The Two Noble Kinsmen, derived from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, begins as Athens defeats Thebes in war. Arcite and Palamon, Theban knights and devoted cousins, are imprisoned in Athens. From their cell, they see Emilia, the sister-in-law of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Both fall in love with her, becoming bitter rivals.
Arcite is released but, for love of Emilia, stays in Athens at the risk of his life. The jailer’s daughter, who loves Palamon, helps him escape, but goes mad with anxiety. Her original wooer cures her by courting her while pretending to be Palamon.
Arcite encounters Palamon and challenges him to formal combat for Emilia. Theseus discovers them before they duel. He first sentences both to death, but then establishes a contest in which each will participate with Theban comrades. The loser and his knights will die. The winner will wed Emilia.
Arcite prays to Mars for victory; Palamon, to Venus for Emilia’s love. Both prayers are answered. Arcite wins, but dies after a riding accident. Palamon, spared from execution, marries Emilia.
Prologue: The audience is welcomed to the play’s opening performance. The speaker apologizes for its inferiority to Chaucer, whose tale provides the plot.
Act 1, Scene 1: The wedding procession of Duke Theseus and his Amazonian bride Hippolyta is interrupted by three weeping queens whose dead kings lie unburied on the battlefield in Thebes. With the support of Hippolyta, Emilia, and Pirithous, the queens persuade Theseus to leave immediately for Thebes in order to protect their husbands’ rights against Creon.
Act 1, Scene 2: Two noble cousins, Palamon and Arcite, discuss leaving Thebes, where the reign of their despised uncle Creon has corrupted the state. News comes of Theseus’s advance on Thebes and, despite their hatred of Creon, they go to the city’s defense.
Act 1, Scene 3: Pirithous leaves Athens to join Theseus in Thebes. Hippolyta and Emilia praise the strength of the bond between the two men, comparing it with other close bonds, especially that of Emilia as a girl with her friend Flavina.
Act 1, Scene 4: A victorious Theseus bids farewell to the three queens just as Palamon and Arcite are brought in wounded on stretchers. Theseus insists that doctors tend to them quickly so that he may imprison them.
Act 1, Scene 5: The three queens take farewell of each other as the bodies of their dead husbands are carried off for separate burials.
Act 2, Scene 1: The keeper of a jail in Athens discusses the terms of his daughter’s dowry with her wooer. The daughter enters bringing straw for the cells of the jail’s new prisoners, Palamon and Arcite. She praises their attitude and behavior.
Act 2, Scene 2: Palamon and Arcite, after lamenting their prospect of lifelong imprisonment, rejoice that they are imprisoned together where nothing can ever come between them. Through the prison window Palamon sees Emilia below in a garden, immediately falls in love with her, and announces his love to Arcite. When the same fate befalls Arcite, the two cousins become bitter rivals. Arcite is then freed and banished from the kingdom while Palamon is moved to a cell without a view of the garden.
Act 2, Scene 3: Arcite decides he will not leave Athens and Emilia. Countrymen enter talking about their plans to dance at a May Day celebration and about competitive games to take place before Duke Theseus. Arcite decides to assume a disguise and become a competitor in the games.
Act 2, Scene 4: The jailer’s daughter, having fallen in love with Palamon, decides to find a way to free him from prison in the hope that he will love her in return.
Act 2, Scene 5: Arcite, having won the competition disguised as a poor gentleman, is made an attendant upon Emilia. He and the other courtiers are told to be ready to celebrate May Day on the following morning.
Act 2, Scene 6: The jailer’s daughter, having set Palamon free and sent him off to await her in the woods, plans to bring him food, along with files to free him from his shackles, and clothes for herself so that they may escape the country together.
Act 3, Scene 1: Arcite, now Emilia’s attendant, is confronted by a still-shackled Palamon in the woods where the court is celebrating May Day. They challenge each other to a trial by combat to determine who has the right to Emilia. Arcite promises to bring food for Palamon and files to remove his shackles.
Act 3, Scene 2: The jailer’s daughter, unable to find Palamon, fearing that he has been eaten by wild animals and that her father will be hanged for Palamon’s escape, falls into despair.
Act 3, Scene 3: Arcite brings Palamon food, wine, and files. He promises to return in two hours bringing swords and armor for their combat.
Act 3, Scene 4: The jailer’s daughter, convinced that Palamon is dead and that her father will be hanged, begins to hallucinate.
Act 3, Scene 5: The countrymen and the schoolmaster gather for the morris dance to be performed for Duke Theseus. When the countrywomen arrive, it is discovered that one woman is missing. At that moment, the jailer’s daughter, now completely mad, arrives and becomes one of the dancers. Theseus and his court appear and the morris dance is performed.
Act 3, Scene 6: Arcite arrives in the forest with armor and swords. The two cousins dress each other in armor and prepare as if for a formal trial by combat. Theseus comes upon the combat, arrests them, and sentences them both to immediate death. He is persuaded to pardon them; but in order to end their violent rivalry, he sets up a competition that will include companion knights from Thebes and that will end with the victor winning Emilia and the loser and his companions being executed.
Act 4, Scene 1: The jailer receives the news that he and his daughter have been pardoned for Palamon’s escape, but that his daughter has gone mad. She enters and the others pacify her by going along with her delusions.
Act 4, Scene 2: Emilia examines miniature portraits of Palamon and Arcite and is unable to choose between them. Theseus, hearing descriptions of the knights who have arrived from Thebes for the coming battle, is eager to see the men themselves.
Act 4, Scene 3: The jailer’s daughter is diagnosed by the doctor as suffering from love melancholy. He prescribes that the daughter’s wooer, who still wishes to marry her, begin to court her, pretending to be Palamon.
Act 5, Scene 1: In preparation for the coming confrontation, Arcite and his companion knights pray for victory at the altar of Mars; Palamon and his knights pray to Venus to win the love of Emilia; and Emilia and her women pray to Diana that she might remain a virgin in Diana’s service.
Act 5, Scene 2: The doctor observes the jailer’s daughter with the wooer pretending to be Palamon, and declares that she will soon be cured. Over her father’s protest, the doctor encourages the wooer to go along with her desire that they sleep together.
Act 5, Scene 3: Emilia listens to the sounds of the combat as first one contestant and then the other seems to be winning. When Arcite is finally declared the victor, she is told that he will be her husband and that Palamon and his knights will immediately be executed.
Act 5, Scene 4: As Palamon puts his head on the block for his beheading, word comes that Arcite has been crushed by his falling horse. Mortally wounded, Arcite confesses that he was wrong to pursue Emilia after Palamon had already declared his love for her. He gives his right in Emilia to Palamon, and then dies. Theseus declares that the court will spend some days in mourning for Arcite and then turn to the celebration of Palamon’s marriage to Emilia.
Act 5, Epilogue: The speaker bids the audience farewell, hoping that the play has pleased them.