David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 1

— 5.1 —

Theseus, Pirithous, Hippolyta, and some attendants were present in an area in which three altars were set up. Each of the three altars was dedicated to a god: Mars, god of war; Venus, goddess of love; and Diana, goddess of chastity.

Theseus said, “Now let them enter and before the gods offer their holy prayers. Let the temples burn bright with sacred fires, and the altars in hallowed clouds present their billowing incense to those above us. Let nothing due to the gods be lacking. Those who have a noble work in hand will honor the very gods who love them.”

“Sir, they are entering,” Pirithous said.

Cornets sounded. Palamon and Arcite and their Knights entered.

Theseus said, “You valiant and strong-hearted enemies, you royal related foes, who this day come to blow out that nearness that flames between you, set aside your anger for an hour and, dove-like and peaceably, before the holy altars of your helpers, the feared-by-all gods, bow down your stubborn bodies. Your ire is more than mortal; so may your help be. And because the gods are watching you, fight justly. I’ll leave you to your prayers, and between you I part my wishes. I wish both of you good fortune.”

“May honor crown the worthiest!” Pirithous said.

Theseus, Pirithous, and Theseus’ train of attendants exited.

Palamon said to Arcite, “The sands of the hourglass are running now, and by the time the last grain falls one of us will be dead. Think only this: Think that if there were anything in me that strove to appear my enemy in this business, were it one eye against another, one arm oppressed by my other arm, I would destroy the offender, cousin — I would although it were a part of myself. Then from this gather how I should regard you.”

Palamon intended to kill Arcite.

Arcite replied, “I am working to push your name, your long-established friendship, and our biological relationship out of my memory, and in the selfsame place to seat something I would destroy. So hoist we the sails that these vessels must bring to port even where the Heavenly Limiter pleases.”

Arcite intended to kill Palamon.

The Heavenly Limiter is God, Who sets a limit to the extent of our lives.

“You speak well,” Palamon said. “Before I turn and leave, let me embrace you, cousin.”

They embraced.

Palamon then said, “This I shall never do again.”

“This is one farewell,” Arcite said. “It is our last farewell.”

“Why, let it be so. Farewell, cousin,” Palamon said.

“Farewell, sir,” Arcite said.

Palamon and his Knights exited.

Arcite said, “Knights, kinsmen, lovers, yes, my sacrifices who are risking your lives for me, true worshippers of Mars, whose spirit expels the seeds of fear and the apprehension that is always the father of fear, go with me before the altar of the god of our profession.

“At Mars’ altar, ask him to give you the hearts of lions and the endurance of tigers, yes, the fierceness, too, and yes, the speed, also — to press ahead, I mean; otherwise, we would wish to be snails if we were to retreat.

“You know my prize must be won with bloodshed; strength and great deeds must put a triumphal garland on my head. The garland placed on my head will be made of the Queen of flowers — roses, which are associated with virgins such as Emilia. Our prayer, then, must be to Mars, who makes the battlefield a cistern brimful with the blood of men. Give me your aid, and bend your spirits towards him.”

They went to Mars’ altar, fell on their faces before it, and then knelt.

Mortals’ relationships with the gods can be personal, familiar relationships, and so when praying mortals can use “thou” and “thee” to refer to the gods.

Arcite prayed, “Thou mighty one, who with thy power has turned the green of the ocean to the red color of blood, whose approach the omens of comets prewarn and prophesy, whose havoc proclaims a vast number of unburied skulls in the battlefield, whose breath blows down the teeming harvest of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain, who plucks with your powerful hand mason-built turrets from blue clouds of smoke, who both makes and breaks the stony girths of cities, I ask that you this day furnish me, your pupil, the youngest follower of your military drum, with military skill, so that to advance your praise I may advance my streamer, and because of you be styled the lord of the day. Give me, great Mars, some sign of your pleasure.”

Here they fell on their faces as they had done formerly, and they heard the clanging of armor, with a short burst of thunder, like the burst of a battle, whereupon they all rose and bowed to the altar.

