David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Cast, Prologue, and Act 1, Scene 1



ARCITE and PALAMON, the two noble kinsmen, first cousins, nephews of Creon, King of Thebes.

THESEUS, Duke of Athens.

HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the Amazons, later Duchess of Athens.

EMILIA, her sister.

PIRITHOUS, friend to Theseus.

Three QUEENS, widows of the Kings killed while laying siege to Thebes.

The JAILER of Theseus’ prison.

The Jailer’s DAUGHTER.

The Jailer’s BROTHER.

The WOOER of the Jailer’s daughter.

Two FRIENDS of the Jailer.


ARTESIUS, an Athenian soldier.

VALERIUS, a Theban.

WOMAN, attending on Emilia.

An Athenian GENTLEMAN.

Six KNIGHTS, three accompanying Arcite, and three accompanying Palamon.

Six COUNTRYMEN, one dressed as a BAVIAN or baboon.


NELL, a countrywoman.




Hymen (god of weddings), lords, soldiers, four countrywomen (Fritz, Maudlin, Luce, and Barbary), nymphs, attendants, maids, executioner, guard.

Nota Bene

John Fletcher is thought to be the co-author of this play.


The Prologue says this to you the audience:

“New plays and maidenheads are much alike. Both are much sought after, and for both much money is given, if they stand sound and well. And a good play, whose modest scenes blush on its marriage day and shiver to lose its virginity, is like a wife who after a holy wedding and the first night’s sexual activity is still the image of modesty, and retains still more of the virgin maiden, according to one’s sight, than a woman who has been subject to her husband’s sexual pains and pangs.

“We pray our work of art may be so, for I am sure it has a noble and pure father: A learned and more famous poet never yet has walked between the Po River in Italy and the silver Trent River in England. Geoffrey Chaucer, who is admired by all, gives us the story we will recount. ‘The Knight’s Tale’ lives in his Canterbury Tales and is there fixed in eternity.

“If we fail to live up to the nobleness of Chaucer’s story, and the first sound this child — our work of art — hears is a hiss from you the audience, how it will shake the bones of that good man Chaucer and make him cry from underground, ‘Oh, fan from me the witless chaff of such a writer who blasts my laurel wreath and makes my famed works lighter and of less worth than the folktales of Robin Hood!’”

This culture used winnowing fans to blow away the worthless chaff or husks from the valuable grain. This culture also regarded tales of folklore as being of less value than courtly literary romances.

The Prologue continued, “This is the fear we bring. For, to say the truth, it would be a never-ending, impossible, and too ambitious thing to aspire to match Chaucer, weak as we are. We, almost breathless, are unable to swim in the deep water of his literary worth.

“If you only hold out your helping hands and applaud us, we shall turn about in the wind of your applause and do something to save ourselves. You shall hear scenes that, although they are below Chaucer’s art, may yet be worth two hours’ travel and travail. We will work to take you on an imaginative journey.

“We wish sweet sleep to Chaucer’s bones; we wish happiness to you. If this work of art does not keep dullness away from you for a short time, we perceive that our losses fall so thickly that we must necessarily stop appearing in works of art.”

— 1.1 —

Music played as a wedding procession arrived.

Singing and strewing flowers, a boy in a white robe arrived.

Holding a burning torch, Hymen, the god of marriage, arrived.

Bearing a wheaten garland, a nymph with her tresses unbound arrived. Garlands made of wheat stalks are a traditional symbol of fertility.

Between two other nymphs who were wearing wheaten garlands on their heads, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, arrived.

Hippolyta, Theseus’ bride, arrived; her hair was loose and hanging down. Theseus’ friend Pirithous led her, and another man held a garland over her head. Loose hair is a traditional symbol of virginity.

Emilia, who was holding up the train of Hippolyta’s dress, arrived. Emilia was Hippolyta’s sister.

Finally Artesius, who was an Athenian soldier, and some attendants arrived.

This is the song the boy sang:

Roses, their sharp spines [thorns] being gone,

Not royal in their smells alone,

But also in their hue;

Maiden pinks, of odor faint,

Daisies smell-less, yet most quaint [pretty],

And sweet thyme true;

Primrose, firstborn child of Ver [Spring],

Merry springtime’s harbinger,

With her bells [its flowers] dim;

Oxlips in their cradles growing,

The leaves of the oxlip form a kind of cradle as they grow around the flower’s bud.

