The Two Noble Kinsmen | Study Guide

William Shakespeare & John Fletcher

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The Two Noble Kinsmen | Themes

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Nobility of Character

Having a noble, or honorable and honest, character is important to many in the play, including Theseus, Arcite, and Palamon. Characters often remark on noble birth or noble qualities of others, lauding virtues such as bravery (Arcite and Palamon in battle), good manners (Palamon treating the jailer's daughter respectfully), and duty (Theseus choosing duty over pleasure).

Theseus's chivalric nobility presents itself most notably in two ways. First, he takes up the cause of the widowed queens by fighting Creon to regain their husbands' bodies. Second, he is reluctant to break his own oath that Arcite and Palamon will die for their illegal duel. Breaking an oath is viewed as dishonorable, and Theseus wishes to maintain his honor. In both scenes, however, the pleas of women shape the outcome, showing it is also noble to rule with compassion and mercy. Moreover, Theseus is fair-minded and generous, two certainly noble qualities.

Nobility is shown through duty and honor in the characters of Arcite and Palamon. Although they despise Creon's tyrannous actions, duty binds them to their uncle's cause. "To be neutral to him were dishonor, / Rebellious to oppose; therefore we must / With him stand to the mercy of our fate," says Palamon reluctantly in Act 1, Scene 2. Arcite shows nobility of character when he aids Palamon in the forest. Arcite brings him food to restore his strength as well as armor for a fair fight, rather than take advantage of his weakened cousin.

Nobility is a quality that also helps the characters endure their fates. Even if a character must die, he can die with dignity if he believes he has maintained a noble character. Just before his own death, Arcite confesses his transgressions and asks for Palamon's forgiveness, showing a person needn't be perfect to be noble. He faces death bravely as Palamon faced his. Emilia, too, behaves with dignity when she accepts the inevitability of marriage—which she would sooner avoid.

Loving Friendship

Pairs of close friends populate The Two Noble Kinsmen, the most prominent being Arcite and Palamon, who love and admire each other. When they first find themselves in prison, they take comfort in being there together. "Is there record of any two that loved / Better than we do, Arcite?" asks Palamon rhetorically in Act 2, Scene 1. Even when the cousins become rivals for Emilia's favor, their true affection is evident as they embrace and bid each other regretful goodbyes on more than one occasion. Also inseparable friends are Theseus and Pirithous, who have fought side by side and survived dangerous ordeals together. Hippolyta observes in Act 1, Scene 3, "Their knot of love, / Tied, weaved, entangled, with so true, so long / ... / May be outworn, never undone." In the same scene, Emilia describes her own youthful relationship with the late Flavina as another model of an intimate, loving friendship. The two girls shared every taste and activity, and Emilia declares their relationship was every bit as deep as that of lovers, though different.

Providence

Whether it is termed fate, fortune, chance, or "the gods," the characters in the play believe some events lie beyond their control and must be accepted. Sometimes the way an event turns out is seen as a judgment on a person's character in that the good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and the best person wins. No alternative is ever discussed to accepting providence's direction in human affairs. Life seems so unpredictable that to struggle against providence does not seem to have much value to it, even if the characters think to try. Some free will and choice is present, but it does not seem to matter in the end. This way of looking at life and events is seen early in the play when Arcite and Palamon accept they must support their Creon. "Let th' event, / That never-erring arbitrator, tell us / When we know all ourselves, and let us follow / The becking of our chance," Arcite tells his cousin in Act 1, Scene 2. Here, he means the outcome of the "event," or battle, will be an accurate judge of who is in the right.

Later as the cousins prepare to fight each other in Act 5, Scene 1, the theme of providence recurs, as Arcite says, "So hoist we / The sails, that must these vessels port even where / The heavenly limiter pleases." The vessels are their bodies, and their fight will steer them to whatever outcome fate, "the heavenly limiter," decrees: life or death. Later in the scene, Arcite, Palamon, and Emilia all invoke different gods to aid them in bringing victory and love. While the characters do their best to live noble lives and act righteously, they also believe some events are determined by forces outside of themselves.

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