In 1613, at the very end of his career, Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher in writing two plays.
Fletcher was fifteen years Shakespeare's junior and between 1606 and 1625 (he died in the latter year) he wrote, alone or in collaboration, some fifty plays. The most notable of these were with Francis Beaumont, so that "Beaumont and Fletcher" is almost a single word in the history of English literature.
The Shakespeare-Fletcher collaborations have all but vanished, as such. One of them, Henry VIII is generally included in editions of Shakespeare's collected works and is presented as solely by him, with no mention of Fletcher. The other collaboration, The Two Noble Kinsmen, is treated quite the reverse. It is generally omitted from Shakespeare's collected works.
Recent scholarship, however, seems to make it reasonably certain that Shakespeare wrote a major part of it, and it is included as one of the volumes of the Signet Classic Shakespeare. The authorship is given as by "William Shakespeare and John Fletcher."
Chaucer, of all admired…
The play begins with a Prologue (probably written by Fletcher) which gives the source of the content of the drama. Shakespeare had done this once before in connection with Pericles (see page I-181), written some five years earlier.
One cannot help wondering if this sort of thing isn't a sign of a certain insecurity on the part of the playwright. Uncertain as to the worth of the play, does he call on the name of a revered ancient as a shield against criticism?
Thus, the Prologue, hoping (rather timorously) that the play meets approval, says:
It has a noble breeder, and a pure,
A learned, and a poet never went
More famous yet 'twixt Po and silver Trent.
Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives:
– Prolog, lines 10-13
Geoffrey Chaucer was born about 1340 and died in 1400. He was at the peak of his fame during the reign of Richard II (see Richard II). His wife was a lady in waiting to the second wife of John of Gaunt, an uncle of Richard II and an important character in the play of that name. What's more, she was sister to John of Gaunt's third wife.
Chaucer is widely considered the first great writer in English (as opposed to the older Anglo-Saxon or Norman-French languages) and as the father of English literature. Placing him among the most prominent poets of western Europe (between the Po River in northern Italy and the Trent River in central England) is not an undue exaggeration.
Chaucer's masterpiece is the Canterbury Tales, published in the last decade of his life. This pictured a group of twenty-nine varied individuals, united in the accident that all were on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. They planned to amuse themselves on the way by each telling (according to the original plan) two stories, making fifty-eight in all. Only twenty-three stories actually appear, so that less than half the original plan was carried through, but what exists is still splendid because of the wide variety in content and style and because of the interesting characterization of each pilgrim, both in description and in the story he or she chooses to tell.
One of the pilgrims was a knight, and his tale was the first to be told. This "Knight's Tale," which serves as the source of The Two Noble Kinsmen is itself taken from the poem La Teseida of Giovanni Boccaccio.
It is a tale of courtly love, treating with seriousness that artificial game of man and woman popularized by the troubadours of southern France in the time of the Crusades. By the conventions of courtly love, a woman was treated in a semifeudal, semireligious manner, with the lover serving her as both a vassal and a worshiper. The lover had to fulfill every whim of his mistress and suffer the extremes of emotion in a manner that had little if any relation to real life, but has affected storybook romance down to our own day. Such love could not exist in marriage but, according to convention, had to face insuperable barriers, such as the marriage of the mistress to someone else. Courtly love was mock passion, mock heroics, mock poetry, with nothing real but the noise it made.
Near the beginning of his career as a playwright, Shakespeare satirized courtly love rather amusingly in his Love's Labor's Lost (see page I-437). (It was far more effectively blasted in the great Spanish novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first part of which appeared in 1605. The love of Don Quixote for Dulcinea del Toboso reduced the conventions of courtly love to ridicule once and for all.)
In The Two Noble Kinsmen Shakespeare and Fletcher treat courtly love seriously, but so lost are its conventions to us of the twentieth century that we cannot-even when Shakespeare asks us to. And at that, perhaps Shakespeare didn't try very hard to win us over. Those portions of the play which he wrote seem to have been pageantlike in nature. Shakespeare was writing "spectacle."
Than Robin Hood
The pageantry and spectacle of the play may even have been forced upon it by the pressure of having to live up to its Chaucerian source (like a modern trying to make a musical out of a Shakespearean play). At least, Fletcher, in the Prologue, begs the audience not to hiss lest Chaucer turn in his grave and say:
From me the witless chaff of such a writer
That blasts my bays and my famed works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood!"
