Just good friends? Same-sex intimacy in The Two Noble Kinsmen
Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen explores the powerful effects of erotic attraction in both its heterosexual and homosexual relationships
The Two Noble Kinsmen greeted its early reading public as a nostalgic treat. Although the play was first performed in about 1613, it wasn’t published until 1634, well after both its authors were dead. The title-page of the first edition advertised the play as ‘written by the memorable worthies of their time, Master John Fletcher and Master William Shakespeare’, inviting prospective readers in the England of Charles I to think back to the glory days of the King’s Men when Shakespeare and then Fletcher were the company’s house dramatists.
Its story, too, drew on England’s esteemed literary heritage: the plot is lifted from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. In fact, at least three distinct times are invoked in the play, from the romanticised past of ancient Greece, to Chaucer’s jousty world of knightly courtship, and a more-or-less contemporary English landscape of rural labour and May games. Shakespeare and Fletcher use a mixture of tones, too. Famous heroes from classical mythology bump up against apparently stock figures whose folkloric names (‘Jailer’, ‘Jailer’s Daughter’, ‘Wooer’) belie their rich and subtle characterisation. Composed by two authors and realised on stage by a multi-member theatre company, The Two Noble Kinsmen is itself an imaginatively collaborative collage of stories, time periods and places.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is itself an imaginatively collaborative collage of stories, time periods and places.
This promiscuous mingling is appropriate for a play that is concerned above all with the powerful effects of erotic attraction, both heterosexual and homosexual. Early audiences might have expected the story to excavate erotic depths when they twigged that the play takes place in the court of Theseus and Hippolita, the initial setting for the similarly polymorphous A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written by Shakespeare nearly twenty years previously. In the opening scene of Dream, the Athenian duke and Amazonian queen await their wedding day, a hiatus of four days that provides a space for the sexual adventurism of the succeeding action. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, the couple has still not made it to the altar: the wedding procession is hijacked by three mourning queens who seek restitution for the brutal treatment of their fallen husbands. As the ill-fated Hippolita-Theseus nuptials are prorogued yet again, the play loses interest in dynastic royal marriage and begins to consider a broader range of emotional and erotic attachments
Once the royal wedding is deferred, we notice Theseus’s ongoing intimacy with Pirithous, his closest friend. An unfazed Hippolita says of her own position within this ménage
Theseus cannot be umpire to himself,
Cleaving his conscience into twain and doing
Each side like justice, which he loves best
And Emilia, soon to be the subject of an intensive sexual competition, reveals an earlier relationship with the long-dead Flavina that lives in her memory as an unmatchable ideal. The two girls had loved ‘like the elements’, more indeed than Emilia will ever ‘love any that’s called man’. As she concludes, ‘the true love tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual’. Hippolita and Emilia understand that marital unions exist within the context of a wide variety of passionate relationships.
Behind bars, their mutual adoration blossoms. ‘Is there record of any two that loved / Better than we do, Arcite?’ asks Palamon.
So, we are led to believe, do Palamon and Arcite. Theban cousins who are ‘dearer in love than blood’, the more-than-kinsmen stick by each other in the oppressive atmosphere of tyrannical Thebes, and before long both have fallen into what promises to be lifelong captivity in Theseus’s court. Behind bars, their mutual adoration blossoms. ‘Is there record of any two that loved / Better than we do, Arcite?’ asks Palamon. ‘We are one another’s wife,’ promises Arcite.
The kinsmen speak a language of passionate friendship that would have been very familiar to early modern audiences. Grammar school pupils would have read and translated Cicero’s De amicitia (On Friendship), a treatise that celebrated ‘perfect’ friendship between elite men. Embedded early modern misogyny held that intimate male friendship was the highest form of human relationship, ethically superior to marriage, and Elizabethans of all classes were taught to esteem the examples of inseparable friends from classical and Biblical history: Damon and Pithias, Orestes and Pylades, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, and Theseus and Pirithous. It might be the circumstances of their imprisonment that oblige Palamon and Arcite to embrace each other as spouse, but spiritual ‘marriages’ between men were neither unknown nor uncommon in medieval and early modern cultures.
Things don’t end entirely well for Palamon and Arcite. But it would be a mistake to see the play as a disapproving commentary on same-sex intimacy. The kinsmen do, it’s true, fall out catastrophically, but alert listeners will realise they’re not quite the perfect friends that their high-flown language proclaims them to be. Shortly before they notice Emilia, Palamon proclaims himself and Arcite to be ‘two souls / Put in two noble bodies’, a seemingly affectionate declaration of their shared virtue that actually bungles one of the central tenets of Renaissance friendship theory. A principle ascribed to Aristotle and frequently repeated throughout the classical, medieval and early modern periods was that true friends were ‘one soul in two bodies’, a proverb that celebrated the exclusivity and equality of friendship. The kinsmen get friendship wrong, and so we shouldn’t be too surprised that their apparent devotion to each other gets knocked off-beam when they clap eyes on Emilia.
Instead, let’s return to Emilia’s celebration of her love for Flavina to find an example of valorised amicitia perfecta done well. Early modern friendship theory might have excluded women, but Shakespeare and Fletcher understood that same-sex intimacy was an all-genders affair. Experienced at the cusp of maturity, Emilia and Flavina’s relationship was potent, exclusive, stirring and unrepeatable – and not to be tidied away into the category we now call ‘Platonic’. When she recalls her love in conversation with her sister, Emilia’s body betrays her intense feelings, something not lost on the observant Hippolita. ‘You’re out of breath,’ she remarks, knowingly.