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The Two Noble Kinsmen /

A Modern Perspective: The Two Noble Kinsmen

By Dieter Mehl

The Two Noble Kinsmen, though not included in the First Folio of 1623, has for about the past fifty years been generally accepted as a play in which Shakespeare had at least a large share, and it has been included in practically all major editions of his works.1 The play was first published in 1634, with the title page stating that it was “written by the memorable Worthies of their time; Mr. John Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakespeare” and that it had been “Presented at the Blackfriers by the Kings Maiesties servants, with great applause.”2 A large part of the critical commentary has therefore been concerned with the question of authorship. Most modern scholars agree with the title page’s statement that the play was the product of collaboration, and there also seems to be almost unanimous agreement that the relative shares of the two dramatists can be determined with some confidence.3

The subject of the play, as the Prologue declares, is taken from Geoffrey Chaucer; in fact, The Two Noble Kinsmen “represents Shakespeare’s most direct and unquestionable use of a Chaucerian source.”4 No other play in the canon acknowledges its ancestry so openly:

          I am sure

It has a noble breeder and a pure,

A learnèd, and a poet never went

More famous yet ’twixt Po and silver Trent.

Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives;

There, constant to eternity, it lives.

(Prologue 9–14)

John Fletcher. From the frontispiece to Comedies and tragedies . . . by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (1647).

The work in question is “The Knight’s Tale,” the first of the Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400), Chaucer’s celebrated collection of stories, a unique miscellany of contrasting narrative genres and subjects. The tale offered by the Knight, who is the first in social status among the pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Saint Thomas in Canterbury, is, apart from two prose tracts, the longest and most ambitious contribution to the storytelling contest. “The Knight’s Tale,” itself a drastically condensed version of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Teseida (written before 1341), proved to be one of Chaucer’s most popular works; the story was apparently dramatized by a series of Elizabethan playwrights, though none of their texts has survived. It has many of the traditional elements of medieval romance that appealed to Elizabethan and Jacobean poets and dramatists in search of new material and that evidently were popular with audiences as well: old-fashioned chivalry, ceremonial tournament, rivalry in love and friendship, and the unpredictable whims of Fortune and Fate. Chaucer’s poem, a highly stylized and beautifully balanced narrative of some 2,250 lines in rhyming couplets, is set in classical Greece in the city-states of Athens and Thebes, within a cosmos governed by the planets and gods who were familiar to educated Englishmen from Greek mythology. Yet the two protagonists, Palamon and Arcite, are medieval knights aspiring to the ideals of the traditional chivalric code—as exemplified by Chaucer’s Knight, who is described as loving “chivalrie / Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie” (A.45–46).5 His tale places the two knights in a situation that tests their moral qualities in a series of trials in love, friendship, loyalty, and valor. Several of these themes had been explored by Shakespeare earlier in his comedies, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular has a number of incidental borrowings from “The Knight’s Tale.”6 The Two Noble Kinsmen, however, keeps much closer to the action and to the general spirit of its source.7

Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” has been described as a philosophical romance: a traditional story of love and adventure that urgently probes the nature of providence and the justice of individual suffering and destiny. After simultaneously falling in love with the same woman, the two kinsmen, separated from one another and unable to be near the object of their sudden passion, reflect on the instability of fortune and the unfathomable ways of providence: “What governance is in this prescience, / That giltelees tormenteth innocence?” laments the imprisoned Palamon (A.1313–14). And toward the poem’s end Arcite, cut down at his moment of triumph by a seemingly indiscriminate fate in the guise of a whimsical planet-god, asks in heroic despair: “What is this world? What asketh men to have?” (A.2777). The narrator’s interest, above all, is in “the dominant role of chance in determining the course of human life.”8 There is no suggestion that men are masters of their fate; rather, in the face of inexplicable chance, they have to make the best of what they are powerless to influence. As Chaucer’s Theseus tells the survivors: “Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me, / To maken vertu of necessitee” (A.3041–42). Of course, this is not Chaucer’s last word in the Canterbury Tales. Indeed, “The Knight’s Tale” is immediately followed (and put into question) by the outrageous farce of “The Miller’s Tale,” with two lovers whose rivalry ends in undignified burlesque. Taken all together, the collection’s broad range of humorous, tragic, philosophical, and religious interpretations of human affairs forestalls any conclusion that the author endorsed the Knight’s implied stoic fatalism.

