The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Arcite, nephew of Creon, King of Thebes (and the same villain who prevents the burial of one of Oedipus's sons in the famous Antigone story), suggests to his beloved cousin Palamon they leave the city before it ruins them with its evil temptations. Palamon says they would be ruined only if they choose to live like those around them. What really disturbs him is their uncle Creon, "a most unbounded tyrant," whom Palamon wishes were no relation of his. Arcite again urges departure from the court rather than remain associated with their uncle's infamy and shameful deeds.

Just then, Valerius enters to tell the pair they've been summoned by Creon, who is in a great rage. Theseus has arrived and threatened to destroy Thebes, says Valerius. Arcite doesn't wish to support his uncle's bad deeds, and as Palamon points out, "Our services stand now for Thebes, not Creon. / Yet to be neutral to him were dishonor, / Rebellious to oppose; therefore we must / With him stand to the mercy of our fate." Arcite agrees, and they exit to find Creon, leaving the outcome of their lives to fate.

Analysis

Arcite and Palamon seem to be noble characters concerned with goodness and right. They detest their uncle's tyrannical rule and consider leaving town to retain their honor and not be ruined by the corruption in the court. Palamon makes a good point, though: a person can be ruined only if he allows it to happen. No matter what happens to a person, the way he chooses to react shows his true character. Unfortunately, Arcite and Palamon are too late to make a clean getaway from Thebes, as Creon calls on them to fight. Though they disapprove of his rule, they believe their duty is not only to defend the city but also to aid their family. Knowing such fighting with Creon may lead them to disaster, they accept their duty nonetheless. If fate decrees they must die or suffer for their actions, so be it.

The themes of nobility and providence are strong here, suggesting the characters view duty, honor, and fate as more important and more powerful than free will, happiness, and even life itself. They would rather die than dishonor their family name by abandoning Creon, despite their disapproval of his ways. Modern readers may ask how it is more honorable for the cousins to support their tyrant uncle rather than oppose his policies. In this, Arcite and Palamon are a product of their era—ancient Greece—when success, and sometimes survival, often depended on the loyal support of a tight-knit family.

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