The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Plot Summary

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Summary

Prologue and Act 1

Set in ancient Greece, The Two Noble Kinsmen follows the story of Arcite and Palamon, first cousins and best friends. The Prologue informs the audience the story is based on a tale told by Chaucer, though the play may not attain the same high literary standard. The speaker asks the audience's indulgence and hopes they will find the play entertaining.

As Act 1 opens in Athens, three grieving queens in black interrupt Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding procession on the way to the feast. The queens' husbands have died in battle against Creon, but the cruel king will not allow the new widows to collect and bury them properly. The queens plead with Theseus to challenge Creon, and Theseus's family and friends also urge him to do so. Though reluctant to postpone his wedding night, he agrees and departs for Thebes. Meanwhile in Thebes, Arcite and Palamon discuss leaving the kingdom, for they cannot abide their uncle Creon's tyrannical rule. Before they decide what to do, a messenger arrives, calling the noble cousins to Creon's service against Theseus, who has arrived and means business. Despite their objections to Creon as a ruler, they feel compelled to support their family and defend their city. Thus, they join the fight on Creon's side.

Back in Athens, Hippolyta and her sister Emilia discuss men and love. Hippolyta notes the lifelong, loving friendship between Theseus and Pirithous who have weathered many storms together. Emilia then tells of her youthful love for her friend Flavina, who died when the girls were 11 years old. Emilia claims she will never love a man, a statement Hippolyta doubts.

Theseus wins the fight in Thebes against Creon and bids the widowed queens to collect their dead husbands from the battlefield and bury them. Arcite and Palamon, seriously wounded and unconscious, are brought to Theseus as prisoners of war. Recognizing their nobility, he orders the best care to help them recover, for their lives are worth more to him than all of Thebes. He then brings them to Athens as prisoners. In Athens the queens lead a funeral procession for their husbands, each following the path to their family's burial plot in turn. Death comes to all, lament the widows as they go their separate ways.

Act 2

Arcite and Palamon are taken to a prison in Athens, where the jailer and his daughter receive them. The daughter and her wooer (names not given) have discussed marriage, but no firm plans have been made. The cousins try to make the best of their imprisonment, taking comfort in their friendship to get them through the hardship. However, when they see Emilia from a window, both fall in love with her, soon leading to bitter enmity between them. Arcite is then freed from prison and banished from Athens as punishment. However, he decides not to leave because he wants to be near Emilia and so remains unlawfully in Athens in disguise. Hiding in the forest, he encounters a group of countryfolk on their way to watch athletic games in celebration of May Day. To earn some money, they plan to perform an entertaining dance for the Duke later on. In disguise, Arcite decides to enter the games, hoping to gain a position near Emilia. Winning the contests, Arcite impresses the Duke and his entourage with his skills and nobility. At Theseus's request, Pirithous offers Arcite a position as servant to Emilia. Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon, who has remained imprisoned. She decides to free him, thinking he will then love her.

Act 3

Freed by the jailer's daughter, but not heeding her instructions to stay hidden in the forest and wait for her to return, Palamon wanders off and encounters Arcite. Palamon calls his cousin a traitor for falling in love with Emilia after Palamon saw her first. They agree the only way to resolve their differences is to fight for her. Arcite agrees to bring food, armor, and swords later that day so they can have a fair fight. When Arcite returns with food, Palamon eats to restore his strength. They resolve to fight later, after Palamon has had time to recover. Meanwhile, as night falls, the jailer's daughter searches in the forest for Palamon, who is nowhere to be found. She fears wolves have attacked and killed him. And she fears her father, although not responsible himself, will hang for Palamon's escape. The young woman thinks of killing herself to end her sorrow. She shivers beneath the cold stars and begins to babble nonsensically about sailing away in a ship made of seashells. As she sings of riding through the world to search for Palamon, she still thinks of death.

