we, whom flaming war doth scorch,

Under the shadow of his sword may cool us[.]


Here, the separation between “soldieress” and “bid” is extensive and complex, made up of four clauses, three modifying “soldieress” and one modifying “he” (i.e., Theseus)—so complex that Hippolyta is addressed again (“dear glass of ladies”) before the verb (“Bid”). And at this point, the subject-verb sequence (“we . . . may cool us”) is interrupted for a second time, here by a clause and two prepositional phrases.

In The Two Noble Kinsmen, sentences often combine unusual structures in complicated configurations. Consider the Third Queen’s protest against the unfairness of the edict forbidding the burial of her dead husband, who died valiantly in battle. Even suicides, she argues, are allowed burial:

Those that with cords, knives, drams, precipitance,

Weary of this world’s light, have to themselves

Been death’s most horrid agents, human grace

Affords them dust and shadow.


What initially may appear to be the elements of this sentence’s structure (“Those that . . . have . . . been . . . agents”) are separated by three phrases (“with cords, knives, drams, precipitance,” “weary of this world’s light,” “to themselves”). Only in the third line, with the introduction of a new subject (“human grace”) and its verb (“affords”), do we discover that the long opening clause is, in effect, the indirect object of “affords,” an expansion of the “them” who are afforded “dust and shadow.” It is almost impossible to rearrange the words of these lines into a “normal,” straightforward sentence; however, once one untangles the structures and understands the function of the basic sentence elements and the interrupting words and phrases, the lines become a powerful, angry plea for the queen’s cause.


The Two Noble Kinsmen depends heavily on wordplay, especially on metaphors and on puns. A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which the metaphor suggests it shares common features. The Third Queen, when begging Emilia to take her part, uses a metaphor to express the reward that will be in store for Emilia: “This good deed,” she says, “Shall raze you out o’ th’ book of trespasses / All you are set down there” (1.1.34–36). Emilia’s life is here imaged as a written record of her sins; the “good deed” here becomes a kind of eraser that will obliterate that record. Later, when the First Queen wants to suggest that Theseus is powerful enough to redeem from King Creon of Thebes the rotting corpses of her husband and his fellow kings for proper burial, she calls Theseus “Thou purger of the earth” (1.1.52), thereby through metaphor making him into war itself, whose act of destruction was often compared to a cleansing of the earth. The Third Queen also resorts to metaphor when she apologizes for not being able to achieve eloquence because she is weeping: “O, my petition was / Set down in ice, which by hot grief uncandied / Melts into drops” (1.1.118–20). She thus compares the fixed state of the speech she had prepared in her mind to ice that her grief has melted (“uncandied”) into tears.

In this play, metaphors tend to follow each other in rapid succession. Note, for example, Emilia’s description of the love between Theseus and Pirithous as contrasted with her youthful love for “the maid Flavina” (1.3.96):

Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,

More buckled with strong judgment, and their needs

The one of th’ other may be said to water

Their intertangled roots of love.


In these four lines, the love of Theseus and Pirithous is, first, an edifice or structure on a larger foundation or base (“more ground”); it becomes “more maturely seasoned” timber, then a body more strongly armored (i.e., its body armor fastened “with strong judgment”), and, finally, a set of intertwined roots watered by “their needs / The one of th’ other.”

Only occasionally, as in the following example, does a single metaphor dominate many successive poetic lines:

         not to swim

I’ th’ aid o’ th’ current were almost to sink,

At least to frustrate striving; and to follow

The common stream, ’twould bring us to an eddy

Where we should turn or drown; if labor through,

Our gain but life and weakness.


Here, Arcite urges Palamon to join him in leaving Thebes, which he considers corrupt and therefore dangerous for the two of them, whether they refuse to go along with the city’s corruption or accept it and attempt to fit in. His argument is presented in the form of an extended metaphor in which they are swimmers in a strong current. If they attempt to go against the current in which they find themselves, they will come close to sinking or be frustrated and defeated; if, on the other hand, they choose to go with the current, they will be trapped and spun around in an eddy and either drown, or, if they escape the whirlpool, will be left barely alive, weakened and debilitated.

Because in this play metaphors are used so frequently and (whether in rapid succession or extended over many lines) written in such highly compressed language, they require, on first reading, an untangling similar to that recommended for the play’s complex sentence structures. But, as with the complex structures, the untangling is worth the effort. In Arcite’s speech quoted above, for instance, the image of the swimmers in the stream, struggling against the current or hurled around in the whirlpool, is remarkably vivid and is captured in a mere handful of lines of poetry.

A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). The Two Noble Kinsmen uses both kinds of puns, and uses them often. In the play’s first scene, for example, Theseus responds to the pleas of the three queens that he forgo his wedding in order to battle Creon by saying

         Why, good ladies,

This is a service whereto I am going

Greater than any was; it more imports me

Than all the actions that I have foregone,

Or futurely can cope.


