372. (William Shakespeare)

It is pleasant to suppose that Shakespeare ended his career in a series of collaborations with Fletcher: Henry VIII, which Shakespeare seemed to announce was his, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, where his involvement was not heralded in print (and also Cardenio, lost). These are uneven plays—and likely not only because of the collaborations but because of the source materials and design. Though The Two Noble Kinsmen is classed as a tragicomedy, it is close in spirit to some of the late Romances; Henry VIII is a history, but its action unfolds as one peak of action reaches its floor and another begins its climb. Both depend on doubling: double plots and the Palamon and Arcite in Kinsmen and the two queens and two ministerial reigns (Wolsey and Cromwell/Cranmer) in Henry VIII. They are fascinating because they allow us to see what in life and art may have fascinated Shakespeare; and because he fashions moments of power in each, however satisfying or not they are as whole works. The right productions could not, I think, make up for deficits in their total designs, but they could get at the riches in their best scenes. In Henry VIII, there is left unresolved, and a good actor would hold unresolved, Wolsey’s self-deception as opposed to his deceptions: has he persuaded himself that he is acting in the best interests of king and kingdom? Does he despise Katherine personally and remove her, or does he pity that she is an obstacle to good policy? How does Katherine’s suspicion of Wolsey, and accusation, soften to pity? To what extent is she reconciled to, or at ease in, what seems her final forgiveness? Noble Cranmer is the principal part of the second half, but how witting is he to the games of power he must play? In his soft innocence does he strike a different path to beguiling the easily-swayed Henry? How much of a presence should Cromwell cast on stage? And Henry: is he as simple-hearted and trusting as he wants to be seen as being, or is his simple trust convenient, coinciding with his politic aims? The questions are alive in the play, without being answered; it is not that it is open to interpretation so much that it is indeterminate in its effect; one reason that its design is to not follow any arc towards a climax, but instead seems to move between two peaks without standing atop either, is perhaps that it is fascinated in Henry’s subtle operations of power in a moment of transition, of uncertainty; it could be said that he was most adept at using and creating such situations. This would represent a new sort of history play for Shakespeare; if it is less than it might have been, it does enough to impress with its novelty.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is not new; it is adapted from Chaucer, and its elements are found in Shakespeare’s comedies of the mid-1590s and then more recent romances. Emilia is a heroine from the latter, her beauty matching her sense of virtue, and her passivity an act of exertion; Palamon and Arcite are any number of Shakespeare’s close friends, and though cousins (first cousins, we are told), the frisson of homoeroticism is no less tantalizing for being funny in the scene when they set each other’s armor upon one another. And so it is an old interest: the devotion of two friends towards one another, with Emilia’s ideal virtue here not seeming so much a center of gravity as much as a necessity if she is to refuse to adjudicate, to stand instead as a fulcrum upon which their relationship can turn.

It is a play that frequently looks down corridors that might have led elsewhere. There is the opening scene, where they bemoan the corruption of Thebes under Cleon (for subtly different reasons); there is their eventual imprisonment, which the jailer’s daughter might suffice both, leaving them, like Lear and Cordelia, as birds in a cage, content to pass the days; there is the moment of mutual arming in the forest, when they reminisce about old lives and happy days, when their present determination to win Emilia has a chance of fading permanently; and there is the last act, when the play comes closest in spirit to the Romances, its action taking on the gestural simplicity of a masque, the prayers to the Gods, the declarations of intent, almost transfiguring the aleatory silliness of love at first sight into something noble on the stage, and not just in the minds of the two cousins—a scene that looks into myth only to be pulled back by the no-less aleatory fall of a horse, and to end with Theseus’ beautiful speech. Of these scenes, it seems likely that only the armoring was written by Fletcher. It might be unfair to the latter, but I can imagine that Shakespeare was enticed by the prospect of re-writing his old comedic situation as a “Romance” (whatever they are): if we look at the bemoaning of Thebes’ corruption, and the jailer’s daughter (pre-madness) description of the men in prison, and then the final prayers, and consequent battle and fight and eruption of Fortuna, and Theseus’ ultimate reconciliatory speech as belonging to Shakespeare, it is not difficult to see how they might have lined up. Here I will map out the relevant coordinates:


Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood
And our prime cousin, yet unhardened in
The crimes of nature, let us leave the city
Thebes, and the temptings in ’t, before we further
Sully our gloss of youth,
And here to keep in abstinence we shame
As in incontinence; for not to swim
I’ th’ aid o’ th’ current were almost to sink,
At least to frustrate striving; and to follow
The common stream, ’twould bring us to an eddy
Where we should turn or drown; if labor through,
Our gain but life and weakness.
PALAMON Your advice
Is cried up with example. What strange ruins,
Since first we went to school, may we perceive
Walking in Thebes! Scars and bare weeds
The gain o’ th’ martialist, who did propound
To his bold ends honor and golden ingots,
Which though he won, he had not, and now flirted
By peace for whom he fought. Who then shall offer
To Mars’s so-scorned altar? I do bleed
When such I meet, and wish great Juno would
Resume her ancient fit of jealousy
To get the soldier work, that peace might purge
For her repletion, and retain anew
Her charitable heart, now hard and harsher
Than strife or war could be.
ARCITE Are you not out?
Meet you no ruin but the soldier in
The cranks and turns of Thebes? You did begin
As if you met decays of many kinds.
Perceive you none that do arouse your pity
But th’ unconsidered soldier?
PALAMON Yes, I pity
Decays where’er I find them, but such most
That, sweating in an honorable toil,
Are paid with ice to cool ’em.
ARCITE ’Tis not this
I did begin to speak of. This is virtue
Of no respect in Thebes. I spake of Thebes—
How dangerous, if we will keep our honors,
It is for our residing, where every evil
Hath a good color; where every seeming good’s
A certain evil; where not to be e’en jump
As they are here were to be strangers, and,
Such things to be, mere monsters.
PALAMON ’Tis in our power—
Unless we fear that apes can tutor ’s—to
Be masters of our manners. What need I
Affect another’s gait, which is not catching
Where there is faith? Or to be fond upon
Another’s way of speech, when by mine own
I may be reasonably conceived—saved too,
Speaking it truly? Why am I bound
By any generous bond to follow him
Follows his tailor, haply so long until
The followed make pursuit? Or let me know
Why mine own barber is unblessed, with him
My poor chin too, for ’tis not scissored just
To such a favorite’s glass? What canon is there
That does command my rapier from my hip
To dangle ’t in my hand, or to go tiptoe
Before the street be foul? Either I am
The forehorse in the team, or I am none
That draw i’ th’ sequent trace. These poor slight
Need not a plantain. That which rips my bosom
Almost to th’ heart’s—
ARCITE Our Uncle Creon.
A most unbounded tyrant, whose successes
Makes heaven unfeared and villainy assured
Beyond its power there’s nothing; almost puts
Faith in a fever, and deifies alone
Voluble chance; who only attributes
The faculties of other instruments
To his own nerves and act; commands men service,
And what they win in ’t, boot and glory; one
That fears not to do harm; good, dares not. Let
The blood of mine that’s sib to him be sucked
From me with leeches; let them break and fall
Off me with that corruption.
ARCITE Clear-spirited cousin,
Let’s leave his court, that we may nothing share
Of his loud infamy; for our milk
Will relish of the pasture, and we must
Be vile or disobedient, not his kinsmen
In blood unless in quality.
PALAMON Nothing truer.
I think the echoes of his shames have deafed
The ears of heav’nly justice. Widows’ cries
Descend again into their throats and have not
Due audience of the gods.


DAUGHTER: Nay, most likely, for they are noble suff’rers.
I marvel how they would have looked had they
been victors, that with such a constant nobility enforce
a freedom out of bondage, making misery
their mirth and affliction a toy to jest at.
JAILER Do they so?
DAUGHTER It seems to me they have no more sense
of their captivity than I of ruling Athens. They eat
well, look merrily, discourse of many things, but
nothing of their own restraint and disasters. Yet
sometimes a divided sigh, martyred as ’twere i’ th’
deliverance, will break from one of them—when
the other presently gives it so sweet a rebuke that
I could wish myself a sigh to be so chid, or at least
a sigher to be comforted.

The glass is running now that cannot finish
Till one of us expire. Think you but thus,
That were there aught in me which strove to show
Mine enemy in this business, were ’t one eye
Against another, arm oppressed by arm,
I would destroy th’ offender, coz—I would
Though parcel of myself. Then from this gather
How I should tender you.
ARCITE I am in labor
To push your name, your ancient love, our kindred
Out of my memory, and i’ th’ selfsame place
To seat something I would confound. So hoist we
The sails that must these vessels port even where
The heavenly Limiter pleases.
PALAMON You speak well.
Before I turn, let me embrace thee, cousin.
They embrace.
This I shall never do again.
ARCITE One farewell.
Why, let it be so. Farewell, coz.
ARCITE Farewell, sir.
Palamon and his Knights exit.
Knights, kinsmen, lovers, yea, my sacrifices,
True worshippers of Mars, whose spirit in you
Expels the seeds of fear and th’ apprehension
Which still is father of it, go with me
Before the god of our profession. There
Require of him the hearts of lions and
The breath of tigers, yea, the fierceness too,
Yea, the speed also—to go on, I mean;
Else wish we to be snails. You know my prize
Must be dragged out of blood; force and great feat
Must put my garland on, where she sticks,
The queen of flowers. Our intercession, then,
Must be to him that makes the camp a cistern
Brimmed with the blood of men. Give me your aid,
And bend your spirits towards him.
They go to Mars’s altar, fall on
their faces before it, and then kneel.

