Excerpt for William Shakespeare’s "The Two Noble Kinsmen": A Retelling in Prose by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

William Shakespeare’s

The Two Noble Kinsmen:

A Retelling in Prose

By David Bruce

Copyright 2017 by Bruce D. Bruce


Cover Image

A Tourney, c1470.

Chroniques d'Angleterre.

BnF MS. fr. 87, fol. 58v.

I would like to see my retellings of classic literature used in schools, so I give permission to the country of Finland (and all other countries) to buy one copy of this eBook and give copies to all students forever. I also give permission to the state of Texas (and all other states) to buy one copy of this eBook and give copies to all students forever. I also give permission to all teachers to buy one copy of this eBook and give copies to all students forever.

Teachers need not actually teach my retellings. Teachers are welcome to give students copies of my eBooks as background material. For example, if they are teaching Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, teachers are welcome to give students copies of my Virgil’s Aeneid: A Retelling in Prose and tell students, “Here’s another ancient epic you may want to read in your spare time.”

Dedicated to Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor

Comedians Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor were very giving of their time to good causes. On New Year’s Day of 1943, Mr. Durante met Mr. Cantor while taking a walk. “Eddie,” Mr. Durante said, “I’m just thinkin’. This must be a tough time for the guys over there in that hospital. Here it’s New Year’s Day, they’re sick, some of ’em have amputations. What do ya say we go over and entertain?” The two comedians rehearsed for a short time, then entertained at the hospital from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Afterward, Mr. Durante said hoarsely to Mr. Cantor, “Eddie, tell me, don’t a t’ing like dis make ya feel good?”


ARCITE and PALAMON, the two noble kinsmen, first cousins, nephews of Creon, King of Thebes.

THESEUS, Duke of Athens.

HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the Amazons, later Duchess of Athens.

EMILIA, her sister.

PIRITHOUS, friend to Theseus.

Three QUEENS, widows of the Kings killed while laying siege to Thebes.

The JAILER of Theseus’ prison.

The Jailer’s DAUGHTER.

The Jailer’s BROTHER.

The WOOER of the Jailer’s daughter.

Two FRIENDS of the Jailer.


ARTESIUS, an Athenian soldier.

VALERIUS, a Theban.

WOMAN, attending on Emilia.

An Athenian GENTLEMAN.

Six KNIGHTS, three accompanying Arcite, and three accompanying Palamon.

Six COUNTRYMEN, one dressed as a BAVIAN or baboon.


NELL, a countrywoman.



Hymen (god of weddings), lords, soldiers, four countrywomen (Fritz, Maudlin, Luce, and Barbary), nymphs, attendants, maids, executioner, guard.

Nota Bene

John Fletcher is thought to be the co-author of this play.


The Prologue says this to you the audience:

“New plays and maidenheads are much alike. Both are much sought after, and for both much money is given, if they stand sound and well. And a good play, whose modest scenes blush on its marriage day and shiver to lose its virginity, is like a wife who after a holy wedding and the first night’s sexual activity is still the image of modesty, and retains still more of the virgin maiden, according to one’s sight, than a woman who has been subject to her husband’s sexual pains and pangs.

“We pray our work of art may be so, for I am sure it has a noble and pure father: A learned and more famous poet never yet has walked between the Po River in Italy and the silver Trent River in England. Geoffrey Chaucer, who is admired by all, gives us the story we will recount. ‘The Knight’s Tale’ lives in his Canterbury Tales and is there fixed in eternity.

“If we fail to live up to the nobleness of Chaucer’s story, and the first sound this child — our work of art — hears is a hiss from you the audience, how it will shake the bones of that good man Chaucer and make him cry from underground, ‘Oh, fan from me the witless chaff of such a writer who blasts my laurel wreath and makes my famed works lighter and of less worth than the folktales of Robin Hood!’”

This society used winnowing fans to blow away the worthless chaff or husks from the valuable grain. This society also regarded tales of folklore as being of less value than courtly literary romances.

The Prologue continued, “This is the fear we bring. For, to say the truth, it would be a never-ending, impossible, and too ambitious thing to aspire to match Chaucer, weak as we are. We, almost breathless, are unable to swim in the deep water of his literary worth.

“If you only hold out your helping hands and applaud us, we shall turn about in the wind of your applause and do something to save ourselves. You shall hear scenes that, although they are below Chaucer’s art, may yet be worth two hours’ travel and travail. We will work to take you on an imaginative journey.

“We wish sweet sleep to Chaucer’s bones; we wish happiness to you. If this work of art does not keep dullness away from you for a short time, we perceive that our losses fall so thickly that we must necessarily stop appearing in works of art.”


1.1 —

Music played as a wedding procession arrived.

Singing and strewing flowers, a boy in a white robe arrived.

Holding a burning torch, Hymen, the god of marriage, arrived.

Bearing a wheaten garland, a nymph with her tresses unbound arrived. Garlands made of wheat stalks are a traditional symbol of fertility.

Between two other nymphs who were wearing wheaten garlands on their heads, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, arrived.

Hippolyta, Theseus’ bride, arrived; her hair was loose and hanging down. Theseus’ friend Pirithous led her, and another man held a garland over her head. Loose hair is a traditional symbol of virginity.

Emilia, who was holding up the train of Hippolyta’s dress, arrived. Emilia was Hippolyta’s sister.

Finally Artesius, who was an Athenian soldier, and some attendants arrived.

This is the song the boy sang:

Roses, their sharp spines [thorns] being gone,

Not royal in their smells alone,

But also in their hue;

Maiden pinks, of odor faint,

Daisies smell-less, yet most quaint [pretty],

And sweet thyme true;

Primrose, firstborn child of Ver [Spring],

Merry springtime’s harbinger,

With her bells [its flowers] dim;

Oxlips in their cradles growing,

The leaves of the oxlip form a kind of cradle as they grow around the flower’s bud.

