The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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

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Summary

Palamon laments they will be prisoners forever, a fate Arcite says he will try to bear patiently. The cousins mourn the loss of Thebes, friends and family, and their youth, which will wither away in prison. They will never marry or have children to enjoy. "This is all our world. / We shall know nothing here but one another," says Arcite. No more beautiful summers, no more hunting—but at least they have the comfort of each other. Arcite suggests they view their imprisonment as "holy sanctuary" that will save them from worldly woes and temptations. Nor will they ever be parted from one another by war, wives, business, or other matters, he comforts his cousin. Palamon takes heart, claiming it a misery to live anywhere else but in prison. Had they grown old in Creon's court, he says, they would surely have become wicked and despised.

The pair then praise their own friendship: even death cannot part them. At that moment Palamon notices Emilia in the garden below. Palamon is distracted, and Arcite prompts him to continue. Emilia and her serving woman are jesting about men and discussing silk flowers. Palamon is still befuddled. As Arcite grows concerned and asks what the matter is, his cousin responds, "Never till now I was in prison," pointing out the beautiful "goddess" below. Emilia then speaks of roses, her favorite flower, and how the blooms are like a maiden. Seeing her, Arcite agrees Emilia is fair indeed and confesses his love for her. "I saw her first," Palamon declares, but clever Arcite states they can both love her: Palamon may love her as a goddess, and Arcite will love her as a man. Palamon objects, calling Arcite a traitor if he would love her, too, and will disown his cousin if he even thinks of her. Arcite says he cannot help his love and has as much right to love her as any man. If it means the end of their friendship, then so be it. He continues to try to use reasoning to persuade Palamon, but unable to budge his cousin, he calls him mad and childish. Palamon wishes they had their freedom so he could challenge Arcite to a duel with swords. Arcite then goads him with talk of leaping into Emilia's arms.

Just then the jailer arrives to fetch Arcite away, leaving Palamon in anguish, wondering whether Arcite has been called away to marry Emilia, for perhaps Theseus has noticed his cousin's nobility and thought him a good match for her. Palamon pines to see her again, wishing he could be even a tree in her garden to offer her fruit and win her love. The jailer returns with the news Arcite has been banished from Athens on pain of death. Palamon immediately imagines his cousin may round up soldiers and fight a battle to win Emilia. The jailer further informs Palamon he's been ordered to keep him away from the window. "Prithee kill me," Palamon moans, refusing to leave his view of the garden. When the jailer threatens to constrain him in more shackles, Palamon is forced to relent, wishing for death as a release from suffering.

Analysis

At first the cousins' attitude in prison is admirable. Though they mourn the loss of the pleasures life has to offer free men, they try to make the best of their situation: in prison they can retain their honor and not be corrupted by the outer world. This stance is a willing self-delusion, however, for neither would endure imprisonment over freedom, given the choice.

While Palamon and Arcite do seem the truest of friends who love and admire each other, this scene shows how love can also turn friends to enemies in the space of a moment. Bosom buddies whom death could not part suddenly become mortal enemies after one glimpse of Emilia. Their squabble over her seems highly exaggerated, considering they haven't spoken with her nor has she shown any interest in either of them. In fact, she doesn't know they exist at this point in the story. Nor do the cousins know Emilia has previously declared she could never love a man the same way she loved Flavina. The implication is Emilia may be a lesbian—a fairly common supposition about Amazons like her and Hippolyta. Legend holds that Amazons were a group of independent, female warriors who were not inclined to marry, though they would mate to have children. Given her background, it is not surprising Emilia would prefer the company of women, for she has likely been raised among them.

Palamon's cry of "I saw her first" seems rather childish, as if they were arguing over a toy rather than a woman with thoughts and feelings of her own. Indeed, her wishes or inclinations are not considered at all, as the men seem to assume her love for one of them would be a foregone conclusion. Their former camaraderie quickly devolves into name-calling and childish goading, such as Arcite's boast he would leap into Emilia's arms solely to anger Palamon. This behavior indicates how far they will have to go before discovering, if they ever do, what adult love may be about.

After Arcite is led off, Palamon's imagination runs away with him. He invents the fantasy of Arcite being called forth to marry Emilia. As it happens, however, Arcite has been banished. Even this news cannot comfort Palamon, who then imagines Arcite raising an army to win her. His thinking is all worst-case scenario, which drags him to despair and wishing for death. It is an extreme and pessimistic reaction that makes it seem as though Palamon cares more about Arcite not having Emilia than about himself winning her. That seems unlikely, too, given his current status as a prisoner. Finally, his passionate and irrational reaction to Emilia foreshadows the jailer's daughter's similarly passionate and irrational response to him, an important subplot yet to arrive.

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