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Palamon and Arcite

by Katherine Chiljan

This article was first published in the Spring 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, three plays were produced based on Chaucer’s “The Knights Tale.” Palamon and Arcite, the main characters, are royal cousins whose close friendship is tested when they fall in love with the same woman. Military honor, symbolized by Arcite, and true love and passion, symbolized by Palamon, are also put to the test when the cousins duel for the hand of Emilia. The gods decide the outcome. This is the essential plot of the story, which has origins in Boccaccio’s La Teseida and the epic poem Thebaid by Statius (d. 90 AD).

The first play, Palamon and Arcite, debuted at Oxford University in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s visit of 1566, and has the distinction of being the first dramatization of The Canterbury Tales. In 1594 a play of the same title had four performances at the Rose theater, according to Henslowe’s diary. In 1634, a third play about the royal cousins is printed, titled The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare–a first for Shakespeare to share billing on a title page. Both authors had been dead for several years. The “Stratford Shakespeare’s” vital statistics of 1564-1616 has rendered it unthinkable that these three plays were related, but if the Earl of Oxford’s pen name was “Shakespeare,” evidence suggests that they were essentially the same play by Oxford with later additions by Fletcher.1

The problems of Two Noble Kinsmen

After years of controversy, most scholars agree that TNK’s main plot (Acts I & V) was composed by Shakespeare, and that the subplot– the play’s majority– was written by Fletcher, explaining why his name topped Shakespeare’s on the title page. By assuming the two collaborated, scholars conclude that TNK was Shakespeare’s very last effort, yet they’re puzzled why the play lacks the quality of his late works. Shakespeare’s abandonment of his art, wrote Harold Bloom of this play, is virtually unique in the annals of Western literature.

There’s no evidence, however, that the two collaborated. According to Paul Bertram, the prologue and epilogue is where dual authorship would be acknowledged; in TNK it is not. In fact the prologue explicitly makes reference to a single writer:

Chaucer of all admired, the story gives…
If the first sound this child hear be a hiss,
How will it shake the bones of that good man
And make him cry from underground, Oh fan me
From the witless chaff of such a writer
That blasts my bays and my fam’d works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood

Bertram’s argument is further supported by Leonard Digges’ commendatory poem to Shakespeare (1640):

Nor begs he from each witty friend a scene
To piece his acts with, all that he doth write
Is pure his own; plot, language exquisite.

It’s most unlikely that Fletcher’s subplot about the daughter of Palamon and Arcite’s jailer–a poor imitation of Ophelia — was part of the original play, as it had almost no relation to the main plot. One can only conjecture that the first and last acts of Shakespeare’s original version had survived, and that later Fletcher filled in the rest. Fletcher rode on the coattails of Shakespeare before — as late as 1611 he wrote a sequel to Taming of the Shrew called The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed.

Scholars are unsure about the dating of TNK, but place it no earlier than 1613 because the morris dance in Fletcher’s subplot was virtually copied from a masque by Francis Beaumont acted before King James in the same year. That composition date may be true about Fletcher’s portion of the play, but there’s evidence that Shakespeare’s portion was written earlier. In 1606, Barnabe Barnes in his Four Books of Offices wrote that war “is the noble corrector of all prodigal states, a skillful bloodletter against all dangerous obstructions and pleurasies of peace” — a clear echo of Arcite’s prayer to Mars in Act V, scene 1 of TNK:

Oh great corrector of enormous times;
Shaker of o’er-rank states; thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that heal’st with blood
The earth when it is sick and cur’st the world
O’th’ pleurisy of people

In 1605, Palamon was the main character in Samuel Daniel’s The Queen’s Arcadia, which, if this is another allusion to the play, pushes TNK’s date back a year more, and into a period when Fletcher was not known to be writing. The way then is cleared to link TNK with performances of Palamon and Arcite by the Admiral’s Men in 1594 at the Rose Theater.

Now here’s a true connection of the 1566 play to TNK. In TNK when Palamon is called down from the scaffold, no longer condemned to die as the loser of the duel, he says in disbelief, “Can that be, / When Venus, I have said, is false?” (V, iv, 44).

