The Knight's Tale deals principally with the quest for love and its power. Throughout the narration, the reader is made acutely aware of the fact that the quest for true love knows no bounds. Such love transcends even the bonds of family, comradeship, honor and duty, as exemplified by the actions and expressed sentiments of the two lead characters, Palamon and Arcite.
The two unfortunate knights are imprisoned by Theseus with no hope for ransom or of ever being released. The two almost simultaneously fall in love with the beautiful Emily, a force of nature and sister of Theseus's wife, Hippolyte, when they see her gathering flowers in a garden near their prison tower.
Both claim to have a first right to her and see the other's claim as a betrayal. Their squabble essentially results in a declaration of lifelong enmity for each other. Their mutual desire for Emily drives them to reject and denounce all association with one another, be it familial or otherwise, as the following excerpt, articulated by Arcite, illustrates:
"...It's each man for himself and not another.
Love if you like, I love and always will,
And truly, brother, that is that. Be still;
Here in this prison we must not succumb
But each take his own chances as they come."
All the events following this incident, to the end of the tale, focus on each character's attempts to gain Emily's love. Their feud culminates in a battle, with the rules set down by Theseus. Whoever is the victor would gain Emily's hand. Ironically, though, no one really loses in the end--each of the three principal characters' prayers are answered.
The setting of the story is medieval, that is, a period of about one thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire (about 500 AD) up to the beginning of the Renaissance late in the fifteenth century. It is also generally referred to as the Middle Ages. It was a period in which the concept of chivalry, a code of conduct associated with knights, enjoyed great popularity.
The story itself is mostly set in Athens where the majority of the action plays out, and partly in Thebes, where Theseus defeated Creon, the city to which both Palamon and Arcite returned to to gather a hundred troops in preparation for their battle to gain Emily's hand.