Two Noble Kinsmen

It is fairly accepted among scholars that Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher on two plays: King Henry VIII,  and Two Noble Kinsmen.  Considering that the former play was one of the worst plays  have ever read, ever, I did not have high hopes for 2NK (as I like to call it).  It was not included in the First Folio, and is apparently the only Shakespeare play never to see a film or television adaptation – which is strange, because some of the comedy is written in a shockingly modern style.  And there is a lot more to this story that makes it very interesting.  First off, it’s based on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale (the only part of Canterbury Talesthat most students are really required to read these days).

Not to be confused with the anachronistic action romp of the same name.

The plot of the original Knight’s Tale has always been interesting to me, because it happens to take place immediately after the events of Sophocles’ famous Antigone.  It also happens to take place during an anachronistic age of chivalry.  The two noble kinsmen of the title, Palamon and Arcite, are Theban knights who are also the best of friends.  However, three Queens – widows of the Seven Against Thebes  – decide to finish what Antigone started.  They flee to Athens and beg  Duke Theseus to wreak warlike vengeance upon King Creon, who is a major figure in the Greek plays but notably absent from the stage in 2NK.  Palamon and Arcite, who fight bravely for the defense of Thebes, are taken prisoner by Theseus and shacked in a tower above Athens.  That’s right, Duke Theseus and his wife Hyppolita – you may remember their names from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Like I said, interesting.

While the temptation would certainly be to continue the fantastical faery imagery of that play, there sadly isn’t any textual basis for that.  Most of the plot follows the Chaucer story pretty closely: Palamon and Arcite both see Princess Emelia from the window of their cell and immediately fall in love with her; where they were once philisophically resolved to spend the rest of their days in quiet study and friendship, they now focus all of their energy on getting close to the beautiful Princess.  It allows for some really genuinely funny exchanges between these two kinsmen, both loving friends and sworn enemies at the same time.  These are the parts of the play that I assumed belong to Shakespeare, whereas the boring and stupid parts I assume belong to Fletcher.  It’s like the 4th Indiana Jones movie: as a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, which one is probably the asshole that threw that unneccessary CGI groundhog into the opening sequence?

Why do you want to ruin my childhood, George?

However, according to most scholarship on the matter (for what that’s worth), it seems like I preferred Fletcher’s sections!  Seriously, the consensus is that this weird little comedy is exactly half Fletcher and half Billy Shakes, and most textual analysis has a clear idea of who did whatI have concluded two things from this: first is that Billy completely checked out when contributing his pen; and second is that Fletcher would have been great at writing sitcoms.  His comedy is really brilliant and fast paced, and it seems that he contributed heavily to a sublot where the kinsmen’s Jailor has an eighteen year old Daughter who falls insanely in love with Palamon.  And by insane, I mean Palamon abandons her after she helps him escape, and she wanders the wilderness and tries to kill herself.  Fletcher actually manages to make this funny, involving her Brother, her unrequited Wooer, and a quack Doctor who seems to be strangely preoccupied with sex.

Comedy gold.

But then Act V happens, and Fletcher’s humor apparently succumbs to an elderly Shakespeare that insists on sticking close to Chaucer’s original plot.  I don’t know what it is about the working relationship between these guys is, but there is a staggering contrast between what works and what doesn’t work in the plays they did together.   With 2NK, it’s the lame collapse of the romantic relationships.  The plot seems to be naturally leading to Arcite winning the hand of Emilia, and Palamon hopefully winds up with this nameless girl who literally sings “hey nonny, nonny, nonny” and tries to drown herself because he won’t love her back.  But no.  The two knights have a duel, Arcite does win, but Emilia does not seem especially happy for whatever reason.  Then, inexplicably, Arcite’s horse goes crazy on the way to the wedding, falls on top of him, and he utters these pathetic last words: “Take Emilia And with her all the worlds joy: Reach thy hand: Farewell: I have told my last houre. I was false, Yet never treacherous: Forgive me, Cosen:– One kisse from faire Emilia: Tis done: Take her: I die.”  Offstage somewhere, the Jailor’s daughter has been tricked into believing that her Wooer is Palamon, and is engaged to marry him.  The awkwardly apologetic monologue is attributed entirely to Fletcher, which begs the question of why the play was ever produced in this form at all.  I can only assume that this thing was rushed into production, without any concern for anything but a paycheck.

Or they just got drunk and took turns writing dialogue.

The comedic scenes are almost worth putting up with the rest of the play, but ultimately these playwrights are just poison to each other.   More than anything else that Shakespeare has allegedly collaborated on, this play is uncomfortably bipolar.  I don’t have a problem with the tragedy of the ending, just the lukewarm emotion of it.  Perhaps, with a strong enough production concept – probably involving some crazy Midsummer Faeries in the background – you could throw enough spectacle into that final act to make it palatable.  But the meat of this show is entirely with the comedy in the middle, and that stale tragic crust on either side is hard to push an audience through.  In any case, I can now proudly say that I have read all of Shakespeare’s plays.  Sure, there are a number that I still have to reread for the purposes of this project, but as of Two Noble Kinsmen I can make the claim… unless you count Edward III, which has an anonymous authorship and only partial credit is assumed to go to Shakespeare.  But I don’t count that, so good for me.  I’ll get around to it eventually, I’m sure.  I just wish that this crazy anachronistic play had a better conclusion.

Anachronism, when used properly, is absolutely splendid.

Hopefully I’ll be able to do Winter’s Tale before the year runs out!  I’m really excited that this project has evolved from attempting just an act of Shakespeare every day into a full library of copyright-free plays, and soon I’ll be able to jump around a lot more with my play selections.  But in case anybody cries foul on my conclusion here, I think the Epilogue of 2NK is an appropriate response: “I would now aske ye how ye like the Play, But, as it is with Schoole Boyes, cannot say, I am cruell fearefull: pray, yet stay a while, And let me looke upon ye: No man smile? Then it goes hard, I see; He that has Lov’d a yong hansome wench, then, show his face– Tis strange if none be heere–and if he will Against his Conscience, let him hisse, and kill Our Market: Tis in vaine, I see, to stay yee; Have at the worst can come, then! Now what say ye? And yet mistake me not: I am not bold; We have no such cause. If the tale we have told (For tis no other) any way content ye (For to that honest purpose it was ment ye) We have our end; and ye shall have ere long, I dare say, many a better, to prolong Your old loves to us: we, and all our might Rest at your service. Gentlemen, good night.”

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  1. […] from Henry VIII, which is just bad.  Troilus and Cressida suffers from a similar problem as Two Noble Kinsmen, where it can’t decide if it is a tragedy or a comedy – even though this play excels at […]



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