– Prolog, lines 18-21
That great folk hero, Robin Hood, was known to the English public through a series of popular ballads which first appear (as far as modern knowledge is concerned) in Chaucer's lifetime. These ballads were enormously popular but as serious poetry were quite insignificant. They were analogous, in a way, to our own enormously popular but literarily insignificant TV westerns.
… child of Ver
The play opens with a scene which is thought to be Shakespearean.
Hymen enters. He is the Greek god of marriage, and is a mere personification concerning whom there are no well-known myths. Following Hymen are a variety of nymphs and then a wedding party-a groom, a bride, the groom's friend, the bride's sister. Everything is joyous and springlike and the first words of the play are a song about early flowers:
Primrose, first-born child of Ver,
Merry spring-time's harbinger,
– Act I, scene i, lines 7-8
"Ver" is an obsolete term for spring, from the French vert (meaning "green"-from which such words as "verdure" and "verdant" are also derived).
The marriage that is being so celebrated is between none other than Theseus and Hippolyta, the same couple who were being married at the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-18). In fact, some critics suggest that Shakespeare used Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" as the original inspiration of A Midsummer Night's Dream, borrowing the marriage as the frame and then filling it with his own subplots. Here in The Two Noble Kinsmen he follows Chaucer in the subplot as well.
In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Theseus is supplied with a friend, Pirithous, who was lacking in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pirithous is an authentic mythological character. It was at his marriage that a famous battle with centaurs took place (see page I-46).
The best-known myth concerning Theseus and Pirithous deals with an occasion when the latter decided to gain for himself the hand of none other than Proserpina, queen of the underworld (see page I-15). Theseus loyally offered to help and the two invaded Hades. There both were magically imprisoned in chairs from which they could not rise, and it seemed, in punishment for their presumption, that this situation would last eternally. Hercules, however, eventually rescued them. According to some versions, he rescued only Theseus and left Pirithous forever imprisoned in Hades.
Hippolyta in this play is given a sister whom she did not have in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is Emilia, a character who does not belong to classical myth at all, but to medieval fiction. She is to be the heroine of this play, the puppet about whom will circle the mummery of courtly love.
… cruel Creon …
Before the marriage can take place, however, three queens enter. Each kneels, pleading, before a separate member of the wedding party, and a stately back-and-forth begins. The First Queen (given no other name in the play) falls at the feet of Theseus, and says:
We are three queens, whose sovereigns fell before
The wrath of cruel Creon; who endured
The beaks of ravens, talons of the kites,
And pecks of crows, in the foul fields of Thebes.
He will not suffer us to burn their bones,
To urn their ashes …
– Act I, scene i, lines 39-44
It was in Thebes that the famous legend of Oedipus was set. Oedipus, who had been cast away as an infant and had been brought up far away from Thebes, did not know he was the son of the Theban King and Queen. Visiting Thebes, he unknowingly killed the King and married the Queen-killing his father and marrying his mother, whence we get the expression "Oedipus complex." By his own mother Oedipus had two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Ismene and Antigone.
After the truth of the matter came out, Oedipus blinded himself and went into voluntary exile, while his mother-wife, Jocasta, committed suicide.
Jocasta's younger brother, Creon, became effective ruler of Thebes. Creon supported Eteocles, Oedipus' elder son, for the succession. Polyneices, the younger son, went into exile and talked certain leaders of the city of Argos, sixty miles southwest of Thebes, into leading an army against his city.
Five Argjve leaders took up the struggle. With them was not only Polyneices, but also Tydeus, who was a refugee in Argos because he had fled his home town after accidentally killing his brother. Tydeus was the father of Diomedes, who was to be an important Greek warrior at the siege of Troy and an important character in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (see page I-79).
The tale of the expedition of these leaders against Thebes is usually called "The Seven Against Thebes," though in The Two Noble Kinsmen the number is reduced to three.
The seven were defeated, and Creon remained master of the field. As a punishment for the aggressors (and particularly for Polyneices, who had warred against his own city-an act of treason for which no personal wrongs were deemed sufficient excuse), Creon ordered the fallen warriors on the Argive side to remain in the field unburied, a prey to carrion birds and beasts.
This was a terrible fate for Greeks, who felt that until a dead body had been burned with appropriate rites, its shade must wander restlessly about the border of Hades. In fact, it was held impious of Creon to dictate such a fate, since it was wrong to inflict it even on hated enemies.
