Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Two Noble Kinsmen - Shakespeare

'Two Noble Kinsmen' opens with the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and his new wife Hippolyta, being asked by three queens to come to their aid.  Their kings have been killed by the city of Thebes but the king there, Creon, won't allow them to be buried with proper rights.  Theseus goes to war with Thebes.  In battle, he captures two Creon's nephews, Palamon and Arcite.  It is generally agreed that they were outstanding in war.  Theseus decides to hold them prisoner.
Palamon and Arcite quickly become the stars of the prison.  These two cousins are fast friends and exemplars of cousinly love.  Until they spot Emilia, Hippolyta's sister.  They both fall for her and quickly denounce the other for daring to intrude on that love. 
Arcite is freed on bail but refuses to leave the kingdom.  He hides and disguises himself.  He then becomes a member of Theseus' court so he can be near Emilia.  Palamon breaks free from prison with the help of a jailor's daughter.  He also seeks out Emilia so he can be near her. 
The two cousins meet and after much friendly discussion, decide to settle the matter in combat to the death.  Theseus and his court come upon them and stop the fight.  The court is overwhelmed with the nobility of the cousins and they beg Emilia to choose one of the suitors.  She can't.  Instead, the cousins are bound to come back in one month and do battle for her.
Before the battle takes place, the members of the love triangle all make pledges at shrines for Mars, Venus and Diana.  (Or, loosely, War, Love and Virginity.) Each is given a sign in response.  The battle takes place and Arcite bests Palamon.  But before a wedding can take place, Arcite's horse throws him and busts his head.  He gives his blessing to Palamon and dies. 

I didn't know this beforehand, but this is Shakespeare retelling the Knight's story from Chaucer, which I just read in May.  Almost all of Shakespeare is a retelling but this is the first time that I have read the source story first.  It's interesting to see how the two great authors emphasize different elements of the story.  With Chaucer, there was much more of a gloss on the fine chivalry of the event.  Shakespeare leavens that with a side story of the jailor's daughter who was used and thrown away.  (I felt very sorry for her.)
Shakespeare also feels more grounded than Chaucer.  The people feel more real than the more legendary feel from the Knight's tale.  I'd give the edge to the Bard, but both versions are enjoyable. 

There are some very good roles here, but the one that interested me most was Emilia.  She is a girl of high status who suddenly finds that these two guys (boys? men? teens?) are fighting for her love.  The choice is up to her and if she can't make a choice then one of them will kill the other.  Talk about being put on the spot! 
She can't choose and she feels awful about this.  I would love to see a modern retelling with the focus on Emilia.  How does she sort through all of this?  How far should she go to avoid bloodshed?  And yes, this is all wildly unfair to her.  Even at the end, as she agrees to marry Arcite, he is suddenly killed and she gets to marry Palamon.  How awful!

Most of the romance plays have disputed authorship issues.  'Two Noble Kinsmen' has less of a dispute and more broad agreement that this was written as a partnership.  The version I read points out some of the probable areas that are not Shakespeare.  This includes a prologue and an epilogue and neither of them is especially noteworthy.
Is it still worth reading?  Yeah, I think it is.  It would crack the top half of the comedies in my mind, but there is still a good story here.  I would enjoy seeing a production of it.

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