Marigolds on deathbeds [graves] blowing [blossoming],

Lark’s-heels [Larkspur] trim.

The boy strew flowers as he sang:

All dear Nature’s children sweet

Lie before bride and bridegroom’s feet,

Blessing their sense.

Not an angel [good bird] of the air,

Bird melodious or bird fair [beautiful],

Is absent hence.

The crow, the sland’rous cuckoo, nor

The cuckoo is slanderous because its cry mocks married men by calling them cuckolds.

The boding [ominous] raven, nor chough hoar [gray-headed jackdaw],

Nor chatt’ring pie [magpie],

May on our bridehouse [house that is a wedding site] perch or sing,

Or with them any discord bring,

But from it fly.

Three Queens arrived, dressed all in black, with black veils stained with tears and travel, and wearing imperial crowns. The First Queen fell down at the foot of Theseus; the Second Queen fell down at the foot of Hippolyta; the Third Queen fell down at the foot of Emilia.

The First Queen said to Theseus, “For pity’s sake and the sake of true gentility, hear and respect me. Pay attention to what I have to say.”

The Second Queen said to Hippolyta, “For your mother’s sake, and as you wish your womb may thrive with fair ones, hear and respect me.”

The Third Queen said to Emilia, “Now for the love of your future husband — him whom Jove, King of the gods, has destined to be your distinguished bridegroom and the honor of your bed — and for the sake of pure and unsullied virginity, be the advocate for us and our distresses. This good deed shall erase all your evil deeds that are now set down in the Book of Trespasses kept in Heaven.”

Theseus said to the First Queen, “Sad lady, rise.”

Hippolyta said to the Second Queen, “Stand up.”

Emilia said to the Third Queen, “Bend no knees to me. Whatever distressed woman whom I may help binds me to her — I will help her.”

Theseus said to the First Queen, “What’s your request? Speak for all of you Queens.”

The First Queen replied, “We are three Queens whose sovereigns fell before the wrath of cruel Creon; our husbands have endured the beaks of ravens, talons of kites, and pecks of crows in the foul fields of Thebes.”

The husbands of the three Queens had taken part in the war of the Seven Against Thebes and had been killed. After King Oedipus of Thebes had died, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, quarreled over who should rule Thebes. Polynices gathered other Kings as allies and attacked Thebes. Both Eteocles and Polynices died in the battle, and Creon, their uncle, became the ruler of Thebes. Creon forbid the corpses of those who had attacked Thebes to be buried; those unburied corpses were now being eaten by birds and reduced to skeletons.

The First Queen continued, “Creon will not allow us to burn their bones, to put their ashes in urns, nor to take the offense of mortal loathsomeness from the blessed eye of holy Phoebus, but instead Creon allows the corpses to infect the winds with the stench of our slain lords.”

Phoebus Apollo is the god who drives the Sun-chariot across the sky each day.

Wives in this culter referred to their husbands as lords.

The First Queen continued, “Oh, have pity, Theseus, Duke of Athens! You have purged the Earth of robbers and monsters. You purger of the Earth, draw your feared sword that does good turns to the world; give us the bones of our dead Kings so that we may place them in a chapel. And of your boundless goodness take some note that for our crowned heads we have no roof except this sky above us, which is the lion’s and the bear’s roof and the vault above everything.”

“Please, don’t kneel,” Theseus replied. “Because I was transported with your speech, I allowed your knees to wrong themselves. I have heard about the fortunes of your dead lords, which gives me such lamenting that it awakens my vengeance and revenge for them.

“King Capaneus was your lord and husband. The day that he was to marry you, at such an occasion as now is with me, I met your groom by that altar of Mars. You were at that time beautiful — Juno’s mantle was not more beautiful than your hair, nor did her mantle more luxuriantly envelope her than your hair that was bountifully spread around you. Your wheaten wreath was then neither threshed nor blasted. You were still an unreaped virgin and the future death of your husband had not then blighted you. Lady Fortune looked at you and dimpled her cheek with smiles. Hercules, my kinsman, looked at you and, being made weak by the beauty of your eyes, laid down his club. He tumbled down upon the hide of the lion of Nemea that he had slain and swore that his muscles grew soft.”

Another time that Heracles’ muscles grew soft was when he served Queen Omphale of Lydia as a slave for a year and was forced to do women’s work and wear women’s clothing. Eventually, Queen Omphale freed Hercules and married him.

Theseus continued, “Oh, grief and time, those two fearful consumers, devour everything!”

He was shocked by the transformation of the First Queen from virgin bride to mourning widow.

The First Queen said, “Oh, I hope that some god has put his mercy in your manliness, to which he’ll infuse power, and press you to go forth and undertake to help us bury the corpses of our husbands.”

Theseus said, “Oh, bend no knees to me, bend none, widow! Bend your knees to the helmeted Bellona, Roman goddess of war, and pray for me, who will be your soldier. I am troubled.”

The First Queen rose, and Theseus turned away. He would be her soldier, but he knew that this would be a formidable undertaking; he would have to make war against Creon and Thebes.

The Second Queen addressed Hippolyta, who had been Queen of the warrior women known as the Amazons. Hippolyta and Theseus had fought each other with their armies. Theseus narrowly won the battle and had fallen in love with Hippolyta; today was their wedding day.

The Second Queen said, “Honored Hippolyta, most dreaded Amazonian, who has slain the scythe-tusked boar; who with your arm, as strong as it is white, was close to making men captive to your sex, except that this Theseus, your lord, who was born to uphold creation in that honor nature first styled it in, shrunk you into the bounds that you were overflowing, at once subduing your force and your affection.”