It was evidently the dramatic and moral dilemma posed by the story’s action that intrigued the two dramatists; but it appears from the text of the play that they did not wholly agree on details of character and dramatic method. Such differences may account for some of the more puzzling aspects of the play’s moral and philosophical attitudes, as well as its not entirely satisfactory final form.

The playwrights took over the main outline of Chaucer’s story, with its teasing tragicomic conclusion. An unmistakable element of trickery and moral equivocation is softened in the poem by the indefinite passage of time and by the narrative’s somewhat digressive pace. In the play, however, as in Troilus and Cressida and Romeo and Juliet, “speed is the medium of fate.”9 Shakespeare and Fletcher have drastically altered Chaucer’s time scheme: the events follow one another with breathless haste and no perceptible lapse of time.10 The most striking compression of the action occurs in the last act, where Arcite’s death is immediately followed by Theseus’s public sanction of Palamon’s union, blessed earlier by his rival’s final words: “Take her. I die” (5.4.113). In “The Knight’s Tale,” the pace is considerably more relaxed and unhurried. Arcite in his dying speech warmly recommends his friend to Emily and concludes: “And if that evere ye shul ben a wyf, / Foryet nat Palamon, the gentil man” (A.2796–97).11 An elaborate description of the funeral ceremonies follows, before the narrator proceeds with the conclusion of his tale:

By processe and by lengthe of certeyn yeres,

Al stynted is the moornynge and the teres

Of Grekes, by oon general assent.


Only then, and after a meeting of the parliament, is peace established between Athens and Thebes. Palamon and Emily are sent for and, after a solemn philosophical oration by Theseus, joined together in marriage.

Shakespeare opens the play with an elaborate pageant: a ceremonial procession to Theseus’s wedding, which is looked forward to with such impatience in the first scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written some fifteen years earlier). Here, the revels are halted by an unexpected challenge that turns out to be a choice between two moral duties. At first, the wedding seems more important to Theseus than any of his heroic achievements, but the plea of Hippolyta, supported by Emilia, persuades him that the widowed queens have a higher claim to his humanity. The ceremony is accordingly postponed:

               As we are men,

Thus should we do; being sensually subdued,

We lose our human title.


Chaucer’s couple are already married by the time they are confronted with the mourning widows, and Theseus is immediately overwhelmed by compassion; there is no moral dilemma, nor are Hippolyta and Emilia included in the debate. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, significantly, Emilia from the very beginning is associated with the theme of virginity by her threat never to take a husband if Theseus should refuse Hippolyta’s plea (1.1.238–39; see also the Third Queen’s address to her, 1.1.31–33).

The second scene, which has no equivalent in Chaucer’s tale, then introduces the two kinsmen. The dramatist (most probably Shakespeare) evidently wanted to present the protagonists, before their interactions with Theseus, as nobly united in friendship and brotherly affection. They are resolved to leave Creon’s corrupt court, but when he is threatened by Theseus they feel honor bound to join him and “stand to the mercy of our fate” (1.2.116). Arcite’s lines that end the scene confirm their reliance on fate and submission to the rule of fortune:

              Let th’ event,

That never-erring arbitrator, tell us

When we know all ourselves, and let us follow

The becking of our chance.


The theme is again taken up when Theseus, returning as victor to the grateful praises of the three queens, credits the gods with his triumph:

Th’ impartial gods, who from the mounted heavens

View us their mortal herd, behold who err

And, in their time, chastise.


