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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 14. The Two Noble Kinsmen: wealth of its sources and qualities

The only other play which calls for notice in this chapter is The Two Noble Kinsmen, the question of Shakespeare’s share in which has evoked more discussion than all the remaining doubtful plays together. It was first published in 1634 as the work of “the memorable worthies of their time, Mr. John Fletcher and Mr. William Shakespeare, Gent,” and the titlepage of this edition also informs us that it had been performed by the king’s players at the Blackfriars theatre. The famous Palamon and Arcite story which it reproduces had been dramatised before. Richard Edwards had written a Palamon and Arcyte as early as 1566, which was performed before Elizabeth by Oxford students on the occasion of the queen’s visit to the university in that year; but the account of this lost academic comedy, preserved in Anthony à Wood’s manuscripts and published in Nichols’s Progresses of Elizabeth, suggests that it was very different in character from The Two Noble Kinsmen. Nothing is known of the Palamon and Arsett mentioned by Henslowe as having been acted at the Newington theatre in 1594.

The Two Noble Kinsmen follows Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale as closely as an Elizabethan play can be expected to follow a fourteenth century verse romance; but the dramatists, deferring to the seventeenth century taste for a realistic underplot to a romantic theme, have added the story of the gaoler’s daughter, of which there is but the faintest hint in The Knight’s Tale. The element of divine caprice which lurks in Chaucer’s romance is by no means eliminated from the play. In the closing speech of the last scene, Theseus would fain convince us that, of the two rival kinsmen, Palamon has the better right to the lady—because he saw her first!—but the enduring impression which the play leaves upon the reader’s mind is that man is but the puppet of fortune. And if the dénouement of the play is unsatisfactory, so, also, are the characters. Palamon and Arcite, except in the scene in which they first appear, are not well distinguished from each other; Theseus, though he discourses fine poetry, is a stilted and a vacillating figure, and Emilia, a poor faded copy of Chaucer’s “Emelye the sheene,” would be more in her place as Hotspur’s comfit-maker’s wife than as a warrior’s bride. Finally, the underplot, the author of which endeavours to make up for his lack of invention by imitating familiar incidents in the plays of Shakespeare, is both unskilful and indelicate. Yet, with all these shortcomings—shortcomings which are largely due to the fact of double authorship—The Two Noble Kinsmen abounds in elements of greatness. It is a play which needs to be seen in order that the masque-like splendour of some of its scenes may be fully realised; but a mere perusal of it suffices to reveal its imaginative power, the ripeness and energy of the thought and the luminous colour of high romance in which it is steeped. Into it are poured the riches of classic legend, medieval romance, Elizabethan comedy and Jacobean masque, and, in the union of these varying elements, we recognise the genius of a dramatist who could subdue all things to harmony.

The problem of authorship is beset with difficulties, for, while it is certain that the play is the work of more than one author, it seems also probable that the workmanship of the two men is not sharply sundered, but that, in places, the hand of the one has been engaged in revising what the other had written. With the exception of Delius, who propounded the fanciful theory that The Two Noble Kinsmen is the work of an anonymous dramatist who deliberately set himself to imitate now the manner of Shakespeare and now that of Fletcher, critics are agreed that one of the two authors was Fletcher, and that to him may be allotted most of acts II, III, and IV, including the whole of the underplot, with the possible exception of the two prose scenes, but only a small, and comparatively unimportant, part of the main story. The whole of the first art, the first scene in act III, and almost the whole of the last act are clearly not by Fletcher in the first instance, and in the determination of the authorship of these scenes lies the chief problem of the play. The choice seems to lie between Massinger and Shakespeare; it has been argued by Robert Boyle that the handling of the characters in these scenes is singularly unlike that of Shakespeare and singularly like that of Massinger, and that the frequent medical allusions, and the echoes of passages in Shakespeare’s authentic works, furnish further evidence in favour of Massinger and against Shakespeare. Arguments such as these, though not without force, are outweighed by others on the opposite side. A comparison of the play with Massinger’s scenes in The Lover’s Progress, a play which introduces the similar theme of the love of two friends for one woman, shows the greatest variance in the application of the principles of dramatic art. The resemblance, too, between the verse of Massinger and that of the non-Fletcherian portions of The Two Noble Kinsmen, on which Boyle lays considerable stress, is only superficial. In the mechanical elements of poetic rhythm, Massinger comes very near to Shakespeare; but, when we look deeper, and come to the consideration of those features of style which do not admit of tabular analysis, we find the widest difference. The diction of Massinger is, above all things, orderly and lucid. He shows, at times, passion and imagination; but he never allows these to check the stately decorum and even flow of his verse. Now, the diction of The Two Noble Kinsmen is of a peculiar nature, and Spalding, in his famous Letter, with others after him, naturally directed his attention to this, above all other things, in attributing these non-Fletcherian scenes to Shakespeare. In the profusion of striking metaphors, the copious outpouring of profound thoughts and the extreme concision, often involving harshness and obscurity, of the utterance, these scenes bear a marked resemblance to the plays of Shakespeare’s final period, and to nothing else in literature. Moreover, the very defects of these scenes are the same defects which we meet with in Shakespeare’s so-called romances. The sacrifice of dramatic probability to the attainment of magnificent spectacular effects, the intrusion of the deus ex machina to cut the Gordian knot which human effort cannot disentangle and the triumph of the poetic and intellectual interests over the strictly dramatic—these are all features common to The Two Noble Kinsmen and the products of Shakespeare’s genius in the last phase of his dramatic career.