One of Shakespeare’s last plays: a comedy about cousins valiantly battling for their native city and the pursuit of a hand in marriage.
On the day planned for his wedding to Hippolyta, Duke Theseus of Athens is petitioned by three queens to go to war against King Creon of Thebes, who has deprived their dead husbands of proper burial rites. In Thebes, the 'two noble kinsmen', cousins Palamon and Arcite, realise that their own hatred of Creon's tyranny must be put aside while their native city is in danger, but in spite of their valour in battle it is Theseus who is victorious.
Love at first sight
Imprisoned in Athens, the cousins catch sight of Hippolyta's sister, Emilia, and both fall instantly in love with her. Arcite is set free, but disguises himself rather than return to Thebes, while Palamon escapes with the help of the Jailer's Daughter, who loves him. Meeting each other, the kinsmen agree that mortal combat between them must decide who gets to marry Emilia, but they are discovered by Theseus. Theseus is persuaded to revoke his sentence of death and instead orders that a tournament shall decide which cousin is to be married to the indecisive Emilia and which is to lose his head.
Stop reading now if you don't want to know the end of the story ...
The Jailer's Daughter has been driven mad by unrequited love, but in an attempt to restore her mental health, is persuaded by her father to believe her former suitor is Palamon, and is won over by his devotion.
Before the tournament Arcite makes a lengthy invocation to Mars, while Palamon prays to Venus and Emilia to Diana – for victory to go to the man who loves her most. Although Arcite triumphs in the fight, he is thrown from his horse before the death sentence on Palamon can be carried out, and with his last breath offers his blessing for Emilia to marry his friend.