In these lines, he puns first on the word service, which means both “duty of a soldier” and “ceremony” (here, of marriage). This is meaningful wordplay, in that it brings together in a single word his commitment to his military duty and to Hippolyta. He then puns on the word actions as “military engagements” and as “acts or deeds.” Here, the primary meaning is military, but once again he nicely joins the deeds of his life with his military feats in a single word. Service and actions each play on a single word that has more than one meaning. Another example of the many such puns in this play is Arcite’s “We shall know nothing here but one another, / Hear nothing but the clock that tells our woes” (where tells means both “counts” and “reports” [2.2.45–46]); yet another is the Woman’s response to Emilia’s likening of a virgin to a rose: “Sometimes her modesty will blow [blossom, flourish] so far / She falls for ’t” (where “she falls” means simultaneously “the rose falls off the stem” and “the virgin surrenders her chastity” [2.2.177–78]).

When Theseus, later in the first scene, says farewell to Hippolyta with the words “I stamp this kiss upon thy currant lip; / Sweet, keep it as my token” (1.1.253–54), he puns on the words currant and current, words that sound the same but have different meanings. In this interesting example of wordplay, the primary meaning, currant, “red, like the fruit,” applies most immediately and naturally to Hippolyta’s lips; the secondary meaning, current, “sterling, genuine, having the quality of current coin,” is emphasized by the words stamp and token, terms related to the stamping of coins and to tokens as stamped pieces of metal used like coins (another bit of wordplay, since this meaning of token is secondary to Theseus’s primary meaning of “keepsake” or “love token”). The same type of pun is found in Act 3, scene 1, when, in response to Arcite’s “Dear cousin Palamon—,” Palamon replies “Cozener Arcite” (46–47). A cozener is a cheater or deceiver, and play on these similar-sounding words was common. Though we have noted many examples of such wordplay, a careful reader will discover many that we failed to see or that we had insufficient space to mention—some of them trivial, but many of them interesting and sometimes significant.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading seventeenth-century poetic drama—indeed, in reading any drama—we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Sometimes the dialogue offers an immediately clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. In The Two Noble Kinsmen 2.5, for example, Pirithous takes the disguised Arcite to Emilia, saying to him “Kiss her fair hand, sir.” When Arcite then says to Emilia, “Dearest beauty, / Thus let me seal my vowed faith” (53–55), it is clear that he kisses her hand. Again, in 3.5, when the Jailer’s Daughter says to the Schoolmaster “Give me your hand. . . . I can tell your fortune” and then says “You are a fool” (90–93), we can feel certain that between her promise to tell his fortune and her reading of his character as that of “a fool,” she has looked at his hand. (In each of these cases, we have added the appropriate stage direction marked in brackets to indicate that it is our addition.)

Often in this play, though, signals to the reader (and to the director, actor, and editor) are not at all clear. In the opening scene, for instance, even though the early text provides extremely clear directions for the opening action, specifying which queen kneels to which member of the Athenian nobility, it gives almost no guidance as to when they stand; thus, our bracketed stage directions raising the queens from their knees are placed where it seems to us to make most sense for them to stand. We put these directions for the queens to rise, one by one, at the points where each is explicitly instructed to rise by the Athenian she is supplicating, or when, in the case of the Second Queen, Hippolyta grants what is being begged of her. Conversely, later in the scene, it is made clear that at some point, Hippolyta and Emilia kneel to Theseus; the evidence is at line 240, when he says to them “Pray stand up,” and then adds “I am entreating of myself to do / That which you kneel to have me” (241–42). Here, the point at which they stand is specified in this dialogue, but the play leaves much less clear the moment when each of them should kneel. In this passage, we locate our directions for them to kneel at the points at which each begins explicitly to petition Theseus, again putting the directions in brackets. However, we would not argue that our edited version is the only possible alternative.

In The Two Noble Kinsmen, then, readers are often given the opportunity to practice the skill of reading the language of stage action, of imagining the movement or gesture that should—or, at least, that might—accompany a given bit of dialogue. That practice repays us many times over when we reach scenes heavily dependent on stage business. Act 3, scene 5, for instance, fills the stage with action and spectacle, from the gathering of the countrymen and -women, dressed in costumes appropriate for the morris dance to follow, to the entrance of the mad young woman (the Jailer’s Daughter), who then joins the dancers, to the arrival of the court party and the setting out of chairs, to the morris dance itself, and then the formal exit of Theseus and his court. For a reader, this scene requires a vivid stage-related imagination. But with such an imagination, scenes like this one—along with, for example, the scene of the interrupted trial by combat (3.6) and the scene in which the two knights and Emilia each pray before the altar of their chosen god (5.1)—may come to life much as they do on the stage.