David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

Emilia stood alone, holding two miniature pictures. One picture depicted Palamon; the other picture depicted Arcite.

She said, “I could still bandage those wounds up that must otherwise open and bleed to death for my sake.”

She meant that she could heal the wounded friendship between Palamon and Arcite so that other, physical wounds would not open.

She continued, “I’ll choose one of them, and by so doing end their strife. Two such young handsome men shall never fall and die because of me; their weeping mothers, following the dead cold ashes of their sons, shall never curse my cruelty.”

Emilia looked at one of the pictures.

She then said, “Good Heaven, what a sweet face Arcite has! If wise Nature, with all her best endowments, all those beauties she sows into the births of noble bodies, were here a mortal woman, and had in her the shy, modest denials of young maidens, yet without a doubt she would run mad for this man.

“What an eye, of what a fiery sparkle and lively sweetness, this young prince has! Here in Arcite’s eye, Cupid, the god of Love, himself sits smiling. With just such another smile, frolicsome Ganymede set Jove afire, and he forced the King of the gods to snatch him — the good-looking boy — up and set the boy by him, Jove; the boy became a shining constellation.”

Ganymede was a beautiful human boy whom Jupiter, aka Jove, King of the gods, kidnapped and made his cupbearer. Later, Ganymede was transformed into the constellation Aquarius.

Emilia continued, “What a forehead of what a spacious majesty he exhibits, arched like the great-eyed Juno’s but far sweeter — smoother than Pelops’ shoulder!”

Juno, wife of Jupiter, had large eyes.

Pelops’ shoulder was made of ivory. His father, Tantalus, killed him, cooked him, and served him to the gods. One goddess, Demeter, ate some of his shoulder before the trickery was discovered. The gods brought Pelops back to life and sentenced his father, Tantalus, to everlasting punishment in the Land of the Dead. He stands in a stream of water with fruit-bearing branches above his head. Whenever he stoops to drink, the water level lowers and the stream dries up. Whenever he reaches for fruit to eat, the wind blows the branches just out of his reach. He is forever thirsty and hungry, and water and fruit are always just out of his possession.

Emilia continued, “Fame and Honor, I think, from Arcite’s brow as from a promontory that ends in a point in Heaven, should clap their wings and sing to all the world under Heaven the loves and fights of gods and men such as are like them.”

Emilia looked at the other picture.

She then said, “Palamon is only a foil to Arcite.”

A foil is a setting for a jewel. The foil is of much lesser value than the jewel and serves to show off the jewel’s luster.

Emilia continued, “Compared to Arcite, Palamon is only a dull shadow. He’s swarthy and thin, of an eye as heavy and sorrowful as if he had lost his mother. He has a lethargic temperament. There is no liveliness in him, no alacrity. Of all this sprightly sharpness there is not a smile — he has no trace of Arcite’s keenness of spirit.

“Yet these things that we regard as errors and flaws may become him. Narcissus was a sad but Heavenly boy.”

Narcissus was beautiful, and he fell in love with his reflection in a stream.

Emily continued, “Oh, who can find the reasoning of woman’s love? I am a fool; my reason is lost in me. I have no ability to choose, and I have lied so vilely that women ought to beat me.

“On my knees I ask you for your pardon, Palamon. You and only you are beautiful, and these are the eyes — these are the bright lamps of beauty — that command and threaten love, and what young maiden dares to oppose them?

“What a bold gravity, and yet inviting, this brown manly face has! Oh, Love, from this hour this is the only complexion for me.”

She put aside Arcite’s picture and said, “Lie there, Arcite.”

She then said, “You, Arcite, are a changeling compared to Palamon; you are a mere gypsy, and this is the noble body.”

Fairies were said to exchange ugly babies for beautiful babies.

She continued, “I am besotted and utterly lost. My virgin’s constancy has fled from me. For if my brother-in-law had but just now asked me which of the two men I loved, I would have run mad for Arcite. Now, if my sister would ask me, I would run even madder for Palamon.

“Let both pictures stand side by side. Now, come ask me which man I prefer, brother-in-law. Alas, I don’t know! Ask me now, sweet sister. I may as well go and look because I have no answer!

“What a mere child is Fancy, who, having two fair toys of equal sweetness, cannot choose between them, but must cry for both.”

A gentleman entered the room.

“What is it, sir?” Emilia asked.

“Madam, I bring you news from the noble Duke, your brother-in-law,” the gentleman said. “The Knights have come.”

“To end the quarrel?” Emilia asked.


“I wish I might end — die — first!” she said. “What sins have I committed, Diana, goddess of chastity, that my unstained youth must now be soiled with the blood of Princes, and my chastity be made the altar where the lives of lovers — two greater and two better men never yet gave mothers joy — must be the sacrifice to my unhappy beauty?”

Theseus, Hippolyta, Pirithous, and some attendants entered the room.

Theseus said to an attendant, “Bring them in quickly, by all means. I long to see them.”

He said to Emilia, “Your two contending lovers have returned, and with them their fair Knights. Now, my fair sister-in-law, you must love one of them.”

“I would rather love both, so that neither for my sake should fall and die prematurely.”

“Who saw them?” Theseus asked.

“I saw them for a short time,” Pirithous said.

“And I did, too,” the gentleman said.

A messenger entered the room.

“From whence have you come, sir?” Theseus asked.

“From the Knights.”

