by Playwright Tim Slover
All Good Things…
The Two Noble Kinsmen
And so now we come to the end of this extraordinary odyssey, to Shakespeare’s last play, written with a playwright fifteen years his junior, John Fletcher. Fletcher would soon replace Shakespeare as the house writer for the King’s Men, a company which more than any other spanning the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I relied on a single writer to supply their principal repertoire. Shakespeare would soon retire to the house in Stratford he had bought some sixteen years earlier, but never yet spent a connected four seasons in. The older and younger writer had collaborated twice before, on Cardenio, now lost to us, and, most recently on All Is True, a return after a decade to English history, the reign of Henry VIII. Now they came together one final time to put an old story on the stage, the tale of the rivalry of Palamon and Arcite for the hand of Emilia (not that they consulted her on the matter) which two centuries earlier Geoffrey Chaucer had put into the mouth of a Knight on pilgrimage to Canterbury. The play is evenly divided between the two writers, Fletcher supplying a rusticated court masque which bounds unexpectedly into the middle of the play; and Shakespeare supplying the play’s most memorable character, another of those late-period intrepid young women whom we meet in Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—a teenager not endowed with a name, but simply called the Jailer’s Daughter. I recommend following the arc of her story closely because it reveals where Shakespeare’s heart is here at the end of his playwriting life. (As far as we know, his only writing project following The Two Noble Kinsmen was his will, also a collaboration, in this case with his lawyer and Warwickshire friend Francis Collins.)
There is a good chance Shakespeare and Fletcher would never have collaborated. Shakespeare did not do it much, nine times at most, far fewer than any other working playwright of his day. Had things gone the way James Burbage intended, Shakespeare and Fletcher may never even have met. Burbage was a remarkable man: a carpenter, a pioneer theatre builder, and the first person to charge admission at a box office in his playhouse, aptly called the Theatre, north of London’s city limits in Shoreditch. He was the founder of a theatre company sponsored by Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, and Lord Chamberlain to the Queen. In addition to his carpentry skills and entrepreneurial savvy, he had the wit to put under exclusive contract the most up-and-coming double-threat player-playwright of the early 1590s, one William Shakespeare. Burbage also contributed two sons to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one a businessman, Cuthbert, and the other, Richard, the actor who would premiere all of Shakespeare’s most famous roles. When landowner Giles Alleyn refused to renew the lease on the Theatre, giving Burbage just twenty months to vacate, Burbage sunk most of the company’s money into buying a building in the heart of fashionable London—it had been the Dominican Blackfriars monastery before Henry VIII dissolved it—and then spent most of the rest turning it into a splendid new theatrical home for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Unfortunately, after all the money had been spent, the London city fathers decided to disallow any theatre companies from playing at Blackfriars (after all, it was a very nice neighborhood) except a troupe of boy actors. With no money left and little recourse, Burbage leased his new theatre to the troupe’s leader, Henry Evans, for £40 per annum, tore down the timbers of his old Shoreditch Theatre (Alleyn owned the land; the theatre company owned the building), used them to build a new outdoor theatre across the river in Southwark, and bided his time till he could get into Blackfriars. Nine years passed, and James Burbage died waiting. During those years, while Shakespeare was writing his great tragedies and most trenchant comedies, a new generation of playwrights was writing plays for the boys’ company, tailored to suit the sophisticated tastes of west London playgoers, a heady mixed repertoire of dainty pastorals and political satires, leant greater frisson by being put in the mouths of children. But then a particularly scurrilous satire got Evans’s company banned in 1608, and the new generation of Burbages along with Shakespeare and company—the King’s Men now—finally took up residence at Blackfriars, performing there from 1610. Taking over the lease also meant taking on the remaining writers still in good grace because they knew the clientele and what they liked. This accounts, at least in part, for why Shakespeare collaborated on some of his late plays, and turned to writing romances: to work in the vein and with the writers already popular at Blackfriars. One of those was young John Fletcher.
Fletcher was a natural collaborator. (Did it grate on Shakespeare to work with one of the so-called University Wits—Fletcher had attended Corpus Christi College at Oxford—the very sort who had sneered at him earlier as an under-educated country bumpkin? Or, fortified by his Gentleman’s crest, was he past all that now?) The year Queen Elizabeth died, Fletcher began collaborating with Francis Beaumont, and together they wrote The Woman Hater; Cupid’s Revenge; Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding; The Maid’s Tragedy, and so on. The bodice-ripping titles more or less say it all about their principal interest. Beaumont and Fletcher were an interesting pair; anecdotes from the period report that they lived together and shared clothes and a lover. After Beaumont gave up writing and married in 1613, Fletcher sought further collaborators and found plenty, among them Nathan Field and Phillip Massinger—and for a play or three, Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s late romances, as everyone familiar with them knows, start tragically, with tragedy’s focus on perfidy, defeat, death, and the very real possibility of despair, and end comically, with comedy’s insistence on the continuation of life, growth, and hope for the future. Pericles finds his long-lost daughter he thought dead; Leontes discovers the wife he believed his cruelty had killed; Prospero renounces revenge and forgives the brother who had tried to kill him. Tragic circumstances are transformed into happy endings, though the echoes of the tragedies sober the glad conclusions.