Marigolds on deathbeds [graves] blowing [blossoming],

Lark’s-heels [Larkspur] trim.

The boy strew flowers as he sang:

All dear Nature’s children sweet

Lie before bride and bridegroom’s feet,

Blessing their sense.

Not an angel [good bird] of the air,

Bird melodious or bird fair [beautiful],

Is absent hence.

The crow, the sland’rous cuckoo, nor

The cuckoo is slanderous because its cry mocks married men by calling them cuckolds.

The boding [ominous] raven, nor chough hoar [gray-headed jackdaw],

Nor chatt’ring pie [magpie],

May on our bridehouse [house that is a wedding site] perch or sing,

Or with them any discord bring,

But from it fly.

Three Queens arrived, dressed all in black, with black veils stained with tears and travel, and wearing imperial crowns. The First Queen fell down at the foot of Theseus; the Second Queen fell down at the foot of Hippolyta; the Third Queen fell down at the foot of Emilia.

The First Queen said to Theseus, “For pity’s sake and the sake of true gentility, hear and respect me. Pay attention to what I have to say.”

The Second Queen said to Hippolyta, “For your mother’s sake, and as you wish your womb may thrive with fair ones, hear and respect me.”

The Third Queen said to Emilia, “Now for the love of your future husband — him whom Jove, King of the gods, has destined to be your distinguished bridegroom and the honor of your bed — and for the sake of pure and unsullied virginity, be the advocate for us and our distresses. This good deed shall erase all your evil deeds that are now set down in the Book of Trespasses kept in Heaven.”

Theseus said to the First Queen, “Sad lady, rise.”

Hippolyta said to the Second Queen, “Stand up.”

Emilia said to the Third Queen, “Bend no knees to me. Whatever distressed woman whom I may help binds me to her — I will help her.”

Theseus said to the First Queen, “What’s your request? Speak for all of you Queens.”

The First Queen replied, “We are three Queens whose sovereigns fell before the wrath of cruel Creon; our husbands have endured the beaks of ravens, talons of kites, and pecks of crows in the foul fields of Thebes.”

The husbands of the three Queens had taken part in the war of the Seven Against Thebes and had been killed. After King Oedipus of Thebes had died, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, quarreled over who should rule Thebes. Polynices gathered other Kings as allies and attacked Thebes. Both Eteocles and Polynices died in the battle, and Creon, their uncle, became the ruler of Thebes. Creon forbid the corpses of those who had attacked Thebes to be buried; those unburied corpses were now being eaten by birds and reduced to skeletons.

The First Queen continued, “Creon will not allow us to burn their bones, to put their ashes in urns, nor to take the offense of mortal loathsomeness from the blessed eye of holy Phoebus, but instead Creon allows the corpses to infect the winds with the stench of our slain lords.”

Phoebus Apollo is the god who drives the Sun-chariot across the sky each day.

Wives in this culture referred to their husbands as lords.

The First Queen continued, “Oh, have pity, Theseus, Duke of Athens! You have purged the Earth of robbers and monsters. You purger of the Earth, draw your feared sword that does good turns to the world; give us the bones of our dead Kings so that we may place them in a chapel. And of your boundless goodness take some note that for our crowned heads we have no roof except this sky above us, which is the lion’s and the bear’s roof and the vault above everything.”

“Please, don’t kneel,” Theseus replied. “Because I was transported with your speech, I allowed your knees to wrong themselves. I have heard about the fortunes of your dead lords, which gives me such lamenting that it awakens my vengeance and revenge for them.

“King Capaneus was your lord and husband. The day that he was to marry you, at such an occasion as now is with me, I met your groom by that altar of Mars. You were at that time beautiful — Juno’s mantle was not more beautiful than your hair, nor did her mantle more luxuriantly envelope her than your hair that was bountifully spread around you. Your wheaten wreath was then neither threshed nor blasted. You were still an unreaped virgin and the future death of your husband had not then blighted you. Lady Fortune looked at you and dimpled her cheek with smiles. Hercules, my kinsman, looked at you and, being made weak by the beauty of your eyes, laid down his club. He tumbled down upon the hide of the lion of Nemea that he had slain and swore that his muscles grew soft.”

