Critical consensus holds that most of Act V (except for the second scene) is Shakespeare again (Bloom 694). Theseus calls in the combatants for them to "Tender their holy prayers" (V.i.2), and the kinsmen exchange honorable exclamations. Arcite admits, "I am in labor / To push your name, your ancient love, our kindred, / Out of my memory; and i' th' self-same place / To seat something I would confound" (V.i.25-28). After a final embrace, Arcite prays to Mars and has his knights kneel before Mars' altar. They hear military noises such as the clanging of armor, suggesting that the war-god has heard them. Dating assumptions connect Shakespeare's apparent disgust with the London of James I (Bloom 707) rather than the earlier court:
O great corrector of enormous times,Palamon and his knights pray to Venus: "Our argument is love" (V.i.70). A litany of Venus' powers includes "that mayst force the king / To be his subject's vassal" (V.i.83-84). Palamon emphasizes age differentials between men and women as an extreme sign of Venus' influence. This address to Venus -- "so painful and so personal" -- has been considered "beyond irony" and a "negatively sublime coda to Shakespeare's quarter century of dramatic poetry" (Bloom 710).
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' plurisy of people! I do take
Thy signs auspiciously....
The terrible power of Venus is described here almost entirely in grotesque and catastrophic images, and yet Venus is being absolved of victimizing us, even as our wretchedness is so memorably portrayed. (Bloom 710)Palamon gets music and doves for his divine response.
Emilia prays to Diana: "O sacred, shadowy, cold, and constant queen" (V.i.137). Unlike Chaucer's Emelye who wants to take a vow of chastity, Shakespeare's Emilia cringes at the loss of noble lives and asks that "He of the two pretenders that best loves me / And has the truest title in't, let him / Take off my wheaten garland," or else, as an afterthought, that she be allowed to "Continue in thy band" (V.i.158-162). A hind disappears under the altar, and a rose tree grows with a single rose on it. Emilia takes this to mean she will be able to remain a virgin, "unpluck'd" (V.i.168). Then the rose falls off.
The Doctor questions the Wooer about the Jailer's Daughter, who does seem to be falling for the Palamon impersonation. The Doctor insists, even more sleazily than before, that the Wooer grant the Daughter all her love wishes: more kisses, and "Lie with her, if she ask you." "Ho there, doctor!" exclaims the Jailer (V.ii.18). The Doctor sneers at the Jailer's concern for her "honesty." The Daughter enters, ranting about horse-lovers and including allusions to Much Ado About Nothing: "the tune of 'Light a' love'" (V.ii.54; cp. Much Ado III.iv.44), "She is horribly in love with him" (V.ii.62; cp. Much Ado II.iii.235), (cf. V.ii.43, 71). She still expects daddy to be hanged in the perpetual "to-morrow" (V.ii.80). Another vague Much Ado echoing occurs when the Wooer dismisses the Daughter's fashion poverty: "That's all one, I will have you.... Yes, by this fair hand" (V.ii.85-86; cp. Much Ado V.iv.91-92). The Daughter cheers up at the prospect of her wedding with the faux "Palamon."
A messenger announces glorious doings on the field. Off go these commoners, the Wooer and Daughter soon to marry.
Van Doren again detects not Shakespeare but "imitation" (esp. V.iii.4-6), as in the first scene of Act III (Van Doren 292). Here, Emilia refuses to attend the tournament, even though Theseus explains that "You must be present, / You are the victor's meed, the price and garland / To crown the question's title" (V.iii.15-17). He calls her also "The only star to shine," but she says, "I am extinct" (V.iii.20). Theseus then says, "of this war, / You are the treasure, and must needs be by / To give the service pay" (V.iii.30-32). But Emilia is adamant. She stays behind and, after reflecting on the two kinsmen's faces, receives updates on the tournament. Just as Palamon was winning, Arcite proves victorious. "The combat's consummation is proclaim'd / By the wind instruments" (V.iii.94-95) -- two bassoons? Arcite presents his victorious self to Emilia: "To buy you I have lost what's dearest to me / Save what is bought, and yet I purchase cheaply, / As I do rate your value" (V.iii.112-114). Palamon and his knights of course must be imprisoned and executed. "Is this winning?" asks Emilia (V.iii.138). Hippolyta also thinks it's a darn shame.
