(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

While Aegeus is king of Athens, the women of Scythia rebel against the men and elect Hippolyta queen. Theseus proposes to purge this sin and set sail with an army to fight the Amazons. When Theseus attacks the fortress of Queen Hippolyta, he receives a message from her saying that he should desist or he will be driven away. He in turn tells her that she must surrender or die. Hippolyta decides to surrender under a pact whereby she becomes Theseus’s bride. After the wedding, Theseus is struck by the beauty of Hippolyta’s sister Emilia.

Two years later, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia sail to Athens. On his return Theseus learns that Creon attacked Thebes and, hating the Greeks, prohibited the burial of the dead Thebans. Theseus vows to defeat Creon so that the dead men of the weeping Athenian women can have a proper burial. Theseus and his men follow the women to the scene of battle and confront Creon. After the warriors challenge one another, the two armies fight. During the battle Theseus encounters Creon and kills him. Creon’s men flee to the mountains. Theseus then tells the women to collect the bodies of their men and burn them in proper ceremony.

Meanwhile, some Athenian soldiers find two wounded youths of Creon’s army, Palaemon and Arcites, whose armor shows them to be of royal blood. When they are brought before Theseus, he has them taken as prisoners back to Athens. Several days after his triumphant return to Athens, Theseus summons Palaemon and Arcites and sentences them to eternal imprisonment in the palace, where, because of their station, they will be treated well.

On a day in the following spring, as Arcites is opening the window of his prison chamber, he sees Emilia in the garden below. He is so overwhelmed by her beauty that he believes her to be Venus. Arcites summons Palaemon; both immediately acknowledge their love for her. Emilia hears them and leaves, but every morning she returns and, because of her vanity, sings in the garden below their window. Each day the youths become more in love with her. In the autumn, however, she ceases her morning stroll, and Palaemon and Arcites become desperate.

At that time Theseus is visited by his friend Peirithous. When Theseus mentions his two prisoners to Peirithous, the visitor asks to see them. Peirithous, recognizing Arcites as an old friend, requests that Theseus release him. Arcites leaves Athens with great sadness, for he does not wish to leave his companion Palaemon in prison, nor does he want to lose his opportunity of seeing Emilia. Palaemon believes that Arcites is fortunate in being able to travel and alleviate his pain while he is forced to be confined.

Later, calling himself Pentheus, Arcites returns to Athens in disguise. He manages to obtain a position with Theseus and becomes his favorite servant. He is not able to keep his identity secret from Emilia, but she does not reveal what she knows and he is able to contain his desire for her by sleeping in a field three miles from the city. There he prays each night to Venus to...

(The entire section is 1251 words.)