Another time that Heracles’ muscles grew soft was when he served Queen Omphale of Lydia as a slave for a year and was forced to do women’s work and wear women’s clothing. Eventually, Queen Omphale freed Hercules and married him.

Theseus continued, “Oh, grief and time, those two fearful consumers, devour everything!”

He was shocked by the transformation of the First Queen from virgin bride to mourning widow.

The First Queen said, “Oh, I hope that some god has put his mercy in your manliness, to which he’ll infuse power, and press you to go forth and undertake to help us bury the corpses of our husbands.”

Theseus said, “Oh, bend no knees to me, bend none, widow! Bend your knees to the helmeted Bellona, Roman goddess of war, and pray for me, who will be your soldier. I am troubled.”

The First Queen rose, and Theseus turned away. He would be her soldier, but he knew that this would be a formidable undertaking; he would have to make war against Creon and Thebes.

The Second Queen addressed Hippolyta, who had been Queen of the warrior women known as the Amazons. Hippolyta and Theseus had fought each other with their armies. Theseus narrowly won the battle and had fallen in love with Hippolyta; today was their wedding day.

The Second Queen said, “Honored Hippolyta, most dreaded Amazonian, who has slain the scythe-tusked boar; who with your arm, as strong as it is white, was close to making men captive to your sex, except that this Theseus, your lord, who was born to uphold creation in that honor nature first styled it in, shrunk you into the bounds that you were overflowing, at once subduing your force and your affection.”

This culture believed that men were by nature superior to women. Hippolyta had come close to defeating Theseus and his army, but Theseus had been born to uphold the superiority of men and so had eventually defeated Hippolyta and her women warriors. He had defeated Hippolyta and caused her to fall in love with him.

The Second Queen continued, “You, Hippolyta, are a soldieress who equally balances sternness with pity, whom now I know have much more power over him — Theseus — than he ever had on you, who own his strength and his love, too. Theseus is a servant who obeys even the implications of any speech made by you, dear model of ladies. Tell him to help us, whom flaming war scorches, so that we may cool ourselves under the shadow of his sword. Ask him to lift his sword over our heads. Speak your request in a woman’s voice, like such a woman as any of us three; weep rather than fail. Lend us a knee; kneel down with us but touch the ground for us no longer time than a dove moves when its head is plucked off. Tell him what you would do if he lay swollen on the blood-soaked battlefield, showing the Sun his teeth and grinning at the Moon.”

Hippolyta replied, “Poor lady, say no more. I would rather pursue this good action with you as that to which I am going — my wedding — and yet I have never so willingly gone this way.

“Theseus, my lord, has been affected to the depth of his heart with your distress; let him think for a moment. I’ll speak to him very soon.”

The Second Queen rose.

The Third Queen said, “Oh, I set down my petition coldly, as if I were writing on ice, but my hot grief thawed and melted it into drops of water; in the same way, sorrow, lacking other forms of expression, is pressed out in the form of tears by deeply felt grief. Grief cannot be adequately expressed in a cold petition; it must be felt and expressed in hot tears.”

Emilia said, “Please stand up. Your grief is written on your cheek.”

“Oh, grief!” the Third Queen said. “You cannot read it there on my cheek.”

The Third Queen rose.

She pointed to her eyes and said, “There through my tears, like pebbles that seemed wrinkled and distorted when looked at in a glassy, mirrory stream, you may behold my sorrows. Lady, lady, it’s a pity! He who will know all the treasure of the Earth must dig to the center, too; he who will fish for my smallest minnow, let him put a lead weight on his line to sink it and catch one at my heart. Anyone who wants to know the depth of my sorrow must look into my heart.”

Realizing that what she had said could be interpreted as implying that Emilia lacked perceptiveness, the Third Queen apologized: “Oh, pardon me! Extreme suffering, that sharpens some minds, makes me a fool who speaks extravagantly.”

“Please say nothing,” Emilia said. “Please. A person who can neither feel nor see the rain, while in it, knows neither wet nor dry.”