This society believed that men were by nature superior to women. Hippolyta had come close to defeating Theseus and his army, but Theseus had been born to uphold the superiority of men and so had eventually defeated Hippolyta and her women warriors. He had defeated Hippolyta and caused her to fall in love with him.

The Second Queen continued, “You, Hippolyta, are a soldieress who equally balances sternness with pity, whom now I know have much more power over him — Theseus — than he ever had on you, who own his strength and his love, too. Theseus is a servant who obeys even the implications of any speech made by you, dear model of ladies. Tell him to help us, whom flaming war scorches, so that we may cool ourselves under the shadow of his sword. Ask him to lift his sword over our heads. Speak your request in a woman’s voice, like such a woman as any of us three; weep rather than fail. Lend us a knee; kneel down with us but touch the ground for us no longer time than a dove moves when its head is plucked off. Tell him what you would do if he lay swollen on the blood-soaked battlefield, showing the Sun his teeth and grinning at the Moon.”

Hippolyta replied, “Poor lady, say no more. I would rather pursue this good action with you as that to which I am going — my wedding — and yet I have never so willingly gone this way.

“Theseus, my lord, has been affected to the depth of his heart with your distress; let him think for a moment. I’ll speak to him very soon.”

The Second Queen rose.

The Third Queen said, “Oh, I set down my petition coldly, as if I were writing on ice, but my hot grief thawed and melted it into drops of water; in the same way, sorrow, lacking other forms of expression, is pressed out in the form of tears by deeply felt grief. Grief cannot be adequately expressed in a cold petition; it must be felt and expressed in hot tears.”

Emilia said, “Please stand up. Your grief is written on your cheek.”

“Oh, grief!” the Third Queen said. “You cannot read it there on my cheek.”

The Third Queen rose.

She pointed to her eyes and said, “There through my tears, like pebbles that seemed wrinkled and distorted when looked at in a glassy, mirrory stream, you may behold my sorrows. Lady, lady, it’s a pity! He who will know all the treasure of the Earth must dig to the center, too; he who will fish for my smallest minnow, let him put a lead weight on his line to sink it and catch one at my heart. Anyone who wants to know the depth of my sorrow must look into my heart.”

Realizing that what she had said could be interpreted as implying that Emilia lacked perceptiveness, the Third Queen apologized: “Oh, pardon me! Extreme suffering, that sharpens some minds, makes me a fool who speaks extravagantly.”

“Please say nothing,” Emilia said. “Please. A person who can neither feel nor see the rain, while in it, knows neither wet nor dry.”

She meant that she would have to be like such an insensitive and unintelligent person not to recognize the intensity of the Third Queen’s grief.

Emilia continued, “If you were the masterpiece of some painter, I would buy you to instruct me for when I need to depict the greatest grief — indeed, yours is a heart-pierced demonstration of the greatest grief.

“But, alas, since you are a natural sister of our sex, a real woman rather than an artistic depiction of a woman, your sorrow beats so ardently upon me that it shall reflect from me and go to my brother-in-law’s heart and warm it to feel some pity for you, even if his heart were made of stone. Please feel good comfort.”

Theseus came forward and said, “Let’s go to the temple. We will leave out not even a tiny portion of the sacred ceremony.”

The First Queen said, “Oh, this celebration will longer last and will be more costly than the war that we, your suppliants, are asking you to fight. Remember that your fame resounds in the ear of the world. What you do quickly is not done rashly; your first thought is worth more than others’ hard thinking, and your premeditation is worth more than their actions.

“But, by Jove, your actions, as soon as they move, subdue before they touch, just as ospreys do to the fish.”

This society believed that ospreys fascinated fish: The fish would turn their bellies to the osprey and allow themselves to be caught.

The First Queen continued, “Think, dear Duke of Athens, think what beds our slain Kings have!”

The beds were the ground of the battlefield, which lay exposed to the elements.

The Second Queen said, “What griefs have our beds because our dear lords have none!”

“They have no beds fit for the dead,” the Third Queen said, “Those who kill themselves with ropes for hanging, knives, drams of poison, or high places from which to throw themselves, those who are weary of this world’s light, those who have to themselves been death’s most horrid agents, are still allowed to have dust and shadow — graves — by human grace and mercy.”

The First Queen said, “But our lords lie blistering underneath the visitating Sun, which visits their corpses the way a plague visits a house of people even though our lords were good Kings when they were living.”

Theseus said, “That is true, and I will give you comfort by giving your dead husbands graves. To do that, I must make some work — fight a war — against Creon.”

The First Queen said, “And that work presents itself to the doing. It must be done quickly. Now it will take form; the heat is gone tomorrow. Then, unprofitable toil must recompense itself with its own sweat.”

Heated metal can be formed into shapes, but once the metal cools, it is no longer malleable. This is expressed in the proverb “Strike [with a blacksmith’s hammer] while the iron’s [metal’s] hot.”

The First Queen continued, “Now Creon, King of Thebes, thinks that he is secure and he will not be attacked. He does not dream that we three Queens stand before your powerful presence, rinsing with tears our holy begging in our eyes to make our petition clear. Our tears purify our supplication to you, and they make clear why we are supplicating you.”

The Second Queen said, “Now you may conquer Creon, while he is drunk with his victory.”

The Third Queen added, “And while his army is full of food and sloth.”

Theseus said, “Artesius, you who best know how to select, suitable to this enterprise, the best soldiers for this proceeding, and the number of soldiers adequate to fight such a war, go forth and levy our worthiest soldiers while we dispatch this grand act of our life, this daring deed of fate in wedlock.”