Arcite continued his prayer: “Oh, great corrector of disorderly, abnormal times, shaker of over-ripe, rotten states, you grand decider of dusty and old titles, who heals with blood-letting the Earth when it is sick, and cures the world of the excess of people, I take your signs auspiciously, and in your name to my design march boldly.

“I believe that this sign tells me that I will get what I want: victory in this battle.”

He then said to his Knights, “Let’s go.”

Arcite and his Knights exited.

Palamon and his Knights entered, and Palamon said, “Our stars must glisten with new fire, or be today extinct. Either we are victorious in battle, or we die today. Our subject of contention is love, which if the goddess of love grants, she gives victory, too. So then blend your spirits with mine, you Knights whose lavish nobleness makes my cause your personal hazard. You are risking your lives to help me gain the woman I love. To the goddess Venus, we commit our proceeding and we implore her to use her power on our side in the battle.”

Palamon and his Knights went to Venus’ altar, fell on their faces before it, and then knelt.

Palamon prayed, “Hail, sovereign Queen of secrets, who has the power to call the fiercest tyrant from his rage and weep in front of a girl because he loves her. You have the might even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’ drum and turn the battle alarm into whispers — you can quiet threats of war and turn them into whispers. You can make a cripple wave his crutch and cure him even before Apollo, god of healing, can cure him. You can force the King to be his subject’s vassal, and induce stale old men to dance. The bald bachelor, who, like frivolous boys jumping over small bonfires, skipped over your flame of love in his youth, you can catch at age seventy and make him, to the mockery of his hoarse throat, abuse youthful love songs by singing them.

“What godlike power do you not have power over? To Phoebus Apollo, you added flames hotter than his; the Heavenly fires scorched his mortal son, and your flames scorched him.”

Venus was referring to Phoebus Apollo’s mortal son Phaethon. Jove’s Heavenly fire — the thunderbolt — had scorched Phaeton, and Venus’ Heavenly fire — the fire of love — had scorched Phoebus Apollo.

Venus, as the goddess of love, was able to make Apollo feel the fire of love and fall in love with either goddesses or mortal women. Her son Cupid, the god of love, could do the same thing. Cupid looks like a young boy, and he has a bow and arrows. Apollo made fun of him for being a boy who played with a man’s weapons, so Cupid shot him with an arrow that made him fall in love with the mortal woman Daphne.

Palamon continued, “You can also make the huntress Diana, goddess of chastity and of the moist Moon, fall in love and throw her bow away and sigh.”

The Moon is said to be moist because it controls the tides.

Venus made Diana fall in love with the shepherd boy Endymion.

Palamon continued, “Take to your grace me, your vowed soldier, who bears your yoke of love as if it were a wreath of roses, and yet your yoke is heavier than lead itself and stings more than nettles. You have made me fall in love with Emilia.

“I have never been foul-mouthed against your law. I have never revealed love secrets, for I knew none — and I would not reveal them, even if I had known all the love secrets that existed. I have never tried to seduce any man’s wife, nor would I ever read the libelous attacks against women that were written by licentious wits. I never at great feasts have sought to reveal the indiscretions of a beauty, but instead I have blushed at the simpering, affected, smirking sirs who did. I have been harsh to those who boasted about sexual sins, and I have hotly asked them if they had mothers — I had a mother, who was a woman, and these boasters were wronging women.

“I knew a man who was eighty years old — this I told them to show that I understood your power — who made a bride of a lass of fourteen; you have and had the power to put life into dust. The aged rheumatism had twisted his once-healthy foot into an unnatural position, the gout had knit his fingers into knots, and torturing convulsions had almost pulled his globular, protruding eyes from their sockets. The result was that what was life in him seemed to be torture. This man made of skin and bones had by his young and beautiful wife a boy, and I believed it was his, for she swore it was, and who would not believe her?

