David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 3

— 5.3 —

Near the place appointed for the combat were Theseus, Hippolyta, Emilia, Pirithous, and some attendants.

“I’ll not go a step further,” Emilia said.

“Won’t you see this battle?” Pirithous asked.

“I would rather see a wren swoop like a hawk at a fly than this way of deciding who will marry me, since whoever loses the battle will die,” Emilia replied. “Every blow that falls threatens a brave life; each stroke laments the place where it falls, and each stroke sounds more like a passing bell announcing a death rather than the stroke of a blade.

“I will stay here. It is enough that my hearing shall be punished with what shall happen — there is no way that I can prevent my ears from hearing the battle, but I will not sully my eyes with dread sights that I may shun.”

Pirithous said to Theseus, “Sir, my good lord, your sister-in-law will go no further.”

“Oh, she must,” Theseus said. “She shall see deeds of honor in their reality, as they actually are — deeds of honor that sometimes are depicted well, either in art or in literature. Nature now shall create and enact the story, the credibility of which will be sealed with both eye and ear. Rather than just seeing it in a painting or hearing it in a recitation of a heroic poem, she shall both see and hear a real combat.”

He said to Emilia, “You must be present. You are the victor’s reward, the price and garland that will crown the argument’s title. This battle will decide the question of who will win the title to you — this battle will decide who will marry you.”

“Pardon me,” Emilia said. “If I were present at the battle, I’d shut my eyes.”

“You must be there,” Theseus said. “This trial by combat is as it were in the night, and you are the only star that shines.”

“I am extinct,” Emilia said. “My light has gone out. There is only malice in that light that shows one combatant to the other combatant. Darkness, which ever was the dam — the mother — of horror, darkness that stands accursed by many mortal millions, may even now, by casting her black mantle over both combatants, so that neither can find the other, get herself some part of a good name, and be forgiven many a murder of which she’s guilty.”

“You must go,” Hippolyta said.

“By my faith, I will not,” Emilia replied.

“Why, the Knights must kindle their valor at your eye,” Theseus said. “The Knights will grow more courageous by looking at you. Know that of this war you are the treasure, and you must necessarily be present to give the pay to the winning Knight who serves you.”

“Sir, pardon me,” Emilia said. “The title of a kingdom may be tried outside of the Kingdom itself.”

“Well, well, then; do as you please,” Theseus said. “Those who remain with you may wish that any of their enemies would take their place so that they could leave you and see the combat.”

“Farewell, sister,” Hippolyta said. “I am likely to know who your husband will be before yourself by some small space of time. I pray that he whom the gods know to be the better man will be made your husband.”

Theseus, Hippolyta, Pirithous, and the others exited.

Emilia said, “Arcite has a gentle appearance, yet his eye is like a weapon — a bow — bent, or a sharp weapon in a soft sheath. Mercy and manly courage are bedfellows in his face.

“Palamon has a most menacing appearance; his forehead is furrowed, and it seems to bury what it frowns on. Yet sometimes his forehead is not furrowed, but alters to reflect the quality of his thoughts. For a long time his eye will dwell upon the object he is thinking about.

“Melancholy becomes Palamon nobly. Arcite’s mirth becomes him nobly, but Palamon’s sadness is a kind of mirth. The two are mingled, as if mirth made Palamon sad and sadness made him merry. Those darker humors that are placed unattractively on others, on Palamon live in a fair dwelling.”

Cornets sounded, and then trumpets sounded as if to order a charge.

Emily continued, “Listen how yonder spurs to martial spirit incite the Princes to their trial by combat! Arcite may win me, and yet Palamon may wound Arcite and spoil his figure. Oh, what amount of pity would be enough for such a chance event? If I were nearby, I might do harm to the combatants because they would glance towards my seat, and by doing so might omit a defensive movement or forfeit an offensive movement that needed to be done at that exact time.”

Cornets sounded. The people watching the combat made a great cry and shouted, “Palamon!”

Emilia continued, “It is much better that I am not there. Oh, it would be better to have never been born than to be the cause of such harm!”

An attendant arrived.

“What is happening?” Emilia asked.

“They are shouting, ‘Palamon!’” the attendant answered.

“Then he has won,” Emilia said. “It was always likely that he would win. If you look at him, you see all grace and success, and he is without a doubt the best and first of men. I ask you to run and tell me how it goes.”

People shouted and cornets sounded, and the cry of “Palamon!” filled the air. 

The attendant said, “Still they cry, ‘Palamon.’”

“Run and inquire about what is happening,” Emilia ordered.

The attendant exited.

