38. The Two Noble Kinsmen
So, here we are. On the 6th January this year (2021), I started reading The Taming of the Shrew, and on the 15th December, I finished reading The Two Noble Kinsmen. It took me 50 weeks, rather than 38 as I had originally intended, but I have still managed to read every Shakespeare play and write a blog about each one within one year.
I wouldn’t say The Two Noble Kinsmen is the most fitting play to finish this journey with. It is quite an incoherent and confused play. You can certainly tell that it is not all Shakespeare’s work. Unlike Pericles, which is similarly co-authored, this play lacks warmth and charm. I struggled to like it but did, as always, find moments that were both exciting and interesting.
The whole Greek world of this play doesn’t really work for me. Though, I’ll admit that this might just be my personal dislike of Greek drama generally. On the whole, I find it all far too declamatory in style. There’s an awful lot of talking about events and feeling but not enough doing or acting. In a sense this play is very successful at imitating the Greek style, to the extent that I wonder whether Shakespeare and Fletcher (the co-author) are actually parodying it.
In particular, the title characters of Arcite and Palamon are completely childlike and absurd. The scene where they see Emilia for the first time is really quite funny. Before they see her, the two cousins are professing their love and respect for each other; after they see her, they descend into bickering over who saw her first and therefore who has the right to love her. Of course, neither of them cares to consider what Emilia might think about all this! Played right, this could be incredibly funny. Add to this, their determination to remain noble and honourable, even when they have become bitter rivals, there are plenty of opportunities for comedy.
The real heart and soul of the play comes in the unlikely (and unnamed) guise of the Jailer’s Daughter. She is completely besotted with Palamon and risks her life (and that of her father) to free him from prison. The majority of the play alternates between narrative scenes, relating to Arcite and Palamon’s pursuit of Emilia, and monologues from the Jailer’s Daughter, through which she gradually loses her mind. All of these monologues are brilliantly written (again, good audition material) and she really is a heart-breaking character – a kind of Ophelia of the common people.
Something else that is very striking about this play is the references to homosexuality. Again, I wonder whether this is part of the Greek imitation styling of the play. It appears fairly evident that Duke Theseus’ friend and General, Pirithous, is also his lover – despite Theseus’ imminent marriage to Hippolyta. Similarly, there is a scene in which Emilia professes her preference for women over men – somewhat ironic, when the main thrust (pardon the pun) of the plot is two men fighting over her love.
Amongst all of this, I think it is very possible to create a really quite powerful, thought-provoking and funny production of The Two Noble Kinsmen. It would require delicate handling combined with a certain amount of ruthlessness, but I definitely think it would be worth a try. It’s a play that I would probably rank as Shakespeare’s worst in terms of pure structure and coherency, yet it is also one that I would quite fancy having a go at reworking and directing.