The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 5, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Theseus and his entourage proceed to watch the fight, but Emilia stops en route and will go no farther. She cannot bear to watch the tragic contest, which will be hard enough just to listen to from a short distance away. Theseus insists she go, for she is the prize both men seek. Hippolyta, too, says she must go, but Emilia refuses. They give up trying to persuade her and exit, leaving Emilia and her attendants behind. She again debates the merits of Arcite and Palamon until trumpets indicate the start of the match. She fears what may happen: "Arcite may win me; / And yet may Palamon wound Arcite to / The spoiling of his figure." She thinks if she were there, she might distract them with her presence. If one should glance her way, the other might cut him down in that moment.

As the crowd alternately cries out "Palamon" and "Arcite," a servant runs back and forth to tell Emilia how the fight is going. At first it seems likely Palamon will win, but Arcite rallies and claims the victory. Emilia is not all that surprised, for she had a feeling Palamon would lose. Theseus and his entourage enter with Arcite, and the Duke proclaims "the gods by their divine arbitrament / Have given you this knight." He bids Emilia and Arcite be pledged to each other with love. Arcite assures her that although he has lost his dearest friend, her value is far above Palamon's to him. Theseus then praises Palamon's valor, stating "the gods / Would have him die a bachelor, lest his race / Should show i' th' world too godlike!" However skilled Palamon may have been, Arcite was the better competitor in the fight, which was well matched and well fought. Theseus then commands Palamon be executed swiftly, for surely life must be miserable to him now. They will leave without viewing the execution, which would mar the joy of Arcite and Emilia's union. Hippolyta begins to weep, and Emilia laments, "Is this winning? / O all you heavenly powers, where is your mercy?" Still she accepts the gods have willed her to marry Arcite, for otherwise she would just as soon die herself. Palamon's impending death saddens Hippolyta and Theseus as well.

Analysis

While most of the court is eager to watch the fight, Emilia proves to have a tenderer heart than the others. Her reluctance to witness the contest may be interpreted as a trait suitable to the innocent maiden she is, though, at the same time, as an Amazon woman she is accustomed to battle. By having Emilia remain behind, the authors set up a scene in which the audience, like Emilia, does not witness the contest and receives details as Emilia does. While the fight might have been exciting for an audience of the time, the authors choose to focus on the pathos of the contest instead of its sensational appeal. Moreover, Arcite and Palamon already have fought in Act 3, Scene 6. Now the focus shifts to the outcome and aftermath rather than the contest itself. Nonetheless, the scene is suspenseful as the advantage shifts between the evenly matched cousins. Meanwhile, Emilia imagines a worst-case scenario: Arcite may win but be disfigured for life. No matter how the contest turns out, she's going to feel bad about the outcome.

After the fight both cousins receive praise for their fighting skills, and everyone thinks it a pity Palamon must die. However, it is the will of the gods and "their divine arbitrament." Once again the theme of providence surfaces, as the characters accept the outcome of the fight. Theseus shows mercy in ordering a swift execution for Palamon, whose life can only be misery because his cousin has won Emilia. In this decree, Theseus is fulfilling the cousins' own dictates as they agreed when the contest was first proposed. The Duke and his entourage put the incident behind them as quickly as possible, looking ahead to Emilia and Arcite's wedding rather than remain for the execution. Their actions don't mean they feel no pity for Palamon, for they do. Emilia takes the situation particularly hard, disappointed the gods have not shown mercy to Palamon. In the end she, too, is resigned to fate, although she would prefer simply to die and be done with the whole heartbreaking mess. Her distaste for marriage at all now seems even more insightful from the start, if this is where it will all end, in death and loss.

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