David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 1

— 3.1 —

The celebration of May Day was in full swing. The noises of hunting and of celebrating were taking place.

Arcite said to himself, “The Duke has been separated from Hippolyta; each took a separate glade. This is a solemn rite they owe bloom-filled May, and the Athenians perform this rite to the fullest.

“Oh, Emilia, Queen of May Day, you are fresher than May, sweeter than her gold buttons — buds — on the boughs, or all the enameled knick-knacks — brightly colored ornaments, aka flowers — of the meadow or garden.”

Using the royal plural, he said, “Indeed, we claim also that Emilia is lovelier than the bank of any nymph who makes the stream seem like flowers.”

Nymphs are nature spirits who look like young women and who live in or near natural places such as woods and streams. The stream seemed like flowers in May because the stream’s surface reflected the flowers growing on its banks.

Arcite continued, “Emilia, you are the jewel of the wood and of the world. Like a nymph, you have blessed a place with your sole presence. I wish that I, poor man whom I am, might occasionally come into your mind and change some cold, chaste thought! It would be a thrice-blessed event to drop into such a mistress’ thoughts unexpectedly.

“Tell me, Lady Fortune, you who are my sovereign next after Emily, to what extent I may be proud. I have things to be thankful for. Emily takes strong notice of me, she has made me be near her; and this beauteous morning, the best and most primary of all the year, she presented me with a brace — a pair — of horses. Two such steeds might well be ridden by a pair of Kings in a battlefield where they fought to see who deserved the title to their crowns.

“Alas, alas, poor cousin Palamon, poor prisoner, you so little dream upon my fortune that you think that you yourself are the happier thing because you are so near Emilia. You think that I am at Thebes, and that I am wretched there, although I am free. But if you knew that my mistress breathes on me, and I hear her language, and I live within her eyesight, and sometimes I am so close to her that I can see my reflection in her eyes — oh, cousin, what anger would seize you!”

Palamon, still wearing shackles, emerged from the bush where he had been hiding and shook his fist at Arcite and said, “Traitor kinsman, thou would perceive my anger if these signs of imprisonment — my shackles — were off me, and if this hand of mine owned a sword. By all oaths in one, I and the justice of my love would prove in a trial by combat that thou are a confessed traitor.

“Oh, thou are the most perfidious lord who ever gently looked. You are the lord emptiest of honor who ever bore an honorable coat of arms. You are the falsest cousin whom blood ever made kin!

“Do thou call her thine?

“I’ll prove in my shackles, with these hands, which are empty of weapons, that thou lies, and that thou are a very thief in love, a worthless-as-chaff lord, not even worth the name of villain.

“If I had a sword, and if these prison restraints were off me —”

Arcite said politely, “Dear cousin Palamon —”

Palamon replied, “Cozener Arcite, talk to me with language such as is similar to the deeds you have done to me.”

A cozener is a cheater, a deceiver.

Arcite said, “Because I do not find inside my breast any gross stuff that makes me anything like what you proclaim me to be, I must continue to use this gentle language I have been using. It is your anger that makes you mistaken about me. Your anger, which is your enemy, cannot be kind to me. Honor and honesty I cherish and depend on, howsoever you fail to see them in me, and with honor and honesty, fair cousin, I’ll continue to act and to speak.

“Please state in well-bred terms your griefs, because your argument is with your equal, who professes to prove his course of action innocent with the mind and sword of a true gentleman.”

“I wish that you dared, Arcite!” Palamon said.

Arcite replied, “My cousin, my cousin, you have been well informed how much I dare; you’ve seen me use my sword against the warning of fear. Surely, you would not hear my bravery doubted by another person without you breaking your silence, even if you were in a religious sanctuary.”

“Sir, I have seen your actions in such a place that well might justify your manhood,” Palamon replied. “You were called a good Knight and a bold Knight. But the whole week is not fair if it rains any day of the week. Men lose their valiant temper when they lean toward treachery, and then they fight like compelled bears — they would flee if they were not restrained.”

In the “sport” of bear-baiting, bears were tied to a stake and then attacked by dogs. The bears could not flee, but were forced to fight.

Arcite said, “Kinsman, you might as well speak this and act it in your mirror as to speak it to the ears of one who now disdains you.”

Palamon said, “Come over to me, relieve me of these cold fetters, give me a sword even though it is rusty, and give me the charity of one meal. Come before me then, with a good sword in thy hand, and just say that Emily is thine. If you do these things, I will forgive the trespass thou hast done me — yes, I will. If thou should defeat me in single combat and relieve me of my life, then when brave souls who have died in a manly way seek from me in Hades some news from Earth, they shall get none but this: Thou are brave and noble.”

“Calm yourself,” Arcite said. “Return to your hawthorn house and hide yourself. With the darkness of the night, I will be here with wholesome food. These fetters of yours I will file off. You shall have garments to wear and perfumes to kill the smell of the prison. Afterward, when you shall stretch yourself and stand up straight and can say, ‘Arcite, I am in good shape again,’ you shall have your choice of both sword and armor.”

“Oh, you Heavens, does anyone so noble dare to engage in such a blameworthy business?” Palamon said. “None but only Arcite. Therefore, none but Arcite in this kind is so bold. Arcite seems to be noble, but he acts ignobly.”

Arcite began, “Sweet Palamon —”

Palamon interrupted, “— I embrace you and your offer; I am doing it only for your offer to duel. Sir, without hypocrisy I may not wish more than my sword’s edge on your person.”

Hunting horns and cornets sounded.

“You hear the horns,” Arcite said. “Enter your muset — your hiding place — lest this duel between us be thwarted before we meet.”

A muset is literally a hare’s lair.

Duke Theseus was an absolute ruler. If he wished to give two people fighting an illegal duel the death penalty, he could. He would definitely thwart the duel.

Arcite continued, “Give me your hand; farewell.”

They shook hands.

Arcite then said, “I’ll bring you everything you need. Please, take comfort and be strong.”

Palamon replied, “Please keep your promise, and do the deed with a frowning brow. Most certainly you do not love and respect me. Be rough with me, and pour this oil — this false courtesy — out of your language. I swear by this air I breathe, I could hit you for each word you speak, if my anger were not restrained by reason.”

“Plainly spoken,” Arcite said, “yet pardon me for not using hard language. When I spur my horse, I do not chide him; content and anger in me have but one face — they have the same appearance.”

The horns sounded.

“Listen, sir,” Arcite said, “the horns call the scattered hunters to the banquet; you must guess I have a position there.”

“Sir, your attendance there cannot please Heaven, and I know your position is achieved unjustly.”

“It is a good title,” Arcite said. “I have deserved it. I am persuaded that this argument or lawsuit, which is sick between us, must be cured by bleeding.”

Physicians often treated illnesses by bleeding; the bleeding that Arcite meant would be loss of blood in a single combat. Arcite used the word “lawsuit” because quarrels in which someone was accused of treason but the treason could not be proven were settled with a single combat. The two disputants would fight to the death. God was thought to side with the victor, and the victor was in the right and the vanquished was in the wrong.

Arcite added, “I petition you and ask that you will bequeath this quarrel to your sword and talk of it no more.”

“Let me say just one word more,” Palamon said. “You are going now to gaze upon my mistress, for note well, she is mine —”

“No, then —” Arcite began.

“Please,” Palamon said. “You talk of feeding me to breed strength in me. You are going now to look upon a Sun that strengthens what it looks on; there you have an advantage over me, but enjoy it until I may enforce and apply my remedy. Farewell.”

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