In TNK, Palamon never berates the goddess, but he did in the 1566 play, according to the summary by spectator John Bereblock, fellow of Exeter College. Palamon, “having failed of every hope …casts reproaches upon Venus, saying that he had served her from infancy and that now she had neither desire nor power to help him.” The absence of this important detail indicates that TNK was not a coherently written play and that original material had probably been lost or censored. An even more convincing link of TNK to the 1566 play occurs in the last lines of the prologue:

If this play do not keep,
A little dull time from us, we perceive
Our losses fall so thick, we must
Needs leave.

The reference to “our losses,” says Bertram, was probably an allusion to some public misfortune that befell the acting company. It is unlikely that a dramatist would go out of his way to be unintelligible in a prologue designed to court the favor of his audience, and the “losses” would presumably have been well enough known for the audience to recognize the reference and respond to it.

There are various interpretations for our losses but critics are far from consensus on this mysterious reference.

Earlier play answers the questions

Let’s turn to Oxford University in 1566. The biggest event is the play, Palamon and Arcite, to be acted by students.2 Rehearsal previews are outstanding, spectacular scenery and effects are eagerly anticipated, as is the Queen’s attendance. After the Queen and her train are seated, a crowd throngs into Christ Church hall by way of a staircase, which, from the pressure, rips out of the wall, killing three people and injuring more. (John Elliott, Jr. discovered that for aesthetic reasons, a new coat of lead had been laid on the steps.) Remarkably, after the rubble had been cleared, the show went on! Bereblock wrote,

This untoward happening, although touching everyone with sadness, could by no means destroy the enjoyment of the occasion. Accordingly, taught by the misfortune of the others to be more careful, all turn again to the play.

The reference to our losses from the staircase disaster would have been clearly understood by the audience — a somewhat necessary insertion considering that three deaths weren’t enough to halt the entertainment. These two examples present in my opinion strong evidence that TNK is comprised of parts of the 1566 play.

What hasn’t been explained is that the authorship of the 1566 play in contemporary accounts was attributed to Master Richard Edwards.3 Two months before the Queen’s visit to Oxford, Edwards was preparing the entertainment at the university. It’s recorded that he rehearsed and directed three plays, trained actors, and supervised the construction of stage and scenery in Christ Church hall. Edwards’ biographer, Leicester Bradner, believed he — alone — would have been unable to write a play of two long parts in two months with that workload. Of course, he may have written it earlier, but there are other considerations to be looked at.

Edwards’ previous play was Damon and Pithias. Is it likely that an author would write two consecutive plays on the similar theme of friendship between two young gentlemen from ancient Greece? Both plays were compared by spectators, who agreed that Palamon and Arcite far surpassed Damon and Pithias; yet scholars have noted with surprise that in 1568 the students at Merton College, Oxford, chose to put on a revival performance of Damon and Pithias instead of Edwards’ more celebrated play. The same is true for printed editions: there were two editions of Damon and Pithias (1571, 1582), and several of Edwards’ poems were printed, but no effort was made to print Palamon and Arcite–resulting in the lost manuscript of the superior play.

TNK’s prologue, besides expressing insecurity about the worthiness of the play, metaphorically implies it was the author’s first effort: “New plays and maidenheads are near akin.” Edwards had been writing plays for at least 5 years — but what about the 16-year-old Earl of Oxford, who later was recognized as a top playwight?

Oxford as author?

It is indisputable that Oxford was present at the university during the Queen’s visit, as he received his master’s degree the day following the performance of Palamon and Arcite. We know that from his earliest years Oxford was deeply involved in literature. Arthur Golding (in his translation of Justin’s Histories of Trogus Pompeius, the first of many books Oxford patronized) attested to the earl’s “earnest desire…to read, peruse and communicate with others as well the histories of ancient times, and things done long ago… and that not without a certain pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding.” Oxford was only 14. At 16 Oxford was writing polished poetry, and Edwards was collecting it ( seven pieces were in his personal collection, later published as Paradise of Dainty Devices).

One portion of the 1566 play — Emilia’s song4 — has survived, and it very closely echoes Oxford’s early poetry:

Come follow me you nymphs,
whose eyes are never dry,
Augment your wailing number
now with me poor Emelie.

