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The Two Noble Kinsmen is a Jacobean tragicomedy, first published in 1634 and attributed to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Its plot derives from "The Knight's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
Formerly a point of controversy, the dual attribution is now generally accepted by the scholarly consensus.
Researchers have applied a range of tests and techniques to determine the relative shares of Shakespeare and Fletcher in the play—Hallet Smith, in The Riverside Shakespeare, cites "metrical characteristics, vocabulary and word-compounding, incidence of certain contractions, kinds and uses of imagery, and characteristic lines of certain types"—in their attempts to distinguish the shares of Shakespeare and Fletcher in the play. Smith offers a breakdown that agrees, in general if not in all details, with those of other scholars:
Shakespeare—Act I, scenes 1–3; Act II, scene 1; Act III, scene 1; Act V, scene 1, lines 34-173, and scenes 3 and 4.
Fletcher—Prologue; Act II, scenes 2–6; Act III, scenes 2–6; Act IV, scenes 1 and 3; Act V, scene 1, lines 1–33, and scene 2; Epilogue.
"uncertain"—Act I, scenes 4 and 5; Act IV, scene 2.
Links between The Two Noble Kinsmen and contemporaneous works point to 1613–14 as its date of authorship and performance. A reference to Palamon, one of the protagonists of Kinsmen, in Ben Jonson's 1614 play Bartholomew Fair, Act IV, scene ii, appears to indicate that Kinsmen was known and familiar to audiences at that time. In Francis Beaumont's The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn (1613), the second anti-masque features this cast of rural characters: pedant, May Lord and Lady, servingman and chambermaid, tavern host and hostess, shepherd and his wench, and two "bavians" (male and female baboon). The same cast slightly simplified (minus wench and one "bavian") enacts the Morris dance in Kinsmen, II,v,120-38. A successful "special effect" in Beaumont's masque, designed for a single performance, appears to have been adopted and adapted into Kinsmen, indicating that the play followed the masque at no great interval.
The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on 8 April 1634; the quarto was published later that year by the bookseller John Waterson, printed by Thomas Cotes. The play was not included in the First Folio (1623) or any of the subsequent Folios of Shakespeare's works, though it was included in the second Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1679.
A prologue informs the audience that the play is based on a story from Chaucer.
Three queens come to plead with Theseus and Hippolyta, rulers of Athens, to avenge the deaths of their husbands at the hands of the tyrant Creon of Thebes. Creon has killed the three kings and refuses to allow them proper burial. Theseus agrees to wage war on Creon.
In Thebes, Palamon and Arcite, cousins and close friends, are bound by duty to fight for Creon, though they are appalled by his tyranny. In a hard-fought battle Palamon and Arcite enact prodigies of courage, but the Thebans are defeated by Theseus. Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned, but philosophically resign themselves to their fate. Their stoicism is instantly destroyed when from their prison window they see the Athenian princess Emilia. Both fall in love with her, and their friendship turns to bitter rivalry. Arcite is released after a relative intercedes on his behalf. He is banished from Athens, but he disguises himself, wins a local wrestling match, and is appointed as Emilia's attendant.
Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and helps him escape. She follows him, but he ignores her: still obsessed with Emilia. He lives in the forest half-starved, where he meets Arcite. The two argue, but Arcite offers to bring Palamon food, drink and armaments so that they can meet in an equal fight over Emilia.
The jailer's daughter, forsaken, has gone mad. She sings and babbles in the forest. She meets a troupe of local countrymen who want to perform a Morris dance before the king and queen. Theseus and Hippolyta appear, hunting. The yokels perform a bizarre act for them with the jailer's mad daughter. The royal couple reward them.
Arctite returns with the food and weapons. After a convivial dinner with reminiscences, the two fight. Theseus and his entourage arrive on the scene. He orders that Palamon and Arcite be arrested and executed. Hippolyta and Emilia intervene, and so Theseus agrees to a public tournament between the two for Emilia's hand. Each warrior will be allowed three companions to assist them. The loser and his companion knights will be executed.
The jailer and his friends rescue his daughter. He tries to restore her mental health. With the advice of a doctor, he encourages her former suitor to pretend to be Palamon so that she will be gradually accustomed to see him as her true love. His devotion slowly wins her over.
Before the tournament, Arcite prays to Mars that he win the battle; Palamon prays to Venus that he marry Emilia; Emilia prays to Diana that she be wed to the one who loves her best. Each prayer is granted: Arcite wins the combat, but is then thrown from his horse and dies, leaving Palamon to wed Emilia.
In addition to whatever public performances occurred ca. 1613–14, evidence suggests a performance at Court in 1619. In 1664, after the theatres had re-opened with the Restoration, Sir William Davenant produced an adaptation of The Two Noble Kinsmen for the Duke's Company titled The Rivals. Thomas Betterton played "Philander," Davenant's version of Palamon. Samuel Pepys saw Davenant's production, and judged it "no excellent play, but good acting in it" (10 Sept. 1664).
The Two Noble Kinsmen is the only one of Shakespeare's plays that has never been adapted for film or television.
In The Simpsons' Season 15 episode "Co-Dependent's Day," after Moe unthinkingly gives away a rare 1886 bottle of Chateau Latour, he proceeds to dry his tears with another priceless collector's item, an original manuscript of The Two Noble Kinsmen.
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