The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote one of the greatest of the surviving Greek dramas on this subject. Entitled Antigone, it dealt with Oedipus' younger daughter, who felt that the religious obligation to bury her fallen brother, Polyneices, transcended all other considerations. She accomplishes the deed even though it means her own death.
The three queens apparently have attempted to do Antigone's deed but have failed, and now they have come to ask Theseus to invade Thebes, punish Creon, and see to it that the fallen warriors are duly burned.
King Capaneus. ..
Theseus is sympathetic to the appeal, for he has met the First Queen before. He says:
King Capaneus was your lord. The day
That he should marry you, at such a season
As now it is with me, I met your groom.
– Act I, scene i, lines 59-61
Capaneus was one of the seven against Thebes and his death was dramatic. He had placed a ladder against Thebes's wall and, climbing it, boasted that not even Jupiter (Zeus) could keep him out of the city now. Promptly, he was struck by a lightning bolt and killed. He had a son, named Sthenelus, who was to be at the siege of Troy as companion and friend of Diomedes. Sthenelus appears in the Iliad but not in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
Capaneus' wife was named Evadne, and presumably it is she who is the First Queen.
… his Nemean hide
On the occasion of the marriage of Capaneus and Evadne, Theseus met the bride as well and found her beautiful. Nor was he the only one. Theseus says:
Hercules our kinsman, Then weaker than your eyes, laid by his club:
He tumbled down upon his Nemean hide
And swore his sinews thawed.
– Act I, scene i, lines 66-69
The reference is to the first labor (see page I-24) of Hercules. That was to kill a lion that infested the valley of Nemea, ten miles southwest of Corinth. This Nemean lion was no normal beast, but an enormous monster whose hide was impenetrable to any weapon.
Hercules tried arrows, sword, and club, but nothing would make an impression. He therefore seized the beast's throat and throttled it to death. He then flayed the creature with the only thing that could cut through its hide, its own razor-sharp claws. Forever after, he wore the lion's hide as a protective shield.
… the helmeted Bellona…
Theseus orders the Queen to stand, and accepts the task, saying:
O no knees, none, widow,
Unto the helmeted Bellona use them,
And pray for me your soldier.
– Act I, scene i, lines 74-76
Bellona is not a member of the Greek mythological group. She is a Roman war goddess (the Latin word for war is bellum) and was considered either the wife or sister of Mars. There was a temple to Bellona outside the city of Rome, and the Senate met there when negotiating with foreign ambassadors, or when greeting the return of victorious generals.
… the banks of Aulis…
The Second Queen pleads with Hippolyta, the Third with Emilia. Both are sympathetic but Theseus naturally wishes to continue with the wedding before taking care of Creon. The queens (and even Hippolyta and her sister) plead with Theseus to reverse matters and make war with Creon first.
Theseus agrees at last and says to an officer:
And at the banks of Aulis meet us with
The forces you can raise …
– Act I, scene i, lines 210-12
Aulis was famous as the place where the ships of the Greek host gathered (in the generation after Theseus) to sail to Troy. Shakespeare could not resist, therefore, having Theseus gather his army there.
Aulis is on the seacoast of Greece, just where the large island of Euboea comes nearest the mainland, leaving a strait, the Euripus, not more than a mile wide. In these constricted waters a fleet can gather in safety. From Aulis there is a sea voyage of 170 miles northeast, as the crow flies, to reach Troy.
Of what use, however, to assemble at a seaport in order to send an army from Athens to Thebes, since the two cities are separated by land? Thebes is thirty-five miles northwest of Athens, and to travel to Aulis improves the situation very little. Besides, Aulis is in Theban-dominated territory and an Athenian army would very likely have to fight a battle as soon as it gets to Aulis.
The scene now shifts to Thebes, and, specifically, to two young Theban soldiers. One of them begins:
Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood
And our prime cousin …
– Act I, scene ii, lines 1-2
The speaker is Arcite. Needless to say, nowhere in the Greek body of myth are Palamon and Arcite to be found. They are creations strictly of the medieval romancers. They are ideal medieval knights, brave, noble, chivalrous beyond all qualification, and devoted one to the other.
They are apparently of the family of Oedipus, for as they bemoan the corruption and decadence of Thebes, Palamon begins to lay the worst of the blame on an individual that Arcite guesses at once, saying:
Our uncle Creon.