But in The Two Noble Kinsmen, something new happens. Comedy and tragedy alternate so quickly it is like the whistling back-and-forth of a shuttlecock in a badminton game. The play begins with a wedding—comedy—but the wedding is interrupted by the report of a shameful crime: Creon of Thebes has left three defeated kings unburied after a battle, and their grieving wives demand that Theseus right this wrong by attacking Thebes. Two cousins, noble by birth and character, fight for Thebes and are wounded so grievously they are on the verge of death—tragedy—but Theseus orders his physicians to save their lives—comedy—but then jails them for life in Athens—tragedy. These two noble kinsmen, Arcite and Palamon, are sworn blood brothers—until they see a beautiful young woman named Emilia through their cell window. They both fall instantly in love with her—comedy—and then become deadly rivals and try to wipe each other out to eliminate the competition—tragedy. And after that, the alternating current coursing through the play goes even stronger and faster. As the play reaches its conclusion the giddy oscillations are almost too much to bear—and that is the point. A character in All’s Well that Ends Well notes, “The web of our life is of a mingled yard, good and ill together”; The Two Noble Kinsmen sets about to demonstrate it.
The language of the play is famously vexed and knotty, and when I attempted to move straight from Jacobean to modern verse, I found I worried more about rhythm and meter than about sense and impact. For me, it was too big a step. So I decided to write the whole play in prose first and then rewrite the relevant speeches (which was most of them) back into a version of blank verse to restore the rhythms. Between the prose literalism and the lyrical version, there was a crucial interim step, a workshop in Minneapolis presided over by an ubër-talented pair: director Randy Reyes and dramaturg, Martine Kei Green-Rogers. I am deeply grateful to them and to Lue Douthit, Taylor Bailey, OSF, and the Hitz Foundation for making that crucial workshop possible.
And while I’m at it, thank you to as talented a director as I hope ever to work with, April Cleveland, and this remarkable, swift-boat cast for undertaking this last reading. Thespis grant you fortune!
One of the questions I kept asking myself as I moved to the modern verse version of The Two Noble Kinsmen was, what should I do about tone? There are rustic countrymen and countrywomen in the play, and their speeches could stay in prose, as in the original, as long as I did not introduce inappropriate anachronisms. But most of the characters are high-born. If the diction and rhythm I employed for their verse speech was too casual, it would not honor the elevated language of the original text. I decided to write their speeches in the language of what literary critic Northrup Frye calls “high mimesis.” This is the elevated language of human legends, lower than mythic language (think Psalms in the Old Testament), but higher than demotic modern language.
The University of Utah, again with significant financial help from OSF and the Hitz Foundation, produced the Play on! version of The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2017 at the Babcock Theatre, with Randy Reyes, coaxed from Mu Theatre in Minneapolis, directing. In the week the play opened, I was invited to talk about it and the process on KUER’s RadioWest program and was startled to learn that my great Shakespeare hero, the scholar and wonderful writer, James Shapiro, would be joining the broadcast remotely. When Professor Shapiro asked me via email to send him a copy of my script beforehand, I was flattered and readily sent it to him. I had not, you see, read his opinion piece in the NY Times. Thank goodness, he was on the show remotely. But it was still kind of like stepping into a cold shower to pace in a room at the Eccles Broadcast Center while a man whose autograph I wanted read a speech from Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play and then my version of the same speech and draw unflattering comparisons. A few minutes later, Professor Shapiro was finished, and the kindly producer, with what looked suspiciously like pity. ushered me into the room with Doug Fabrizio for my fifteen minutes of infamy.
So I’ll conclude by setting down here and now what I said on RadioWest then: I’m not as good a writer as Shakespeare or Fletcher. But I believe passionately in Play on! I believe someone put off by four-hundred-year-old language who would never go to a Shakespeare play might go to one of our translations and be encouraged. It may make them interested enough to go to one of the great productions of a Shakespeare play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and find a new world.
In fact, I know that to be true. When my two sons, now grown, were pre-teen boys I told them the stories of Shakespeare’s plays in modern language. I could do that because Charles and Mary Lamb had translated the plays into children’s stories in their Tales of Shakespeare, which I had read as a child. When the boys were nine and ten, my wife and I took them to Hamlet, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. We had very good seats. In fact we were on the front row. It was a long and challenging—and very good—production, with Samuel West in the title role. The boys were riveted throughout. When the cast came out for a very loud and enthusiastic curtain call at the end, to our surprise and our boys’ everlasting satisfaction, the cast turned to them and applauded their attention. They have been eager attenders of Shakespeare ever since. One of them, now a PhD candidate at Emory University, recently read a paper on Hamlet at a conference in London. And all of this happened because they had heard Shakespeare first in their own language. God bless you, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Classic Stage Company, Dave and Ken Hitz, and Play on!