Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
Theseus (THEE-see-uhs), the political ruler of Athens. The episodes in which Theseus is the primary actor are limited to books 1 and 2, in which he goes to war. He marches first against the Amazons in Scythia and then Creon in Thebes. In both instances, he proceeds with the confidence of self-righteousness in his mission against indignities and inhumanities that others had suffered. He demonstrates against Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, that he enjoys the power to subdue her forces regardless of how valiantly they fight. To Creon, he proves that cruel tyranny can never endure the sword of one in favor of the gods. These two episodes establish Theseus as an ideal model of the chivalric knight of the Middle Ages, one who exhibits a combination of personal valor earned in military battle and beneficent wisdom granted toward his enemies. Throughout the remainder of the epic, Theseus serves as the standard of honorable behavior by which to judge the actions of the other figures, and he presides over the unfolding of subsequent episodes involving those others.
Arcites, a former enemy of Theseus who fights at Thebes and is taken prisoner. He is one of the two principal antagonists. Arcites is a noble youth who proves his personal valor in military battle at Thebes. As a captured enemy, he is returned to Athens and imprisoned, where he first sees and falls in love with Emilia. The majority of the epic revolves around his quest to win her against similar designs by Palaemon, his competitor as a suitor. Their subsequent contests with each other symbolize conflict between reason and passion. Arcites, owing tribute to Mars, the god of war and personal mental straightness, represents reason. He seeks to contain the competition with his friend within the bounds of civility. He wins the joust to determine who should marry Emilia but is mortally wounded.
Palaemon (PAL-uh-mon), another soldier who fights against Theseus at Thebes and is captured. He also proves his personal qualities on the battlefield of Thebes. He endures prison alongside Arcites and even longer. He is able to escape, but rather than flee the country, he seeks out Arcites in order to fight for Emilia, with whom he, too, has fallen in love. In the ensuing contests, he represents passion. Venus, the goddess of love and sensual appetite, is the one to whom he prays for support. His quest for Emilia’s heart is more obsessive than Arcites’, though no deeper in intensity. He loses the joust with his friend, but with Arcites mortally wounded, he follows Arcites’ expressed wish that he should marry Emilia.
Emilia, the daughter of Hippolyta. Upon Theseus’ conquering of her realm and marriage of her mother, she journeys to Athens with them. While living there, she attracts the interest of Arcites and Palaemon, both of whom fall in love with her. For most of the epic, she serves as the object of their desire and motive for their actions. Arcites and Palaemon, each in his own way, seek to win her heart. Emilia reflects the typical woman of romance epics. Her identity comes in alliance with male characters; she has very little voice of her own as either a figure in the story or through narration. For example, she is unable to form a preference for whom she might desire as a husband. She is won by Arcites but, because of his mortal wounds, marries Palaemon.
Hippolyta (hih-POL-ih-tuh), queen of the Amazons. Chosen as leader by her people, she demonstrates her personal courage in battling Theseus. She also allows her reason to take precedence over her passions by deciding to surrender and to trust Theseus’ good intentions rather than to continue the contest beyond the point of hope for victory. She marries Theseus.
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