January 30th, 2008

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Hang on a minute, don't I know these two? Theseus, Hippolyta- weren't thy in....?  Yes they were. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a  shadow version of the Dream. It  features a bunch of crazy mixed-up lovers and a troupe of rude theatricals- and much of the action takes place in a wood near Athens. No fairies though. And instead of affirmation and jollity it ends with a shrug.

I can't believe how this play has been neglected. They told me in school that the Tempest was Shakespeare's final play- his farewell to the stage. They lied. In fact he wrote three more. All Is True (better known as Henry VIII), Cardenio (which has been lost) and this. It's the Kinsmen that gives us the final statement, the famous last words.

Of course it's a collaborative work. And the Shakespeare establishment has always been peculiarly sniffy about the collaborations. How could our godlike Shakespeare ever have stooped to write with hacks? Lets pretend it never happened. Of course if you know anything about the Jabobean stage there's nothing odd about it at all. Playwrights worked a production line. Shorts runs were the norm and the theatre just  gobbled up plays. Collaboration was normal practise (as it is today in the production-line of TV drama). Shakespeare was exceptional in not having collaborated more. In old age (approaching 50) he was slowing down- and what could be more natural than that he should share the burden of penning yet another show with a younger man- the remarkably fluent and inventive John Fletcher- his artistic son and heir.

Fletcher is a better match than George Wilkins was. Fletcher is a real writer. A fine poet. Shamefully neglected. Bardolatry skews our vision. If Shakespeare hadn't existed or were a lesser figure we'd be proud of Fletcher. The points at which Shakespeare hands over to Fletcher in the Kinsmen are easy to spot- Shakespeare is knotty, Fletcher is smooth- but we're not talking about a huge falling off in quality. They wrote something like equal shares, with Shakespeare- as senior partner- responsible for the beginning and the end.

The play is not immediately likeable. But  neither is Lear nor Measure for Measure. You need to work at mature Shakespeare. The language is challenging, the ethics are challenging. Until very recently no-one much had bothered to put in time with the Kinsmen. It's Shakespeare Apocrypha- so who cares? But de Quincey admired it . So did Charles Lamb.

The story is from Chaucer's Knight's Tale. Palamon and Arcite are loving cousins who fall out over a woman. They're near identical, knightly stuffed shirts who might as well be Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. The fetching characters are the women- Emilia, the unfortunate love object who dithers between the cousins and the Gaoler's daughter who goes mad for love of Palamon. The moral  of the story is "man proposes, God disposes"- the God in this case being Venus (with a little help from Mars). It's a play in which nothing goes to plan or according to anyone's best intentions. Even Theseus- the play's authority figure and  paragon of chivalric  virtue (as we're never allowed to forget) is thwarted at every turn. In Act I scene i he's on the way to his wedding when three weeping queens accost him to seek  revenge  for their husbands- so it's off to the wars instead. And so things carry on through the length of the play- from hiccough to hiccough, from check to check. 

The word is tragi-comedy. The subplot is funny and rather touching (in modern productions- of which there haven't been many- the Gaoler's daughter has turned out to be the star role) and the main plot is painful and absurd.  As the action comes to an end there's going to be a funeral, closely followed by a wedding.  It's a resolution of sorts but all a bit fucked-up.  A bewildered Theseus addresses himself to the gods. Pay attention please. This- not Prospero's book-drowning speech- is Shakespeare's last goodnight. 

                                          O you heavenly charmers
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off,
And bear us like the time.