It's not like forty years have passed since the last scene, so Palamon's prison soliloquy comes rather out of the blue:
There's many a man alive that hath outliv'dThis certainly feels autobiographical to me, and suggests an older Oxford.
The love o' th' people, yea, i' th' self-same state
Stands many a father with his child. Some comfort
We have by so considering: we expire
And not without men's pity; to live still,
Have their good wishes; we prevent
The loathsome misery of age, beguile
The gout and rheum, that in lag hours attend
For grey approachers; we come towards the gods
Young and unwapper'd [unworn], not halting under crimes
Many and stale. (V.iv.1-11)
The Jailer announces his Daughter is fine and engaged to be married. Palamon and his knights all cough up big bucks for her. Just as Palamon is ready to give up his life now -- in a dramatic moment borrowed from Damon and Pithias -- Pirithous enters with new info. After humorously irksome digressions concerning the market value of the black horse Arcite was riding (V.iv.50ff) and the ancient origins of music (V.iv.60f), Pirithous describes the freaked horse's behavior that did "disseat" Arcite (V.iv.72) and threw him on his head. Arcite is brought in for his last words: "Forgive me, cousin. / One kiss from fair Emilia. -- 'Tis done. / Take her. I die" (V.iv.93-95). Theseus eulogizes:
His part is play'd, and though it were too short,"This" is the dead Arcite, carried out before Palamon's final words: "That we should things desire which do cost us / The loss of our desire! that nought could buy / Dear love but loss of dear love!" (V.iv.110-112). Theseus has the last speech, confirming that Arcite confessed Palamon's right to Emilia, having seen her first (V.iv.117)! Palamon will wed Emilia. "Since Shakespeare has emphasized that the heroine's heart is in the grave with the eleven-year-old Flavina, we hardly rejoice at this turn of fortune" (Bloom 712). "A day or two / Let us look sadly" (V.iv.124-125), recommends Theseus. In a final passage (V.iv.131-137), "Theseus seems to have vanished, and Shakespeare himself says goodbye to us forever" (Bloom 713). "Shakespeare's part of The Two Noble Kinsmen might make us doubt that life is anything except sorrows" (Bloom 699). "Let's go off, / And bear us like the time" (V.iv.136-137).
He did it well....
The powerful Venus well hath grac'd her altar,
And given you your love. Our master Mars
Hath vouch'd his oracle, and to Arcite gave
The grace of the contention. So the deities
Have show'd due justice. -- Bear this hence.
"I would now ask ye how ye like the play" (Epi.1). It's not Shakespeare. If this is Fletcher, what an obsequious hack! After some pointless sucking up to the audience, we hear: "If the tale we have told / (For 'tis no other) [Huh?!] any way content ye / (For to that honest purpose it was meant ye), / We have our end" (Epi.12-15). Would that the "real" Theseus from A Midsummer Night's Dream had been given the opportunity to say, "No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse" (MND V.i.355-356).
Here's my guess. Since a Palamon and Arcite was presented before Queen Elizabeth at the Oxford University graduation ceremonies in 1566, when the 17th Earl of Oxford graduated, and since the credited Richard Edwards was also connected with a Damon and Pithius play, and since Edwards would logically have been a mentor for the young Oxford, who maintained sufficient interest in the phenomenon of the two young nobles serving as semi-doppelgangers and, at least in revision, as cardboard figures of farce to have written The Two Gentlemen of Verona, it makes sense that Oxford is responsible for more of this play than most want to give "Shakespeare" credit for.
The Chaucer influence grows supremely subtle later on, so Oxford would have taken up this Knight's Tale plot more directly only when he was young. He could not have helped increasing the aspects of farce in later revision, when these goofy adolescent issues no longer held much interest for him. Traces of the same impulses can be seen in A Midsummer Night's Dream where the young lovers are flat and nearly indistiguishable characters given to rhyming couplets but contained within a more mature and sophisticated framework. That the characters of the subplot in The Two Noble Kinsmen are given no names does suggest another hand, brought in posthumously probably in order to bulk up what was too short for the "two hours" self-consciously mentioned in the Prologue.
Part of the importance of the play, therefore, is that we can track the creative evolution of the playwright: his early thematic interests, his intellectual and compositional re-visioning, his creative arc with Chaucer as his touchstone.