During the marriage ceremony of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, three widowed queens begged Theseus’ aid. Creon, king of Thebes, had slain their husbands in battle and would not permit their bodies to receive decent burial. Theseus commiserated with the queens, but provided small comfort for their grief when he directed that his nuptial ceremonies be continued. The queens persisting in their pleas, Theseus conceded to the extent of ordering an expeditionary force to be readied to march against Thebes. Not to be denied, the distracted queens finally persuaded him to champion their cause. He appointed Pirithous, an Athenian nobleman, to stand in his place for the remainder of the ceremony, kissed Hippolyta farewell, and led the queens away toward Thebes.
Meanwhile, in Thebes, the cousins Palamon and Arcite, nephews of Creon, found their uncle’s tyranny unbearable and stultifying, and decided to leave Thebes. No sooner had they made this decision then they learned that Thebes was threatened by Theseus. The cousins, loyal to Thebes if not to Creon, deferred their departure in order to serve their city.
When the opposing forces met, Palamon and Arcite fought with great courage, but the Athenians were victorious in the battle. Theseus, triumphant, directed the three widowed queens to bury their dead in peace. Palamon and Arcite, having been wounded and left for dead on the battlefield, were taken by the Athenians. The cousins, healed of their wounds and finding themselves in a prison in Athens, impressed their jailers with their seeming unconcern at being incarcerated. In their cell, however, they sadly bemoaned their fate to each other. Resigned to spending the rest of their lives in prison, they recalled with grief the joys of battle and the hunt, and they grieved at the thought of a future without marriage. Even so, they made some attempt to reconcile themselves to imprisonment by declaring that in their cell they had each other’s excellent company and that they were insulated from the evils that beset free men.
Emilia, Hippolyta’s beautiful sister, entered the prison garden. Palamon saw her and fell in love at once. When Arcite beheld her, he too fell in love. Palamon declared that Arcite must not love her, but Arcite answered that Palamon, who had called her a goddess, might love her spiritually; he, Arcite, would love her in a more earthly manner. Palamon maintained that this goddess they had beheld was his to love because he had seen her first. Arcite, in turn, insisted that he too must love her because of the propinquity of the pair. Palamon, enraged, wished for liberty and weapons so that he and Arcite might decide the issue in mortal combat.
The jailkeeper, on orders, took Arcite to Theseus. Palamon, meanwhile, was filled with despair at the thought that Arcite was now free to win Emilia. The keeper returned to report that Arcite had been sent away from Athens and that Palamon must be moved to a cell in which there were fewer windows. Palamon writhed in the knowledge that Arcite now seemed certain to win the hand of Emilia.
Arcite, banished in the country near Athens, felt no advantage over his cousin. Indeed, he envied Palamon, who he believed could see Emilia every time she visited the prison garden with her maid. Desperate, he assumed a disguise and returned to Athens to participate in athletic games in honor of Emilia’s birthday. Excelling in the games, he admitted that he was of gentle birth; but Theseus did not penetrate his disguise. Theseus, admiring Arcite’s athletic prowess and his modesty, designated him to be a serving-man to Emilia.
In the meantime the daughter of the jailkeeper fell in love with Palamon and effected his escape. In the forest, where the court had gone a-Maying, Arcite came upon the escaped prisoner. In spite of Palamon’s harsh words to him, Arcite promised to supply his cousin with food. Two days later he brought food and drink. When he left, he promised to return the next time with armor and weapons, that the two might decide their quarrel by combat.
Arcite having returned with armor and...
(The entire section is 1705 words.)