The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Theseus, Duke of Athens, has just married Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. They are on the way to their wedding feast, led by Hymen (god of weddings) and serenaded by a boy who sings a bridal song about flowers. Three queens dressed in black enter and interrupt the procession, falling to their knees before the wedding party. The first queen begs noble Theseus to hear their petition for help against Creon, the cruel king of nearby Thebes. Creon has defeated their husbands in battle and left their bodies to rot, forbidding the women from giving them a proper burial. Theseus expresses sympathy but does not immediately take up their cause, so the queens turn to the women of the bridal party to plead their case. The second queen implores Hippolyta to "lend us a knee" in entreating Theseus. "Tell him if he i' th' blood-sized field lay swoll'n/Showing the sun his teeth, grinning at the moon,/What you would do," she pleads. Hippolyta reassures her she will speak on their behalf. The third queen then appeals to Emilia who pities her and also promises to speak with Theseus.

Theseus comes forward and tries to move the wedding procession along to the feast, but the queens again entreat him to delay the celebration. He says he will attend to their request but not at the moment. The queens argue he must go now while Creon and his troops are still drunk with battle victory—they will be caught off guard. Theseus decides to help them find justice and calls the soldier Artesius to lead the effort. Meanwhile, he and Hippolyta will "dispatch / This grand act of our life, this daring deed / Of fate in wedlock." The queens lament their hopes will vanish with his delay, and though the timing is inconvenient, it can't be helped. When Theseus responds that his wedding is most important, the first queen fears once he experiences the pleasures of the marriage bed, he will forget about their dead husbands. Hippolyta and Emilia, moved by the queens' pleas, kneel in supplication before Theseus and bid him to go. At last he agrees and instructs his friend Pirithous to lead the wedding party onward to the temple. There they are to begin the wedding feast and keep it going until his return, which he swears will be soon. Praised as godlike by the queens, Theseus replies, "As we are men, / Thus should we do; being sensually subdued, / We lose our human title."

Analysis

The main theme of this scene is nobility, which encompasses the qualities of honor and duty. Because Theseus is a high-ranking lord of Athens and a general of great skill and repute, the three queens call on him for help, counting on his honorable character to win him to their cause, which is the retrieval of their husbands' bodies. It takes some persuasion, however, to tear Theseus away from his wedding night, and the women surrounding him step up to plead the queens' case. The second queen uses a particularly effective tack in asking Hippolyta what she would do if it were her husband rotting in the field. Put yourself in my shoes, she is saying, a method that no doubt makes her plight more real and immediate to the new bride. Hippolyta is the same Hippolyta who married Theseus offstage in the earlier A Midsummer Night's Dream. As an Amazon queen, she is a warrior and neither emotional nor easily swayed. So her pity for the queens is indeed genuine and strong, given her character and background.

Theseus, therefore, cannot refuse the queens' request when even his bride urges him to delay their wedding night and take up the fight. A refusal to do so would be considered selfish, weak, and certainly not noble. Even on so important an occasion, his honor demands duty over pleasure, and choosing to do it underscores his nobility of character. When the queens praise him as godlike, he classifies his actions as something any man should and can do. When we conquer our bodies' senses and wants (including sexual desire), "we lose our human title" and become more like the gods.

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