While Artesius was drafting good soldiers to fight against Thebes, Theseus intended to finish getting married.

The First Queen said to the other two Queens, “Dowagers, join hands. Let us be widows to our woes — we will feel the woes of widows. Delay commends us to a famishing hope. Because Theseus is delaying attacking Thebes, our hope that our husbands will be honorably buried diminishes.”

All the Queens said to Theseus, “Farewell.”

The Second Queen said, “We come unseasonably — at a bad time — but when could grief select, as judgment that is free from torment can, the fittest time to best solicit help?”

Theseus said, “Why, good ladies, this wedding to which I am going is greater and more important than any war. It more concerns me and is more important to me than all the actions that I have previously done or will in the future face.”

The First Queen said, “This is making it all the more clear that our suit to you shall be neglected when her arms, which are able to keep Jove away from a council of the gods, shall by permission-granting moonlight enclose you tightly like a corslet, aka defensive armor.”

The three Queens were afraid that Theseus, rather than making war against Creon, would preoccupy himself in making love to his bride, Hippolyta. In Book 14 of Homer’s Iliad, Hera, wife of Zeus, King of the gods, whom the Romans knew as Jupiter or Jove (the Romans knew Hera as Juno), seduced him so that he would not pay attention to what was going on in the Trojan War. Because Hera did that, the Greeks were able to rally and fight well against the Trojans, whom at the time Zeus was helping.

The First Queen added, “Oh, when Hippolyta’s twinning cherries — cherry-red lips — shall let their sweetness fall upon your tasteful lips, will you be thinking of rotting Kings or crying Queens? What care will you have for what you don’t feel, when what you feel is able to make Mars spurn his drum? Even Mars, god of war, prefers having sex to fighting in a war.

“Oh, if you spend but one night in bed with her, every hour in it will make you hostage for a hundred more hours, and you shall remember nothing more than what that banquet bids you to remember. You will forget the war we request that you fight, and you will remember only the joys of sleeping with Hippolyta.”

Hippolyta said to Theseus, “Although I think that it is very unlikely you should be so transported by the joys of bedding me that you will forget your promise to help these three widows, and although I am very sorry that I should be such a suitor, yet I think that if I did not, by the abstaining of the joy I would have in bed on our wedding night — for which abstinence breeds a deeper longing — cure their sickness brought on by an excess of grief that craves an immediate medicine, I should make all ladies think I am acting scandalously.”

She knelt and continued, “Therefore, sir, as I shall here make trial of my entreaties to you, either presuming them to have some force, or concluding forever that they will always be as ineffectual as if I had not made them, postpone this business we are going about, and hang your shield before your heart — about that neck which is my possession, and which I freely lend to do these poor Queens service. I request that you postpone our wedding night and instead first help these three widowed Queens.”

All three Queens said to Emilia, “Oh, help us now! Our cause cries for you to bend your knees and entreat Theseus to help us.”

Emilia knelt and said to Theseus, “If you don’t grant my sister her petition with the same vigor and with the same quickness and passion with which she makes her petition, from henceforth I’ll not dare to ask you anything, nor be so foolhardy as ever to take a husband.”

Theseus said, “Please stand up.”

Hippolyta and Emilia rose.

Theseus then said, “I am entreating myself to do that which you kneel to request me to do.”

He ordered, “Pirithous, lead on the bride; go and pray to the gods for success in and return from the war. Don’t omit anything in the intended celebration.

“Queens, follow me, your soldier.

“Artesius, as I ordered you previously, go hence and at the shores of Aulis in Boeotia meet us with the forces you can raise. In Aulis, we shall find already assembled part of a number of troops for a business expected to be bigger than the war against Thebes.”

Artesius exited.

Theseus kissed Hippolyta and said, “Since our main concern is haste, I stamp this kiss upon your red-as-a-currant lip. Sweetheart, keep this kiss as my token.”

He then said to the wedding procession, “Go forward, for I will see you gone.”

The wedding procession began to exit towards the temple.

Theseus said to Emilia, “Farewell, my beauteous sister-in-law.”

He added, “Pirithous, fully keep the wedding feast. Don’t omit even an hour of it.”

Pirithous replied, “Sir, I’ll follow you at your heels; I will go with you to Thebes. The celebratory feast shall wait until your return.”

Theseus replied, “Fellow noble, I order you not to leave Athens. We shall be returning before you can end this feast, of which I ask you to make no abatement. I expect this war to be over quickly.

“Once more, farewell, all.”

The wedding would occur, but it would be a wedding by proxy. Theseus would not be present.

Everyone except Theseus and the three Queens exited.

The First Queen said to Theseus, “Thus you always make good what good things the tongues of the world say about you.”

The Second Queen said to Theseus, “And you earn a deity equal to that of Mars.”

“If not above him,” the Third Queen said, “for you, being only mortal, make your passions bend and submit to godlike honors; the gods themselves, some say, groan under such a mastery. Even the gods find it difficult to control their passions.”

Theseus replied, “As we are men, thus should we do; once overcome by passions, we lose our title of being humans. Be of good cheer, ladies.”

Using the royal plural, he said, “Now we turn towards obtaining your comforts.”

— 1.2 —

Palamon and Arcite talked together in Thebes. They were first cousins, and Creon, King of Thebes, was their uncle.

