The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

In the forest outside Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta have parted to perform May rites in separate glades. Arcite, meanwhile, waxes poetic about Emilia's youthful beauty and sweetness, comparing her to flowers and water nymphs—a jewel of the forest. He prays soon she might turn to thoughts of him and feels his good fortune in having found such a lady to serve. He has hope, for Emilia keeps him close by and treats him with respect. Moreover, she has given him two exquisite horses, fit for kings. For a moment he thinks of his "poor cousin Palamon, poor prisoner," who little imagines how near to Emilia he now is. Palamon must think him exiled in Thebes. If he knew the truth, he surely would fly into a rage.

"Traitor kinsman," Palamon cries as he emerges, still shackled, from his hiding place in the forest. He would attack Arcite if he were free and had a sword, calling his cousin a lying, dishonorable fraud. Arcite, however, does not see himself as such. Rather, it is Palamon's suffering that makes him wrongly accuse him. Arcite calls himself honest and honorable and will continue to act so. He asks Palamon to be more mannerly in expressing his griefs to his equal, who wishes only to clear his name as a gentleman, whether by mediation or by the sword. "That thou durst, Arcite!" Palamon exclaims, to which Arcite retorts Palamon knows very well his own courage and skill with a sword. Palamon admits this is true, yet his virtues have been marred by his treachery. Arcite refuses to hear this censure. Palamon then challenges him to strike off his shackles and give him a sword and a good meal so they can fight. If Arcite wins, Palamon will forgive his wrongs and speak only good of him in the afterlife.

Arcite promises to return later with food, a file to remove his cousin's chains, fresh clothing, and a choice of sword and armor for him. When Palamon has had a chance to eat and refresh himself, they may then fight if he wishes it. As Palamon accepts this offer, horns sound in the forest, and Arcite advises him to hide so as not to be caught before they fight. Palamon tells him to stop speaking so glibly because it makes him want to punch him for every flattering word. The horn sounds again, calling the Duke's entourage to the banquet at which Arcite will wait on Emilia. When Palamon says his cousin has gained his position unjustly, Arcite disagrees, stating, "I am persuaded this question, sick between 's, / By bleeding must be cured." Palamon grouses about Arcite's having an unfair advantage—he will look upon Emilia and gain heart—but Palamon will soon remedy this by sword.

Analysis

Theseus and Hippolyta have separated to perform May Day rites. These are not described in the play but likely celebrate the return of spring and the rebirth of vegetation. Arcite imagines Emilia as the Queen of May, fresh and beautiful, and it appears his hopes are in the verge of being fulfilled. While he does seem to pity Palamon, who he believes is still a prisoner, he also feels triumphant over his cousin. Saying Palamon would be outraged if he knew Arcite's current situation feels almost like a boast.

Little does Arcite know, however, that Palamon is nearby and ready to challenge him for his duplicity. When Palamon suddenly emerges and threatens him, Arcite takes the high road. He blames Palamon's suffering for his angry words, while not acknowledging his own role in that suffering. Arcite has the upper hand here; he is well fed, rested, and living as a gentleman, while Palamon is an escaped prisoner with no food, shelter, or other necessities. Arcite's attitude toward his cousin's lack of manners is condescending; it is easy for him to call for chivalry when he is the one not suffering. Palamon is at the end of his rope and won't be placated by his cousin's pretty-sounding words or his denial of blame. He calls Arcite out as a self-interested scoundrel and a liar—which are accurate descriptions of what Arcite is on the basis of his present actions. Arcite still claims to be honest and honorable, of course, but he is honest and honorable only when it serves his purposes. It is neither honest nor honorable for him to deceive Emilia, Theseus, and the others—a fact he conveniently overlooks.

Nevertheless, Arcite maintains a veneer of honor in offering food, rest, and armor to Palamon. It is likely he does wish to honor his cousin for their past love and friendship, even though they are now rivals. It has become clear there is no remedy for their disagreement but to fight, and they will settle their disagreement with swords. Despite his bitterness, however, Palamon declares he will accept defeat graciously and honor him in the afterlife, should Arcite win the fight. This attitude reflects the theme of providence: because the characters believe the gods decide who is right, Palamon's loss must be the gods' decree.

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