Sitcom chivalry: The Two Noble Kinsmen

It’s like that Seinfeld episode! No, it’s like that Frasier episode!

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And they say chivalry is dead.

I’m not talking about holding the door open for women. Nor standing up when they enter or leave the room. Picking up the check at dinner? Nah. Walking closest to the curb. Un-uh.

I’m talking about ruining holiday gatherings over smalltalk about ‘90s television. Oh, chivalry is far from dead.

***

“I do not think it possible our friendship / Should ever leave us,” Palamon assures Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen (2.2.114-15), which Shakespeare is believed to have cowritten with his protégé, John Fletcher. The two titular kinsmen, jailed in Athens after Duke Theseus deposed the brutal king of their native Thebes, are trying to make the best of their situation.

But just a few beats later, Palamon is assailing his cousin: “I shall live to knock thy brains out with my shackles” (2.2.222-23).

What happened?

“I saw her first” (2.2.163).

“You are mad,” you might say. In fact, Arcite does (2.2.204).

From their cell, the kinsmen had spied Emilia, sister to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and betrothed to Theseus. They both fall instantly in love, but Palamon saw her first.

And just look at these two bicker:

PALAMON. What think of this beauty?
ARCITE. ’Tis a rare one.
PALAMON. Is’t but a rare one?
ARCITE. Yes, a matchless beauty.
PALAMON. Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
ARCITE. I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t. Now I feel my shackles.
PALAMON. You love her then?
ARCITE. Who would not?
PALAMON. And desire her?
ARCITE. Before my liberty.
PALAMON. I saw her first.
ARCITE. That’s nothing.
PALAMON. But it shall be.
ARCITE. I saw her too.
PALAMON. Yes, but you must not love her.

I that first saw her, I that took possession
First with mine eye of all those beauties
In her revealed to mankind. If thou lov’st her,
Or entertain’st a hope to blast my wishes,
Thou art a traitor, Arcite, and a fellow
False as thy title to her. Friendship, blood,
And all the ties between us I disclaim,
If thou once think upon her. (2.2.154-177)

Ladies and gentleman, I give you your much-mourned chivalry.

Iterations of the medieval chivalric code – which Shakespeare/Fletcher draw on in this stage adaptation of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” itself written when the code would have been in some effect – vary, but it would have compelled, at least if taken to a comical extreme, Palamon and Arcite to defend their honor or whatever the hell they think they’re doing. (I’m not even going to try to touch how they think they can call dibs on a woman. That’s, well, Trumpian.)

And defend they do. And after a series of events and subplots that gets them both out of prison. By a fight to the death. Well, Theseus orders them to duke it out in a tournament, with the winner, literally the victor in a game of king of the hill, gets Emilia. The loser gets death. (I’m not even going to to try to touch how they think they can put up a woman like a trophy. That’s, well, yeah.) 

But Palamon and Arcite’s bickering. It sounds like Niles and Frasier Crane competing over a spot in Seattle’s Empire Club – no, no, I will not admit defeat!

***

In my household, we’ve scrapped all that courtly love chivalry: We’re both knights. Actually, she’s probably more like the knight and I, a less-than-deal princess. But hey, I cook, I clean, I launder, I shine the armor.

I wouldn’t want to humiliate the bride on her wedding day.

When it comes to one topic though, the gauntlet is thrown: Which show had a greater cultural impact, Seinfeld vs. Frasier?

“You are mad,” you might say. In fact, I do.

Obviously, the answer is Seinfeld.

Of course she can like Frasier better; after all, de gustibus non est disputandum (not that she’s ever actually spent any serious time with the competitor.) But claiming Frasier had a great impact on culture writ large? Her evidence: Frasier had more seasons, the dog, Marty, Frasier and Niles’ vocabulary. “Marty.” Pshaw. No soup for you. Man hands. I was in the pool! Even if you don’t know Seinfeld, you know those phrases. That alone wins my case.

But no.