Arcite said, “Dear Palamon, you are dearer in love and friendship to me than you are in blood relationship. You are my favorite cousin, and you are as yet unhardened in the sins of human nature. Let us leave the city of Thebes, and the temptations in it, before we further sully our gloss of youth. Here in Thebes we are as ashamed to abstain from sin as in other cities we would be ashamed to sin. To not swim with the current is almost to sink in the water; not swimming with the current at least takes an effort that diverts energy from and frustrates striving to do good. And if we follow the common stream in Thebes, it would bring us to a whirlpool where we would either spin around or drown; if we labor through the eddy, our gain is only life and weakness caused by our struggle.”

Palamon replied, “Your advice is supported by examples. What strange ruins of human beings, since we first went to school, may we perceive walking in Thebes! Scars and poor clothing are the reward of the soldiers, the followers of Mars, god of war. Each soldier proposed as a goal for his bold efforts honor and golden ingots. Although the soldier fought well and won the battle, he did not receive honor and golden ingots, and now he is mocked by the peace for which he fought. Who then shall give offerings to Mars’ so-scorned altar? I bleed pity when I meet such soldiers, and I wish great Juno would resume her ancient fit of jealousy to get the soldier work.”

Juno is a jealous goddess who is capable of great hatred. She once lost a beauty contest and forever hated the city from which the judge of the contest came. The story is that Juno, Minerva, and Venus competed for a golden apple on which were inscribed the words “For the most beautiful.” Paris, Prince of Troy, chose Venus. During the Trojan War, Venus supported Troy, while Juno and Minerva supported the attacking Greeks.

Juno also hated Thebes because her husband, Jupiter, King of the gods, had slept with and had sons by two mortal women associated with Thebes: Semele, who gave birth to the god Bacchus, and Alcmene, who gave birth to Hercules.

Palamon continued, “If Juno were to do that, then peace would be purged with blood to get rid of her soft, easy ways, and retain anew her charitable heart, which is now hard and harsher than strife or war could be.”

This society believed that a long period of peace was bad and that it was good to have a war once in a while. It believed in this cycle: peace leads to plenty, then pride, then envy, then war, then poverty, then peace again. Peace leads to overeating, which is unhealthy.

This society also believed that blood-letting was necessary to cure many kinds of illness. Physicians would make a cut and allow their patients to bleed.

Arcite said, “Are you leaving something out? Do you meet no ruined people except the soldiers in the winding paths and twisting streets of Thebes? You began your speech as if you met decaying people of many kinds. Do you perceive none who arouse your pity except the disrespected soldier?”

Palamon replied, “Yes, I pity decaying humans wherever I find them, but I pity most those decaying humans who, sweating in an honorable toil, are paid with ice to cool them.”

“It is not this I began to speak about,” Arcite said. “The proper consideration of soldiers is a virtue that is not respected in Thebes. I was speaking of Thebes — how dangerous, if we want to keep our honors, it is for our residing. In Thebes every evil has a good appearance, and in Thebes everything that seems good is in reality evil. In Thebes, not to be exactly as the Thebans are is to be regarded as a foreigner, and in Thebes, foreigners are regarded as utter monsters.”

Palamon said, “It is in our power — unless we fear being regarded as utter monsters and fear what apers and imitators can teach us — to be masters of our manners and morals. Why do I need to imitate another person’s manner of acting, which is not contagious where there is faith?

“And why do I need to be fond of another person’s way of speaking, when by using my own speech I may be reasonably understood — and saved, too, if I speak it truthfully? Why am I bound by any obligation of a nobleman to follow a nobleman who follows his tailor, perhaps as long until the followed make pursuit — the tailor chases the nobleman because the nobleman has not paid his bill? Why should I follow the advice of a tailor and spend all my money on clothing?

“And let me know why my own barber is unblessed, and with him my poor chin, too, because it is not scissored in such a way that it is the exact imitation of the chin of a favorite celebrity? What canon — law — is there that commands me to take my rapier from my hip so that I can show off by dangling it in my hand, or to show off by walking on tiptoe before the street is foul with mud? Either I am the forehorse in the team of horses, or I am none of the horses in the train of horses that follow and draw the carriage or wagon. I am not a follower; I am the first, I am the leader, or I am nothing.

“Still, these poor slight sores I have been talking about don’t need a bandage. That which rips my bosom almost to the heart is —”

Arcite finished the sentence: “— our Uncle Creon.”

“Yes, he,” Palamon said. “Creon is a most unrestrained tyrant, whose successes make people unafraid of Heaven and assure villainous people that beyond the power of evil there’s nothing. He almost makes faith ill and feverous, and the only thing he deifies is changeable fortune. He gives credit to himself alone for the capabilities of those who serve him; what they accomplish he credits to his own strength and actions.

“Creon commands men to serve him, and he commands — takes for himself — what they win in doing that service: profit and glory. He is a man who is not afraid to do harm, but he dares not do good.

“Let the blood of mine that’s related to him be sucked from me by leeches; let the leeches break and fall off me when they are filled with that corrupted blood.”

Arcite said, “Clear-spirited cousin, let’s leave Creon’s court, so that we may share nothing of his widely famous infamy because our metaphorical milk will taste of the pasture in which we reside, and we must be either vile or disobedient.”

When cows eat onions, their milk tastes like onions.

He continued, “We must not be Creon’s kinsmen in blood with the exception that we are all noblemen in quality.”

“Nothing is truer,” Palamon said. “I think the echoes of his shames have deafened the ears of Heavenly justice. The cries of widows descend again into their throats and are not heard by the gods.”

Valerius arrived.

Palamon greeted him: “Valerius.”

Valerius said, “The King calls for both of you, but be leaden-footed and slow to arrive until his great rage stops riding his back. Phoebus Apollo, when he broke his whip handle and exclaimed against the horses of the Sun, only whispered in comparison with the loudness of Creon’s fury.”

