Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 135-138
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The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Arden Shakespeare The Two Noble Kinsmen. Edited by Lois Potter. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997. Pp. xvi + 395. Illus. $45.00 cloth, $12.95 paper.
A great deal of revisionary Shakespeare editing has taken place in the past two decades, and gradually a general consensus has developed around many of the plays with authorship or textual difficulties. For The Two Noble Kinsmen the only possible copy-text, the 1634 quarto, has received nearly four hundred years' worth of proposed emendations to its apparent confusions or errors. Most recent work on the play's authorship has debated only a few scenes (e.g., 1.4-5, 3.2). Cyrus Hoy's 1960 division of the play, presented in "The Shares of Fletcher and his collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon," was supported in 1994 by Jonathan Hope in The Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays: A Socio-linguistic Study. T. B. Horton's "Distinguishing Shakespeare from Fletcher through function words," published in the same year (Shakespeare Studies 22: 314-35), added 2.3 and 4.3 to possible Shakespeare portions; but, as Lois Potter suggests in her new Arden edition, linguistic similarities between sections may result from one collaborator adjusting the work of another. Thus scholars and general readers will welcome Potter's edition not for its radical revision of textual history or authorial attribution but for its balanced discussion of the nature of the collaboration; for its provocative, sometimes quirky introduction and notes; and for its democratic openness to all forms of contemporary interpretation.
The introduction's opening sentence--"The Two Noble Kinsmen is a Jacobean dramatization of a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance version of a Latin epic about one of the oldest and most tragic Greek legends; it has two authors and two heroes" (1)--shows Potter's enthusiasm for the play's complexity. To impose some order, she examines the play in contexts generic, public, literary, and theatrical. Wearing her learning lightly, she ranges from the Arminian/Calvinist religious controversy to Prince Henry's military ambitions. Unlike Georgio Melchiori (Teatro Completo di William Shakespeare ), she argues that the authors knew Boccaccio's Teseida: at certain points (e.g., Palamon's ubi sunt passage in 2.2) the play seems closer to that source than to Chaucer's Knight's Tale. Similarly, Richard Edwards's Palamon and Arcite, though never printed, may explain "a small puzzle" (46), Palamon's reference to his nonexistent previous reproaches of the false Venus. Yet Potter always remembers the first-time reader who will not know how the play ends, what Theseus will decide, who, if anyone, will win Emilia.
This edition is a product of the new scholarly respect for dramatic collaboration, which recognizes that productive association was an important talent. Potter concentrates not on whether but how the collaboration took place. Her major premise is succinctly stated in the introduction: "The play's structure, with its almost complete separation of main plot and subplot and its large number of soliloquies, seems designed to facilitate collaboration between two people who did not expect to have much opportunity to talk about the work in progress" (25), a situation she connects to the probability that after the June 1613 Globe fire, Shakespeare ceased to reside in London except, [End Page 135] presumably, for visits. Potter uses the play's inconsistencies as clues to the compositional process, hypothesizing that "the two dramatists began writing concurrently, but that Fletcher constructed the final draft" (32). Recent work on collaboration has emphasized reciprocal imitation: Potter acknowledges that Shakespeare is sometimes "Fletcherian" (14, 20), but she does not find in Two Noble Kinsmen the seepage visible in Henry VIII. Her postmodern willingness to leave the unknowable unresolved is neatly demonstrated in her reference to a possible third hand. Discussing similarities between Act 1 of The Two Noble Kinsmen and the first of Nathan Field's Four Plays in One, she concludes mildly: "it seems to me likely that Field...