She meant that she would have to be like such an insensitive and unintelligent person not to recognize the intensity of the Third Queen’s grief.

Emilia continued, “If you were the masterpiece of some painter, I would buy you to instruct me for when I need to depict the greatest grief — indeed, yours is a heart-pierced demonstration of the greatest grief.

“But, alas, since you are a natural sister of our sex, a real woman rather than an artistic depiction of a woman, your sorrow beats so ardently upon me that it shall reflect from me and go to my brother-in-law’s heart and warm it to feel some pity for you, even if his heart were made of stone. Please feel good comfort.”

Theseus came forward and said, “Let’s go to the temple. We will leave out not even a tiny portion of the sacred ceremony.”

The First Queen said, “Oh, this celebration will longer last and will be more costly than the war that we, your suppliants, are asking you to fight. Remember that your fame resounds in the ear of the world. What you do quickly is not done rashly; your first thought is worth more than others’ hard thinking, and your premeditation is worth more than their actions.

“But, by Jove, your actions, as soon as they move, subdue before they touch, just as ospreys do to the fish.”

This culture believed that ospreys fascinated fish: The fish would turn their bellies to the osprey and allow themselves to be caught.

The First Queen continued, “Think, dear Duke of Athens, think what beds our slain Kings have!”

The beds were the ground of the battlefield, which lay exposed to the elements.

The Second Queen said, “What griefs have our beds because our dear lords have none!”

“They have no beds fit for the dead,” the Third Queen said, “Those who kill themselves with ropes for hanging, knives, drams of poison, or high places from which to throw themselves, those who are weary of this world’s light, those who have to themselves been death’s most horrid agents, are still allowed to have dust and shadow — graves — by human grace and mercy.”

The First Queen said, “But our lords lie blistering underneath the visitating Sun, which visits their corpses the way a plague visits a house of people even though our lords were good Kings when they were living.”

Theseus said, “That is true, and I will give you comfort by giving your dead husbands graves. To do that, I must make some work — fight a war — against Creon.”

The First Queen said, “And that work presents itself to the doing. It must be done quickly. Now it will take form; the heat is gone tomorrow. Then, unprofitable toil must recompense itself with its own sweat.”

Heated metal can be formed into shapes, but once the metal cools, it is no longer malleable. This is expressed in the proverb “Strike [with a blacksmith’s hammer] while the iron’s [metal’s] hot.”

The First Queen continued, “Now Creon, King of Thebes, thinks that he is secure and he will not be attacked. He does not dream that we three Queens stand before your powerful presence, rinsing with tears our holy begging in our eyes to make our petition clear. Our tears purify our supplication to you, and they make clear why we are supplicating you.”

The Second Queen said, “Now you may conquer Creon, while he is drunk with his victory.”

The Third Queen added, “And while his army is full of food and sloth.”

Theseus said, “Artesius, you who best know how to select, suitable to this enterprise, the best soldiers for this proceeding, and the number of soldiers adequate to fight such a war, go forth and levy our worthiest soldiers while we dispatch this grand act of our life, this daring deed of fate in wedlock.”

While Artesius was drafting good soldiers to fight against Thebes, Theseus intended to finish getting married.

The First Queen said to the other two Queens, “Dowagers, join hands. Let us be widows to our woes — we will feel the woes of widows. Delay commends us to a famishing hope. Because Theseus is delaying attacking Thebes, our hope that our husbands will be honorably buried diminishes.”

All the Queens said to Theseus, “Farewell.”

The Second Queen said, “We come unseasonably — at a bad time — but when could grief select, as judgment that is free from torment can, the fittest time to best solicit help?”

Theseus said, “Why, good ladies, this wedding to which I am going is greater and more important than any war. It more concerns me and is more important to me than all the actions that I have previously done or will in the future face.”

The First Queen said, “This is making it all the more clear that our suit to you shall be neglected when her arms, which are able to keep Jove away from a council of the gods, shall by permission-granting moonlight enclose you tightly like a corslet, aka defensive armor.”