Thou mighty one, that with thy power hast turned
Green Neptune into purple, whose approach
Comets prewarn, whose havoc in vast field
Unearthèd skulls proclaim, whose breath blows
The teeming Ceres’ foison, who dost pluck
With hand armipotent from forth blue clouds
The masoned turrets, that both mak’st and break’st
The stony girths of cities; me thy pupil,
Youngest follower of thy drum, instruct this day
With military skill, that to thy laud
I may advance my streamer, and by thee
Be styled the lord o’ th’ day. Give me, great Mars,
Some token of thy pleasure.
Here they fall on their faces as formerly, and
there is heard clanging of armor, with a short
thunder, as the burst of a battle, whereupon
they all rise and bow to the altar.

O, great corrector of enormous times,
Shaker of o’er-rank states, thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that heal’st with blood
The Earth when it is sick, and cur’st the world
O’ th’ pleurisy of people, I do take
Thy signs auspiciously, and in thy name
To my design march boldly.—Let us go.They exit.
Enter Palamon and his Knights,
with the former observance.

Our stars must glister with new fire, or be
Today extinct. Our argument is love,
Which, if the goddess of it grant, she gives
Victory too. Then blend your spirits with mine,
You whose free nobleness do make my cause
Your personal hazard. To the goddess Venus
Commend we our proceeding, and implore
Her power unto our party.
Here they go to Venus’s altar, fall on
their faces before it, and then kneel.

Hail, sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power
To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage
And weep unto a girl; that hast the might
Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum
And turn th’ alarm to whispers; that canst make
A cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him
Before Apollo; that mayst force the king
To be his subject’s vassal, and induce
Stale gravity to dance. The polled bachelor,
Whose youth, like wanton boys through bonfires,
Have skipped thy flame, at seventy thou canst catch,
And make him, to the scorn of his hoarse throat,
Abuse young lays of love. What godlike power
Hast thou not power upon? To Phoebus thou
Add’st flames hotter than his; the heavenly fires
Did scorch his mortal son, thine him. The huntress,
All moist and cold, some say, began to throw
Her bow away and sigh. Take to thy grace
Me, thy vowed soldier, who do bear thy yoke
As ’twere a wreath of roses, yet is heavier
Than lead itself, stings more than nettles.
I have never been foul-mouthed against thy law,
Ne’er revealed secret, for I knew none—would not,
Had I kenned all that were. I never practiced
Upon man’s wife, nor would the libels read
Of liberal wits. I never at great feasts
Sought to betray a beauty, but have blushed
At simp’ring sirs that did. I have been harsh
To large confessors, and have hotly asked them
If they had mothers—I had one, a woman,
And women ’twere they wronged. I knew a man
Of eighty winters—this I told them—who
A lass of fourteen brided; ’twas thy power
To put life into dust. The agèd cramp
Had screwed his square foot round;
The gout had knit his fingers into knots;
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture. This anatomy
Had by his young fair fere a boy, and I
Believed it was his, for she swore it was,
And who would not believe her? Brief, I am
To those that prate and have done, no companion;
To those that boast and have not, a defier;
To those that would and cannot, a rejoicer.
Yea, him I do not love that tells close offices
The foulest way, nor names concealments in
The boldest language. Such a one I am,
And vow that lover never yet made sigh
Truer than I. O, then, most soft sweet goddess,
Give me the victory of this question, which
Is true love’s merit, and bless me with a sign
Of thy great pleasure.
Here music is heard; doves are
seen to flutter. They fall again upon
their faces, then on their knees.

O thou that from eleven to ninety reign’st
In mortal bosoms, whose chase is this world
And we in herds thy game, I give thee thanks
For this fair token, which being laid unto
Mine innocent true heart, arms in assurance
My body to this business.—Let us rise
And bow before the goddess.They rise and bow.
Time comes on.
They exit.