It is an aspect of Chaucer’s tale that Shakespeare clearly found significant and worth exploring.12

The scene inserted before Theseus’s campaign is also an addition to Chaucer’s narrative, introducing the theme of love in a way that casts an ominous and rather un-Chaucerian light on the action that follows. When Hippolyta, her wedding delayed by the war against Creon, wonders whom Theseus loves best, herself or his friend Pirithous, Emilia recalls her own affection for a girl who died at eleven. Her assertion that “the true love ’tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex individual” (1.3.92–93) attests that she will never be able to love “any that’s called man” (97) with the same certainty. Her speech, unparalleled in Chaucer, has been compared with Helena’s pathetic appeal to Hermia after Robin Goodfellow’s mischievous magic has confounded the pairs of lovers (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.206–22), but Helena’s plaint is forgotten as soon as the spell has been lifted and order restored; Emilia’s desire for a single life, or companionship with a partner of her own sex, has a very different resonance. Nothing that is said in The Two Noble Kinsmen seems more genuinely sincere than Emilia’s final word in this first dialogue: “I am not / Against your faith, yet I continue mine” (1.3.110–11). She never explicitly swerves from her conviction that virginity is preferable to conventional marriage.

The first act, ending with the funeral of the three kings, concludes the introductory section of the story. N. W. Bawcutt remarks, with some justice, “If Shakespeare had gone on to write the whole of The Two Noble Kinsmen the first act would probably have received more praise and attention than it has.”13 It has introduced a lively panorama of romance, chivalry, and classical ideals, with a teasing invitation to moral and philosophical debate. Regrettably, these elements receive little development in the succeeding acts until the play’s tragicomic finale, which returns to some of the moral and poetic intensity of the first scenes.

One can hardly escape the impression that this change has to do with the different minds at work at different stages of the story. Many scholars agree that Shakespeare’s coauthor took over after 2.1, which introduces the Jailer, his Daughter, and her Wooer and includes the Daughter’s characteristic line: “It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the diff’rence of men!” (2.1.58–59).14

The addition of the subplot is the dramatists’ most original contribution to the play’s structure. It has no basis in “The Knight’s Tale,” where Palamon’s escape from prison, after seven years, is achieved by “helpyng of a freend” (A.1468); he drugs the jailer with a narcotic brew of sweet wine and opium. The Jailer’s Daughter, her pathetic infatuation with Palamon, and her part in his escape are a brilliant new addition to the dramatic action. Her madness and its cure by sex add a subdued note of comic harmony to an otherwise problematic and not entirely satisfactory tragicomic ending; they also provide a dramatically effective commentary on the main action, with its disturbing exhibition of perverse human obsession.15 The part of the Jailer’s Daughter has proved particularly successful on stage in several recent revivals.16 The two dramatists skillfully use this subplot and the more realistic scenes of rustic entertainment to extend the social range of the play, at the same time creating a somewhat more optimistic alternative to the sinister trick played on Arcite in Chaucer’s tale by Saturn, who consoles Venus, weeping for the defeat of her knight Palamon, by sending a fury out of hell to spook Arcite’s horse.

The second act, after the first scene, and most of the following two acts are written in a noticeably different idiom. The crucial moment in the story, when the two friends catch sight of Emilia and fall in love simultaneously, is presented with heroic pathos, without any comic innuendo. One can hardly avoid the suspicion that Shakespeare at this point might have remembered his earlier comedy As You Like It, with its gently mocking quotation from Marlowe: “Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?” (3.5.87). But the conflict presented here (most likely by John Fletcher), is more conventional, with an abrupt transition from emphatic mutual protestation of eternal friendship to deadly enmity. Chaucer’s tone is much more distant and faintly humorous: even during the first quarrel of the kinsmen, his Arcite points out the absurdity of the situation, remembering the fable of two dogs fighting over a bone that a kite snatches out from under their noses while they are still squabbling (A.1177–80).

Elsewhere—notably, in Love’s Labor’s Lost and As You Like It—Shakespeare, too, presents the conventions and pretensions of “courtly” love with satiric skepticism. The eye for love’s absurdities is no less sharp and no more blinkered by romantic idealism in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” than in any Shakespearean comedy. When the two rivals are surprised in the open grove, fighting like wild boars (A.1699), Theseus points to the spectacle as a demonstration of love’s madness:

Now looketh, is nat that an heigh folye?

