Two Noble Kinsmen begins with a prologue that grounds the tale of the two detrimentally competitive cousins, Palamon and Arcite, within a literary lineage that stretches back to the three great Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Shakespeare and Fletcher may only mention Chaucer by name in the prologue to The Two Noble Kinsmen, but they situate the literary godfather “twixt Po and silver Trent,” an Italian and an English river respectively (0.0.12). The Arden edition’s editor, Lois Potter, states that Po “is mentioned because of the famous Latin and Italian Poets who were Chaucer’s sources” (138). The tale of Palamon and Arcite has its roots in the Greek retelling of Theban history, but it was Boccaccio in the 1340s that turned the tale of two brothers warring over a city “into the fight of two cousins over a woman,” when he penned his adaptation of Statius’s Thebiad, the Teseida (Potter 41). Potter comments that the adaptation was not arbitrary, for “[s]uffering countries [were] often depicted as women and countries with no lawful ruler as widows” (Potter 37). With such a rich and lengthy history, and given my presentation’s time constraints, I will not attempt to trace two millennia of girlhood within this frequently adapted story, but instead I will touch on Boccaccio’s Teseida, while focusing primarily on Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” and Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen in an effort to excavate the lineage of girlhood that runs through these numerous adaptations. I will conclude my presentation by turning this genealogical project over to the class and asking you to help thread Brian Helgeland’s 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale to its literary predecessors.
The Two Noble Kinsmen, the “Knight’s Tale” and the Teseida are structurally quite similar: all three adaptations of the tale begin with a wedding, a conquest and a funeral; furthermore, all three adaptations end with a tournament, a funeral and a wedding. Despite these structural similarities, there are gross differences between the texts regarding their different portrayals of girlhood. Boccaccio’s Emilia was a “vivacious and fickle young coquette,” who according to Robert Pratt, “held no subjective interest for Chaucer” (615). Chaucer’s adaptation strips Boccaccio’s Emilia of her vivacity and agency. In the “Knight’s Tale” Emelye is the taciturn object of Palamon and Arcite’s gaze who speaks but once and “by her mere existence motivates the lovers;” whereas in the Teseida, the fifteen-year-old Emilia actively flirts with Palemone and Arcita (Pratt 615). William Frost’s 1949 interpretation of the “Knight’s Tale” casts “Theseus [as] the ideal conquering governor, Palamon [as] the ideal lover, [and] Emelye [as] the emblem of vernal innocence” (Frost 299). But many contemporary critics such as Peter Herman, Lee Paterson and Robert Hanning have interpreted the “Knight’s Tale” as a critique of chivalry; however, virtually nobody prior to seventeenth century considered Chaucer subversive. In ““Is This Winning?”: Prince Henry’s Death and the Problem of Chivalry in The Two Noble Kinsmen” Peter Herman argues that Shakespeare and Fletcher broke with the unanimous opinion that the “Knight's Tale” was a laudatory text extolling chivalric virtues. According to Herman, Two Noble Kinsmen is a “text that anticipates the contemporary reading of Chaucer's tale as a demystification of chivalric conduct” (1).
Two Noble Kinsmen hyperbolizes Theseus’s shortcomings as a ruler and mocks the chivalric concept of honour much more blatantly than Chaucer does. The “Knight’s Tale” strikes an opposition between the glitz of chivalric lore and the brutal realities of the battlefield, which are reflected in the General Prologue’s description of the war-weary knight’s clothing that was “Al bismotered with his habergeon” (L76). A similar contrast is presented by the alignment of the tales, which juxtaposes the saccharin ending of the “Knight’s Tale” with the bawdy, ribald “Miller’s Tale”. For just as the knight concludes with “That nevere was ther no word hem bitwene/ Of jalousie or any oother teene,” the Miller jumps the tale-telling queue (ignoring the host’s attempt to introduce the monk) to tell his burlesquing version of the “Knight’s Tale”. In the “Miller’s Tale” Alison, representative of Emelye, is no passive prize, but an active, manipulative adulteress who is also competed over by two testosterone-driven males (L3104-3106). If we take the “Knight’s Tale” in context with the other Canterbury Tales, Chaucer does make a space for girlhood, but it seems that there is no space for girlhood, nor is there a space for female agency, within the context of courtly love. Shakespeare and Fletcher’s adaptation of “Knight’s Tale,” The Two Noble Kinsmen, makes a space for girlhood that is missing from the “Knight’s Tale”. Not only do the authors expand the Amazonian sisters’ roles, but they also add another girl to narrative, the Jailer’s Daughter. I intend to argue that Shakespeare and Fletcher employ the girls in their narrative as foils that expose the incompetencies of the chauvinistic male protagonists—Arcite, Palamon and Theseus.