Phoebus Apollo had allowed his son Phaethon to drive the chariot of the Sun across the sky. Being mortal, Phaethon was unable to control the immortal horses that drew the chariot, and so the Sun careened wildly across the sky and came so close to the Earth that it was in danger of burning up. Jupiter saved the Earth and all its inhabitants by throwing a thunderbolt that killed Phaethon. Phoebus Apollo was angry at the death of his son and took out his anger on his immortal horses.

Palamon said, “Small winds shake Creon. But what’s the matter?”

Valerius replied, “Theseus, who appalls where and when he threatens, has sent deadly defiance to Creon and pronounces a sentence of ruin to Thebes, and he is at hand to seal with his actions the promise of his wrath. Theseus is ready and at hand to make war against Creon and Thebes.”

“Let him approach,” Arcite said. “Except that we fear the gods whom he serves, he causes not a jot of terror to us. Yet what man would reduce his own worth to a third — such is the case for both Palamon and me — when it’s the case that his action is made cloudy with dregs because his mind is assured that what he goes about doing is bad? When a soldier knows that he is fighting for a bad leader, that knowledge greatly reduces the soldier’s effectiveness.”

“Don’t think about that,” Palamon said. “Our services stand now for Thebes, not Creon. We are fighting for our city, not for our King. Yet to be neutral to Creon would be dishonorable, and it would be rebellious to oppose him. Therefore, we must stand with him to the mercy of our fate, which has set the time for our last minute of life.”

“So we must,” Arcite said.

He then said to Valerius, “Is it said this war’s already afoot? Or, is it the case that a war will occur if Thebes fails to meet some condition?”

“The war is in motion,” Valerius said. “The intelligence of state came in the same instant as the defier did. Theseus and the declaration of war came at the same time. Fighting will take place.”

Palamon said, “Let’s go to King Creon, who, if he had even a quarter of the honor that his enemy Theseus has, the blood we risk would be for our health. The blood would be not spent wastefully, but instead it would be invested to purchase honor. But alas, since our hands are advanced before our hearts, and since we are fighting on behalf of a King whom we do not respect, to what will the fall of the stroke of the enemy’s sword do damage? If we fight in an honorable cause, we gain honor. What do we risk by fighting for this particular cause?”

Arcite said, “Let the war’s outcome, that never-erring arbitrator, tell us when we ourselves know all, and let us follow the beckoning of our fortune. Whatever will be, will be; it has been fated. When we know the outcome of the war, we will know what fate has decreed.”

1.3 —

Hippolyta and Emilia had traveled a distance with Pirithous, but now they had to say goodbye to him. He was traveling to join Theseus at Thebes. The war against Thebes was taking longer than Theseus had said it would.

“Go no further with me,” Pirithous said.

“Sir, farewell,” Hippolyta said. “Repeat my wishes to our great lord, of whose success I dare not have any doubt, yet I wish him an excess and overflow of power, if it is possible, to endure ill-dealing fortune. May success speed to him. An abundance never hurts good governors. Theseus can manage well an abundance of soldiers.”

Pirithous replied, “Although I know that Theseus’ ocean does not need my poor drops, yet they must yield their tribute there. I want to join him and fight in the war.”

He then said to Emilia, “My precious maiden, those best emotions and feelings that the Heavens infuse in their most skillfully crafted pieces, keep enthroned in your dear heart!”

“Thanks, sir,” Emilia replied. “Remember me to our all-royal brother-in-law, for whose success the great Bellona, Roman goddess of war, I’ll solicit, and since in our Earthly state petitions are not understood without gifts to encourage their reception, I’ll offer to her what I shall be advised she likes. Our hearts are in his army, in his tent.”

Hippolyta said, “And in his bosom. We are Amazons, we have been soldiers, and we cannot weep when our friends don their helmets or put out on the dangerous sea, or tell about babes spitted on the lance, or women who have boiled their infants in — and afterward ate them — the briny salt tears they wept as they killed them.”

Such things happen. 2 Kings 6:28-29 tells this about a famine in Samaria:

28 Also the king said unto her, What aileth thee? And she answered, This woman said unto me, Give thy son that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow,

29 So we sod [boiled] my son, and did eat him: and I said to her the day after, Give thy son, that we may eat him, but she hath hid her son. (1599 Geneva Bible)

Lamentations 4:10 states, “The hands of the pitiful women have sodden [boiled] their own children, which were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people” (1599 Geneva Bible).

In addition, Josephus’ History of the Jewish War tells of a mother who ate her son’s flesh during the famine that occurred at a time when Jerusalem was besieged:

“[…] and it was now become impossible for her any way to find any more food, while the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow, when also her passion was fired to a degree beyond the famine itself; nor did she consult with any thing but with her passion and the necessity she was in. She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, ‘O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the war with the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves. This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us. Yet are these seditious rogues more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.’ As soon as she had said this, she slew her son, and then roasted him, and eat the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.” (Source: Flavius Josephus. The Works of Flavius Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. A.M. Auburn and Buffalo, NY: John E. Beardsley, 1895.)

Hippolyta added, “So if you stay then to see in us women who stay at home and do household chores and know nothing of the acts of war, we would hold you here forever because Emilia and I will never be such women.”

“May peace be to you as I pursue this war,” Pirithous said. “That way, when the war is won, peace will already be yours.”

Pirithous exited.

Emilia said, “How his longing follows his friend! Since Theseus’ departure, although Pirithous’ sports and games needed his seriousness and skill, he has played them carelessly and without paying much attention to them. Neither gain made him regard, or loss consider, his sports and games. Instead, his hands played sports and games, while his head thought about being with Theseus. He was like a nurse taking care of two very different twins. Have you observed him since our great lord Theseus departed?”

