David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 3

— 2.3 —

In the country outside Athens, Arcite, wearing an ordinary cloak that disguised his nobility, said to himself, “Am I banished from the Kingdom? It is a benefit, a mercy I must thank them for; but being banished from the free enjoying of that face I die for, oh, it was a carefully planned punishment, a worse death than could be imagined — such a vengeance that, were I old and wicked, all my sins could never pluck upon me. Palamon, thou have the advantage now; thou shall stay and see her bright eyes break like dawn each morning against thy window and let life into thee; thou shall feed upon the sweetness of a noble beauty that nature has never exceeded and never shall.

“Good gods, what happiness has Palamon! Twenty to one he’ll come to a position where he can speak to her, and if she is as gentle and kind as she is fair, I know she’ll be his. He has a tongue that will tame tempests and make the wild rocks frolic.

“Come what can come, the worst that can come is my death. I will not leave the Kingdom. I know my own Kingdom — Thebes — is only a heap of ruins, and I will get no help there. If I go away from Athens, Palamon will have her.

“I am resolved that another shape — a disguise — shall either make me or end my fortunes. Either way I will be happy. I’ll see her and be near her, or I’ll be no more — I’ll be dead.”

Five rustics arrived. The countryman in the lead carried a garland.

Arcite stepped aside.

The first countryman said, “My masters, I’ll be there, that’s certain.”

The second countryman said, “And I’ll be there.”

The third countryman said, “And I will be there, too.”

The fourth countryman said, “Why, then, I’ll join you, boys. The worst that can happen to me is I’ll get a talking-to. Let the plow play today; I’ll whip the jades’ tails tomorrow to make them pull the plow faster and make up for today’s holiday.”

A jade is a horse of low quality.

The first countryman said, “I am sure to have my wife as jealous as a turkey, but that’s all one. I’ll go through with it; let her grumble.”

The second countryman said, “Board her as if she were a ship tomorrow night and fill up her empty lower area as if you were filling an empty hold with cargo, and she will forgive you.”

The third countryman said, “Yes, all you need to do is to put a fescue in her fist and you shall see her learn a new lesson and be a good lass.”

A fescue was a pointer used in teaching. Metaphorically, a fescue was a penis.

The third countryman then asked, “Will we all keep our promise to participate in the May Day festivities?”

The fourth countryman asked, “What can keep us from doing it?”

The third countryman said, “Arcas will be there.”

“And Sennois and Rycas,” the second countryman said, “and three better lads never danced under a green tree. And you know which wenches, ha! But will the dainty domine, the fastidious schoolmaster, keep his promise, do you think? For he is in charge of everything, you know.”

The word “wench” was not necessarily derogatory; it could be used affectionately.

The third countryman said, “He’ll eat a hornbook rather than fail. Come on, the matter’s too far driven between him and the tanner’s daughter to let the matter slip now. The tanner’s daughter insists on seeing the Duke, and she insists on dancing, too.”

A hornbook is a single sheet of paper covered with and protected by thinly sliced and therefore transparent horn. On the paper are the alphabet, numbers, and the Lord’s Prayer.

The fourth countryman asked, “Shall we be merry?”

The second countryman said, “All the boys in Athens can’t compete against us. If this were a race, they would be behind us, huffing and puffing and blowing wind against our butts.”

He started to dance and said, “And here I’ll be and there I’ll be, for our town, and here again, and there again. Ha, boys, hurray for the weavers!”

The first countryman said, “This dance of ours must be done in the woods.”

The fourth countryman started to object, “Oh, pardon me.”

The second countryman confirmed that the dance would be done in the woods during a break in the hunting and along with other rustic celebrations: “By all means. Our thing of learning the schoolmaster says so — in the woods where he himself will edify the Duke most amazingly in our behalves. He’s excellent in the woods, but bring him to the plains and his learning makes no cry.”

The woods were often hilly and always rustic areas; the plains were level sites where cities could be built. The schoolmaster and the dance supervised by the schoolmaster were suitable for the woods, but not noble enough for the court.

Hunting dogs make a cry when they scent their prey; metaphorically, the schoolmaster’s learning would make no cry in the court. It would not be impressive.

The third countryman said, “We’ll see the sports, then every man to his tackle.”

The tackle was equipment — what was needed for the dance. Performers of a morris dance needed bells.

He added, “And, sweet companions, let’s rehearse, by all means, before the ladies see us, and do so sweetly, and God knows what may come of it.”

The proverb “To stand to one’s tackling” meant “To be ready for anything.” The word “stand” also meant “erection.” “What may come of it” could be a private activity involving a man and a woman.

The fourth countryman said, “I agree. Once the sports are ended, we’ll perform. Let’s go, boys, and let’s carry on.”

Arcite stepped forward and said, “By your leaves, honest friends. Please tell me where you are going.”

The fourth countryman asked, “Where we are going? Why, what kind of a question is that?”

Arcite replied, “It is a question to me who doesn’t know the answer.”

The third countryman answered, “We are going to the games, my friend.”

The second countryman asked, “Where were you raised, that you don’t know that?”

“I was raised not far from here, sir,” Arcite said politely. “Are there such games today?”

The first countryman said, “Yes, indeed, there are, and such as you never saw. Duke Theseus himself will be in person there.”

“What pastimes will there be?”

The second countryman said, “Wrestling and running.”

He then said to the other countrymen about Arcite, “He is a good-looking fellow.”

The third countryman asked, “Will you come along with us?”

“Not yet, sir,” Arcite replied.

“Well, sir,” the fourth countryman said. “Take your own time.”

He then said to the other countrymen, “Come, boys.”

The first countryman said quietly to the other countrymen as they were leaving, “I am worried. This fellow has a formidable way of moving his hips that will be of great advantage in wrestling. Look at how his body seems made for wrestling.”

The second countryman said quietly, “I’ll be hanged, though, if he dares to wrestle. Hang him, the plum porridge! He wrestle? He roast eggs! He’s better suited to be an eater than a wrestler! Come, let’s go, lads.”

The four countrymen exited.

Alone, Arcite said, “This opportunity that I dared not wish for has fallen into my lap. I knew how to wrestle well — the best men called me an excellent wrestler — and I knew how to run swifter than wind ever flew upon a field of corn, furling the abundant ears.

“I’ll venture to be there and compete in these sports while I’m in some poor disguise. Who knows whether my brows may not be girt with the garlands of a victor, and who knows whether happiness and good fortune will promote me to a position at court where I may always dwell in sight of the woman I love?”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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