In the “Knight’s Tale” Emelye is objectified by the narrating knight who spends thirty lines describing what she looks like and how she “as an aungel hevenysshly…soong” (1005). The knight only grants his listeners access to Emelye’s perspective during her one and only verbal moment within the tale, which occurs when Emelye prays to Diana to keep her a “a mayden [for] al [her] lyf” (L2306). The cousins Palamon and Arcite further objectify Emelye by gazing down upon her from their prison. Emelye is powerless to this gaze, mute and unaware that she is igniting a familial rivalry that will result in the heavy weight of a death upon her shoulders. Chaucer’s Emelye is positioned as the false agent of Palamon and Arcite’s love-induced pain:
And with that sighte hir beautee hurte hym so,
That, if that Palamon was wounded sore,
Arcite is hurt as muche as he, or moore.
And with a sigh he seyde pitously (L1114-1117)
Conversely, in The Two Noble Kinsmen Emilia decries the Petrarchan conceits imposed upon her that falsely position her as responsible for the love-sick madness engaged in by the Theban cousins. When Hippolyta tells Emilia that her face “Will bear the curses else of after ages / For these lost cousins,” she is implying that Emilia as the object of desire is responsible for the cousins’ actions (3.6.187-8). But when Emilia responds by saying “In my face, dear sister, / I find no anger to 'em, nor no ruin; / The misadventure of their own eyes kill 'em,” she is reflecting the onus back on cousins, who, in her view, are responsible for their own fates [3.6.189-191]. Emilia further refuses to be implicated the cousins’ situation when Theseus and Pirithous both ask her to be present for the cousins’ bloody battle to the death. She refuses their requests not wanting to be the “minister to such harm,” for she would rather “see a wren hawk at a fly/ Than this decision: ev'ry blow that falls / Threats a brave life; each strike laments/ The place where on it falls and sounds more like / A bell than blade. I will stay here” (5.3.66; 5.3.3-6). Laurie Shannon puts it succinctly when she states that “The Two Noble Kinsmen offers a woman who, rather than being remote and silent or exercising a fundamental aloofness, is articulate and in the fray, repudiating continually the gender and affective roles graven in the Petrarchan system” (Shannon 670).
In the second act’s garden scene, Shakespeare and Fletcher give Emilia the voice that is denied to her in the “Knight’s Tale”. While Emilia is still the object of Palamon and Arcite’s gaze her conversation with her handmaid in 2.2 criticizes the absurd cousins. In both the “Knight’s Tale” and The Two Noble Kinsmen the recently jailed cousins spend a great length of time complimenting themselves and their theoretically adamantine friendship. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, just as Palamon asks Arcite if “there is a record of any two that loved / better than [they] do” (2.2.114-5), Emilia and her handmaid enter discussing the egotistical Narcissus whose self-love drove him to drown in his own reflection:
Emilia:This garden has a world of pleasures in't.
What flower is this?
Woman: ‘Tis calld narcissus, Madam.
Emilia:That was a faire boy, certain, but a fool,
To love himself. Were there not maids enough? (2.2.117-121)
As Emilia is not privy to the cousins’ discussion, her comment is not a direct critique of their unhealthy friendship. The juxtaposition of the two conversations does, however, underscore bathos of the situation, for just as the cousins declare their undying friendship, Palamon spies Emilia and quickly forgets his oath of friendship. In “Linguistic Subversion and the Artifice of Rhetoric in The Two Noble Kinsmen” Madelon Lief and Nicholas Radel argue that “Fletcher is not inattentive to the ironies of Arcite's saying: ‘I love her with my soul.’ His soul is, or was, Palamon. Like Chaucer's knights, who ignore the chivalric ideals of Boccaccio’s Teseida, Fletcher's [knights] are totally preoccupied each with himself” (412). Renaissance friendship theory emphasized “the importance of social, intellectual and moral equality between friends” and posited that “conflicts between friends [were] conflicts of generosity” (Potter 55). Palamon and Arcite’s friendship ultimately disintegrates, not because of Emilia, but their own selfishness. When Theseus apprehends the cousins fighting in the woods, Palamon, like a spoiled child, selfishly asks to be killed second just so that he “may tell [his] soul, [that Arcite] shall not have her” (3.6.179).