“Very carefully,” Hippolyta replied, “and I loved him for it. Theseus and Pirithous have taken shelter in many as dangerous as poor a corner in which peril and poverty contended to see which was worse. They have gone in skiffs over torrents whose roaring tyranny and power in the slightest measure of either of these was dreadful, and they have fought out together where Death’s self was lodged. They visited Hell itself, yet fate brought them safely away. Their knot of love, tied, weaved, entangled, with a finger so true, so long, and of so deep a cunning, may be worn out in death, but can be never undone in life.

“I think Theseus cannot be an umpire to himself, cleaving his conscience into two sides and doing each side equal and impartial justice — he loves justice best. Theseus divides his conscience in his consideration of Pirithous, who is his second self, and himself, and he cannot decide whom he loves best.”

Emilia said, “Doubtless there is a one he loves best, and reason has no manners if it says that one is not you.

“I was acquainted once with a time when I enjoyed a playfellow. You were at the wars when she died and enriched the grave. She made the bed — the grave — too proud. She took leave of the Moon, which then looked pale at parting, when our count of years was each eleven. With her death, she stopped serving Diana, goddess of the Moon and protector of virgins.”

“She was Flavina,” Hippolyta said.

“Yes,” Emilia said. “You talk of Pirithous’ and Theseus’ love. Theirs has more ground and a firmer foundation, is more maturely seasoned, and is more held together with strong judgment, and the one of the other may be said to water their intertangled roots of love and to meet each other’s needs.

“But I and the playfellow I sigh about now and spoke of were innocent things.

“We loved each other just because we did, and like the elements that know neither what nor why, yet effect striking and exceptional outcomes through their operation, our souls did so to one another.

“What she liked was then by me approved and what she did not like was then by me condemned without any further consideration.

“The flower that I would pluck and put between my breasts — then but beginning to swell about the nipple — she would long for until she had one like it, and put it in her similarly innocent cradle, where, like the mythic Phoenix that immolates itself on a bier of fragrant wood, the flowers died in the midst of perfume.

“On my head no decorative trinket appeared without her wanting one like it. Her taste in clothing — pretty, although perhaps what she wore was carelessly put on — I followed when I most carefully dressed myself.

“When my ear had stolen some new melody, or randomly I hummed one of my coinage, why, it was a note on which her spirits would sojourn — rather, dwell on — and she would sing it in her sleep.

“This account of my childhood friend and our love for each other — which fury-innocent knows well comes in like a bastard of old importment — has a particular conclusion.”

In other words, “This account of my childhood friend and our love for each other is one that a person innocent of the fury caused by sexual jealousy knows well comes in like a false, illegitimate version of the old, original events, which were of great importance.”

Strong sexual passion can cause jealousy even between lifelong friends, as it would between Palamon and Arcite, but the love between Emilia and Flavina had none of that. A person who is not innocent of fury might be incapable of understanding the childhood relationship of Emilia and Flavina.

Emilia continued, “My account of this friendship between Flavina and me has this conclusion: The true love between maiden and maiden may be more than in sex individual.”

In other words, “The true love between maiden and maiden may be more than the love shared by a husband and wife who are joined indissolubly in marriage.”

If something is dividual, it can be separated. A husband and a wife can be separated into two sexes: male and female.

If something is individual, it is single and cannot be separated. A husband and wife, although they are different sexes, are joined indissolubly in a single marriage.

Emilia believed that the true love between two virgin females may be more than the true love found in a heterosexual married couple.

Hippolyta replied, “You’re out of breath, and this high-speeded pace of your speech is only to say that you shall never — like the maid Flavina — love any who is called a man.”

“I am sure I shall not,” Emilia said.

Hippolyta said, “Now, unfortunately, weak sister, I must no more believe you in this point — although I know that you yourself believe this point — than I will trust a sickly appetite, which loathes even as it longs.

“But to be sure, my sister, if I were receptive to your persuasion, you have said enough to shake me from the arm of the all-noble Theseus, for whose fortunes I will now go in and kneel and pray for, with great assurance that I, more than his Pirithous, possess the high throne in his heart.”

“I am not against your faith, yet I continue to believe my faith,” Emilia said.

1.4 —

Cornets sounded, along with the many noises of a battle. The call for a retreat sounded.

Theseus, the victor of the battle and of the war against Thebes, arrived, as did the three widowed Queens, who met him and fell on their faces before him. Many lords and soldiers were present.

The First Queen said, “May no planet be malignant to you!”

This society, which believed in astrology, thought that planets could have a beneficial or a malignant influence on people.

The Second Queen said, “May both Heaven and Earth befriend you forever.”

The Third Queen said, “I cry ‘Amen’ to all the good that may be wished upon your head.”

Theseus replied, “The impartial gods, who from the high Heavens view us, their mortal herd, behold those who sin and, at the time the gods think right, chastise the sinners. Thus the impartial gods have chastised the Thebans.”

He said to the three Queens, “Go and find the bones of your dead lords and honor them with a treble ceremony. Rather than a gap should appear in their dear rites, we would fill the gap, but we will depute men who shall invest you in your dignities and make right each thing my haste to return to Athens leaves imperfect.

“So, Queens, adieu, and may Heaven’s good eyes look on you.”

The three Queens exited.

A herald and some soldiers bearing on biers the badly wounded Palamon and Arcite entered the scene. Palamon and Arcite were expected to die soon.

Seeing Palamon and Arcite, Theseus asked, “Who are those men?”

The herald answered, “They are men of great quality and high rank, as may be judged by their armor and equipment. Some men of Thebes have told us that these two men are sisters’ children and nephews to the King.”

