David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 2

— 2.2 —

Palamon and Arcite talked near the window of the jail cell.

Palamon asked, “How are you, noble cousin?”

“How are you, sir?” Arcite replied.

“Why, I am strong enough to laugh at misery and endure the fortune of war, yet I am afraid that we are prisoners forever, cousin.”

“I believe it, and I have resolved to patiently accept my fate as a prisoner and have put aside my future.”

“Oh, cousin Arcite, where is Thebes now? Where is our noble country? Where are our friends and families? Never more must we behold those comforts, never more see the hardy youths strive for the games of honor, displaying the brightly colored favors of their ladies like tall ships under sail, then start amongst them and like an east wind leave them all behind us like lazy clouds, while we, Palamon and Arcite, in the time it would take to wag a playful leg, outstripped the people’s praises and won the garlands before the people had time to wish them ours.

“Oh, never more shall we two exercise, like twins of honor, our arms and weapons in battle again, and feel our fiery horses like proud seas under us. Our good swords now — Mars, the red-eyed god of war, never wore better — torn from our sides, like age must run to rust and adorn the temples of those gods who hate us. These hands shall never more draw them out like lightning to blast whole armies.”

The victor sometimes dedicated the weapons of defeated enemies to a temple of a god.

Arcite replied, “No, Palamon, those hopes of free exercise are prisoners with us. Here we are and here the graces of our youths must wither like a too-early spring.”

The first warm day or two following winter is usually succeeded by one or more cold days.

Arcite continued, “Here old age must find us and — which is heaviest and most sorrowful, Palamon — must find us unmarried. The sweet embraces of a loving wife, loaded with kisses, armed with a thousand Cupids, shall never clasp our necks. No children of ours will be born and know us — no tiny figures of ourselves shall we ever see, to gladden our old age. We will never teach them like young eagles to gaze boldly at bright armor and we will never say, ‘Remember what your fathers were, and conquer!’”

This culture believed that eagles taught their young to gaze directly at the Sun.

Arcite continued, “The fair-eyed maidens shall weep about our banishments and in their songs curse ever-blind Lady Fortune until she for shame sees what a wrong she has done to youth and nature.

“This prison is all our world. We shall know nothing here but one another, and we shall hear nothing but the clock that tells our woes. The vine shall grow, but we shall never see it. Summer shall come, and with her all delights, but dead-cold winter must inhabit here always.”

“That is too true, Arcite,” Palamon said. “To our Theban hounds that shook the aged forest with their echoes no more now must we halloo; no more must we shake our pointed javelins while the angry swine flies like a Parthian quiver from our rages, with its back struck with our well-steeled arrows.”

The swine’s back would have so many arrows sticking out of it that it would look like the quiver full of arrows belonging to an archer of Parthia.

Palamon added, “All valiant activities, the food and nourishment of noble minds, in us two here shall perish. We shall die as children of grief and ignorance — which is the curse of honor.”

“Yet, cousin,” Arcite said, “even from the bottom of these miseries, from all these miseries that bad fortune can inflict upon us, I see two comforts rising, two complete blessings, if the gods please: first, to hold here a brave patience and bravely accept our fate, and second, the enjoying of our griefs together.

“While Palamon is with me, let me perish if I think this is our prison!”

“Certainly it is a major goodness, cousin, that our fortunes were entwined together,” Palamon said. “It is very true: Even if two souls who have been put in two noble bodies suffer the bitterness of fate, as long as they grow together, will never sink; they must not, even if they could. A willing man dies sleeping and all’s done — a man who accepts death dies as easily as if he were sleeping.”

Arcite asked, “Shall we make worthy uses of this place — this prison — that all men hate so much?”

“How, gentle cousin?” Palamon asked.