– Act I, scene ii, line 62
However, the news of Theseus' invasion comes and the two young soldiers, who had been planning to leave Thebes, realize that whatever their disenchantment with the city, they must fight for it against foreign invaders.
… great Apollo's mercy…
The battle is won by Theseus and the bodies of the dead warriors are rescued. They will be given all the proper funeral rites by the queens.
Theseus' victory over Thebes is mentioned, in passing, in A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-47). An affecting tale concerning Evadne, the First Queen, is not mentioned in The Two Noble Kinsmen. When her dead husband, Capaneus, was being burned, Evadne found she could not bear to part with him. She threw herself, living, on the fire, and burned to death.
The battle had had another result as well. It brought Palamon and Arcite into Athenian hands as prisoners. The Theban youths fought marvelously, but were overwhelmed and are wounded and near death. Theseus has, however, been impressed by their fighting and orders that physicians attempt to save their lives. He says:
For our love
And great Apollo's mercy, all our best
Their best skill tender.
– Act I, scene iv, lines 45-47
Apollo is the god of the fine arts, and apparently medicine was considered one of them. (He was also the god of disease, for it was his arrows which were pictured as striking down the population of a city struck by the plague.) Asclepius, who is described in the myths as a specific god of medicine, is a son of Apollo.
… a Parthian quiver…
Whereas the entire first act is considered Shakespeare's, most of the second, third, and fourth acts are considered Fletcher's.
Palamon and Arcite are recovered from their wounds, but they are in an Athenian prison now. They are guarded by a jailer who has a pretty daughter. Neither is given a name, but are called merely "Jailer" and "Daughter" in the stage directions. There is also a young man who is in love with the daughter, and he is called only "Wooer."
The two Thebans expect to remain in prison for life and together they mourn the joys they shall never taste again, such as hunting:
No more now must we halloo, no more shake
Our pointed javelins, whilst the angry swine
Flies like a Parthian quiver from our rages,
Struck with our well-steeled darts.
– Act II, scene i, lines 107-10
The Parthians were an ancient people who ruled over what is now Iraq and Iran and who were noted for their ability as horse archers. The Romans fought them for centuries and were occasionally defeated by them. A boar struck by many darts would be as full of arrows as a Parthian quiver.
The remark is anachronistic, of course, if we consider the time to be really that of Theseus. Parthia did not develop as a nation until about 250 b.c., a full thousand years after the time of Theseus. On the other hand, if we allow our mind to wander forward to medieval times in the Palamon and Arcite scenes, the reference to Parthia ceases to be an anachronism.
… a noble kinsman
Still, the two young men have each other and it occurs to them that while they are together, they have an important part of life. Each hymns the other's friendship, until it seems that their enforced company brings them to the height of bliss and that such friendship as theirs could not possibly be severed.
At that moment, though, Emilia and a maid come into the garden adjoining the prison. They gather flowers and Emilia comments on the myth of Narcissus (see page I-10).
Even while Palamon and Arcite are swearing total friendship, first Palamon, then Arcite, sees Emilia from a window and instantly (such is the convention of courtly love) falls entirely in love with her to the point where there is no room for any other emotion.
The two friends are suddenly competitors and Palamon claims sole right to the love since he saw Emilia first and called Arcite's attention to her. Arcite, however, points out that he too is subject to passions and says:
Why then would you deal so cunningly,
So strangely, so unlike a noble kinsman,
To love alone?
– Act II, scene i, lines 250-52
Here is the reference from which the title of the play is taken. Palamon and Arcite are "the two noble kinsmen."
… against the Maying
The quarrel between them is suspended when Arcite is called away. The news is quickly brought back to Palamon that Arcite, on Pirithous' request, has been released from prison, but banished forever from Athens.
Palamon fears that Arcite, free, may yet lead an army back to Athens to try to win Emilia. Arcite, on the other hand, as he takes the road back to Thebes, fears that Palamon, in Athens, though imprisoned, may have an opportunity to woo and win Emilia.
At this point, Arcite comes upon a group of country people intent on a holiday. One of them says, in fact:
Do we all hold, against the Maying?
– Act II, scene ii, line 36
Here, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that other play set against the Theseus-Hippolyta marriage, we have a group of members of the lower classes arranging a rustic performance. It is a May Day celebration, and A Midsummer Night's Dream seems to have taken place at May Day too (see page I-45).