Arcite and Palamon’s relationship is equally vituperative in both Chaucer’s and Shakespeare and Fletcher’s adaptations of the narrative. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, however, there is a community of women whose relationships are emblematic of the ideal renaissance friendship that the cousins are the antithesis thereof. Both Laurie Shannon and Lois Potter argue that Shakespeare was drawing on Montaigne’s famous “De l’amitie” essay “not in the relationship between Palamon and Arcite, but in Emilia’s dialogue with Hippolyta in 1.3” (55). In “De l’amitie” Montaigne articulated that women’s minds were “not strong enough to endure the pulling of a knots so hard, so fast, so durable as that composing a friendship based on (masculine) virtue” (quoted in Shannon 657). Montaigne’s ideal homosocial friendship appears to be represented by the Emilia and Flavina’s friendship. The two Amazonian votaresses of Diana have a friendship that echoes what Arcite and Palamon believe they have, for when the two women were young they wished to twin each other, but unlike the cousins’ friendship there is no apparent selfishness.
Shakespeare and Fletcher further widened the space available to girls within this ancient Theban narrative by adding a new character to the tale: the Jailer’s Daughter who appears alone in four scenes in the middle of the play—2.4, 2.6, 3.2 and 3.4—wherein her long speeches are shared only with the audience. An intriguing change in the discourse on madness occurred between the medieval and early modern period that may have been the impetus behind the addition of this previously unfathomed character. Prior to the sixteenth century both men and women were seen as susceptible to lovesickness; however, by Shakespeare’s lifetime lovesickness was a designated female illness (Potter 51). I posit that in order to perverse the perversity of the Theban cousins, Shakespeare and Fletcher translated the animalistic madness of Arcite and Palamon onto the Jailer’s Daughter. In “The Knight’s Tale” Chaucer plays with the homonym “wood,” which in Middle English meant both a forest and crazy. When the two cousins confront each other in “The Knight’s Tale” they are described as rabid animals:
Thou myghtest wene that this Palamon
In his fightyng were a wood leon,
And as a crueel tigre was Arcite;
As wilde bores gonne they to smyte,
That frothen whit as foom for ire wood. (1655-1659)
In The Two Noble Kinsmen Arcite does accuse Palamon of being a beast, but the entire encounter is much more civil than Chaucer’s beastly brawl. There is no foaming at the mouth, but instead some witty banter and a disparaging comment made by Arcite about Palamon’s smell, which he will remedy by bringing his cousin perfumes.
The Jailer’s Daughter’s love for Palamon is as unrequited and seemingly ill-fated as Palamon’s own love for Emilia. The Jailer’s Daughter’s seemingly unprompted madness mirrors the lunacy of the cousins’ rivalry and reinforces the notion that courtly love is both idiotic and insipid. There is an interesting parallelism between the Jailer’s Daughter and the cousins. Peter Herman observes that “[t]he closer the Daughter comes to losing her sanity, the closer Palamon and Arcite come to fighting, thus ensuring that the audience (and the reader) perceives the mirroring between the Jailer's Daughter and the noble lovers” (Herman 13). The doctor’s diagnosis of the Jailer’s Daughter is that an “intemperate surfeit of her eye hath distempered the other senses” (4.3.89-70). Both the Jailer’s Daughter and the Theban cousins are trapped within love-induced falsehoods, which are “affliction[s] of the eye. And like Palamon and Arcite's love, which causes the knights to betray each other, the love of the jailer's daughter causes her to betray her father” (Lief and Radel 418).
Prior to Shakespeare and Fletcher’s adaptation, this two-millennia old Theban narrative had consistently focused on a homogenous idealized aristocratic universe. The playwrights injected both socioeconomic and gender heterogeneity into their adaptation of the tale by expanding Emilia’s role and by adding the common Jailer’s Daughter to the narrative. The space that the playwrights made for girlhood within the tale engendered a much more effective and less easily glossed over critique of chivalry and courtly love. Emilia flatly rejects the role of the Petrarchan subject, and verbalizes, not just to the goddess Diana, but also to Theseus and Pirithous that she has no desire to participate in this courtly love-fueled madness. Her disregarded pleas to remain a maid are disregarded by Theseus who is painted as a rougher, cruder ruler than his Chaucerian predecessor. While the addition of the daughter to the narrative, provided a tragicomic burlesquing of the Theban cousins’ ridiculousness.
[[The Jailer’s Daughter’s madness is also employed by the playwrights to undercut Theseus’s so-called honourable method of resolving the conflict between the Theban cousins. The final battle between Palamon and Arcite is much more brutal in The Two Noble Kinsmen than it was in “The Knight’s Tale”. Unlike his Chaucerian prototype, the Shakespearean Theseus demands that the battle result in innocent deaths, which will include the entire losing three-man team. This bloody chivalric pageantry is juxtaposed against the doctor’s suggested cure for the Jailer’s Daughter’s lovesickness, which is for the wooer—disguised as Palamon—to “lie with her is she ask[s]” (5.2.18). The Jailer is horrified by the idea of premarital sex, which is most dishonourable and unchivalric, but doctor assures him that the value of a life is greater than social mores.]]
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