The three Queens were afraid that Theseus, rather than making war against Creon, would preoccupy himself in making love to his bride, Hippolyta. In Book 14 of Homer’s Iliad, Hera, wife of Zeus, King of the gods, whom the Romans knew as Jupiter or Jove (the Romans knew Hera as Juno), seduced him so that he would not pay attention to what was going on in the Trojan War. Because Hera did that, the Greeks were able to rally and fight well against the Trojans, whom at the time Zeus was helping.

The First Queen added, “Oh, when Hippolyta’s twinning cherries — cherry-red lips — shall let their sweetness fall upon your tasteful lips, will you be thinking of rotting Kings or crying Queens? What care will you have for what you don’t feel, when what you feel is able to make Mars spurn his drum? Even Mars, god of war, prefers having sex to fighting in a war.

“Oh, if you spend but one night in bed with her, every hour in it will make you hostage for a hundred more hours, and you shall remember nothing more than what that banquet bids you to remember. You will forget the war we request that you fight, and you will remember only the joys of sleeping with Hippolyta.”

Hippolyta said to Theseus, “Although I think that it is very unlikely you should be so transported by the joys of bedding me that you will forget your promise to help these three widows, and although I am very sorry that I should be such a suitor, yet I think that if I did not, by the abstaining of the joy I would have in bed on our wedding night — for which abstinence breeds a deeper longing — cure their sickness brought on by an excess of grief that craves an immediate medicine, I should make all ladies think I am acting scandalously.”

She knelt and continued, “Therefore, sir, as I shall here make trial of my entreaties to you, either presuming them to have some force, or concluding forever that they will always be as ineffectual as if I had not made them, postpone this business we are going about, and hang your shield before your heart — about that neck which is my possession, and which I freely lend to do these poor Queens service. I request that you postpone our wedding night and instead first help these three widowed Queens.”

All three Queens said to Emilia, “Oh, help us now! Our cause cries for you to bend your knees and entreat Theseus to help us.”

Emilia knelt and said to Theseus, “If you don’t grant my sister her petition with the same vigor and with the same quickness and passion with which she makes her petition, from henceforth I’ll not dare to ask you anything, nor be so foolhardy as ever to take a husband.”

Theseus said, “Please stand up.”

Hippolyta and Emilia rose.

Theseus then said, “I am entreating myself to do that which you kneel to request me to do.”

He ordered, “Pirithous, lead on the bride; go and pray to the gods for success in and return from the war. Don’t omit anything in the intended celebration.

“Queens, follow me, your soldier.

“Artesius, as I ordered you previously, go hence and at the shores of Aulis in Boeotia meet us with the forces you can raise. In Aulis, we shall find already assembled part of a number of troops for a business expected to be bigger than the war against Thebes.”

Artesius exited.

Theseus kissed Hippolyta and said, “Since our main concern is haste, I stamp this kiss upon your red-as-a-currant lip. Sweetheart, keep this kiss as my token.”

He then said to the wedding procession, “Go forward, for I will see you gone.”

The wedding procession began to exit towards the temple.

Theseus said to Emilia, “Farewell, my beauteous sister-in-law.”

He added, “Pirithous, fully keep the wedding feast. Don’t omit even an hour of it.”

Pirithous replied, “Sir, I’ll follow you at your heels; I will go with you to Thebes. The celebratory feast shall wait until your return.”

Theseus replied, “Fellow noble, I order you not to leave Athens. We shall be returning before you can end this feast, of which I ask you to make no abatement. I expect this war to be over quickly.

“Once more, farewell, all.”

The wedding would occur, but it would be a wedding by proxy. Theseus would not be present. Theseus also knew that the war would not be over before the wedding feast was finished; he knew that he was speaking hyperbolically.

Everyone except Theseus and the three Queens exited.

The First Queen said to Theseus, “Thus you always make good what good things the tongues of the world say about you.”

The Second Queen said to Theseus, “And you earn a deity equal to that of Mars.”

“If not above him,” the Third Queen said, “for you, being only mortal, make your passions bend and submit to godlike honors; the gods themselves, some say, groan under such a mastery. Even the gods find it difficult to control their passions.”

Theseus replied, “As we are men, thus should we do; once overcome by passions, we lose our title of being humans. Be of good cheer, ladies.”

Using the royal plural, he said, “Now we turn towards obtaining your comforts.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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