Still music of recorders. Enter Emilia in white, her
hair about her shoulders, wearing a wheaten wreath;
one in white holding up her train, her hair stuck with
flowers; one before her carrying a silver hind, in which
is conveyed incense and sweet odors, which being
set upon the altar of Diana, her maids standing
aloof, she sets fire to it. Then they curtsy and kneel.

O sacred, shadowy, cold, and constant queen,
Abandoner of revels, mute contemplative,
Sweet, solitary, white as chaste, and pure
As wind-fanned snow, who to thy female knights
Allow’st no more blood than will make a blush,
Which is their order’s robe, I here, thy priest,
Am humbled ’fore thine altar. O, vouchsafe
With that thy rare green eye, which never yet
Beheld thing maculate, look on thy virgin,
And, sacred silver mistress, lend thine ear—
Which ne’er heard scurrile term, into whose port
Ne’er entered wanton sound—to my petition,
Seasoned with holy fear. This is my last
Of vestal office. I am bride-habited
But maiden-hearted. A husband I have ’pointed,
But do not know him. Out of two I should
Choose one, and pray for his success, but I
Am guiltless of election. Of mine eyes,
Were I to lose one—they are equal precious—
I could doom neither; that which perished should
Go to ’t unsentenced. Therefore, most modest queen,
He of the two pretenders that best loves me
And has the truest title in ’t, let him
Take off my wheaten garland, or else grant
The file and quality I hold I may
Continue in thy band.
Here the hind vanishes under the
altar, and in the place ascends a rose
tree, having one rose upon it.

See what our general of ebbs and flows
Out from the bowels of her holy altar
With sacred act advances: but one rose.
If well inspired, this battle shall confound
Both these brave knights, and I, a virgin flower,
Must grow alone unplucked.
Here is heard a sudden twang of instruments,
and the rose falls from the tree.

The flower is fall’n, the tree descends. O mistress,
Thou here dischargest me. I shall be gathered;
I think so, but I know not thine own will.
Unclasp thy mystery!—I hope she’s pleased;
Her signs were gracious.
They curtsy and exit.

4)List then: your
Mounted upon a steed that Emily
Did first bestow on him—a black one, owing
Not a hair worth of white, which some will say
Weakens his price, and many will not buy
His goodness with this note, which superstition
Here finds allowance—on this horse is Arcite
Trotting the stones of Athens—which the calkins
Did rather tell than trample, for the horse
Would make his length a mile, if ’t pleased his rider
To put pride in him. As he thus went counting
The flinty pavement, dancing, as ’twere, to th’ music
His own hooves made—for, as they say, from iron
Came music’s origin—what envious flint,
Cold as old Saturn, and like him possessed
With fire malevolent, darted a spark,
Or what fierce sulphur else, to this end made,
I comment not; the hot horse, hot as fire,
Took toy at this and fell to what disorder
His power could give his will; bounds, comes on end,
Forgets school-doing, being therein trained
And of kind manage. Pig-like he whines
At the sharp rowel, which he frets at rather
Than any jot obeys; seeks all foul means
Of boist’rous and rough jadery to disseat
His lord that kept it bravely. When naught served,
When neither curb would crack, girth break, nor
diff’ring plunges
Disroot his rider whence he grew, but that
He kept him ’tween his legs, on his hind hoofs
On end he stands
That Arcite’s legs, being higher than his head,
Seemed with strange art to hang. His victor’s wreath
Even then fell off his head, and presently
Backward the jade comes o’er, and his full poise
Becomes the rider’s load. Yet is he living,
But such a vessel ’tis that floats but for
The surge that next approaches. He much desires
To have some speech with you. Lo, he appears.

5)Never Fortune
Did play a subtler game. The conquered triumphs;
The victor has the loss; yet in the passage
The gods have been most equal.—Palamon,
Your kinsman hath confessed the right o’ th’ lady
Did lie in you, for you first saw her and
Even then proclaimed your fancy. He restored her
As your stol’n jewel and desired your spirit
To send him hence forgiven. The gods my justice
Take from my hand and they themselves become
The executioners. Lead your lady off,
And call your lovers from the stage of death,
Whom I adopt my friends. A day or two
Let us look sadly, and give grace unto
The funeral of Arcite, in whose end
The visages of bridegrooms we’ll put on
And smile with Palamon—for whom an hour,
But one hour since, I was as dearly sorry
As glad of Arcite, and am now as glad
As for him sorry. O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off
And bear us like the time.
Flourish. They exit.