Who may been a fool but if he love?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But this is yet the beste game [joke] of alle,

That she for whom they han this jolitee

Kan hem therfore as muche thank as me.

She woot namoore of al this hoote fare,

By God, than woot a cokkow or an hare!

(A.1798–99, 1806–10)

Little of this ironic detachment has found its way into The Two Noble Kinsmen, though the two playwrights could hardly have failed to notice Chaucer’s skepticism regarding immature illusion and some ridiculous aspects of literary convention.

Fletcher, however, was evidently less interested in subtle mockery of literary cliché or persuasive consistency of characterization than in local dramatic effects. He is a master of surprising twists of plot and unusual theatrical situations. His preferred method is to confront his characters with some agonizing dilemma for the sake of sensational dramatic novelty. Theseus’s arbitrary verdict of death for the loser in the combat between the two rivals, not found in Chaucer’s story, seems a characteristic Fletcherian twist, adding an element of willful cruelty not demanded by the plot.17 It makes Emilia’s position needlessly unpleasant and highlights the superior subtlety of Shakespeare’s characterization in the first part and the conclusion. One can hardly disagree with Talbot Donaldson’s impression that the “silly scene” in which Emilia compares the two pictures (4.2) is “so much at variance with her earlier and later Shakespearean appearances as to make Shakespeare’s authorship impossible.”18

The dilemma forced on Emilia as the unwilling object of male desire is far more painful in the play than in Chaucer’s narrative, where she is primarily the target of a more conventional courtly love worship and lacks a sharply drawn personality. Her own preference seems to be no vital part of the story, though; in The Two Noble Kinsmen, as in the poem, she prays for virginity and sincerely laments over Arcite’s sudden death. What is particularly characteristic of Shakespeare’s Emilia is that she appears to enjoy neither her power as the prize desired by the two most worthy knights nor the prospect of marriage to either of them. Her anxiety over the life and health of the two knights is more intense and sincere than any personal attachment or inclination, and when Theseus hands her over to Arcite after his victory she responds with an eloquence that almost matches her relation of her adolescent friendship in the first act:

          Is this winning?

O all you heavenly powers, where is your mercy?

But that your wills have said it must be so,

And charge me live to comfort this unfriended,

This miserable prince, that cuts away

A life more worthy from him than all women,

I should and would die too.


She clearly believes that Arcite has lost more than any woman will ever be able to give him, whatever he may feel himself at this moment. After her last farewell to Arcite—“while I live, / This day I give to tears” (5.4.117–18)—there is not another word from her. In all Shakespearean comedy or romance, no marriage is entered into with less enthusiasm or joyful expectation. Chaucer’s tale, in contrast, offers the traditional promise of a happy ending:

And Emelye hym loveth so tendrely,

And he hire serveth so gentilly,

That nevere was ther no word hem bitwene

Of jalousie or any oother teene [vexation].


In the tragicomedy of The Two Noble Kinsmen, the successful wooer of the Jailer’s Daughter—the victim of a benevolent deception—may well be the luckier of the two bridegrooms in the end.

Gain and loss are apportioned more equally in Chaucer’s tale. His Arcite has achieved what in his prayer to Mars he asked for, as is explicitly confirmed after his death. Following some general reflections on the divine ordering of the universe, Theseus observes

And certeinly a man hath moost honour

To dyen in his excellence and flour,

Whan he is siker of his goode name.


In the play, after Arcite’s sudden death, such honor is treated almost like a consolation prize, further cheapened by Theseus’s verdict that Arcite has “restored” Emilia as a “stol’n jewel” (5.4.141–42). This explanation, accepted by the dying Arcite but absent from Chaucer’s tale, reduces the painful moral dilemma to a simple juvenile quarrel, tidily resolved. With remarkable and hardly sensitive promptness Theseus transfers his favor and the hand of his sister-in-law to Palamon, without a moment’s consideration for Emilia’s emotional state of mind. She has been, throughout, no more than a passive object of his godlike power, though at the end he admits that “The gods my justice / Take from my hand and they themselves become / The executioners” (5.4.143–45). Even in Hamlet, the change from funeral to “visages of bridegrooms” (5.4.150) is less sudden.