The next day the countryfolk prepare their entertainment for the Duke. The performers are led by the Schoolmaster who will use elegant language to introduce the dance. But they discover they are one woman short to perform the traditional lively Morris country dance, characterized by costumes and bells, putting the performance in jeopardy. Luckily the jailer's daughter, now apparently quite mad, wanders by, and they recruit her to take part in the entertainment. The Duke's entourage then arrives while hunting, and the Schoolmaster invites them to stay for the entertainment. The performers do their dance, which the nobles enjoy and reward with money before continuing their hunt. The Duke's party then encounters Arcite and Palamon dueling in the forest. Outraged at the illegal fight, Theseus declares that both cousins will die for it, but Hippolyta, Emilia, and Pirithous intervene to try to save their lives. In the end it is decided the cousins will have a formal contest one month later to decide whom Emilia will marry. The winner will marry Emilia, but the loser, and his attendant knights, will die. The cousins agree to leave and then return to Athens for the contest, putting aside their differences until then.

Act 4

Palamon clears the jailer's name, and the jailer and his daughter—still mad—are pardoned. Palamon gives the daughter money for a dowry in gratitude for the kindness she has shown him. The wooer then arrives to tell the jailer—unaware until this moment—that his daughter has gone mad. The wooer has saved her from drowning and left her in the care of an uncle, the jailer's brother. The uncle and the daughter now approach. As she sings songs and talks about her upcoming wedding to Palamon, the others humor her by going along with her ramblings. The jailer then consults a doctor, who suggests the wooer pretend to be Palamon when he visits her. In doing so he may persuade her to eat and sleep, and her sanity may return.

As the fight between the cousins approaches, Emilia tries to choose one for a husband but can't do it. Both are equally fine and noble, and she does not want to condemn one by choosing the other. When the cousins and their knights arrive, Emilia mourns that any of them must die for love of her, who never wished it anyway.

Act 5 and Epilogue

Theseus invites the combatants to pray again at the temple before the fight. Arcite prays to Mars for victory, Palamon prays to Venus for love, and Emilia prays to Diana, the protectress of virgin maids, for the man who loves her best to win her hand. Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter has been responding favorably to her wooer as he pretends to be Palamon. They have kissed a few times, and she seems content. The doctor encourages the wooer to sleep with her if she asks, convinced such action will cure her. Although the jailer objects, he does not interfere.

Emilia refuses to witness the fight, choosing instead to wait nearby. She learns how it's going from the cheers of the crowd and from a servant who reports to her frequently. Finally, Arcite wins and is led to Emilia by Theseus, who proclaims a marriage will take place. All agree it's a shame Palamon must die, for he is noble and has fought bravely, but they leave him to his fate.

As Palamon and his knights prepare for death, a cry goes up and a Messenger arrives to stop the execution. Pirithous then arrives and reveals that Arcite has been crushed by his horse in an accident and will certainly die shortly. Carried in on a chair, Arcite freely gives Emilia to Palamon to wed. He asks his cousin's forgiveness and then dies, leaving Theseus to ponder on these strange events. Each person has received what they prayed for: Arcite received victory, Palamon received love, and Emilia, if she must, received the man who loved her best. Theseus tells how Arcite admitted Palamon loved Emilia first, and now the Duke resolves to take Palamon's knights into his own service rather than having them executed. All will attend Arcite's funeral and mourn his death, but after that they will celebrate the wedding of Palamon and Emilia. This is, in the end, what the gods have ordained, and it is not for mortals to question.

Finally, in the Epilogue the speaker asks the audience not to hiss in disapproval at the play, for the authors and actors have tried to offer an entertaining way to pass the time. The speaker promises better plays will come along soon and bids the audience goodnight.

The Two Noble Kinsmen Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Three queens beg Theseus to make war on the tyrant Creon.

Rising Action

2 Theseus, victorious, takes Arcite and Palamon as prisoners.

3 Arcite and Palamon become rivals in their love for Emilia.

4 Arcite is banished but becomes Emilia's servant in disguise.

5 The jailer's daughter frees Palamon, whom she loves.

6 Arcite offers food and armor to Palamon so they can fight.

7 The jailer's daughter goes mad from unrequited love.

8 Theseus catches the cousins dueling in the woods.

9 They agree to a contest for Emilia, with the loser to die.

10 The cousins battle while gentle Emilia refuses to watch.

Climax

11 Arcite defeats Palamon, who is then sentenced to die.

Falling Action

12 Palamon and his knights nobly prepare for death.

13 The jailer's daughter becomes engaged to the wooer.

14 Arcite's grave injury halts Palamon's execution.

Resolution

15 Begging for pardon, Arcite gives Emilia to Palamon and dies.

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