The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Context


Sources for the Play

Story lines from popular plays often were recycled in Shakespeare's day. The story of The Two Noble Kinsmen is an adaptation of English poet Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale," one of the best-known stories in the larger collection The Canterbury Tales (1400). A story of romance and chivalry, "The Knight's Tale" relates how cousins Palamon and Arcite both fall in love with Emelye, the sister of Hippolyta, the Amazon queen now married to Theseus. The cousins compete to win Emelye's hand in marriage. Although Arcite wins, he then dies after being thrown from his horse. Shakespeare and Fletcher directly adopted these characters and events in writing The Two Noble Kinsmen. Chaucer himself borrowed the story from an earlier source as well: Giovanni Boccaccio's epic poem Teseida delle nozze di Emilia (translated as Theseid Concerning the Nuptials of Emily), circa 1340. With the same story line by the Italian early-Renaissance writer, the work tells the tale of Teseo (Theseus), Palemone, Arcita, and Emilia.


William Shakespeare and John Fletcher moved in similar theatrical circles during a time when many authors worked together on plays. Shakespeare and Fletcher may have met as early as 1606 during gatherings of literary men, including English playwright Ben Jonson and English poet John Donne. Shakespeare's and Fletcher's works intersected through The King's Men, a renowned theater group to which many dramatists contributed plays for production. Shakespeare was the lead dramatist for the group until his retirement, after which Fletcher assumed the role.

Most likely, Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen from 1612–14. The last play to which Shakespeare contributed, The Two Noble Kinsmen was not included in the publication of his First Folio (1623), probably excluded from this volume because Fletcher wrote more than half the work. The play was first published in 1634 with Shakespeare's name as coauthor. Shakespeare is probably responsible for most of the main plot involving Arcite, Palamon, and Emilia (Act 1, Scenes 1–3; Act 3, Scene 1; and all of Act 5 except Scene 2). The subplots of the jailer, his daughter, and the wooer, as well as the interludes with the troupe of countryfolk, were likely written by Fletcher. The authorship of individual acts and scenes, though, has been widely disputed, and the question still remains unanswered. The two authors also collaborated on Henry VIII (1613) and Cardenio, a play that has since been lost.

English Renaissance Theater

The English Renaissance, beginning in the late 15th century and lasting through the early 17th century, had reached its height by the time The Two Noble Kinsmen was written and first presented. The movement flourished during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, an enthusiastic patron of drama and other arts, and continued after her death with the ascension of James I to the English throne. During her time on the throne (1558–1603), Elizabeth sanctioned the building of the country's first public theaters, opening the way for wider audiences to attend plays from authors such as Shakespeare, Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe. Theater became quite popular, and dramatists such as Shakespeare wrote plays at a fast pace to keep audiences entertained. These scripts were used mostly by actors in staging performances and were not necessarily intended to be published as literature in their own right. Plays were often owned by the theater company, not the authors, and playwrights frequently collaborated.

The typical theater experience of the time was a lively affair. Plays were performed in open air, with audiences made up of "groundlings"—people who paid a penny to attend and stood on the ground throughout the performance—and more well-to-do patrons who came to see and be seen, seated in balconies apart from the rowdy crowd. The aim of a play was primarily to entertain. Consequently, some plays were bawdy, used profanity, or expressed controversial ideas in politics or religion. To avoid being hassled or shut down by the local authorities who objected to such content, theaters were set up outside the city limits of London.

However, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James I brought theaters back into the city. His ascent to the English throne in 1603 initiated the Jacobean period (named after Jacobus, the Latin form of James). Audiences were attuned to—and expected—on-stage violence, some kind of political or moral corruption, classical allusions, and events determined by fate. The Two Noble Kinsmen has its share of crowd-pleasing elements: sword fighting between Arcite and Palamon; the exotic Amazon queen, Hippolyta (in ancient Greece, the Amazon was thought to be in Asia Minor, modern Turkey, or Iran) and her attractive, virginal sister Emilia (who makes remarks that to a modern audience may suggest a lesbian identity); a tyrannical king who refuses proper burials to noblemen who died in battle; and a surprise, fatalistic ending. Multiple love triangles emerge as well, with the noble cousins competing for Emilia and with the jailer's daughter torn between her wooer and her obsession with the unattainable Palamon. The jailer's daughter also fulfills the popular role of madwoman with her nonsense songs and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile, the countryfolk throw in some bawdy buffoonery: a popular dance number and a fool dressed as a baboon. Beyond all this are weddings, funerals, disguises, deceit, invocations to the classical gods, and last-minute reprieves. In short, the play offered plenty of bang for the Jacobean buck.

Gods and Goddesses

The characters in the play call on several gods and goddesses to witness events or assist them during travails. The most prominent in the story line include the following:

  • Act 1, Scene 1: Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, leads the procession after Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. He carries a torch, one of his typical attributes, and walks behind a boy scattering flowers, another of the god's attributes. Hymen is accompanied by a nymph carrying a wheaten garland, an entwined symbol of marriage and abundance.
  • Act 5, Scene 1: Arcite and his companion knights pray to Mars, the Roman god of war, for strength and victory in the upcoming fight with Palamon. Mars answers their petition with a clap of thunder and the sounds of clanging armor.
  • Act 5, Scene 1: Palamon and his knights invoke Venus, Roman goddess of love, so Palamon may win his love, Emilia. Venus offers a favorable sign of music and doves in response to this emotional petition.
  • Act 5, Scene 1: Emilia calls on the Roman goddess Diana, who served as protectress to virgin women. Emilia asks the goddess to help the man who loves her best win the contest. She also expresses thoughts of remaining a virgin in Diana's service and having no man, if neither Arcite nor Palamon emerges as the winner of the contest. Diana's response to her petition is a single rose that blooms but then falls, which Emilia interprets as a sign her virginity will also fall.

The authors include both Greek and Roman deities, even though the characters of the play are Greek. Why mix the gods up this way, when it would seem logical to include the Greek gods only? In the case of The Two Noble Kinsmen, it is possible the authors were using the names most familiar to their audience. The Romans had occupied Britain for centuries in early English history, so theatergoers might have recognized Roman names more easily than the corresponding Greek ones. Moreover, in Shakespeare's time ancient Greece and Rome were often lumped together as "Greco-Roman," blurring the lines between the two cultures. Indeed, the civilizations did have a fair amount of cultural interchange, with Rome often adopting existing Greek gods and calling them by Latin names. Furthermore, historical accuracy was not the goal of plays such as The Two Noble Kinsmen, which were written primarily to entertain. For these reasons it is possible the audience viewed the accurate naming of gods as unimportant.

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