“Let’s think this prison is a holy sanctuary that will keep us from the corruption of worse men. We are young and still desire the ways of honor that liberty and common conversation, the poison to pure spirits, might similar to women woo us to wander from. What worthy blessing can exist but our imaginations may make it ours? And here, being thus together, we are an endless mine of wealth to one another. We are one another’s wife, ever begetting new births of love. We are father, friends, and acquaintances. We are, in one another, families. I am your heir, and you are mine. This place is our inheritance; no hard oppressor dares take this from us; here with a little patience we shall live long and loving. No excesses seek us. The hand of war hurts none here, nor do the seas swallow their youth. Were we at liberty, a wife might part us lawfully, or business might part us. Quarrels might consume us. The malice of ill men might crave our acquaintance. I might sicken, cousin, where you should never know it, and so perish without your noble hand to close my eyes, and without your prayers to the gods. A thousand events, if we were away from here, could sever us.”

“You have made me — I thank you, cousin Arcite — almost delighted with my captivity. What a misery it is to live abroad and everywhere! It is a life like that of a beast, I think. I find the court here, I am sure, more content than any court elsewhere, and all those pleasures that woo the wills of men to vanity I see through now, and I am able to tell the world that it is only a gaudy shadow that old Time takes with him as he passes by.

“What would we be, if we were to grow old in the court of Creon, the court where sin is justice, and lust and ignorance are the virtues of the great ones? Cousin Arcite, if the loving gods had not found this place for us, we would have died as Creon’s courtiers do — they are ill old men, unwept, and with the people’s curses as their epitaphs. Shall I say more?”

“I want to hear you speak more.”

“You shall. Is there any record of any two who loved each other as friends better than we do, Arcite?”

“Surely there cannot be.”

“I do not think it possible that our friendship should ever leave us,” Palamon said.

“Until our deaths occur, it cannot,” Arcite said.

Emilia and her female attendant entered the garden below the prison window.

Arcite continued, “And after our death our spirits shall be led to those who love eternally in Elysium.”

Palamon caught sight of Emilia and stared at her, silent.

Arcite said, “Speak on, sir.”

Emilia said to her female attendant, “This garden has a world of pleasures in it. What flower is this?”

“It is called narcissus, madam.”

In mythology, Narcissus was a handsome boy who fell in love with his reflection in a stream.

“Narcissus was certainly a fair boy, but a fool to love himself. Weren’t there maidens enough for him to find someone to love?”

Arcite said to Palamon, “Please, continue to speak.”

Palamon replied, “Yes.”

Emilia said to her female attendant, “Or were all the maidens hard-hearted?”

“They could not be to one as good-looking as Narcissus.”

“You would not be hard-hearted to him,” Emilia said.

“I think I should not, madam.”

“That’s a good girl. But take heed about your kindness, though.”

“Why, madam?”

“Men are mad things,” Emilia said.

More than one woman has found her kindness to be misinterpreted as leading a man on.

Arcite said to Palamon, “Will you continue what you were saying, cousin?”

Emilia said to her female servant, “Can you embroider such flowers in silk, girl?”


“I’ll have a gown full of them, and of these other flowers. This is a pretty color. Won’t it look splendid on a skirt, girl?”

“It will look beautiful, madam.”

Arcite said, “Cousin, cousin! How are you, sir? Why, Palamon!”

“Never until now was I in prison, Arcite.”

“Why, what’s the matter, man?”

“Behold, and wonder!” Palamon replied. “By Heaven, she is a goddess.”

Arcite looked at Emilia and said, “I see!”

“Kneel and pay homage to her. She is a goddess, Arcite.”

Emilia said to her female attendant, “Of all flowers I think a rose is best.”

“Why, gentle madam?”

“It is the very emblem of a maiden,” Emilia said. “For when the west wind courts her gently, how modestly she blossoms and beautifies the Sun with her chaste blushes! When the rough and impatient north wind comes near her, then like chastity she locks her beauties in her bud again, and leaves him to base prickly thorns.”

Emilia’s female attendant said, “Yet, good madam, sometimes her modesty will blossom so far she falls for it.”

A rose blossom can fall because of the way a rough and impatient north wind treats it; it withers and falls off the stem. A maiden who falls for the line of a rough and impatient man can fall in another way — she can fall into bed.

Emilia’s female attendant added, “A maiden, if she has any honor, would be loath to take a rose as a model to follow.”

“You are misinterpreting what I say as being wanton!” Emilia said.

Arcite said to Palamon, “She is wondrously beautiful.”

“She is all the beauty that exists on Earth,” Palamon replied.

