The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Theseus and Pirithous welcome the combatants to a temple to offer prayers to the gods before their fight begins. Palamon and Arcite exchange terse words on how their purpose—to defeat each other—has not changed. After they embrace and say farewell, Palamon and his knights exit temporarily to allow Arcite private use of the altars. Arcite urges his knights to call on the god Mars. "My prize / Must be dragged out of blood," he says, believing Mars the proper god to invoke. They all prostrate themselves at Mars's altar, where Arcite asks to win the day in the god's honor. As soon as Arcite asks the god for a sign of his favor, a clap of thunder sounds. The men take the sound as a good sign and exit.

Palamon then enters with his knights, declaring their "argument is love, / Which if the goddess of it grant, she gives / Victory too." They prostrate themselves at the altar of Venus "that has the might / Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars's drum." Palamon praises Venus's power and asks for her aid, stating he has always upheld her ideals. He has trysted with no married women nor gossiped about others' affairs. He has reprimanded men who bragged of their lovers, asking if they had mothers—he had one himself. He is the truest lover that has ever been, and for this he asks for the goddess's help and a sign of her favor. At that moment doves fly by, and music is heard. Palamon takes these as a sign his petition has been heard. He and the knights bow once more to her altar and exit.

Emilia enters to petition the goddess Diana, the chaste goddess who watches over maidens. "This is my last / Of vestal office; I am bride-habited, / But maiden-hearted," she tells the goddess, lighting an offering of incense on the altar. She laments having been unable to choose between the cousins, one of whom will become her husband. She asks the goddess to show favor to the man who loves her best and has the best claim to her hand. Either this, or she wishes to remain as she is now—a virgin in the service of Diana. Emilia's offering vanishes from the altar and a tree with one rose grows in its place. Excited, Emilia thinks the single rose means neither knight will win and she will remain "a virgin flower ... unplucked." However, the rose then falls from the tree, leaving Emilia to suppose her virginity will fall, too. She is still unsure what the outcome will be but hopes the goddess is pleased with her offerings.

Analysis

The theme of providence is central in this scene, with characters praying to the gods to decide their fates favorably. The patron god each character chooses reveals something of what motivates them.

  • Arcite chooses Mars, god of war, for he thinks more of victory than of love. He even refers to Emilia as his "prize," thinking of her as something to be won rather than a woman to be loved.
  • Palamon, who has consistently focused on love more than honor—though he also tries to be honorable—calls on Venus, the goddess of love. He offers reasons for Venus to support him, hoping to show how he has honored her over time through his thoughts and actions.
  • Emilia prays to Diana, a virgin goddess, for aid. Because she cannot choose between the cousins herself, she asks the goddess to decide her fate. In fact, Emilia is reluctant to marry at all, declaring herself "bride-habited, / But maiden-hearted." Given a choice, she would remain as she is, for that is her nature. Therefore, when the single rose appears, she seems happy to imagine she will remain a virgin in Diana's service. But when it falls, she realizes celibacy will not be her fate. It disturbs her not to know the outcome, but she still hopes for the best, on the basis of the positive signs from the goddess, because she does not have other sources to believe in.

Each character receives a clear sign their petition will be granted. But how can the gods answer each prayer when the contest allows for only one winner? This remains to be determined—yet it will happen. The gods have spoken, after all, and now all humans must wait to see the outcome.

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