The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 3, Scene 6 | Summary



Palamon awaits Arcite in the forest. He has regained his strength from the food his cousin provided and gives thanks for it. He will accept no further delays to their combat, however, and intends to fight today, no matter what. Arcite appears with the armor and swords as promised. When Palamon insults his honor, Arcite declares that enough angry words have passed between them. It's time to get down to business—unless, of course, Palamon isn't up to it yet. They choose their armor, which Arcite stole from the Duke, and Arcite begins to arm his cousin. They assure each other they will fight well, without holding back. While arming Arcite, Palamon recalls a battle they once fought in together, and Arcite remembers with admiration how Palamon was the better warrior that day. After they choose swords, they bow to each other and Arcite asks, "Is there aught else to say?" Palamon responds by noting their shared blood as family and if Arcite should kill him, "the gods and I forgive thee." Hoping whoever falls will be honored in his death, he then shakes hands with his cousin. "This hand shall never more / Come near thee with such friendship," Arcite laments, adding if he dies, Palamon should curse him, for only cowards die in such honorable fights. They bid each other farewell.

As they begin to fight, the Duke's horns sound in the forest, and Arcite urges Palamon to retreat with him. If Theseus discovers them, he urges, their lives and noble reputations will be lost. Palamon refuses, and they resume fighting, only to be interrupted by the entrance of the Duke and his entourage. Theseus is furious about this illegal duel and instantly swears both men will die. Palamon freely reveals their identities and crimes and tells of their dispute over Emilia, whom he loved first, and the cause of the present fight. He asks Theseus to allow them to continue their battle, after which the Duke is free to kill him, too, thus ending both cousins' lives. Theseus, however, has sworn both must both be executed rightfully by law and refuses Palamon's request. Arcite adds they ask no mercy, and he defends his own love of Emilia with his sword.

Hippolyta urges Emilia to speak on their behalf, lest people curse her for their deaths. Emilia responds that although "the misadventure of their own eyes kill 'em," she will beg for their lives out of feminine pity. Asking Hippolyta to lend her voice, both women kneel and beseech Theseus for mercy. Pirithous, too, joins in their pleas, calling on their friendship to change Theseus's mind. Moved, the Duke asks what would happen if he spared them, and Emilia suggests banishment for both. Theseus responds they would only fight each other and bring her reputation into question if banished. She should be wise and let them die, for Theseus has made his oath and would rather not break it. Emilia reminds Theseus he made an oath to her, too: he would never deny her any reasonable request. "I tie you to your word now," she says, for it hurts his honor more to deny her pleas. "Shall anything that loves me perish for me? / That were a cruel wisdom," she declares. She notes also their mothers and the women who have loved the cousins will curse her name until women everywhere hate her.

Emilia then suggests they must swear to leave the kingdom, never fight over her, never see her again, and go their separate ways. Both cousins refuse, for they cannot stop loving her. Now feeling compassion for the noble cousins, Theseus asks Emilia if she can choose one for a husband, noting the other must die. Although the cousins agree readily, Emilia cannot choose, knowing the choice will bring death to one. The Duke then demands the cousins go back to Thebes and return in a month with three knights each. At that time they will have a contest of strength. The winner will gain Emilia's hand, and the loser will die, along with his knights. Content, the cousins embrace and will remain friends until that hour.


The theme of nobility, especially honor, is elaborated in this scene. Arcite swings back and forth between honor and dishonor as it suits his needs. It is honorable of him to provide armor and a sword for Palamon but dishonorable to steal them from the Duke, who has been his benefactor. The cousins carefully help each other put on their armor before the duel, which is honorable and chivalric. Furthermore, they observe the formalities of a noble duel, bowing to each other and vowing to fight to the best of their abilities. Yet the duel is illegal, and the cousins are aware of breaking the law—again. The theme of loving friendship also reappears in their reminiscing and goodbyes before the fight begins. Although both are determined to fight, their hesitation to begin is shown in Arcite's query, "Is there aught else to say?" It's as if he were stalling, delaying the inevitable, to capture a few more moments of fleeting friendship for old times' sake. And he notes their final handshake with the sadness of friendship lost.

Arcite's words on his own possible death reveal how he and Palamon differ in thinking. In Act 3, Scene 1 Palamon's thoughts on his own death are positive. If he dies, he will forgive Arcite and speak only good of him in the afterlife. Here again, Palamon states both he and the gods will forgive Arcite if he kills Palamon, and, moreover, he hopes whoever falls will be honored. Arcite, by contrast, focuses on the negatives. He wants Palamon to curse him if he dies, for only cowards die in honorable fights. This attitude implies one of the cousins—whoever dies in the fight—must be labeled a coward. Arcite's focus here is on honor and reputation, whereas Palamon's is on love and forgiveness. The one has prayed to Mars, the other to Venus. Nonetheless, it is hard to consider Palamon "loving" when he has frequently insulted his cousin and vowed to kill him.

When Theseus arrives, the cousins' mindsets are again at odds. Arcite reacts using his head: he wishes to escape and live to fight another day and also shows concern about their reputations. Palamon reacts using his heart: he has waited for vengeance, will wait no longer, and is unconcerned about the consequences if they are caught. In fact, he seems to care more about revenge than about winning Emilia. He even tells the Duke to kill the winner, so long as they get to fight. Palamon states his identity openly to Theseus and also exposes Arcite's lies. Arcite claims he, too, fights for Emilia, but he seems more motivated by saving his reputation than by love.

Emilia, now in the middle of the cousins' battling, has done nothing to encourage their love and clarifies her take on the situation, rightly blaming Arcite and Palamon whose "misadventure of their own eyes kill 'em." They have looked at her and loved senselessly, for she has shown no sign of loving either one. She and Hippolyta beg for the cousins' lives out of pity, not love, while Pirithous pleads on their behalf because of their nobility. Theseus tries to reason with Emilia, for the cousins' continued fighting could ruin her reputation. But her response shows she cares more about humane treatment than reputation.

Theseus, though, is focused solely on honor, both his own in carrying out the oath they must die and Emilia's as a maiden. Though Emilia tries to find a compromise in her suggestion of banishment, the cousins won't have it. Nor will they lie to save their lives. They're going to fight and die anyway, so why lie about it? Their honesty is noble, as is their agreement to abide by the Duke's terms for legitimizing the fight. In doing so, Theseus explains the terms of the forest contest: whoever first touches the significant "pyramid," or obelisk he will have placed on the contest grounds, will lose the fight.

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