Palamon and Arcite
Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary
Fol. 10 (Greg, I.19)
ye 17 of septembʒ 1594 . . . ne . . . Res at palamon & arsett . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ljs ye 16 of octobʒ 1594 Res at palaman & arset . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxvijs
F. 10v (Greg, I.20) ol
ye 27 of octobʒ 1594 . . . . . . . . . . Res at pallaman & harset . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxxxvijs ye 9 of novembʒ 1594 Res at palamon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xijs
Performed by the Admiral's Men as a 'ne' play at the Rose in September 1594, receiving three subsequent performances in October and November.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The source of the play's story was almost certainly The Knight's Tale, the first of The Canterbury Tales. Boccaccio's Teseida (Chaucer's source), whose heroes are named Palemone and Arcita, seems to have been less well known in England: Speght's 1598 edition of Chaucer's Workes failed to mention the Boccaccio source, as Francis Thynne points out in his Animadversions (p. 34).
References to the Play
Malone implies some knowledge of this play in theatrical circles post-1594 by guessing that Shakespeare "had probably founded" Two Noble Kinsmen "[o]n this play" (p. 295, n.1). Rather than give the play a post-history, Collier gives it a pre-history, noting not only its Chaucerian source but also Richard Edwards's lost "Palamon and Arcite" (1566); turning to Shakespeare, Collier thinks it "very possible that he [Shakespeare] did something for it" during its maiden run (p. 41, n.1). In an additional and peculiar comment, Collier assigns the performances of "Palamon and Arcite" to the Chamberlain's men, whom he says were "performing with the Admiral's men" (Diary, p. 41 n1). Collier does not otherwise assign plays posted by Henslowe after 13 June 1594 to the Chamberlain's men. Fleay, BCED does not comment on the source of the play or repeat Collier's nonce assignment to the Chamberlain's men (2.303 #156). Greg II also ignores Collier's odd company assignment but does repeat the allegation of Chaucer as source and Edwards's play as a precursor (p. 168 #53).
Richard Edwards's "Palamon and Arcite" (1566)
Another, earlier (yet also lost) play called "Palamon and Arcite" was written by Richard Edwards and performed at Oxford before Queen Elizabeth over the course of two evenings, September 2 and 4, 1566. While no text survives, there is abundant extant documentary evidence, including several descriptions of the play in performance (see Durand; Elliott, "Queen Elizabeth at Oxford"; King 63-87; REED Oxford I.128-43 passim., esp. 138-43). Collier guessed that the Admiral's Men's "Palamon and Arcite" may have been an "alteration" of this earlier play (Diary, p. 41) However, the current critical view no longer favors this hypothesis. According to Gurr: "As a 'ne' play, [the Admiral's Men's] dramatisation of Chaucer's tale is unlikely to have been Richard Edwards's play of that name [...] A play with the same name as another Edwards text, Damon and Pithias [by Chettle], was staged at the Fortune in 1600 [...] It was quite usual for more than one writer to dramatise a famous story" (208; see also King 84). See also Damon and Pithias.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595)
The Admiral's Men's play is occasionally cited in discussions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which also draws on The Knight's Tale and was probably composed some time shortly after 1594. Taylor finds it "likely that both companies were offering the public a Theseus play at about the same time" (119). Thompson, drawing a parallel with the two Troilus plays at the turn of the century, suggests that the Admiral's Men's play might have been "the 'straight' version" of The Knight's Tale "which inspired a slightly burlesqued reply" (30).
See also Wiggins, Catalogue #966.
Stretter places the play in the context of the Admiral's 1590s repertory, which featured multiple plays (both extant and lost) celebrating male friendship, their "well-known stories all suggest[ing] a nostalgia for a lost age of 'true' friendship defined by loyalty, sacrifice, and a prioritization of homosocial values" (343). Stretter argues that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing offer "a critique of the kind of triumphalist male friendship that appears in the legends of friends such as Alexander and Lodowick, stories in which the needs of the male friends take priority over wives, children, and sometimes even traditional notions of truth and morality" (332).
For What It's Worth
Harbage gave "Palamon and Arcite" a tentative tragic designation. However, Chaucer's poem, ending in the death of Arcite and the marriage of Palamon and Emelye, could easily have been adapted to emphasize either its tragic or its comic resolutions. Generic speculations about the Admiral's Men's play are likely to be colored by Fletcher and Shakespeare's adaptation of the same source in The Two Noble Kinsmen, the bleak finale of which stresses the tragic in its classification as a "tragicomedy" (so recorded in the Stationer's Register). However, the ending of Chaucer's tale is more intuitively described as a comedy, as it leaves the reader with the image of a happy marriage: "For now is Palamon in alle wele, / Living in blisse, in richesse, and in hele; / And Emelye him loveth so tendrely" (I.3101-3; Skeat, ed., IV.88).