Give place ye to my plaints,
whose joys are pinched with pain:
My love, alas, through foul mishap,
most cruel death hath slain.

What wight can will, alas,
my sorrows now indict?
I wail and want my new desire,
I lack my new delight.

Gush out my trickling tears,
like mighty floods of rain:
My knight, alas, through foul mishap
most cruel death hath slain.

Oh hap, alas, most hard,
oh death why didst thou so?
Why could not I embrace my joy,
for me that bid such woe?

False fortune out, alas,
woe worth thy subtle train:
Whereby my love through foul mishap,
most cruel death hath slain.

Rock me asleep in woe,
you woeful Sisters three,
Oh cut you of my fatal thread,
dispatch poor Emelie.

Why should I live, alas,
and linger thus in pain?
Farewell my life, sith that my love
most cruel death hath slain.

Oxford’s early poems reveal a fondness for the words wail, plaint, wight, foul, hap, cruel, woe, pain and linger. Two poems contain the phrase “trickling tears,” and compare also Oxford’s “Patience perforce is a pinching pain” with the above “Whose joys are pinched with pain.”

An excerpt from Oxford’s “A crown of bays” encompasses much of the above word usage:

Melpomene, alas, with doleful tunes help then,
And sing bis woe worth on me, forsaken man.
Then Daphne’s bays shall that man wear, that triumphs over me,
For black and tawny will I wear, which mourning colors be.
Drown me you trickling tears, you wailful wights of woe,
Come help these hands to rend my hairs, my rueful haps to show.

Perhaps it was no accident that in The Arte of English Poesie “Th’ Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s Chapel” were named together as deserving “the highest prize…for Comedy and Interlude.” (John Stow used the word comedy to describe the 1566 play Palamon and Arcite.) It could suggest that they collaborated, perhaps as writer and director respectively. Richard Edwards may have been Oxford-Shakespeare’s playwriting mentor, and as convention prevented nobility from publicly associating with the theater, perhaps Oxford allowed the Edwards attribution of Palamon and Arcite. But it appears that Oxford, whose family name was de Vere, implanted his signature in line 7 of TNK’s first act: Primrose, first-born child of Ver — a most uncommon word for spring.

In conclusion then, given what is known about the 1566 play Palamon and Arcite and its connections to TNK, it is reasonable to postulate that it was written by Oxford, probably his very first play, as the prologue suggests. His source may have been the new 1561 edition of The Canterbury Tales, which had long been out of print. The play’s success, with royal approbation, undoubtedly encouraged the young playwright. Oxford revised the play (along with others) in the 1590s and it was performed at the Rose Theater. After Oxford’s death, only part of the play survived, or censored portions were lost. Fletcher replaced the missing parts with a subplot, circa 1613, and this was the version that was finally printed in 1634, with the new title, Two Noble Kinsmen. As over half of the surviving play was Fletcher’s, it was purposely left out of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).


Adams, Joseph Q. Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, 1924.

Arnold, Janet. Lost from Her Majesties Back, The Costume Society Extra Series, no. 7, 1980.

The Arte of English Poesie, 1589.

Bertram, Paul. Shakespeare and the Two Noble Kinsmen, 1965.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, 1998.

Boas, Frederick. University Drama in the Tudor Age, Oxford, 1914.

Bradner, Leicester. “The Life & Poems of Richard Edwards” Yale Studies in English 74 (ed. Albert S. Cook), 1927.

Brandes, George. William Shakespeare: A Critical Study, vol. 2, 1898.

Chiljan, Katherine. Letters and Poems of Edward, Earl of Oxford (private printing, 1998).

Dictionary of National Biography

Durand, W.Y. “Palamon and Arcyte, Progne.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, ed. Charles H. Grandgent, vol. 20, 1905.

Durand, W.Y. “Notes on Richard Edwards.” Journal of Germanic Philology, ed. Gustaf E. Karsten, vol. IV, 1902.

Edwards, Richard. Paradise of Dainty Devices, 1575.

Elliott, Jr., John R. “Queen Elizabeth at Oxford: New Light on the Royal Plays of 1566,” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 18, 1988.

Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Dodd, Mead and Co, New York, 1984.

Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Sir Paul Harvey, 1967.

Poems Written by Wil. Shakespeare, Gent., 1640.