Arcite decides to violate the exile order, join the countrymen, and in rustic guise participate in the athletic contests that accompany the May Day celebration.
As we might expect, he wins at wrestling before the eyes of Theseus and the court (who fail to recognize him-all disguises are effective in Shakespearean plays). Arcite even has the happiness of talking to Emilia and being accepted as her servant.
… the King of Pigmies
Arcite does not, however, have it all his own way. The Jailer's Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and has let him out of his jail cell, though unable, at the moment, to arrange his liberation from the chains upon him.
Palamon finds Arcite and challenges him to a duel, but their old friendship is not entirely gone. Arcite helps him hide, then gets him food and wine, together with files with which to remove the shackles. They even try to reminisce fondly about earlier loves that did not come between them, but then Emilia's name comes up and they are ready for slaughter again.
Meanwhile, however, the poor Daughter, in a series of short scenes by herself, makes a gradual descent from love for Palamon, to a passionate search for him so that she might file off the shackles, to heartbreak at being unable to find him and fearing him dead, and, at last, to madness. She begins to talk nonsense built about her desire to know of the lost and absent Palamon:
Would I could find a fine frog; he would tell me
News from all parts o'th'world; then would I make
A carack of a cockleshell, and sail
By east and north-east to the King of Pigmies,
For he tells fortunes rarely.
– Act III, scene iv, lines 12-16
The Pygmies are first mentioned in Homer's Iliad, as a dwarfish people who perpetually war against cranes (and who, one would suppose, are therefore small enough to be eaten by cranes). The very word "pygmy" comes from a Greek word meaning the length of the arm from elbow to knuckles, which would imply that the little creatures were about a foot high. They were supposed to live somewhere in Ethiopia, the Greek name for the mysterious regions south of Egypt.
By modern times the Pygmies were dismissed as but another figment of the fertile Greek imagination, but then, oddly enough, a race of short human beings (not one foot high, to be sure, but averaging some four feet high) were discovered in central Africa in the nineteenth century.
It seems fairly reasonable to suppose that some of them were encountered by Egyptian armies adventuring southward, for, in the time of their stronger dynasties, the Egyptians controlled regions far into what is now the Sudan. Individual pygmies were very likely brought back as prisoners and rumors of such human beings, with the shortness exaggerated, would then serve as the basis for the Greek legend.
The Daughter also sings a sad song which deals with a maiden who searches for her love, and then, worn out and weary, she adds:
O for a prick now like a nightingale,
To put my breast against! I shall sleep like a top else.
– Act III, scene iv, lines 25-26
The nightingale's song can be heard all night long and it was a common folk belief that it had to lean against a thorn so that the pain would keep it awake and singing.
… Meleager and the boar
The countrymen have now worked out a dance with which to amuse and please Theseus and Hippolyta, who are out hunting. (This is reminiscent of the play Pyramus and Thisbe which entertained the same couple in A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
The countrymen are under the direction of a pedantic schoolmaster who interlards his speech with unnecessarily learned allusions. Thus, he tells them all to hide in the thicket and come out on signal to surprise Theseus:
/ fling my cap up-mark there-then do you,
As once did Meleager and the boar,
Break comely out before him…
– Act III, scene v, lines 17-19
Meleager, in the Greek myths, was a king of Calydon in Aetolia. He is best known in connection with a monstrous boar who had been sent by Diana (Artemis) to ravage the Calydonian countryside. A huge expedition was organized to track down and kill the "Calydonian boar," and, as a matter of fact, Theseus and Pirithous were among the heroes present on the occasion.
At one point in the hunt, the boar came dashing out of the thicket at Theseus, whose hastily thrown javelin went wide. He might have been killed but for the fact that Meleager, who was on the spot, threw more accurately, diverted the beast, then killed him.
Under the circumstances, the schoolmaster's allusion is most inappropriate.
… dance a morris
As the countrymen take their places, it turns out that one girl is missing. For a moment, it looks as though all is ruined, but the Jailer's Daughter, quite mad, wanders onto the scene and she is at once pressed into service.
Theseus and his party are now coming. The countrymen hide and the schoolmaster confronts Theseus, saying:
We are a merry rout, or else a rabble
Or company, or by a figure Chorus,
That 'fore thy dignity will dance a morris.
