The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary



Looking at pictures of Arcite and Palamon, Emilia wonders whether she might yet be able to choose between them. As she thinks of Arcite—handsome, fiery, and sweet—she proclaims Palamon doesn't hold a candle to him. Palamon, she says, is dark, scrawny, lazy, and dull in comparison but admits these qualities may suit him. At last she concludes, "I am a fool; my reason is lost in me, / I have no choice, and I have lied so lewdly." She asks pardon of Palamon's picture, saying he alone is the beautiful one, with shining eyes that are both bold and inviting. Emilia realizes with exasperation she changes her mind every other minute about which cousin she loves.

A gentleman enters with news the cousins and their knights have returned to carry out their appointed battle. Emilia wishes she could die and asks the goddess Diana what she has done to deserve this situation, in which her "chastity / Be made the altar where the lives of lovers" will be sacrificed. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Pirithous enter, with the Duke eager to see the cousins and their knights. A Messenger and Pirithous take turns describing the worthy knights, themselves like princes, who support Arcite and Palamon. As Theseus listens attentively, Emilia asks, "Must these men die too?" Hippolyta, too, is interested to see the men and the fight, though she admits, "'Tis pity love should be so tyrannous." Theseus goes off to see the knights before the fight begins, while Emilia must "go weep, for whosoever wins / Loses a noble cousin for thy sins."


Now forgotten are Emilia's protests from Act 1, Scene 3 about never loving a man, as she considers the two noble cousins. Perhaps Emilia's emotions have been touched by the cousins, for she speaks with passion of their good looks and noble qualities. On the other hand, it is possible she simply has accepted the inevitability of marriage and is embracing the matter wholeheartedly. In either case, Emilia is deeply disturbed by the situation at hand: because of her, several honorable knights must die. Unaware of what she has done to deserve this, she assumes the gods are punishing her. The "sins" Emilia speaks of in her final statement of the scene are unknown. Possibly her sin is her inability to love a man more than a woman. Or she has committed no sin at all but is simply the victim of circumstance. In any case, her plea to Diana, protectress of maidens, is a reminder of the theme of providence. The gods have control over Emilia's fate, she believes and accepts. All she can do is take what fortune brings and deal with the consequences.

Emilia's gentle nature prevents her from finding pleasure in the upcoming fight, unlike Theseus and Hippolyta who can't wait to see the contest. The two seasoned warriors, accustomed to bloodshed, are more steeled to the harshness of the world and don't display the same depth of compassion as Emilia, who finds the situation harder to bear. Indeed, Hippolyta's statement, "'Tis pity love should be so tyrannous," could be taken as flippant, though perhaps it is nonironic and heartfelt.

It is worth noting Arcite and Palamon have kept their word in returning to Athens for their fight. Although they could have stayed away and lived, it's unthinkable in the play and they have acted honorably in returning. However, this scene may cause the reader to question the tenets of noble behavior: is it right that good men should die solely for the sake of principle as it affects their own desires and self-interest?

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