It is entirely possible that the Admiral's Men's dramatist may have favored this more optimistic approach to the ending, as that which appears to have characterized Richard Edwards's earlier dramatization of The Knight's Tale. Although there is no extant text of Edwards's "Palamon and Arcite," there is abundant documentary evidence, including several descriptions of the play in performance. Harbage listed Edwards's play, like the Admiral's Men's, as a tragedy; yet, given its performance before the Queen and its relevance to topical matrimonial politics, it is more likely imagined as effectively a comedy in which order is achieved despite Emelye's deferral of choosing a suitor (King 64-65, 83-84; REED: Oxford II.831). One eye-witness account of the performance (by John Bereblock) describes such an ending: "Afterwards at the suggestion of the kings and by the common consent of all, the maiden is given to Palæmon; and this act (the theatre by this time being very full) was approved by the throng with a tremendous shout and clapping of hands" (trans., Durand p. 512). King speculates, based on the tone of one account, that the love plot as a whole was presented comically: "we get a strong sense that the two young men's behaviour was both ridiculous and meant to be so" (p. 80). In the account of Miles Windsor, we hear that the "Actors notwithstanding performed their partes so well yat the Quene laughed hartelie." (CCC MS 257, f. 119v, in REED: Oxford I.132)
Edwards's choice of the subject may be illuminated by his earlier play, published posthumously as The excellent Comedie... of Damon and Pythias (1571). Despite the general designation on the title page, the Prologue dwells on the subject of the play's genre, describing it twice as a "tragical comedy," with a sense of its novel distinction (Prol. 38, 45; King, p. 112). Indeed, Damon and Pythias constantly verges towards the possibility of a tragic outcome until its eventual happy ending in which the virtue of friendship triumphs. It is conceivable that Edwards's 1566 adaptation of The Knight's Tale was another dramatic essay in this mongrel genre, taking advantage of the story's tragic aspects before resolving the story in a comic ending.
One way of evaluating the extent to which the ending of an adaptation of The Knight's Tale is registered as tragic or comic is how close to the end of the play Arcite's death occurs. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, there are a mere 42 lines between the death of Arcite on-stage and the Epilogue (who observes no smiles in the audience). Edwards certainly seems to have capitalized on the tragic impact of Arcite's death: the only extant text from the play is a lament sung by Emelye that presumably marks the occasion (King 225-26; REED: Oxford I.142-43). However, the spectacle of the funeral as described by Bereblock could conceivably allow for a tonal modulation from mourning to pageantry (and possibly a version of Chaucer's Theseus's First Mover speech) in preparation for the official marriage in an ultimately comic ending.
While scholars no longer favor the suggestion that the Admiral's Men performed a version of Edwards's play, the later "Palamon and Arcite," even if it was not a revival or revision, may have been obliquely influenced by the earlier. It is not impossible that the dramatist of the Admiral's Men's version of the story may have been aware of the earlier play. Edwards enjoyed a favorable posthumous reputation and was the subject of three eulogies in Turberville's Epitaphs, Epigrams, Songs and Sonnets (1567), one of which mentions his "Arcyte and Palemon." (Edwards was, incidentally, not unknown to playwrights in the mid-1590s: lines from a song in Edwards's Paradise of Dainty Devices are the subject of conversation in Romeo and Juliet, 4.4.) While the Admiral's Men's dramatist is perhaps unlikely to have seen a copy of Edwards's play text in manuscript or one of the descriptive accounts, if he was aware of the authorship of the earlier Palamon and Arcite, he would have probably assumed it to be a comedy rather than a tragedy, since Puttenham (and later Meres) refers to Edwards as among the best comic dramatists, as does Barnabe Googe, in a eulogy claiming that Edwards surpassed Plautus and Terence.
We may probably assume that the Admiral's Men's "Palamon and Arcite" retained the mix of grief and joy inherent in the story's conclusion and might even have, like Edwards's Damon and Pythias, specifically been conceived of as a tragicomedy. According to Harbage, the designation is relatively rare after Edwards. One other "Tragical comedie" (the anonymous "Calistus") is listed for 1580. However, 1594 sees three possible tragicomedies, all performed by the Admiral's Men within months of "Palamon and Arcite": A Knack to Know an Honest Man (October, publ. 1596), "Philipo and Hippolito" (July), and "The Merchant of Emden" (July, which Harbage speculates was a "Realistic Tragicomedy"). It is plausible, then, that "Palamon and Arcite" was a part of this tragicomic bubble, and possible that the story's concluding marriage occasioned a happy ending rather than a sad one.
Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 29 June 2012.