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 unfolding of its various episodes. Books 1 and 2 establish Theseus as an ideal medieval knight. Twice he resolves to sacrifice himself in order to right a perceived wrong by marching off to war. In ensuing battles, he proves his soldierly competence, and afterward he demonstrates his generosity and wisdom. Readers might judge the other figures by his image.
The action of The Book of Theseus centers on the relationship between Arcites and Palaemon. Having proven their noble origins and knightly valor in book 2, they then individually seek the love of Emilia. Even though they compete directly for her and each attempts to defeat the other physically—even to death—they both also show concern and sympathy for each other. Arcites chooses not to slay Palaemon in the heat of battle while Palaemon lies unconscious, and Palaemon tends to Arcites’ wounds after the tournament. The most poignant episode of their story occurs when Arcites, mortally wounded, wishes that his new bride, Emilia, should next marry Palaemon, and Palaemon resolves to follow through on Arcites’ wish more out of love for him than for love of Emilia.
The Book of Theseus is much more than a simple story of two knights striving for the love of a lady. The travails of Arcites and Palaemon are an allegory for the tension between reason and passion. Arcites repeatedly offers prayers to Mars, the god of war. Palaemon is aided by Venus, the goddess of love and sexual appetite. Mars and Venus are participants in the action, and they are equal in degree to Arcites and Palaemon. They compete between themselves and at times involve themselves directly in the action of the human players. The two young men are their proxies, literally and metaphorically, as two competing impulses in human nature.
Emilia and Hippolyta demonstrate a traditional role for women in medieval romance epics; they also reflect medieval society’s perspective on women. Both are major figures in the tale: Hippolyta is queen of the self-governing Amazons, and Emilia is the object of the desires of the two principal antagonists. Both women also serve the literary purposes of their corresponding male figures rather than having their own purposes. Hippolyta is the occasion for an illustration of Theseus’s military skill, personal courage, and gentle benevolence. Emilia likewise exists to serve the literary purposes of male figures. Early in her youth (and in the work), she becomes aware of Arcites’ and Palaemon’s admiration of her beauty, but she never exhibits a voice of her own in their competition for her love. Theseus, with the full agreement of the two young men, declares that she will be the prize to the victor in their tournament. Emilia does not resist this plan, and she does not even reveal any preference between the two men.
Reflecting a familiarity with classical literature (from antiquity), Boccaccio uses the ancient Roman author Statius as an inspirational model. Boccaccio adapts the tale, according to his own words in the work, from the Byzantine (medieval Greek) heritage. Ancient epics were popular throughout the Middle Ages. Boccaccio frequently mentions stories and characters from ancient history and mythology. These references would have been readily recognized by Boccaccio’s contemporaries. A modern reader may find these references esoteric, but they reinforce the story and increase its impact for readers.
According to Boccaccio’s own words within The Book of Theseus, he intended this as a major epic to bolster the vernacular and culture of Italians. The Book of Theseus is narrative and epical, and the tale is entertaining, yet it did not achieve the renown for which Boccaccio hoped. A crucial reason was its lack of a distinctly Italian nature. The setting and the characters are, after all, Grecian.