Piero Boitani justly points out the great difference between the Theseus in The Two Noble Kinsmen and his Chaucerian namesake, whose comment reveals humble trust in the regiment of the divine powers:

“What may I conclude of this longe serye


But after wo I rede [advise] us to be merye

And thanken Juppiter of al his grace?”


Shakespeare’s Theseus appears somewhat glib and sententious in comparison:

        O you heavenly charmers,

What things you make of us! For what we lack

We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still

Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful

For that which is, and with you leave dispute

That are above our question.


Whether we ultimately agree with Boitani’s verdict that “Shakespeare and Fletcher have ‘perverted’ their Chaucer”19 depends on our own reading of Chaucer and of the two dramatists. The brevity of the play’s close (thirty-five lines against Chaucer’s three hundred) certainly seems to scant the potentially tragic conflict, and the conclusion lacks much of the philosophical depth and seriousness of “The Knight’s Tale.”

Most of the play’s subplot scenes appear to be the work of John Fletcher, though Shakespeare may well have contributed some ideas. Unfortunately, we know nothing about their collaboration—the practical details, their discussions during composition, the general ideas or ground plan they agreed on before beginning to write. Nor can we be certain about how they read and interpreted Chaucer’s text, though it is difficult to believe that they were unaware of the narrator’s distanced and occasionally humorous attitude toward his characters and their old-fashioned ideas of love and chivalry.

At several points in the story the Knight explicitly addresses the audience (and readers), drawing attention to an emotional crisis or a particular philosophical problem. One such appeal occurs at the end of Part One:

 Yow loveres axe I now this questioun:

Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?

That oon may seen his lady day by day,

But in prison he moot dwelle alway;

That oother wher hym list may ride or go,

But seen his lady shal he nevere mo.

Now demeth as yow liste, ye that kan,

For I wol telle forth as I bigan.


It is the kind of love problem treated by medieval romances but sidestepped in The Two Noble Kinsmen—presumably in the interest of dramatic economy—by Palamon’s forced removal from the room where he can enjoy the view of Emilia and by radically shortening Arcite’s period of banishment and omitting his departure from Athens. Only in the Epilogue are the lovers in the audience directly addressed, though the voice of Chaucer’s narrator, intrigued yet faintly amused by the spectacle of chivalric heroism, seems occasionally to be echoed in the playwrights’ rhetoric.

Judging by the reception of “The Knight’s Tale” in the generations succeeding Chaucer, most of his readers have agreed with the Canterbury pilgrims that it was “a noble storie / And worthy for to drawen to memorie” (A.3111–12); yet Fletcher seems to have been attracted primarily by the opportunity it offered for sensational effects and novel dramatic situations. It is, of course, idle to speculate what The Two Noble Kinsmen would have been like if Shakespeare, more alive to the story’s rich philosophical and moral potential, had written all of it. Given the achievement of the first and last acts, it might have been a quite different play.

