Although The Two Noble Kinsmen likely was written in 1613, the first printing of the play did not occur until 1634, when "the memorable worthies of their time, Mr John Fletcher, and Mr William Shakespeare, Gent." were credited as co-authors on the title page. It is now generally accepted that Fletcher wrote the majority of the play, while Shakespeare wrote most of Act 1 (1.1, 1.2, 1.3) and Act 5, with the exception of Scene 2.
While Fletcher and Shakespeare altered some events in the story for their own dramatic purposes, the overall plot of The Two Noble Kinsmen is true to its primary source: Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, found in his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. The Two Noble Kinsmen begins with
Theseus, Duke of Athens, preparing to marry Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The ceremony is interrupted by three queens who have come to beg Theseus to wage war on the corrupt King of Thebes, Creon. Theseus agrees to help the queens and he swiftly defeats Creon and captures his two noble nephews, Palamon and Arcite.
Although they profess their eternal loyalty to one another, Palamon and Arcite's friendship is jeopardized when they see a girl named Emilia in the courtyard below their jail window. They both fall in love with Emilia and bitterly quarrel over who will claim her for his own. Unexpectedly, Arcite is released by Theseus with the condition that he will leave Athens and never return. Arcite, however, decides he would rather woo Emilia than obey the Duke, so he remains, in disguise, in Theseus' realm. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes with the help of the Jailer's Daughter, who has fallen in love with the handsome prisoner. Palamon and Arcite happen upon each other in a forest, and promptly resume their quarrel. They agree to duel to settle their dispute, but as the combat begins, Theseus arrives with his court. Palamon and Arcite reveal their true identities and Theseus condemns them to death. Hippolyta and Emilia cry out to Theseus to have mercy, and Theseus decides to spare whomever Emilia chooses as a suitor. When Emilia refuses to choose between Palamon and Arcite, Theseus declares that their fates shall be determined in a contest of strength. The victor will be permitted to marry Emilia, and the loser will be executed.
Arcite wins the contest, but is killed in a fall from his horse. Before he dies, he bequeaths his new bride to Palamon. Theseus declares a period of mourning for Arcite, to be followed by the wedding of Emilia and Palamon.
The Two Noble Kinsmen was included in the Second Folio of works by John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont in 1679, and was revived by William Davenant's unique adaptation, The Rivals, which ran from 1664 to 1667. Critics and playgoers in the centuries following Davenant's production were consistently uninterested in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and it remains one of Shakespeare's least popular plays (surprisingly, the Royal Shakespeare Company chose The Two Noble Kinsmen to open the new Swan Theatre in 1986). However, to historians and those interested in Shakespeare's late style and his collaborations with John Fletcher, the play has much to offer.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/noble/noblekinsmenintro.html >.