Emilia said to her female attendant, “The Sun grows high. Let’s walk in. Keep these flowers. We’ll see how near art can come to their colors. I am wondrously merry-hearted. I could laugh now.”

A proverb stated, “Laugh and lie down.”

Her female attendant said, “I could lie down, I am sure.”

“And take someone with you?” Emilia asked.

“That’s as we bargain, madam,” her female attendant answered.

It could happen.

Emilia said, “Well, agree then.”

The two women exited from the garden.

“What do you think of this beauty?” Palamon asked Arcite.

“This beauty is a rare one.”

“Is it only a rare one?”

Arcite answered, “She is a matchless beauty.”

“Might not a man well lose himself and love her?” Palamon asked.

“I cannot tell what you have done,” Arcite said, “but I have lost myself and I do love her, damn my eyes for it! Now I feel my shackles.”

“You love her, then?”

“Who would not love her?”

“And desire her?”

“I want her more than I want my freedom,” Arcite answered.

“I saw her first,” Palamon said.

“That’s nothing.”

“But it shall be.”

“I saw her, too,” Arcite said.

“Yes, but you must not love her.”

“I will not, as you do, love her to worship her as she is Heavenly and a blessed goddess. I love her as a woman, and I want to enjoy her. So both of us may love her.”

The kind of enjoying he meant was enjoying her in bed.

“You shall not love her at all,” Palamon said.

“Not love her at all! Who shall deny me?”

“I, who first saw her,” Palamon said. “I, who took possession first with my eye of all those beauties in her revealed to mankind.”

Palamon now began to use the less formal, less respectful pronouns “thou” and “thee” and “thy” to refer to Arcite, rather than the more formal, more respectful pronouns “you” and “your” that he had been using.

One might expect that Arcite and Palamon, who were both relatives and close friends, to regularly use the informal pronouns “thou” and “thee” to refer to each other, but they regularly used the pronoun “you.” Sometimes, close friends can treat each other with excessive formality as a sign of respect.

He said to Arcite, “If thou love her, or entertain a hope to blight my wishes, thou art a traitor, Arcite, and a fellow as false as thy title to her. Friendship, blood relationship, and all the ties between us I disclaim if thou think once upon her.”

“Yes, I love her,” Arcite said, “and if the lives of all my family members lay on it, I must do so. I love her with my soul. If that will lose you, then farewell, Palamon. I say again, I love her, and in loving her I maintain I am as worthy and as free a lover and have as just a title to her beauty as any Palamon or anyone living who is a man’s son.”

“Have I called thee friend?” Palamon asked.

“Yes, and you have found me to be a friend,” Arcite replied. “Why are you so moved? Let me reason coolly and calmly with you: Aren’t I part of your blood, part of your soul? You have told me that I was Palamon and you were Arcite.”

“Yes,” Palamon said.

“Am I not liable to those emotions, those joys, griefs, angers, and fears that my friend shall experience?”

“You may be.”

“Why then would you deal so cunningly, so strangely, so unlike a noble kinsman, to love alone? Speak truly, do you think me unworthy to look at her?”

“No,” Palamon said, “but I think thee unjust if thou pursue that sight.”

“Because another person first sees the enemy, shall I stand still and let my honor down, and never charge?”

“Yes, if the enemy is only one person,” Palamon said.

“But say that one enemy would rather combat me?” Arcite asked.

In combat, one person could challenge an enemy to fight in single combat.

“Then let that one say so, and use thy freedom to do what thou wants. Else, if thou pursue her, be like that cursed man who hates his country — be a branded villain.”

“You are mad,” Arcite said.

“I must be,” Palamon said. “Until thou are worthy, Arcite, it concerns me. And in this madness if I put thee at risk and take thy life, I deal but truly.”

“Damn, sir! You are acting exactly like a child. I will love her. I must, I ought to do so, and I dare, and all this justly.”

“Oh, if now thy false self and thy friend — me, Palamon — had the good fortune to have one hour at liberty and grasp our good swords in our hands, I would quickly teach thee what it were to filch affection from another. Thou are baser in it than a pickpocket. Just put thy head a little more out of this window, and as I have a soul, I’ll nail thy life to the window sash.”