  1. E.g., the play is printed in the Riverside, Oxford, Norton, and Bevington one-volume collections, as well as in such series as the Arden, New Cambridge, Oxford, Penguin, and Pelican.
  2. See the facsimile of the first edition of 1634 at (accessed July 2009). It is worth noting that the play was entered in the Stationers’ Register on April 8, 1634, as “TragiComedy,” a term not used in that register for almost twenty years. The first performance, by Shakespeare and Fletcher’s company, the King’s Men, probably took place in 1613 or early 1614.
  3. Details of the apportionment are discussed later in this essay. Shakespeare is generally agreed to have written 1.1–5 (with some uncertainty about 1.4–5), 2.1, 3.1, 5.1, and 5.3–4. Fletcher is generally assigned the Prologue and Epilogue and the rest. The most thorough treatment is Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  4. E. Talbot Donaldson, The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 51. A good modern interlinear translation of “The Knights Tale” is available at (accessed July 2009). For a close comparative reading, see also Ann Thompson, Shakespeare’s Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978).
  5. All quotations are from The Riverside Chaucer, general editor Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1987).
  6. See the approaching marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta in the first scene and the celebrations in the last act.
  7. There were several editions of Chaucer’s works printed during the sixteenth century: The Workes of Geffray Chaucer, ed. William Thynne (1532, 1542, 1550); ed. J. Stowe (1561); ed. Thomas Speght (1598, 1602). For details of these editions, see Chaucer’s Fame in England, ed. Jackson Campbell Boswell and Sylvia Wallace Holton, STC Chauceriana, 1475–1640 (New York: Modern Language Association, 2004). Speght’s edition of 1598 contains a long biography of Chaucer and brief “arguments” of each work. Of “The Knight’s Tale” it says, “Palamon and Arcite, a paire of friends and fellow prisoners, fight a combat before Duke Theseus, for the lady Emeli, sister to the Queene Ipolita wife of Theseus. A Tale fitting for the person of the Knight, for that it discourseth of the deeds of Armes, and loue of Ladies.”
  8. Donaldson, The Swan at the Well, p. 51.
  9. Brian Gibbons, ed., Romeo and Juliet, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 76.
  10. Chaucer’s knights languish in prison “yeer by yeer” (A.1033); Arcite, when released from prison, spends “a yeer or two” in Thebes before returning to Athens (A.1381), where he serves another “yeer or two” (A.1426) as a page; Palamon’s escape succeeds “in the seventhe yer” (A.1462).
  11. Derek Pearsall calls this “the most moving line of the poem”; see The Canterbury Tales (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985), p. 136.
  12. The repeated references to fate, chance, and divine providence in “The Knight’s Tale” make clear that this was a central element in Chaucer’s retelling of Boccaccio’s story.
  13. N. W. Bawcutt, ed., The Two Noble Kinsmen, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 27.
  14. See the Oxford Edition, ed. Eugene M. Waith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 108–9 and note.
  15. Other subplots in Shakespearean and Fletcherian drama function similarly. Critics have pointed out the evident influence of Shakespeare’s Ophelia on the Jailer’s Daughter’s madness.
  16. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1986 production of Two Noble Kinsmen—which opened the new Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon—many found Imogen Stubbs’s portrayal of the Jailer’s Daughter to be the most memorable feature of the performance. The subplot, completely independent of Chaucer, includes Arcite’s encounter with the rustics and the grotesque morris dance prepared by the Schoolmaster in honor of the newly married Theseus, in which the Jailer’s Daughter is made to join involuntarily as “a dainty madwoman” to complete the necessary set of dancers with her “rarest gambols” (3.5.83, 86). The entertainment is clearly influenced by The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, contributed by Fletcher’s close friend and coauthor Francis Beaumont in 1613 for the celebrations around the marriage of King James’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, Prince Palatine.
  17. It is significant in this context that the dramatists have omitted Chaucer’s insistence on Theseus’s decree that any bloodshed should be avoided, forbidding sharp weapons and the infliction of lethal wounds. This is loudly praised by the people: “God save swich a lord, that is so good / He wilneth no destruccion of blood!” (A.2563–64). Fletcher’s Theseus has no such scruples. On Fletcher’s characteristic dramatic style, see Clifford Leech, The John Fletcher Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), esp. pp. 144–50.
  18. Donaldson, The Swan at the Well, pp. 63, 147 n. 13. The Emilia presented at the end of the scene, however, is more consistent with Shakespeare’s conception of her, as she concludes: “Poor wench, go weep, for whosoever wins / Loses a noble cousin for thy sins” (4.2.187–88).
  19. See Piero Boitani, “The Genius to Improve and Invention: Transformations of the ‘Knight’s Tale,’ ” in Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, ed. Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 185–98; quotation, 195.