– Act III, scene v, lines 105-7
The "morris dance" was part of the May Day celebration. In its origins it was probably some kind of magical rite, involving men in the guise of animals, who are shot at. This may have been a way of ensuring successful hunting, and there may also have been included some general fertility rituals, involving a King and Queen of the May.
Indeed, the schoolmaster mentions them when he enumerates the company. He himself appears first, he says, and then:
The next the Lord of May, and Lady bright,
– Act III, scene v, line 124
There were other characters as well, including one at least who made the fertility nature of the celebration unmistakable. He was a farcical fool called the "Bavian" who was equipped with a tail which perhaps showed his descent from the tailed satyrlike fertility spirits of the wildwood. The schoolmaster, in preparing his muster earlier, was concerned lest the fool go too far, for he said:
Where's the Bavian?
My friend, carry your tail without offense
Or scandal to the ladies;
– Act HI, scene v, lines 33-35
But it is clear that the tail is not the only appendage the Bavian has. He has a phallus too, and a prominent one, which can scarcely avoid giving offense if the ladies are in the least delicate. Nevertheless, the schoolmaster in introducing the company before Theseus and his party officiously points out what needs no pointing out:
… and next the Fool, The Bavian
with long tail, and eke long tool,
– Act III, scene v, lines 130-31
Perhaps to lessen the pagan character of the May Day celebration and reduce churchly opposition, new and popular characters were introduced in the form of Robin Hood and Maid Marian (as the King and Queen of the May) together with other members of his band. After all, Robin hunted deer and so completely lived in the forest as to be considered almost a spirit of the wildwood. He would fit the celebration, and his popularity would help make the morris dance respectable.
Why morris dance, by the way? One theory is that the dance was brought in from Spain in the time of King Edward III (when his son, the Black Prince, campaigned for a time in that land; see page II-260). It was, according to that view, a Moorish military dance, and from Moorish dance to morris dance is but a step. Another theory is that the dancers blacked themselves as part of their disguise and were Moorish in that sense.
The dance, when given, adds another bit of pageantry to the play.
By Castor. ..
Arcite and Palamon are now ready for their duel. They help each other into armor with every sign of affection and with mutual praise, but they fight in earnest, for the requirements of courtly love are that a knight must sacrifice all else.
Theseus and his company, still hunting, come upon the duelers. Theseus is furious, for dueling is against the law. He says, angrily, even before he knows the identity of the fighters:
By Castor, both shall die.
– Act III, scene vi, line 137
It is unusual to swear by Castor alone, for he is one of an inseparable pair, Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux). They were twin brothers who were the model of fraternal affection. They were born of Leda and were brothers of Helen, whose beauty later caused the Trojan War.
To swear by Castor is inappropriate for another reason, for Castor and his twin brother were contemporaries of Theseus and were still alive. They had not yet attained the status of gods.
In any case, Theseus' vow does not stand. Everyone, Pirithous, Hippolyta, and Emilia, pleads with him to let the warriors fight it out. Since Emilia refuses to choose between them but offers to accept the winner- quite in line with the conventions of courtly love-Theseus gives them a month's grace and then each, accompanied by three friends apiece, can join battle formally for the hand of the lady.
… as Iris
The Jailer's mad Daughter is back at home now and her faithful Wooer comes anxiously to learn of her. He had seen her roaming the countryside in her madness and had found her as beautiful
… as Iris
Newly dropped down from heaven.
-Act IV, scene i, lines 87-88
The name "Iris" means "rainbow" and she was the representation of that phenomenon. Since the rainbow seems like a delicate bridge in the sky, it was easy to imagine that it served as a route between heaven and earth. From the route itself, the name was applied to a messenger who plied that route, and Iris was therefore a messenger, carrying divine orders to mortals and serving Juno (Hera) in particular.
.. wanton Ganymede
Emilia has her problems. She is distressed that either Palamon or Arcite should die for her. She could prevent it if only she could choose between them, but she can't She has a picture of each, and each she in turns admires. Of Arcite, she says:
Just such another wanton Ganymede
Set Jove a-fire with and enforced the god
Snatch up the goodly boy.. .
– Act IV, scene ii, lines 15-16
Ganymede, in the Greek myths, was a beautiful Trojan prince, with whom Jupiter (Zeus) fell in love. Jupiter took on the guise of an eagle and carried Ganymede off, taking him to heaven where he became the wine pourer of the gods. This is another case of homosexuality attributed to the gods, as in the case of Apollo and Hyacinthus (see page I-15)-this time of Jupiter himself.
