The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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

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Summary

A jailer in Athens advises a young man who wants to wed his daughter she may have little inheritance because he has little money to spare. The wooer assures the jailer he wants no more than he can give and will take good care of the daughter, adding he has the daughter's consent. As the daughter enters, the jailer tells her they've been talking of the marriage again, but for now other business must come first.

Two new prisoners—princes—have come to the jail. Finding it a pity they are in prison, the daughter praises their patience and optimism in the face of adversity. The jailer, the wooer, and the daughter discuss the heroic reputation of the famed cousins who were unsurpassed in the recent battle. The daughter marvels at how they "with such a constant nobility enforce a freedom out of bondage, making misery their mirth." It is almost as if they are not in prison, for they never talk of their misfortunes, but rather make the best of things. The jailer directs the wooer's attention to Arcite and Palamon, now visible through a window above them. When his daughter points up at them, the jailer reprimands her for her bad manners. As they leave, she notes, "It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the difference of men!"

Analysis

In this scene it is notable that the characters' proper names are not given. The labels of jailer, daughter, and wooer describe the characters' functions rather than portray them as unique individuals. Such labels indicate they are stock characters, or characters who represent a class or type of person. In the case of these three, all are commoners who seem of average intelligence, low social status, and modest income. The subplot that forms around them is likely meant for entertainment, or comic relief, which helps counteract the serious events surrounding Arcite and Palamon, the two noble kinsmen for whom the play is named and the main focus of the narrative. By not naming the subplot characters, the authors keep audience attention on the noble characters and the themes surrounding them. In other words, fewer names to remember may have inclined the audience to concentrate more on the named characters than the unnamed ones, yet they do have many lines and require a lot of attention in the play.

Obviously the three characters in this scene have previously discussed the marriage of the wooer to the jailer's daughter; what is different now is the arrival of two high-profile prisoners: princes whom the jailer quickly makes a priority. Noting what remarkable men they are, the daughter has no qualms about expressing her attraction to them, even in front of her would-be fiancé. Her statement about "the difference of men" could be a comment on the ordinariness of the wooer in comparison with the princes. And it just begins to foreshadow the young woman's fast-growing obsession with Palamon.
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