“Please tell us, you who have seen them, what kind of men they are.”

“I will, sir,” the messenger said, “and I will say what I truly think. Six braver spirits than these Knights Arcite and Palamon have brought, if we judge by their outside appearance, I have never seen nor read of.

“The Knight who stands in the first place with Arcite, by his appearance, should be a valiant man. Judging by his face, he is a Prince — his very looks say that he is one. His complexion is nearer a brown than black — stern and yet noble — which shows that he is hardy, fearless, and pleased by dangers. The circles of his eyes show fire within him, and he looks like an angry lion. His hair hangs long behind him, black and shining like ravens’ wings; his shoulders are broad and strong. His arms are long and muscular, and on his thigh a sword hangs by a finely made baldric, aka leather shoulder strap. He uses his sword to put his seal on business when he frowns. A better sword, I swear by my conscience, was never a soldier’s friend.”

“You have described him well,” Theseus said.

“Yet he is a great deal short, I think, of the Knight who’s the first with Palamon,” Pirithous said.

“Please tell us about him, friend,” Theseus said.

“I guess he is a Prince, too,” Pirithous said, “and, if it may be, greater than a Prince, for his appearance has all the trappings of honor in it. He’s somewhat bigger than the Knight the messenger spoke of, but he has a face far sweeter; his complexion is, like a ripe grape, ruddy. He has felt without doubt what he fights for — love — and so he is readier to make this cause his own. In his face appears all the fair hopes of what he undertakes, and when he’s angry, then a steady valor, not tainted with extremes, runs through his body and guides his arm to accomplish brave things. He cannot feel fear; he shows no such soft temper. His hair’s yellow-blonde — tightly curled, thickly twined like ivy bushes, and this Knight is not to be destroyed by thunder and lightning.”

The Knight looked like a victor, and people in this culture believed that the wreath of a victor protected him from lightning. People in this culture also believed that some plants, including ivy, were impervious to thunder and lightning.

Pirithous continued, “In his face the uniform of the warlike maiden goddess Athena appears; his face is pure red and white, for as of yet no beard has blessed him. And in his rolling eyes sits Victory, as if she always meant to crown his valor. His nose stands high, a characteristic of honor. His red lips, after fights, are fit for ladies.”

“Must these men die, too?” Emilia asked.

The others ignored her question.

Pirithous continued, “When he speaks, his words sound like a trumpet. All the parts of his body are as a man would wish them, strong and well built. He carries a well-steeled axe; the handle is made of gold. His age is approximately twenty-five.”

The messenger said, “There’s another — a little man, but of a tough soul. His appearance seems to be as great as any. Fairer promises in such a body I have never yet looked on.”

“Oh, is he the one who’s freckle-faced?” Pirithous asked.

“The same, my lord,” the messenger said. “Are they not charming freckles?”

“Yes, they are,” Pirithous said.

“I think,” the messenger said, “being so few, and well distributed, they show great and fine art in nature. He’s blonde, white-haired — not a dyed wanton white, but such a manly color that is next to an auburn. He is tough and agile, which shows he has an active soul. His arms are brawny, lined with strong muscles — to the shoulder-piece gently they swell, like newly pregnant women, which shows that he is prone to work hard, never fainting under the weight of arms. He is always valiant-hearted, even when at rest, but when he stirs and moves, he is a tiger. He’s grey-eyed, which shows that he yields compassion where he conquers. He is sharp at spying advantages, and where he finds them, he’s swift to make them his. He does no wrongs, nor does he endure wrongs from others. He’s round-faced, and when he smiles he shows that he is a lover; when he frowns, he shows that he is a soldier. About his head he wears the winner’s oak — the crown of oak leaves given to a victorious soldier — and in it is stuck the favor of his lady.”

Ladies would give favors — scarfs or gloves — that Knights would display conspicuously to show which lady they were fighting for.

The messenger continued, “His age is approximately thirty-six. In his hand he holds a jousting-lance embossed with silver.”

“Are they all like this?” Theseus asked.

“All of them are the sons of honor,” Pirithous answered.

“Now, as I have a soul, I long to see them,” Theseus said.

He then said to Hippolyta, who as an Amazon knew about women fighting, “Lady, you shall see men fight now.”

“I wish to see it,” Hippolyta said, “but not fighting for this cause, my lord. They would show themselves bravely if they were fighting about the titles of two Kingdoms. It is a pity that love should be so tyrannous.”

She said to Emilia, who was crying, “Oh, my soft-hearted sister, what do you think? Don’t weep tears until their wounds weep blood. Woman, this duel must happen.”

Theseus said to Emilia, “You have steeled and given them strength with your beauty.”

He said to Pirithous, “Honored friend, to you I give the management of the field of honor; please prepare it and make it suitable for the persons who must use it.”

“Yes, sir,” Pirithous replied.

“Come, I’ll go and visit them,” Theseus said. “I cannot wait until they appear — the reports I have just heard about them have set me on fire to see them now. Good friend, be royal; be like a King when it comes to making the field of honor magnificent.”

“No splendor shall be lacking,” Pirithous said.

Everybody but Emilia exited.

She said to herself, “Poor wench, go and weep, because whoever wins will lose a noble cousin on account of your sins.”

Emilia’s “sins” were her beauty and her virtues that had caused both Arcite and Palamon to fall in love with her to the extent that they wanted to kill each other so that the survivor could marry her and have her.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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