The Two Noble Kinsmen
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN
A Jailer speaks with his Daughter’s “Wooer” over “the old business” (II.i.17) — a potential match with the Daughter. It doesn’t seem very Shakespearean for even relatively important characters such as Jailer’s Daughter not to have real names. The Daughter enters with “strewings”: rushes for covering the floor of the kinsmen’s prison. She is impressed with them: “I think fame but stammers ’em, they stand a grise above the reach of report” (II.i.26-27). She rhapsodizes about their classy behavior despite imprisonment. “I never saw ’em,” remarks Wooer, anticlimactically. The Jailer points out Arcite in the window above, but his Daughter corrects him, identifying Palamon. The Jailer wants to escape the gaze of the prisoners, but the Daughter sighs, “It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the diff’rence of men!” (II.i.53-54), no doubt glancing with dismay at the obtuse Wooer.
With a spasm of “Ubi sunt” — “Where is Thebes now? where is our noble country? / Where are our friends and kindreds? (II.ii.7-8) — Palamon waxes nostalgic over countless aspects of their former lives. Oddly, he emphasizes the loss of soldierly opportunity: “Our good swords now / (Better the red-ey’d god of war nev’r ware), Ravish’d our sides, like age must run to rust” (II.ii.20-22). Arcite, oddly, emphasizes love and family: “The sweet embraces of a loving wife, / Loaden with kisses, arm’d with thousand Cupids, / Shall never clasp our necks; no issue know us; / No figures of ourselves shall we ev’r see” (II.ii.30-33). Palamon laments the alienation from “our Theban hounds, / That shook the aged forest with their echoes” (II.ii.46-47). The kinsmen speak with patriotic nostalgia here about their former court life, despite this being “at odds with their former condemnation of its faults” and in spite of their despair later (III.ii.) over the “moral laxity” of Thebes (Wells 384).
But soon the two adopt a Boethian philosophy about their life imprisonment. At least “our fortunes / Were twin’d together” (II.ii.63-64). Arcite suggests, “Let’s think this prison holy sancutary / To keep us from corruption of worse men” (II.ii.71-72). “We are one another’s wife, ever begetting / New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance; / We are, in one another, families: / I am your heir, and you are mine” (II.ii.80-83). “Were we at liberty, / A wife might part us lawfully, or business, / Quarrels consume us, envy of ill men / Crave our acquaintance” (II.ii.88-91). Palamon adds, “What had we been, old in the court of Creon, / Where sin is justice, lust and ignorance / The virtues of the great ones?” (II.ii.105-107). They agree to think of prison as sanctuary from human corruption.
Emilia and her attendant, another unnamed “Woman,” stroll through the garden below, identifying the narcissus and waxing eloquent about the rose:
It is the very emblem of a maid;
For when the west wind courts her gently,
How modestly she blows, and paints the sun
With her chaste blushes! When the north comes near her,
Rude and impatient, then, like chastity,
She locks her beauties in her bud again,
And leaves him to base briers.
The Woman adds, “Yet, good madam, / Sometimes her modesty will blow so far she falls for’t” (II.ii.143-144). Palamon is lovestruck: “Never till now was I in prison, Arcite” (II.ii.132). As the two women approach some bawdy talk and depart, Palamon remarks, “Might not a man well lose himself and love her?” (II.ii.154-155). Arcite acknowledges that he is also stricken: “Now I feel my shackles” (II.ii.157). Perhaps we have another Shakespearean instance of “mimetic desire,” as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Garber 893). “I saw her first,” says Palamon (II.ii.160), as in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. But Arcite claims that Palamon loves her as a goddess; “I love her as a woman, to enjoy her” (II.ii.164). The two “noble” kinsmen instantly dissolve their friendship. Palamon threatens, “Friendship, blood, / And all the ties between us, I disclaim / If thou once think upon her” (II.ii.172-174). Arcite adamantly insists he will love her despite Palamon’s madness. As the Keeper approachs, Palamon warns, “I shall live / To knock thy brains out with my shackles” (II.ii.218-219).
Arcite is taken away, and it turns out that Prince Pirithous has liberated him, but Arcite is banished from the land. Palamon is jealous, since Arcite could raise an army in Thebes and impress Emilia. “Were I at liberty, I would do things / Of such a virtuous greatness that this lady, / This blushing virgin, should take manhood to her / And seek to ravish me” (II.ii.256-259). Palamon hears the “pelting scurvy news” (II.ii.266) that he is to be taken to a different cell without such open windows. He threatens to harass the Keeper, but has no choice. “Farewell, kind window. / May rude wind never hurt thee!” (II.ii.274-275).
Arcite is conversely envious of Palamon and paranoid about his banishment: “O, ’twas a studied punishment” (II.iii.4). He envies Palamon:
Twenty to one, he’ll come to speak to her,
And if she be as gentle as she’s fair,
I know she’s his; he has a tongue will tame tempests,
And make the wild rocks wanton.
Four country people stroll by with more stage debris: a garland. They discuss an upcoming fair, and Arcite resolves to attend in disguise and participate in the games. Perhaps he’ll catch a glimpse of “her.”
The Jailer’s Daughter has been affected by Palamon’s politenesses and has decided that she’s in love with him, hopelessly because of their class differences: “To marry him is hopeless; / To be his whore is witless. Out upon’t! / What pushes are we wenches driven to / When fifteen once has found us!” (II.iv.4-7). “As Palamon and Arcite, in the prison, have fallen in love at first sight with Emilia, so has the Daughter with Palamon; but whereas Emilia is determined (at first) to preserve her virginity, the Daughter is desperate with desire to lose hers” (Wells 387). She resolves to help Palamon escape: “Say I ventur’d / To set him free? what says the law then? / Thus much for law or kindred! I will do it, / And this night, or to-morrow, he shall love me” (II.iv.30-33). It’s interesting to consider this unwise resolve in light of the Theseus frame of the play: Theseus was helped out of prison and instructed how to kill the Minotaur by a woman he jilted. (See Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women: Ariadne.)
Theseus and his court have been impressed with Arcite’s running and wrastling talents and suspect he is more noble than his clothes suggest: “Mark how his virtue, like a hidden sun, / Breaks through his baser garments” (II.v.23-24). Asked by Theseus why he has come to these parts, Arcite answers, “To purchase name, and do my ablest service” (II.v.26). Pirithous assigns him to serve Emilia, so he gets to kiss her hand. Theseus makes sure everyone has remembered that tomorrow is the day to make observance “To flow’ry May, in Dian’s wood” (II.v.51) — so jot that down. (Note to self: tomorrow, be carefree.)
The Jailer’s Daughter has liberated Palamon and plans to join him, despite the inevitable jailhouse and paternal fall-out. “I love him beyond love and beyond reason, / Or wit, or safety. I have made him know it. / I care not, I am desperate” (II.vi.11-13).