The title-page of the quarto states that The Two Noble Kinsmen
was ‘presented at the Blackfriars by the Kings Maiesties
A reference to ‘our losses’ in the play’s prologue
suggests that it was written after the Globe burnt
down on 29 June 1613. So it was perhaps written specifically
for the Blackfriars
The Two Noble Kinsmen may have been considered for performance
at court in 1619-1620. The inclusion of the names of two hired men
(Tucke and Curtis) in the quarto’s stage directions suggests
another revival in 1625-1626, when both were with the King’s
Men. It has been suggested that the roles of Palamon and Arcite
were originally played by John
Lowin and Richard
Burbage. The much
younger actors Nathan
Field and Joseph
Taylor may have been intended
for the roles in the 1619-1620 performances.
Publication in quarto and folio
The Two Noble Kinsmen appeared in only one edition before
1642. The play was not included in the first folio or the second
- Quarto, 1634. Thought to have been printed from a scribal transcript, to which revisions were made for performances in 1613-1614 and a revival in 1625-1626.
The Two Noble Kinsmen was entered on the Stationers’ Register by John Waterson on 8 April 1634. The only quarto of the play was printed by Thomas Cotes for Waterson in the same year.
British Library copies of The Two Noble Kinsmen contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.
There are three principal sources for The Two Noble Kinsmen.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, in The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561). This is the chief source for the play.
- John Lydgate, ‘Siege of Thebes’, included in The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561). Lydgate’s work was a retelling of the Thebaid by Statius, which may have provided details relating to Thebes and Creon’s refusal of burial to his defeated opponents.
- Giovanni Boccaccio, Teseide, perhaps in the version translated and adapted into French prose by ‘le Sieur D. C. C.’ as La Theseyde, 1597. This may have influenced some of the speeches, as well as providing the manner of Arcite’s death.
Story of the play
The Two Noble Kinsmen is set in and around Athens, and
(Prologue) The Speaker encourages the audience to like the play,
which is based on a story by Chaucer.
(Act 1) Theseus, Duke of Athens, and the Amazon Hippolyta are
on their way to be married, accompanied by Hipployta’s sister
Emilia. They are stopped by 3 queens, who plead for help against
Creon, King of Thebes, who has refused burial for their husbands.
Hippolyta persuades Theseus to aid them before the wedding. In Thebes,
Palamon and Arcite, cousins and nephews of King Creon, talk of leaving
the city because of Creon’s cruel actions. They are summoned
to fight against Theseus. Theseus overcomes Creon and takes Palamon
and Arcite prisoner. A solemn funeral procession is held for the
husbands of the 3 queens.
(Act 2) In the prison where Palamon and Arcite are held, a Wooer
wants to marry the Jailer’s Daughter. Palamon and Arcite take
solace in their friendship. When they see Emilia, they both immediately
fall in love with her. They become rivals instead of friends. Arcite
is released, on condition that he leaves Athens and never returns.
Palamon is kept in prison. Arcite decides to stay in Athens and
try to win Emilia. Hearing about the games to be held before Theseus,
he resolves to take part. The Jailer’s Daughter has fallen
in love with Palemon. Arcite, in disguise, succeeds at the games
and is put into Emilia’s service. The Jailer’s Daughter
helps Palamon escape.
(Act 3) Arcite meets Palamon, who is hiding in the countryside
round Athens. He agrees to bring him food, armour and weapons, so
that they can fight on equal terms for Emilia. The Jailer’s
Daughter looks for Palamon, when she does not find him she believes
he has been devoured by wolves. She goes mad. The local villagers
meet to practice a dance for Theseus. They are short of a woman,
but when the mad Jailer’s Daughter appears they get her to
join them. Theseus, Hippolyta, Emilia and their train arrive, and
the villagers with the Jailer’s Daughter perform a morris
dance for them. Arcite and Palamon arm each other and fight for
Emilia. They are stopped by Theseus who, learning who they are and
why they are fighting, condemns them both to death. Emilia pleads
for them to be banished, but Palamon and Arcite refuse mercy. Theseus
asks Emilia to choose between them, but she cannot. He decrees that
Palamon and Arcite will fight for her, and the loser will be executed.
(Act 4) The Wooer describes the mad behaviour of the Jailer’s
Daughter, as she returns home. Alone, Emilia declares that she still
cannot choose between Palemon and Arcite. A Doctor advises the Wooer
to pretend to the Jailer’s Daughter that he is Palemon.
(Act 5) Palamon and Arcite enter, ready to fight. Arcite prays
to Mars, and Palamon to Venus, for victory. Emilia enters, dressed
as a bride, and prays to Diana that the one who loves her best may
win her. The Doctor advises the Wooer to make love to the Jailer’s
Daughter as Palamon, which will surely cure her. The fight between
Palamon and Arcite is reported to Emilia. The victorious Arcite
enters with Theseus and Hippolyta. They leave, and Palamon is brought
in for execution. Just as the blow is to be struck, news comes that
Arcite has been mortally wounded by falling beneath his horse. Arcite
is carried in, and gives Emilia to Palamon before he dies.
(Epilogue) The Speaker asks the audience how they liked the play
and again commends it to them.