“In brief, I am to those who prate and have done what they said they did, no companion. I am to those who boast and have not done what they said they did, a defier. I am to those who want to commit sexual sins but cannot, a rejoicer — I rejoice in their impotence. Truly, I do not respect a man who tells about secret intrigues in the foulest way, and I do not respect a man who reveals sexual secrets with the boldest language.

“Such a one I am as I have said I am, and I vow that no lover has ever yet made a sigh truer than I.

“Oh, then, most soft sweet goddess, give me the victory of this battle, which is true love’s merit, and bless me with a sign of your great pleasure.”

Music played, and doves fluttered. Palamon and his Knights fell again upon their faces, and then on their knees.

Palamon prayed, “Oh, you who reign from within the mortal bosoms of those from age eleven to age ninety, whose hunting ground is this world and whose game is we herds of humans, I give you thanks for this fair token, which being laid to my innocent true heart, arms in assurance my body to this business. I believe that this sign tells me that I will get what I want: Emilia.”

He then said to his Knights, “Let us rise and bow before the goddess.”

They rose and bowed.

Palamon said, “The time for the battle is coming on.”

They exited.

The soft music of recorders played. Emilia and some of her female attendants arrived. She was wearing white, and her hair was loose about her shoulders. On her head she wore a wreath made of wheat stalks. A female attendant wearing white held up the train of Emilia’s dress; the female attendant’s hair was decorated with flowers. Another female attendant in front of Emilia was carrying a figure of a deer made of silver. On the deer’s back was a place where incense and sweet perfumes could be burned. Her attendants stood to the side, and Emilia put the figure of the silver deer upon the altar of Diana and set fire to the incense and sweet perfumes as a sacrifice. Emilia and her attendants then curtsied and knelt.

Emilia said, “Oh sacred, shadowy, chaste, and constant Queen, abandoner of revels, mute contemplative, sweet, solitary, you are as white as you are chaste, and you are as pure as is the wind-fanned snow. To your female Knights you allow no more blood than will make a blush, which is their order’s robe. I, your female priest, am humble here before your altar. Oh, deign to look on your virgin follower — me — with your rare green eye, which never yet beheld anything spotted and impure. And, sacred silver mistress, lend your ears — which never hear scurrilous words, and into whose ports wanton sounds have never entered — to my petition, which is seasoned with holy fear.

“This is the last of my vestal office; I will no longer serve you as a maiden. I am bride-habited but maiden-hearted; although I am wearing the clothing of a bride, I still have the heart of a maiden. A husband will be given to me, but I don’t know who will be my husband.

“Out of two men who wish to marry me, I should choose one, and pray for his success, but I am not guilty of selecting one. Of my eyes, if I were to lose one — they are equally precious — I could doom neither; that which perished should go to its destruction without being sentenced by me. I cannot choose which of my two eyes should become blind.

“Therefore, most modest Queen, the one of my two wooers who best loves me and has the truest title in his love, let him take off my wheaten garland and marry me, or else grant that I may continue to possess the rank and condition of being a virgin so that you may allow me to continue to be in your band of followers.”

The silver deer vanished under the altar, and in its place a rose bush, with one rose on it, ascended.

Emilia said, “See what Diana, our general of ebbs and flows and the tides, from the center of her holy altar with sacred act advances: one rose.

“If I correctly understand this omen, this battle shall confound and destroy both these brave Knights, and I, a virgin flower, must grow alone, unmarried and unplucked.”

Some musical instruments suddenly twanged, and the rose fell from the tree.

Emilia said, “The flower has fallen, and now the rose bush descends. Oh, mistress Diana, you here discharge me from your service. I shall be gathered.

“I will be married and cease to be a virgin: I think that is your will, but I don’t know your will. Reveal your mystery!”

She said to her attendants, “I hope that the goddess Diana is pleased; her signs were gracious.”

Being given signs, even when the signs are difficult to interpret, is a gracious act by a god or goddess.

Emilia and her attendants curtsied and exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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