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Two Noble Kinsmen

Creation of the play

The titlepage of The Two Noble Kinsmen states that it was ‘written by the memorable worthies of their time; Mr. Iohn Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakespeare. Gent’. Shakespeare has been identified as the author of act 1, act 2 scene 1, and act 5. The play was created in 1613 or 1614. The morris dance in act 3 scene 5 is related to the second antimasque dance in Francis Beaumont’s The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne. The masque was performed as part of the wedding celebrations for James I’s daughter Elizabeth and Frederick, Elector Palatine on 20 February 1613. The name of Palamon, one of the principal characters in The Two Noble Kinsmen, is referred to in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, first performed on 31 October 1614.

Second antimasque dance. Francis Beaumont, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne   Second antimasque dance. Francis Beaumont, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne

Second antimasque dance. Francis Beaumont, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne, [1613], British Library, C.34.c.34, sigs. C3r. Larger image


Second antimasque dance, continued. Francis Beaumont, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne, [1613], British Library, C.34.c.34, sigs. C3v. Larger image

Early performances

The title-page of the quarto states that The Two Noble Kinsmen was ‘presented at the Blackfriars by the Kings Maiesties servants’. 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 playhouse.

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 folio.

  • 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.

Shakespeare’s sources

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 in Thebes.

(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.


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