The Book of Theseus Summary
by Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Book of Theseus Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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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 encourage Emilia to love him. One morning, as Arcites returns to the palace from his abode, one of Palaemon’s servants hears Arcites’ lamentations and discovers his true identity. He returns to the prison and tells Palaemon that Pentheus is actually Arcites. This information enrages Palaemon. He decides to escape and win Emilia by armed force.

With the help of his servant, who intoxicates the guards, Palaemon escapes and goes to an inn. The next morning he arms himself and goes to the place where Arcites sleeps. After professing their love for Emilia, the kinsmen decide that a sword fight will determine who should vie for her hand. They begin to fight savagely.

Theseus and Emilia, who are hunting with some companions, chance to pass the field where the battle is taking place, and Emilia summons Theseus to stop the fight. After Theseus confronts the youths, they inform him of their mutual love for Emilia. Believing that both men are qualified to be her husband, Theseus proposes a battle in the theater to decide who should have her hand. The conditions of the battle are that one year from that day the cousins will each bring one hundred chosen soldiers.

During the next year Arcites and Palaemon pass the time with lavish feasts, hunts, jousts, and finally with preparations for the battle. As the day approaches, great noblemen and warriors come to the city, elaborately dressed and armed. There is one last great feast for all the soldiers and nobility.

On the day before the battle Arcites and Palaemon pray to the gods. Arcites prays to Mars, promising that if he should be made victor, he will give great honor to Mars and his temples. To this plea, Mars gives a sign that the vow was heard. Palaemon, on the other hand, goes to the temple of Cytheraea, where he prays not for victory but for the hand of Emilia, and he, too, receives a sign. Emilia, not wishing harm to either suitor, prays to the goddess Diana, in whose temple she kindles two fires. She asks that the desires of the two lovers be quenched. If she has to accept one, however, she prays that it will be the lover who desires her more. She receives a sign that she will have one of the two, but that the outcome cannot yet be revealed.

The next day the spectators and soldiers gather in the great theater. Arcites and his men enter from the east, Palaemon and his men from the west. At the sound of the third call to battle, the fight begins, with many noblemen wounding one another. The sight of the battlefield wet with blood and so many men dying for her causes Emilia to wish that Theseus had let the two finish the fight in the grove. Shortly, the warriors become tired and perplexed, but Arcites, spurred on by Mars, fights more fiercely than ever, causing Emilia’s affection to turn to him. Arcites, victorious, circles the field with his men.

Venus, who watched the battle with Mars, each concerned for their respective champions, tells Mars that his part is over, for he granted Arcites’ prayer. She then directs Erinys to frighten Arcites’ steed. The horse rears and Arcites falls, mortally wounded. Emilia and Palaemon are grief-stricken at the sight of the dying Arcites. A doctor is summoned and Arcites is carried to the palace and placed on a great bed. There he and Emilia are married by Theseus, and Palaemon is set free. Knowing that he will die with his love unconsummated, Arcites summons Palaemon and tells him that he should take Emilia. Emilia refuses to accept Palaemon. She tells Arcites that she will die a virgin.

After nine days of great suffering, Arcites dies, and Theseus orders a great funeral ceremony for the dead warrior. Later Palaemon has a temple built to Juno to contain Arcites’ ashes. In it are represented all the adventures of Arcites’ life. Emilia’s grief for her dead husband causes her to become sickly, and it is therefore agreed that her lamentation should cease and that she will be wed to Palaemon. Theseus tells them that Arcites lived well and was mourned enough. Palaemon and Emilia are then married. A great feast is held for fifteen days to celebrate their wedding.