About seven years ago now I read one of those "Top 100 must-read" lists and on it was Shakespeare's complete works which I duly read but my Shakespeare's Complete Works was based on the First Folio list with the added Pericles, however there was no Two Noble Kinsmen, which has not until relatively recently been agreed that Shakespeare did write at least half of it, the other half being generally agreed to have been written by John Fletcher. It has taken me this long to finally read it!
The play is based on a tale from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1384-96) - 'The Knight's Tale', in which two knights, Palamon and Arcite (cousins), are captured and imprisoned by Theseus, the Duke of Athens, where they both fall in love with the Duke's sister-in-law Emily. It is a dramatic tale of friendship and love, and what happens when the two conflict.
The Two Noble Kinsmen begins with three queens who have arrived in Athens to beg Theseus to avenge their husbands' deaths at the hands of Creon, the wicked king of Thebes (Creon is depicted many times in ancient Greek literature, for example Sophocles' 'Theban Plays' and Euripides' The Suppliants and The Pheonician Women), and to ensure their proper burial that Creon is denying them. Theseus consents and wages war on Thebes, the home of Palamon and Arcite. They, being knights, are bound by their honour to fight for Creon against Theseus, however they lose the battle and are taken as Theseus' prisoners. They are then imprisoned in Athens where they see, from their prison window, Emilia. Palamon and Arcite's close friendship then turns into rivalry as they fall in love with her. When Arcite (but not Palamon) is released from prison he disguises himself to get closer to her, managing to become her bodyguard. Meanwhile Palamon's jailer's daughter falls in love with him and, to win his love, she sets him free. He, however, still loves Emilia and she is left trying to track him down across the countryside. It is Arcite who finds him, and it is agreed that once Palamon is well again the two will fight to win Emilia. Theseus however discovers them and wishes to execute them but his wife Hippolyta and Emilia intervene. When Emilia tells them she cannot decide between the two Theseus declares that the two must duel, and the winner will marry Emilia. Before the tournament begins the three pray: Arcite prays to Mars that he will win the battle, Palamon to Venus that he will win Emilia, and Emilia to Diana that she will marry the knight most worthy of her love. Each prayer is answered: Arcite wins the battle but dies of his wounds, leaving Palamon free to marry Emilia.
The Knight's Tale is my favourite tale from The Canterbury Tales so it was wonderful to revisit it. Though a little different I do think Shakespeare and Fletcher did Chaucer justice. The Two Noble Kinsmen was most likely Shakespeare's final play (first performed around 1613-14) and I would say it was one of his best comedies.