“Thou dare not, fool,” Arcite said, beginning to use the less formal, less respectful pronouns that Palamon had been using. “Thou can not; thou are feeble. Put my head out? I’ll throw my body out and leap into the garden when I see her next, and throw myself between her arms to anger thee.”

The jailer arrived.

“Say no more,” Palamon said. “The jailkeeper’s coming. I shall live to knock thy brains out with my shackles.”

“Do it! I dare thee!” Arcite said.

“By your leave, gentlemen,” the jailer said respectfully.

“What is it, honest jailkeeper?” Palamon asked.

“Lord Arcite, you must immediately go to Theseus, the Duke of Athens. I don’t yet know why.”

“I am ready to go, jailkeeper,” Arcite said.

“Prince Palamon, I must for awhile bereave you of your fair cousin’s company,” the jailer said.

Arcite and the jailer exited.

“And you can bereave me, too, whenever you please, of life,” Palamon said to himself. “Why has Arcite been sent for? It may be he shall marry Emilia; he’s a good-looking man, and likely enough the Duke has taken notice of both his noble blood and his noble body. But his falsehood! Why should a friend be treacherous? If that falsehood should get him a wife so noble and so fair, then let honest men never love again.

“Once more I would love to see this fair Emilia. Blessed garden and fruit and flowers more blessed that still blossom as her bright eyes shine on you, I wish I were, in exchange for all my future good fortune, yonder little tree, yonder blooming apricot! How I would spread and fling my wanton arms in at her window. I would bring her fruit fit for the gods to feed on. Youth and pleasure whenever she tasted should be doubled on her; and, if she be not Heavenly, I would make her so near the gods in nature that they should fear her.”

The jailer returned.

Palamon continued, “And then I am sure she would love me.”

Seeing the jailer, he said, “What is the news, jailkeeper? Where’s Arcite?”

“He has been banished and ordered into exile,” the jailer answered. “Prince Pirithous obtained Arcite’s liberty, but never again upon his oath and life must Arcite set foot upon this Kingdom. Arcite has sworn an oath on his life that he will not return here.”

“He’s a blessed man,” Palamon said. “He shall see Thebes again, and call to arms the bold young men who, when he orders them to charge, will fall on the enemy like fire. Arcite shall have a chance, if he dares to make himself a lover worthy of wooing her, yet in the field to fight a battle for her, and, if he loses her then, he’s a passionless coward. How bravely may he bear himself to win her if he is noble Arcite — he has a thousand ways to win her!

“If I were at liberty, I would do things of such a virtuous greatness that this lady, this blushing virgin, should take manhood to her and seek to rape me.”

The jailer said, “My lord, for you I have this charge, this order, to —”

Palamon said, “— to discharge my life?”

One meaning of the word “charge” was to load a firearm. The firearm could be discharged against Palamon and take his life.

The jailer replied, “No, but from this place to remove your lordship. The windows are too open and easy to escape through.”

“May the Devils take those who are so malicious to me!” Palamon said. “Please, kill me.”

“And hang for it afterward!” the jailer said.

“By this good light, the Sun, I swear that if I had a sword I would kill thee.”

“Why, my lord?” the jailer asked.

“Thou bring such paltry, scurvy news continually, that thou are not worthy of life. I will not go.”

“Indeed you must, my lord,” the jailer replied.

“Will I be able to see the garden from my new cell?” Palamon asked.


“Then I am determined that I will not go.”

“I must force you to go then,” the jailer said, “and, because you are dangerous, I’ll clap more irons on you.”

“Do, good jailkeeper,” Palamon said. “I’ll shake them so that you shall not sleep. I’ll make you a new morris dance.”

People performing a morris dance shook bells attached to their clothing. Palamon’s new kind of morris dance would involve shaking his shackles.

Palamon asked, “Must I go?”

“There is no alternative. You must go.”

“Farewell, kind window,” Palamon said.

He now used “thee” and “thou” in their informal, affectionate meanings: “May a rude wind never hurt thee, kind window.

“Oh, my lady, if ever thou have felt what sorrow was, dream how I suffer.

“Come, jailer. You can now metaphorically bury me.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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