The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Act 5, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Guarded by the jailer and soldiers, Palamon and his knights prepare for their execution. Palamon tries to steel his knights to their shared fate, reminding them they are still loved by the people and have their pity. They will never suffer old age but will die young and innocent of crimes and thus please the gods. The three knights are reconciled to what awaits them, for they still have their honor, even though fortune has favored Arcite and his knights. Palamon volunteers to be executed first, for it was he that led his men to their fate. First he asks the jailer how his daughter fares, for she was kind to him and her troubles give him sorrow. The jailer assures him she is much better and soon will be married. Palamon is glad to hear it and offers, once again, money for her dowry. The other knights follow suit, all giving their purses for the good-hearted maiden.

Palamon positions himself on the executioner's block, waiting for the death blow. Suddenly a great noise is heard, and a Messenger rushes in crying, "Run! Save! Hold!" Pirithous follows swiftly behind, glad to arrive before the execution. "Noble Palamon, / The gods will show their glory in a life / That thou art yet to lead," he proclaims. Next Pirithous reveals Arcite has been crushed by the horse Emilia gave him. Now on the brink of death, he wishes to speak with his cousin. Arcite arrives, carried in a chair, accompanied by Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia. Palamon is heartbroken, for he loves Arcite still. He asks for his last words, and Arcite declares, "Take Emilia, / And with her all the world's joy." Asking for Palamon's forgiveness, he claims "I was false, / Yet never treacherous; forgive me, cousin." He then asks Emilia for one kiss, which she gives him, and then he dies.

Theseus tells Palamon to thank the gods he is still alive. Venus has answered his prayers for love, just as Mars gave Arcite the victory he asked for. "So the deities / Have showed due justice," says the Duke. "Never fortune / Did play a subtler game; the conquered triumphs, / The victor has the loss; yet in the passage / The gods have been most equal." Theseus then reveals Arcite confessed Palamon did love Emilia first. Theseus gives Emilia to him and says he will take on the three condemned knights as his own men. All will attend Arcite's funeral with sadness, but afterward they will celebrate Emilia and Palamon's wedding. They must be thankful for what remains and not question what the gods have ordained.

Analysis

In this final scene both cousins embody the theme of nobility when facing their deaths. Palamon retains his dignity up to the executioner's block, trying to comfort his friends and bravely offering to go first. His ability to see the positive side in any situation is something many would consider admirable. He never shrinks from his fate and does what he can to aid the jailer's daughter, though he remains unaware of his role in her condition. Even as he faces death, he thinks of the welfare of others. His knights demonstrate an equal generosity of character by donating their purses and by accepting their impending deaths with courage. Arcite, who has been less than honorable at times, comes clean in admitting he has wronged his cousin. But although he was "false," not a true friend, he was never "treacherous," meaning he never actively schemed to harm his cousin. Admitting his mistake, Arcite asks forgiveness, a noble last act. It is unclear whether Arcite knew all along his behavior was wrong or whether he realizes his errors in his final moments. Either way, his confession may make the characters—and the readers—more inclined to forgive him for all the trouble he has caused. Finally, in giving Emilia to Palamon with his blessings and without bitterness, Arcite shows their loving friendship never really ended. While Jacobean audiences might have appreciated Arcite's noble gesture, 21st-century audiences may cringe at the prospect of a dying man handing over his beloved, like a prize, to his best friend.

Providence wraps up the story of The Two Noble Kinsmen with an unexpected twist as the gods answer the petitions of Arcite, Palamon, and Emilia. Arcite gets what he asked for from Mars: victory in the contest, though he doesn't get to marry Emilia. Palamon gets what he asked for from Venus, too: love, in the form of Emilia's hand in marriage, though he doesn't win the contest. Emilia prayed Diana would deliver to her the man who "best loves me / And has the truest title in it" (Act 5, Scene 1). She, too, gets what she asked for. It can be assumed this man is Palamon, because it is ultimately he who will become her husband. Palamon does have the "truest title," or claim, to her hand, which is clearly established when Arcite admits Palamon loved Emilia first. The Duke delivers his analysis on the surprising final events in a solemn final speech on the theme of providence. (Incidentally, these may be the final lines Shakespeare ever wrote, as this was his last play.) Theseus seems rather stunned by how events have turned out but, as always, recognizes it is not for humans to question the will of the gods. Just as he was ready to leave Palamon to the executioner's block, now he is ready embrace him as a brother-in-law.

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