There are a great many other fine moments in the final act, where numbers 3,4, and 5 are to be found. The trouble is that getting from the 2 to 3 is a bit of a slog, where the trouble is not so much the contrived plotting as the fact that the way the plotting is carried out in the dialogue is not commensurate with the spirit of these other moments—with the partial exception of the armoring, that I’ve not quoted here. But there are other problems: the double plot is not realized: it’s evident that the mad Jailer’s daughter is supposed to dance the Morris Dance in a sort of low reflection of the Masque ritual that we find playing out during the prayers and also at the very start of the play, but the relation is not determined so much as left a possibility; it seems possible that the daughter’s eventual marriage to the woo-er through means of deception reveals something of the deep cost of reconciliation and equilibrium in this play; her madness is a shadow of the madness of Arcite and Palamon, stricken by love at first sight; madness is an inability to discern and so she can be rescued by deception; their mad love is too much a product of chance and so must be ended by chance. Theseus’ role is other than what it might have been. His presence at the Morris dance is the lynchpin that brings that dance into relation to the beginning and end (also for Shakespeare a wink at Midsummer), and his and Hippolyta’s applause there is a low version of their indulgence for first the three queens who despise Creon, and then Emilia, and then Palamon and Arcite. Theseus’ love for Pirithous doubles Palamon and Arcite’s love for one another; he understands what they are about. He also receives the superb last speech, where he suggests what it is to forgive not an individual injustice, but the sense that fortune is itself unjust.

I’ve said it’s similar to a Romance, but in a crucial respect Shakespeare turns away from the Romances; it is as if he is trying to get at something there, something perhaps he was getting at also in The Merchant of Venice, where it takes the form of fairy tale, and that is the place of chance. Fortune and chance is the great disruptor of the harmonies of these plays, but it is also, in the Romances, given an active, magical or divine, presence as that which can establish new harmonies, or reveal discord to be patterned in a larger scheme. In the Romances, often, the play of fortune is related to the power of magic, or appearance of Gods in Cymbeline (heavenly music in Pericles), though it is also in Cymbeline in what reads and plays as the farce in the final act. The Two Noble Kinsmen has none of that, and the omission is more striking because it is there in Chaucer: Palamon and Arcite not only pray to Mars and Venus, but receive their intervention, and Saturn too intervenes. Shakespeare includes the prayers, because the prayers, like much else, establish how Palamon and Arcite are different as well as being alike, how their love depends on these differences, not just compatible but necessary to their friendship (evident in the first act where the martial Arcite chides Palamon for thinking the only problems in Thebes have to do with war; then later where Arcite declares that whomever falls in combat is lacking honor, as decreed by fate, and Palamon offers genuine pity; and also in Emilia’s description of them, also in the last act, where Palamon is the penseroso to Arcite’s allegro). But, to return to the point about the Romances, Shakespeare does not let the Gods come down; there is no intercession except luck, and yet it is made to feel not fated or magical, but heavy with the weight of the underlying nature of things, in the same way as invocations of fate or the reality of magic in the plays. I’ve already quoted the key passage but will quote it again here:

The flinty pavement, dancing, as ’twere, to th’ music
His own hooves made—for, as they say, from iron
Came music’s origin—what envious flint,
Cold as old Saturn, and like him possessed
With fire malevolent, darted a spark,
Or what fierce sulphur else, to this end made,
I comment not; the hot horse, hot as fire,
Took toy at this and fell to what disorder
His power could give his will; bounds, comes on end,
Forgets school-doing, being therein trained
And of kind manage.

Here, Shakespeare plays a joke: Chaucer had introduced Saturn as a character. “Cold as old Saturn” reduces him to a figure of speech to describe the flint struck from stones. This whole speech is rollicking, the rhythms are fantastic—the rhythms throughout this play are fantastic—especially in the last act, and the action is extraordinary patterned in the movement of the language; but it is also, even in its diction, in the grit of struggle and violence that gets into the words themselves, an affirmation of the world as earth, and not as something unearthly; it is just that, in this play, the earthly is able to sustain the most nobly unearthly gestures, rites, and words of the final act. This speech returns us to the visceral and physical of the first act when Arcite suggests that leeches on his body that would restore his health would instead suffer from the corruption in his veins that is found in the blood he shares with Creon. In the characters of Caliban and Ariel, and in the double plot with Trinculo, The Tempest also brings together the extreme contrasts of ethereal and earthly, the high and the low; but The Two Noble Kinsmen is poised to do so in one pair of persons, a single plot and single conflict, and single reconciliation—but only poised.

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