Double dates. Family outings. July Fourth barbecues. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas. No matter the event, no matter the gathering, no matter company:

“…Can these two live, / And have the agony of love about ‘em, / And not kill one another?” an observer, like Theseus, worries (3.6.218-20). “What a mere child is fancy, / That having two fair gauds of equal sweetness, / Cannot distinguish, but must cry for both!” another, undecided between her two wooers like Emilia, despairs (4.2.52-54). 

Good thing we didn’t do a Seinfeld vs. Frasier quiz at our wedding like my wife suggested. For one thing, Frasier would have lost, and I wouldn’t want to humiliate the bride on her wedding day. The chevalier cannot back down from a challenge.

But I should be careful. Arcite wins the tournament, but just as Palamon is on the chopping block, we learn that he falls off his horse and soon after dies.

So, every now and again, I do the chivalrous thing. She keeps a few seasons – seasons, mind you – on her iCloud. Having seen the whole show so many times, it’s like white noise that helps her fall asleep. But if she really can’t fall asleep, I lay aside my jousting lance and watch a few episodes with her. Which reminds of that one episode when Niles tries to – no, no, “I’ll be cut a-pieces / Before I take this oath – forget I love her?” (3.6.256-7).

Fighting stances: The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Stand up and be a man – or at least try not to trip.

The kid kicked at my shoes but I didn’t fall.

“That’s fine,” I answered without losing my brisk pace. But he – and three or four other friends, I didn’t really slow down to take count – kept up.

That’s fine,” he parroted in a mock American accent. “Take a look at this Yank,” he aped my determined gait.

I responded with something about how I had moved to Dublin months ago. I’m not quite sure what the intended effect of this was. Perhaps to ease some larger territoriality I perceived, to lend myself some street cred? I was a bit disoriented. This stretch of the busy road up from the stadium, which my brother and I had left a little early to beat the crowds before the football match let out, had taken a darker and quieter turn. I had noticed the teenaged boys, mostly track-suited and probably a bit drunk, swaggering their way ahead of me, but I was surprised when I had somehow walked right into their ruckusing.

I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

The kid continued his blustery taunts, which I was now ignoring, when my ear suddenly stung and rang. Swiftly and sharply, and with a cocky little jump completely superfluous to the delivery of his blow, he had boxed the side of my head just as the road bent back towards more traffic and light.

They took off down a side street. I looked back. My brother, who had been some steps behind when the boys swarmed around me, planted himself at the intersection and stared down their fleeing backs. 

“This is what they want, man. It’s not worth it. Let’s go,” I waved him along. “They’ll get what’s coming to when they find out where this kind of shit takes them in life.”

We headed towards a pub just ahead. “And don’t tell my wife,” I added.

At the moment, I had meant that I didn’t want her worrying she’d be unsafe walking Dublin’s streets, as she does regularly by herself. But since reading Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, in all of its complicated portrait of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

***

“You shames of Rome!” Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, curses his fellow soldiers as they retreat from their Volscian foes:

You herd of–boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! (1.5.2-7)

Coriolanus beats back the Volsci as they pour out of the gates of their town, but he, and he alone, gets shut in. Coriolanus, valiant Coriolanus, takes them on and forces his rival, Aufidius, into retreat once more.

“Rome must know the value of her own,” the general Cominius publicly celebrates Coriolanus when returns to Rome, all the more heroic for his fresh battle wounds (1.10.20-21).

For the ancient Romans, Coriolanus – the courageous warrior, steadfast in his defense of home and country – was a proper man. And this made him virtuous, a word which literally derives from the Latin for “man.” As Cominius again boasts of his great solider: “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver. If it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised” (2.2.79-83).

***

I am no Coriolanus.

As much as I like to imagine we – as men, as a society – have outgrown the self-measure of muscles and might, that dialogue overpowers deltoids, some primal, primate urge to flex and fight, to prove and prevail, is still strong in our sinews.

Or at least some of our sinews.

As much as I like to imagine we value, as I do, the modern model of a refined , enlightened, and reasoning masculinity, I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

And what stings, I think, isn’t any blow. It isn’t being singled out or picked on. And it’s not even the fact that I didn’t tell the kids off or take them on in some Coriolanian charge. This doesn’t bruise my manhood.   

