Current critical judgment attributes most of this work to John Fletcher, with Shakespeare contributing individual scenes, including parts of Acts I and III, and the bulk of Act V. As such, the play is worth considering briefly for elements that reflect themes and images found in Shakespeare's own works.
The plot of The Two Noble Kinsmen is taken from "The Knight's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales, and includes Theseus and Hippolyta, two characters featured in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The primary tension is between Palamon and Arcite, nephews of Creon, king of Thebes. They are best friends; in Arcite's words, "dearer in love than blood..." (I, ii, 1). And throughout the play they are much alike in action and attitude. The two loathe their, uncle, whom we never see, but who is described unsympathetically in Act I. His refusal to surrender to three queens the bodies of their husbands killed in war starts a conflict between Thebes and Theseus's city, Athens. And under that pressure Arcite and Palamon are moved by patriotism to fight for their city. Thus a primary issue of the play is a conflict between priorities: antagonism to Creon and his ethical posture versus loyalty to Thebes.
In the war the two fight nobly, but they are captured and put in prison, where they again affirm their mutual devotion:
Let's think this prison holy sanctuary
To keep us from corruption of worse men.
We are young and yet desire the ways of honor,
That liberty and common conversation,
The poison of pure spirits, might, like women,
Woo us to wander from.
(II, ii, 71-76)
Arcite's earnestness invites a third party to cause a fissure between the two friends.
That intruder turns out to be Emilia, the sister of Hippolyta, the bride of Theseus. Earlier Emilia had forsworn men, praising instead the loyalty of women