Emilia looked at the miniature pictures of Arcite and Palamon. Both of them were her servants in the sense they thought they were serving the woman they loved.

Addressing the picture of Arcite, she said, “Poor servant, you have lost. Upon my right side, I always wore your picture. I wore Palamon’s picture on my left side — why, I don’t know. I had no reason for wearing it there; I wore it there by chance. On the sinister — left — side, the heart lies; this was an omen that Palamon had the most auspicious chance of success in the battle.”

Another cry and shouts went up, and cornets sounded.

Emilia said, “This burst of clamor is surely the end of the combat.”

The attendant returned and said, “They said that Palamon had Arcite’s body within an inch of the pillar, and so the cry was generally ‘Palamon!’ But soon, Arcite’s assistants made a brave rescue of him, and the two bold claimants to your title and hand are at this instant hand to hand in combat.”

Emilia said, “Were Arcite and Palamon to be metamorphosed into one man — why, there is no woman who is worth a composite man like that! Their single share of nobleness peculiar to each of them already causes any living, breathing lady to suffer the disadvantage of being inferior to them, of having a shortage of value in comparison to them.”

Cornets sounded. The audience cried, “Arcite! Arcite!”

“More shouts?” Emilia said. “Are they still crying, ‘Palamon’?”

“No,” the attendant said. “Now they are crying, ‘Arcite.’”

“Please pay attention to the cries,” Emilia said. “Listen with both of your ears.”

Cornets sounded. A great shout rose up, and the audience cried, “Arcite! Victory!”

The attendant said, “The cry is “Arcite!” and “Victory! Look, Arcite, victory!” The combat’s end is proclaimed by the wind instruments.”

Emilia said, “Even a half-blind person could see that Arcite was no babe. By God’s eyelid, Arcite’s richness and splendidness of spirit appeared from within him; it could no more be hidden in him than a fire can be hidden in flax, or than humble riverbanks can go to a court of law and sue the waters that driving winds force to rage and flood.

“I thought that good Palamon would lose the battle, yet I don’t know why I thought so. Our logical reasons are not prophets although often our imaginative fancies are. They are coming off the field of battle. It’s a pity! Poor Palamon!”

Cornets sounded. Theseus, Hippolyta, Pirithous, the victorious Arcite, and some attendants arrived.

Theseus said, “Look, our sister-in-law is waiting expectantly, but she is still quaking and unsettled.

“Fairest Emily, the gods by their divine verdict have given you this Knight to be your husband. He is as good a Knight as any who ever struck a blow at someone’s head.”

He then said to Emilia and Arcite, “Give me your hands. Arcite, you receive her, and Emilia, you receive him. Accept each other as your spouse. Become engaged to marry with a love that grows as you grow old and decay.”

Arcite said, “Emily, to buy you I have lost what’s dearest to me — my friend Palamon. He is dearest to me except for what I have bought, which is you. And yet I think that I have made my purchase cheaply, when I consider how highly I rate you.”

“Oh, beloved sister-in-law,” Theseus said, “he speaks now of Palamon, who is as brave a Knight as ever spurred a noble steed. Surely the gods want him to die a bachelor, lest his children should appear in the world as too godlike. Palamon’s behavior so charmed me that I thought Hercules was an ingot of lead compared to him. But even if I would praise each part of Palamon the way I have praised the whole Palamon, your Arcite would not lose by it, for he who was that good has yet encountered his better — Arcite is better than the much-praised Palamon. I have heard two emulous Philomels — nightingales — beat the ear of the night with their contentious throats. Now one sang the higher, and then the other did, and then again the first did, one out-breasting the other until the senses could not judge between them which of the two was the better. So it fared for a good amount of time between these kinsmen, until the Heavens made one the winner by a little.”

Theseus said to Arcite, “Wear with joy the garland that you have won.”

He then ordered, “As for the defeated, give them our immediate justice, since I know their lives now are only a torment to them. Let the executions be done here. The scene’s not for our seeing. We will go from here very joyfully, but with some sorrow.”

He said to Arcite, “Take your prize by the arm. I know you will not lose her.”

He then looked at his wife and said, “Hippolyta, I see one eye of yours conceives a tear, which it will deliver.”

“Is this winning?” Emilia said. “Oh, all you Heavenly powers, where is your mercy? Except that your wills have said it must be so, and your wills charge me to live to comfort this unfriended, miserable Prince, who has cut away a life from him — a life more worthy than all women — I should die and I would wish to die, too.”

Hippolyta said, “It is an infinite pity that four such eyes should be so fixed on one woman with the result that two eyes must necessarily be blind in death as a result of it.”

“So it is,” Theseus said.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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