What stings, or maybe what confuses me as I think about the incident and Coriolanus, is that I didn’t even feel the urge to – to posture, to stand the corner, as did my brother, and watch the little hoodlums diminish in the distance.

Does this make me somehow weaker? Somehow less? Do I lack some fundamental, inner quality or character? Would I run in the face of some real assault? Would I not come to others’ protection – of my friends, of my family, of my wife?

The kid kicked my shoes and I didn’t fall. But, in causing me to question my sense of virtue or manliness – even just in those small moments when the image of my brother standing the corner under the jaundiced streetlights flashes in my mind or when I picture an undeterred Coriolanus locked in behind the enemy gates – it did trip up my ego.

Just a bit. Surely only just a bit.

***

Coriolanus doesn’t get tested on the battlefield, but does get tested in the forum.

For all his guts and glory, Coriolanus is also a patrician who utterly despises the plebeians, who think, as one puts it, Coriolanus has “grown too proud to be so valiant” (1.2.249-50). So proud, in fact, that after the Senate (themselves patricians) put him up for consul, Coriolanus refuses to ask, even in feigned humility, for the votes of the commoners. They had just earned political representation, in the form of tribunes, after rising up over concerns the nobility was cheating them out of grain.

“Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve,” Coriolanus digs in (2.3.103-4). He sheds his own blood for his country: Why should he have to deign for their votes?

Coriolanus is winning the support of the citizenry until the tribunes press him on his grain policy. Ever short-tempered, he loses his cool and lets them know how he really feels (though some see a kind of virtue in his unwillingness to play politics, to refuse to be untrue to himself, for all his pride):

For the mutable rank-scented meinie,
Let them regard me, as I do not flatter,
And therein behold themselves as I say again,
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst the Senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered
By mingling them with us, the honoured number
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars. (3.1.70-78)

Fearing the end of their influence, the tribunes conspire to stop Coriolanus by charging tyranny. Coriolanus barely escapes execution for exile, and in it, allies himself with his nemesis, Aufidius. They start a siege of Rome until Coriolanus’ mother changes her son’s hard heart: “That man was noble, / But with his last attempt he wiped it out,” she imagines posterity will say of him in her forceful plea (5.3.146-47). But just as he leads a charge to protect Rome, Aufidius, already planning to cross him, stabs him dead.     

***

I might have some Coriolanus in my chest – er, ego – after all.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I remember my brother had said over the pints. “They’ll go nowhere in life acting the way they do.”

Can I say that my justification for my virtue is actually noble?

This was validating. To me as a younger brother, as a man, as a person who prides himself as committed to the virtue of nonviolence. But when I really listened to my own words said back to me, I also wondered: Can I say, if I’m honest with myself, that my justification for my virtue is actually noble – or, should I say, isn’t entirely too noble?

Can I say I didn’t think, at least on some subconscious, self-defensive level, that the kids were probably lower class, poorly educated, lacked self-control and constructive outlets, impressed each other with displays of machismo prized in some more primitive value system, were angry at their prospects in life and took it out on others in small, petty, and random acts of violence, feeling as if this was the only power they could exert over their lives, their world?

These thoughts, too, are the posturing of a masculinity, a display of power.

And I can’t say I didn’t think it. Even if just a bit.

Unlike Coriolanus, I didn’t say it aloud. Unlike Coriolanus, I struggle even to fully admit it. There may yet be a cowardice in that, but it probably spared it me a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

Exeunt with bodies: Titus Andronicus 

The stage directions alone in this play are shockingly violent. But the real horror may be in what’s not staged.

The late afternoon sun washed the Italian cypresses and eucalyptus trees in gold. A light wind made a lazy melody in the chimes. From a neighboring yard somewhere over the rolling, low-desert hills, a horse occasionally neighed. Except for the dogs, twitching their ears at far-off stirrings in their half-asleep sunning, no one else was home. I topped off my glass of a big red from a local vineyard. My in-laws’ Southern Californian porch was a perfectly peaceful place for “Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Ritual butchery. Mother-son cannibalism,” as my Norton Shakespeare introduces it.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a most violent play.

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