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the two noble kinsmen

13 february 2024

Chaucer's Knight's Tale, itself adapted from Boccaccio, inspired William Shakespeare and John Fletcher to write The Two Noble Kinsmen in the early 1610s. The play is notable as the only one generally accepted to be (in some substantial part) by Shakespeare, but never collected in an early folio edition of Shakespeare. The Third Folio (1664) set eight miscellaneous plays adrift into the canon, of which only Pericles stayed afloat to eventually be firmly credited to Shakespeare. Kinsmen wasn't among those eight.

The 1634 quarto of The Two Noble Kinsmen, though, states that Shakespeare and John Fletcher wrote the play. This attribution was doubted for a long time, but now seems uncontroversial. When I was in graduate school, 40+ years ago, better attuned to 17th-century English than I am now, I imagined that I could distinguish two verbal threads in The Two Noble Kinsmen: Shakespeare's densely-fused late style and Fletcher's more limpid verse. It's really a matter of ear. The Quarto doesn't say who wrote which part, so your ear may be keener or duller than mine, but neither of ours is absolutely definitive. Maybe Wikipedia is definitive. At any rate, they're not shy about telling you who wrote which scenes.

Knight's Tale has its own issues, but Chaucer's poem is at least livelier than Shakespeare and Fletcher's decorous quasi-tragedy. It's kind of a talky play, The Two Noble Kinsmen. "We were not bred to talke man," one of them tells the other, though they do little but. "Thou ha'st well describde him," says another to a character talking about a third character, who never appears. It's like some kind of a word-portrait competition. Shakespeare and Fletcher figured that people would know the story, so they could have their characters reflect on it rather than act it out.

For those who don't know the story: the Athenian hero Theseus, for boring reasons, leads an army against Thebes. He kills most of the prominent Thebans, but two survive: the cousins Palamon and Arcite. Theseus tosses the two noble kinsmen into prison. They spend their time talking. Then the boys spy Emilia (Theseus' sister-in-law) from their window and fall to bickering about who called dibs on her.

Arcite and Palamon both get free before long, meet up, talk some more, and start fighting over Emilia again. Theseus happens by, breaks up the fight, and proposes a feats-of-strength contest for Emilia's hand: the winner gets her, the loser dies. "OK!" they cry. Awhile later, the two noble kinsmen reconvene and bash each other about. Arcite is the winner, but then he dies in a sort of accident, and Palamon, as runner-up, gets to marry Emilia, instead of being executed.

In Chaucer, Palamon "by helpyng of a freend, brak his prisoun," and we learn nothing more about that friend. In Kinsmen, Shakespeare and Fletcher elaborate that hint into a subplot about a jailer's daughter who falls in love with Palamon, goes mad when she learns he loves Emilia, and then recovers her senses and her earlier boyfriend. "Daughter" is something of a cross between Perdita and Ophelia, and may have more lines in the play than Emilia herself. Daughter is clearly the best part for an actress. It is also a frustrating part, because despite the mad-scene opportunity, most of what Daughter has to say is narrative monologue. She never even appears onstage with Palamon! One suspects that one of the authors had some narrative verse material, and that either or both of them shoehorned it into their Chaucer play.

Shakespeare, William, and John Fletcher. The Two Noble Kinsmen. 1634. Internet Shakespeare Editions.