The Plays We Overlook: The Two Noble Kinsmen

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The Plays We Overlook: The Two Noble Kinsmen

By James Cappio

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Is there any play in the canon less known than The Two Noble Kinsmen? And not just because of what Moe the bartender did to the manuscript in The Simpsons (see illustration). There it is on the title page of the 1634 quarto: “The Two Noble Kinsmen—Written by the memorable Worthies of their time Mr. John Fletcher and Mr. William Shakespeare Gents.” Thanks to this acknowledgement of collaboration, it is only too tempting to ask who wrote what (so that we can attribute the bits we like to Shakespeare and the ones we don’t to Fletcher).

But to focus on who wrote what blinds us to the not insubstantial charms of this play. Approached on its own terms, Kinsmen is a highly playable staging of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale.” True, it could use some cutting. For example, the description of the seconds in 4.2 is ill-digested Chaucer. And the “rustics” who prepare a Morris dance for Theseus are no match for the rude mechanicals who staged Pyramus and Thisbe for him (just as the schoolmaster who tries to instruct them is no match for Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost). Yet there are engaging characters. For example, the Jailer’s Daughter, driven mad by lovesickness, is a touching figure who withstands the explicit invocations of Ophelia in 3.5 and 4.1.

But the play stands or falls on the relationship between the kinsmen, Arcite and Palamon. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona Shakespeare gave us what we might now call a “bromance.” In Kinsmen we get what we might now call “frenemies”—bosom buddies one moment, at each others’ throats the next. The best example is the first; in 2.2, just after Palamon has said “I do not think it possible our friendship/Should ever leave us” and Arcite replies “Till our deaths it cannot” (114–115), the mere sight of the love object Emilia causes them to turn on each other (Palamon: “Friendship, blood/And all the ties between us, I disclaim/If thou once think upon her” [2.2.174–176]). I find the kinsmen’s exaggerated fickleness a more effective way of undermining the male friendship tradition than Shakespeare accomplished in Two Gentlemen. (Is it coincidence that there is some play on the word “gentleman,” always with reference to Arcite? If so, is it too much to connect him to Proteus, the heel of Two Gentlemen?)

Perhaps what The Two Noble Kinsmen needs to find its proper place is a high-profile revival such as the current one by the RSC. We must wait and see.

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at shakesyear.wordpress.com.

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