The use of Jove for Jupiter, as in this passage, is common. Jove is from a Latin word that means simply "god."
… Pelops" shoulder
Of Arcite's brow, Emilia goes on to say that it is
Arched like the great-eyed Juno's, but far sweeter,
Smoother than Pelops" shoulder!
– Act IV, scene ii, lines 20-21
Pelops was the son whom Tantalus killed and served as food for the gods (see page I-13). The gods recognized what was being served them and, with one exception, did not eat of the food. The exception was Deme-ter, who, sorrowing over Proserpina (see page I-7), had absent-mindedly eaten some of the shoulder. The gods, in bringing Pelops back to life, replaced the missing part with ivory so that Pelops' shoulder served, in literature, as a standard for smoothness.
– But then Emilia looks at Palamon's picture and thinks he is equally wonderful. She cannot choose.
… a piece of silver. ..
While this is going on, the Jailer has brought a doctor to treat his mad daughter. All she can do is talk of Palamon, nothing but Palamon. She thinks Palamon is dead and that in the next world Dido will abandon Aeneas (see page I-20) for Palamon's sake. The reference to Dido is as anachronistic here as it was in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
She seems to be thinking of death herself, to join Palamon in the after-world. This requires certain rites, of course:
… you must bring a piece of silver
on the tip of your tongue, or no ferry.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 19-21
The Greeks felt that Charon, the ferrier of the underworld, would not take a shade over the Styx River into Hades unless he were paid, and for the purpose a small coin was usually placed in the corpse's mouth.
… pick flowers with Proserpine …
The Daughter imagines that once in the Elysian Fields (see page I-13), all would be well:
we shall come there, and do nothing all day long
but pick flowers with Proserpine.
Then will I make Palamon a nose gay…
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 24-26
Proserpina was picking flowers when she was carried off by Hades (see page I-7) and that action is therefore associated with her.
The doctor, listening to all this, decides that the only way the Daughter can possibly be cajoled out of her madness is to let her think she has Palamon. He therefore urges the Wooer to play the part of Palamon in all possible ways. The Wooer agrees and the Daughter accepts him in this role. Mad or not, the play ends happily for these two.
… methought Alcides…
The tournament between the knights led by Arcite and by Palamon is ready to begin, and in the fifth act Shakespeare's pen takes over for heavy pageantry. Both warriors must offer prayer to the gods. Arcite chooses to pray to Mars (Ares), the god of war, and receives the approval of his request for victory in the form of a short burst of thunder.
Palamon chooses to pray not to Mars but to Venus, the goddess of love (a wiser choice by the rules of courtly love), and he receives a positive sign too, in the form of music and doves.
Emilia prays also, to the virginal Diana (Artemis), asking that the one who best loves her should win her. She receives an answer as the sole rose falls from a rosebush.
The tournament is nip and tuck, but it is fought offstage. At first the cries seem to make Palamon the winner, but in the end it is Arcite by a narrow margin and Mars's omen is fulfilled.
Theseus greatly admires both. Palamon, the loser, is highly praised:
… methought Alcides was To him a sow of lead.
– Act V, scene iii, lines 119-20
Greeks generally had a single name. There was considerable chance of duplication, therefore, and it was necessary to identify people by their native cities or by their father's name. One might say "Diomedes, son of Tydeus" (see page I-57), or simply "son of Tydeus," as another way of referring to Diomedes. In Greek fashion, "son of Tydeus" would be "Tydides."
It was difficult to call Hercules by the name of his father, since he was the son of Jupiter, who had come to his mother Alcmene in the guise of her husband Amphitryon. With Amphitryon notoriously cuckolded, the myth-makers could scarcely call him "Amphitryonides." They evaded the issue by naming him for his grandfather, Alcaeus, Amphitryon's father. He is therefore called Alcides.
And yet though Arcite has won the battle by Mars's grace, Palamon wins the lady by Venus' grace. Arcite, in triumph, mounts a horse who, through accident, throws him and falls upon him. Arcite is brought onstage, dying, and gives his right to Emilia to Palamon. This is justified by Theseus' statement that Arcite had admitted, after all, that Palamon had seen the lady first.
With that, all the rules of courtly love are satisfied and the play can come to an end.