Shakespearing #39 by David Foley
The Two Noble Kinsmen
“There’s many a man alive that hath outliv’d/The love o’ th’ people.” This is Palamon in The Two Noble Kinsmen, congratulating himself that his impending execution will spare him this and “prevent/The loathsome misery of age.” It’s a line Shakespeare supposedly wrote.
One of the stories you can tell yourself while reading this last play is a story of youth and age. John Fletcher was in his mid-thirties when he collaborated with Shakespeare, an age when Shakespeare was writing Henry V, As You Like It, and Hamlet, among others. Fletcher’s scenes in Two Noble Kinsmen are light, charming, sunny. Shakespeare’s are scored with images of death, old age, decay. He opens the play with a strange and startling scene. Three queens appear in Athens, seemingly out of nowhere (in the Chaucerian source they accost Theseus on his way home from conquest), to lament their husbands, killed in war at Thebes and left to rot in the field by King Creon, who will not let them “take th’ offense/Of mortal loathsomeness from the blest eye/Of holy Phoebus, but infects the winds/With stench of our dead lords.” One of them begs Hippolyta to tell Theseus what she would do “if he i’ th’ blood-siz’d field lay swoll’n/Showing the sun his teeth, grinning at the moon.”
This world of cost and woe becomes knowing and sophisticated when Fletcher takes over. We take a couple of steps away from the story and feel ourselves breathe easier. (You can guiltily start to prefer Fletcher’s scenes.) Perhaps this is most obvious in the treatment of the Jailer’s Daughter, whose lust for Palamon is refreshingly straightforward (“I would fain enjoy him”) but lacks the lived reality of desire that Shakespeare gives his love-struck women. The account of her madness—flowers, water, snatches of old songs—seems deliberately intended to echo Ophelia, but does so with the prettiness of a pre-Raphaelite painting.
The charm of this works best in the friendship of Arcite and Palamon, the kinsmen of the title. In the funniest scene, the cousins, about to duel to the death for the love of Emilia, solicitously help each other into their armor.
Arcite: Do I pinch you?
Arcite: Is it not too heavy?
Palamon: I have worn a lighter,/
But I shall make it serve.
The image of same-sex affection running through the play makes we wonder again, as I did in my Twelfth Night posting, what signals were being sent and received in Shakespeare’s theater. There’s the bachelor Pirithous’s love for Theseus. “How his longing/Follows his friend,” says Emilia, before telling about her own love for her late childhood friend Flavina, a love, Hippolyta suggests, that means she “shall never…/Love any that’s call’d man.” Pirithous has a few suggestive lines. In a play full of bawdy puns, he gives the Morris dancers “something/To paint your pole withal,” and says of Palamon, “O heaven, what more than man is this!” And his praise of a young knight’s beauty is suspiciously lyric. And, of course, there are the cousins, who, Arcite declares, “are one another’s wife.” This is not to give a queer reading of the play, but to wonder whether an element of the Blackfriars crowd was being played to. Fletcher’s parting words in the Epilogue are playfully ambiguous: “He that has/Lov’d a handsome wench then, show his face—/’Tis strange if none be here.”
It’s left to Shakespeare, though, to recall us to the cost of desire. After Arcite’s death grants Emilia to Palamon, he says: “O cousin,/That we should things desire which do cost us/The loss of our desire!”
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.