Rollins, H.E. “A Note on Richard Edwards,” Review of English Studies, vol. 4, 1928.

Stowe, John. The Annals or General Chronicle of England, 1614.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edition, ed. Lois Potter, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., Walton-on-Thames, 1997.


  1. John Fletcher (1579-1625) was educated at Cambridge University. He wrote about 16 plays solo, and collaborated with Beaumont, Massinger, Rowley and others on several more. His father was the Queen’s personal chaplain and later Bishop of London.
  2. Miles Windsor (d. 1624) acted in the play (Perithous, according to Elliott) and wrote an important historical account of it. Windsor began study at Oxford in 1556/7, and was awarded an M.A. in 1566. He was the first cousin of Edward, 3rd Lord Windsor–Oxford’s brother-in-law. Unfortunately, Miles Windsor made no mention of Oxford in his account–perhaps he was reluctant to mention nobility in association with theater. The day after the Queen left Oxford, Lord Windsor (1537-1575) entertained her at his estate in Bradenham, Buckinghamshire.
    A fascinating note is that the Queen allowed royal garments to be used as costumes for this production. Windsor mentioned King Edward’s cloak, presumably that of Edward VI, and according to the logbook of the Queen’s Wardrobe, there was occupied and worn at Oxford in a play before Her Majesty certain of the apparel that was late Queen Mary’s. The forequarter of a gown without sleeves of purple velvet with satin ground was lost.
  3. Richard Edwards (1523?-1566) died two months after the performance of Palamon and Arcite at about age 40. The circumstance of his death is unknown. He was master of the Children of the Chapel (choirboys that entertained the Queen with plays and concerts) from 1561 to his death. His acquaintance with Oxford may have began at the wedding of Lady Anne Russell and the Earl of Warwick in August, 1565, where Oxford was a page and Edwards took part in the entertainments. Possible mis-attributions of Oxford’s work to Edwards are two songs: (1) “In Commendation of Music,” part of which was featured in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (IV,v,155); and (2), a song from Edwards’ Damon and Pithias, probably first performed during Christmas, 1564. Both pieces are reproduced below (following footnote 4).
  4. Arbor of Amorous Devices, registered Jan. 7, 1594 (unsigned), and British Museum Additional MS 26,737, fol. 106, signed “The song of Emelye per Edwardes.”
    In Commendation of Music
    Where gripping griefs the heart would wound
    And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
    Then music with her silver sound,
    Is wont with speed to give redress.
    Of troubled mind for every sore,
    Sweet music hath a salve therefore.
    In joy it makes our mirth abound,
    In grief it cheers our heavy sprites,
    The careful head release hath found,
    By music’s pleasant sweet delights.
    Our senses, what should I say more,
    Are subject unto music’s lore. The gods by music hath their prey,
    The foul therein doth joy,
    For as the Roman poets say,
    In seas whom pirates would destroy,
    A dolphin saved from death most sharp,
    Arion playing on his harp. A heavenly gift, that turns the mind,
    Like as the stern doth rule the ship,
    Music whom the gods assigned
    To comfort man, whom cares would nip.
    Sith thou man and beast dost move,
    What wise man then will thee reprove?Song from Edwards’ Damon and Pithias (line 588+)

    Awake ye woeful wights,
    That long have wept in woe:
    Resign to me your plaints and tears,
    My hapless hap to show.
    My woe no tongue can tell,
    Ne pen can well descry.
    Oh, what a death is this to hear:
    Damon my friend must die. The loss of worldly wealth,
    Man’s wisdom may restore,
    And physic hath provided too,
    A salve for every sore: But my true friend once lost,
    No art can well supply,
    Then what a death is this to hear:
    Damon my friend must die. My mouth refuse the food,
    That should my limbs sustain.
    Let sorrow sink into my breast,
    And ransack every vein. You Furies all at once,
    On me your torments try:
    Why should I live, since that I hear:
    Damon my friend should die. Grip me you greedy griefs,
    And present pangs of death,
    You Sisters Three, with cruel hands,
    With speed now stop my breath. Shrine me in clay alive,
    Some good man stop mine eye:
    Oh death come now, seeing I hear,
    Damon my friend must die.

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