Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher

Ah, the Shakespeare Wars. Did Shakespeare co-write The Two Noble Kinsmen? What parts did he write? It is generally accepted now that Shakespeare and John Fletcher collaborated on this play, as they did on Henry VIII

Fletcher was Shakespeare’s successor at The Kings Men after Shakespeare retired, and it appeared he was groomed for the job. The two collaborations (plus a third that is lost) are the last works we have from Shakespeare. For some reason, my Complete Shakespeare contains Henry VIII, but not The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Because of Covid-19, theaters are closed here in California, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival is cancelled. Thus, I doubt I am going to have many chances to see live theater in the near future. We have been getting by with video sources, even though they are not the same. I didn’t review it, but Phantom of the Opera was on YouTube for a weekend, and the kids and wife watched By Jeeves one night. 

But best of all at this point, The Globe in London is releasing filmed performances of various plays, including this one. 

The plot of The Two Noble Kinsmen is taken from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer borrowed most of the story from Boccacio.There are references to two prior stage adaptations of the story in various writings, but the originals of those have been lost. Thus, Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version is the first that survives. 

There are a few changes from the original. A framing story is added to explain the battled which sets the plot in motion. The prison escape is different. But other than that, it basically follows Chaucer’s tale. 

The play opens with three queens presenting a petition to Theseus and Hippolyta, rulers of Athens. The cruel Creon has dishonored the corpses of their dead husbands, and refused them burial. (Yes, this does appear to be a borrowing from Sophocles. No, Theseus and Creon do not appear in the same story in Greek Mythology - this was Boccacio’s invention.) Theseus agrees to battle against Creon, and wins. 

Fighting on Creon’s side are two aristocratic cousins, Palamon and Arcite. They both loathe Creon’s cruelty, but feel duty bound to fight for their home city. Injured in the battle, they are captured and imprisoned by the Athenians. While in prison, they pledge eternal friendship, and are practically kissing on each other, when they spot Emila, Hippolyta’s sister, walking in the garden. They are so smitten with her that they fight over who has the right to woo her, coming to blows. 

Arcite is released from prison, but banished, after a relative intervenes. Palamon later escapes with the help of the jailer’s daughter, who has fallen in love with him. (This is a chance from Chaucer - in the original, Palamon poisons the jailer.) Arcite disguises himself and gets a job as bodyguard for Emilia. He finds Palamon half-starved in the forest and brings him food and drink - and weapons so that they can eventually fight each other over Emilia. Meanwhile, the jailer’s daughter goes mad over her unrequited love and runs away, eventually taking up with a dance troupe. 

Arcite and Palamon are discovered, and about to be executed, but Emilia and Hippolyta intervene. Theseus agrees to have the two of them fight each other. The winner gets the hand of Emilia, and the loser gets executed. Emilia is horrified (and not too happy about her lack of say in the matter, but...she’s just a woman in Ancient Greece, so…) but Arcite and Palamon are all in - this will solve their dispute, after all. 

Before the match, Arcite, Palamon, and Emilia all pray to their gods. Arcite asks Mars to give him victory in the battle. Palamon asks Venus to give him the hand of Emilia. And Emilia ask Diana to let her marry the one who loves her the best. 

In the event, all three prayers are answered. Arcite wins the battle, but is thrown from his horse afterward and mortally wounded. As he dies, he reconciles with Palamon and gives his blessing to marry Emelia. 

As Theseus says at the end:

Never Fortune 
Did pay a subtler game. The conquered triumphs; 
The victor has the loss; yet in the passage 
The gods have been most equal.

I wouldn’t say that this play is one of Shakespeare’s finest. The language is good (and Shakespeare’s portions flow really well), but it doesn’t reach the heights like in his best plays. The plot is interesting, of course, but it also bears some resemblance to The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Like that play, there are some interesting lines that hint at a non-heterosexual orientation of the characters. While the homoerotic element doesn’t last as long as in Two Gentlemen, the two lead men seem to have a closer than normal bond. 

Even more interesting, though, is Emilia, who seems pretty reluctant to marry. Early on, she mentions a childhood friend who died young, and says she can never love a man like she did Flavina. 

“The true love 'tween maid and maid may be 
More than in sex dividual.”

Her lady-in-waiting, who also seems...close to her, notes that she is breathing hard. Later, while praying to Diana (not Venus, interestingly - she picks the virgin goddess), she says:

This is my last 
Of vestal office. I am bride-habited 
But maiden-hearted.

Shakespeare is full of stuff like this: gender bending, complicated erotic bonds, and an acknowledgement that marriage (in the traditional, patriarchal sense) was an economic and political arrangement superimposed on a tangle of romantic and erotic attachments and preferences. 

While Emilia is reluctant to marry, this isn’t the normal way women in Shakespeare approach love and sex. Usually, the women are far from reluctant. Indeed, they are often more sexually aggressive than the men. The Jailer’s Daughter (never named) is in this category, relentlessly pursuing Palamon as she goes mad. 

She gets a happy ending, though. Her wooer (a young man who is never named) is enlisted to pretend to be Palamon and court her. His kindness and love (and perhaps sex - it is at least implied) wins her over and restores her sanity. By the end, it is clear that she and he will be happily married. 

The production itself was outstanding. It was set more or less in Medieval England, which made sense given the presence of a Morris Dance troupe. The music for the dance scenes (and throughout the play) was composed by Eliza Carthy, and performed by a small ensemble live on stage. (Depending on the piece, there were trombone, guitar, banjo, violin, and various percussion instruments. I heartily approve of this.) 

As Arcite and Palamon, Bryan Dick and Paul Stocker, respectively, were excellent. Ellora Torchia as Emilia was also outstanding - and believably beautiful enough to inspire two guys to lose their heads. The rest of the cast was great - unsurprisingly solid throughout. 

The show was stolen, however, by Francesca Mills as the jailer’s daughter. She is a Little Person with a long list of credits for acting, singing, and dancing roles. She did all three in this, and was just electric. I mean, when she was on stage, you could not keep your eyes off of her. Both in her sane and insane moods, she captured the character perfectly. 

This play will be streaming on YouTube through May 17, if you want to watch it. (Next up is A Winter’s Tale, which I plan to watch as well.) For more information, here is the website. 

 Grand Spectacle

 Arcite and Palamon



Over the years, I have seen 27 of the (arguably) 39 plays written by Shakespeare. I am not counting this one as “live,” but it is a wobbler - the video is of a live stage performance, not a movie adaptation. My wife has seen even more than I have, because of her annual trip to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Anyway, here are the ones I have reviewed on this blog: 

Hamlet* (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Hamlet* (Bakersfield College 2017)

* indicates the ones we have seen with at least some of the kids.

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