Critical Evaluation

The Book of Theseus is an epic poem composed in Italian and written in stanzas of eight verses (octavos). The poem is divided into twelve cantos or books, the traditional number of books in classical epics. Boccaccio wrote this poem as the first epic in the Italian language, and the poem recounts the deeds of warriors. Boccaccio followed Dante Alighieri, who, a generation earlier with his La divina commedia(c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), established Italian as a legitimate vehicle for literary work of a serious intent, as opposed to the Middle Ages’ established literary language, Latin.

The structure of The Book of Theseus is straightforward. Book 1 explores how Emilia came to be in Athens, and book 2 shows how Arcites and Palaemon arrived there—none of them being a native Athenian. The first six books lead up to the tournament fought between the two rivals for Emilia’s love, and the second six books present the exploits of the contest and its aftermath. The work opens with the events surrounding the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, and it closes with the nuptials of Palaemon and Emilia.

Boccaccio’s work reflects the literary influence of the “sweet new style,” the poetic style popularized by Dante by which the Italian language was advanced as an avenue for the sophisticated expression of an emerging Italian culture. Boccaccio intended the work as a new type of vernacular literature, but much of it also reflects his medieval heritage. The romance epic was a well-established genre. Even though the principal figures of The Book of Theseus are ancient Greeks, they think and behave as medieval knights, demonstrating two medieval literary types. First, they strive for the courtly love of the unobtainable woman. As Arcites explains to Palaemon in book 5, Arcites can never expect to reveal his love for Emilia. Arcites is living in disguise as a servant to Theseus, someone customarily unworthy of Emilia’s noble status. Palaemon, as an escaped prisoner and a former enemy of the Athenians, likewise cannot openly solicit her love. Second, after Arcites’ and Palaemon’s passions for Emilia become known to Theseus, they engage in a medieval joust, a tournament involving them and their soldiers.

Theseus, the ruler of ancient Athens, is the namesake of the work, and he plays an important role. He is the force that moves the tale along, first by bringing all the participants together in Athens and then by supervising the...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)