Recognizing the two prisoners, Theseus said, “By the helmet of Mars, I saw them in the war, similar to a pair of lions and smeared with the blood of their prey, make open lanes into the aghast troops opposing them. I fixed my notice constantly on them, for they were a sight worth a god’s view. What was it that prisoner told me when I enquired their names?”

Theseus had been impressed by the military skill of Palamon and Arcite and had earlier asked a prisoner for their names.

The herald replied, “With your leave, they’re called Arcite and Palamon.”

“That’s right,” Theseus said. “Those are the names. They are not dead?”

“Nor are they in a state of life,” the herald said. “Had they been taken prisoner when their last hurts were given, it is possible that they might have recovered. Yet they breathe and still have the name of men rather than corpses.”

“Then treat them like men,” Theseus said. “The very dregs of such men exceed the wine of others by millions of times. Assemble all our physicians in their behalf. Don’t be niggard with our most expensive balms; instead, use them lavishly. Their lives concern us much more than Thebes’ worth.

“Rather than have them freed of this plight, and in their morning state — alive, healthy, hostile to us, sound, and at liberty — I would prefer them to be dead.”

Using the royal plural, Theseus continued, “But forty thousand times we would rather have them prisoners to us than to Death. Bear them speedily from our kind air, which to wounded men like them is unkind, and minister to them what man to man may do.”

This society believed that open air was bad for wounds.

Still using the royal plural, Theseus continued, “For our sake, do more than what man to man may do.

“I have known frights, fury, friends’ behests, love’s provocations, zeal, a mistress’ task, desire for liberty, a fever, and madness to each set a target that human nature could not reach without some imposition; in such cases, sickness in will has over-wrestled strength in reason. Strongly motivated men are capable of achieving much more than cold reason says they are capable of achieving.”

This is true, and not just of men. Mothers have performed incredible acts of strength in order to save their children.

Theseus continued, “For our love and the great healer-god Apollo’s mercy, have our best physicians use their best skill to heal these men.”

Using the royal plural, he then ordered, “Take these men into the city of Thebes. From there, once we have organized disorganized matters, we will speed to Athens before our army goes there.”

1.5 —

The Queens had located the corpses of their husbands and had given orders for them to be placed in coffins. The Queens now sang a dirge:

Urns and odors bring away;

Vapors, sighs, darken the day;

Our dole [sorrow] more deadly looks than dying;

Balms and gums and heavy cheers [sad faces],

Sacred vials filled with tears,

And clamors through the wild air flying.

Come, all sad and solemn shows

That are quick-eyed [keen-eyed] Pleasure’s foes;

We convent [call together] naught [nothing] else but woes.

We convent [call together] naught [nothing] else but woes.

The Third Queen said to the Second Queen, “This funeral path takes you to your household’s grave. May joy be yours again; may peace sleep with him.”

The Second Queen said to the First Queen, “And this path will take you to your household, where you will bury your husband.”

The First Queen said to the Third Queen, “Your path is this way. The Heavens lend a thousand differing ways to one sure end. A thousand paths lead to death and the grave.”

The Third Queen said, “This world’s a city full of wandering streets, and death’s the marketplace where each one meets.”

Many cities had many streets leading to the marketplace.


2.1 —

The jailor was talking to a wooer — a man who was wooing the jailor’s young daughter. They were in a garden that the jail overlooked.

The jailor said, “I may give you little wealth while I live; I may give something to you, but not much. Unfortunately, the prison I keep, although it is for great ones, yet great ones seldom come; before one salmon you shall take a number of minnows.”

Wealthy prisoners paid the jailor extra for better food and accommodations. This was a way for the jailor to supplement his income.

The jailor continued, “I am rumored to be wealthier than I have reason to believe that the rumor is truthful. I wish that I really were as wealthy as I am rumored to be. But by the Virgin Mary, I say that what I have, be it what it will, I will leave to my daughter at the day of my death.”

The wooer replied, “Sir, I demand no more than your own offer, and I will endow your daughter with what I have promised.”

“Well, we will talk more about this when the wedding is past. But do you have a definite promise from her that she will marry you? When I see that to be true, then I will give you my consent to marry her.”

The jailer’s daughter, carrying rushes, arrived. The rushes served as floor coverings for the prisoners.

The wooer said, “I have her promise, sir. Here she comes.”

The jailer said to his daughter, “Your friend and I have chanced to talk about you here, concerning the old business. But no more of that now; as soon as the court commotion is over, we will have an end of it. In the meantime, look carefully after the two prisoners. I can tell you they are Princes.”

“These rushes are for their chamber,” the jailor’s daughter said. “It is a pity they are in prison, and it would be a pity if they should be out of prison. I think they have the patience to make any adversity ashamed. The prison itself is proud of them, and they have all of the world in their chamber. Many people visit them.”

“They are reputed to be a pair of absolute men,” the jailor said.

“Truly, I think the rumor speaks only inadequately about them. They stand a step above what is reported about them.”

“I heard it said about them that in the battle they were the outstanding soldiers,” the jailer said.

“That is very likely, for they are noble sufferers,” the jailor’s daughter said. “I marvel at how they would have looked had they been victors. With their constant nobility, they make a freedom out of bondage, making misery their mirth and making affliction a trifle to jest at.”

“Do they?” the jailer asked.

“It seems to me that they have no more perception of their captivity than I of ruling Athens,” the jailer’s daughter replied. “They eat well, look merrily, talk of many things, but say nothing about their own captivity and disasters. Yet sometimes a broken sigh, martyred as it were in the deliverance, will break from one of them — and then the other immediately gives it so sweet a rebuke that I could wish myself a sigh to be so scolded, or at least a sigher to be comforted.”

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