Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746
The travelers have drawn straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight draws the shortest straw and graciously launches the entertainment with his tale.
Part One: In ancient times there was a famous conquering duke named Theseus who was lord of Athens. As the story opens, Theseus has just conquered the Amazons and married their queen, Hipppolyta. Returning victorious to Athens, the Duke is accosted by a group of grieving widows begging for his help. These noblewomen are all former residents of Thebes; their husbands have been killed in battle with the victorious King Creon who has forbidden the women to bury their dead and who has piled the bodies of their husbands in a heap for the dogs to devour. Theseus is touched by their plea for help and filled with hatred for Creon. Theseus immediately abandons the victory parade and takes his army to Thebes to destroy the wicked Creon. He sends Hippolyta and her beautiful sister, Emily, back to Athens.
Theseus encounters Creon, kills him in knightly fashion, destroys the city of Thebes, and restores the bodies of their slain husbands to the widows. When his troops begin to pillage the bodies of the slain enemy, they find among the dead two badly wounded young knights, Arcite and Palamon. They are known to be of the royal house of Thebes and are taken to Theseus for judgment. Theseus sends the two youths to Athens to be imprisoned there for the rest of their lives with no possibility of ransom or release.
Some years pass with the two imprisoned in anguish and woe. Then one spring morning Palamon rises early and spies the gorgeous sister of Queen Hippolyta walking in the garden below. He falls instantly in love. As Palamon moans with passion, his cousin Arcite awakens and also glimpses Lady Emily walking in the garden. Arcite, too, is instantly smitten.
The two young men quarrel, Palamon claiming to have the greater right to love Emily since he saw her first; and Arcite countering with the ancient argument that his right was as great as Palamon's since all is fair in love and war. However, the argument stalemates when the two realize that their imprisonment prevents either of them from acting on their lust. When Perotheus, a friend of Theseus', comes to visit, he persuades Theseus to release Arcite from prison. The only condition of Arcite's freedom is that he must never return to any land ruled by Duke Theseus on pain of instant death. To this condition Arcite assents.
Part Two: Arcite travels back to Thebes, but he never knows a moment's peace. His intense love for Emily torments him. He neither eats nor sleeps for two years, and becomes thin and pale and weak-almost unrecognizable as he pines for his love.
One night Arcite dreams that Mercury, winged god, is with him, commanding him to be happy. Mercury tells Arcite to go to Athens where his grief will end. Arcite determines to do exactly as he has been ordered in the dream. Glancing into a mirror, he notes for the first time the enormous change in his appearance. It occurs to him that no one in Athens will recognize him now, he is so changed.
As Arcite expects, he is not recognized in Athens and is immediately able to obtain a minor position in Emily's household where he can see her every day. Here, he is known as Philostrate and becomes well-known for his hard work and courtesy. In fact, Philostrate (Arcite) becomes so beloved that Theseus promotes him to become a squire in the Duke's own chamber. Arcite spends four or five years in this manner.
During the seven years since Arcite's release, Palamon has suffered his love alone in prison. In May of the seventh year, Palamon, with the help of a friend, drugs a guard and breaks out of prison. Palamon plans to hide all day in a grove of trees and start for Thebes at nightfall. In Thebes, he hopes to raise an army to make war against Theseus. In this way, he would either win Emily's hand or be killed in the attempt.
By chance, Arcite rises early that same day and wanders into the same grove where Palamon is hiding. As Arcite sings and laments aloud for love of Emily, Palamon overhears him and reveals himself to Arcite. The two renew their feud. Arcite, the honorable knight, agrees to supply battle equipment for both of them. They will fight to the death the next day, resolving forever which of them will claim the beautiful Emily.
The next morning, both fully armed, Palamon and Arcite begin to fight madly. However, Destiny intervenes, sending Theseus, Emily, and Hippolyta to hunt the stag in the same grove where the rival lovers fight. When Theseus discovers the identities of the two warriors, he swears to execute them both.
However, Hippolyta is so touched by the enormous love the young men bear her sister that she prevails upon Theseus to soften his heart and understand the power of their love. Theseus relents and agrees to allow both men to be free for one year. During that time he will prepare an arena and arrange for a knightly tournament. Palamon and Arcite are to spend the intervening year recruiting 100 knights each to face each other in the tournament, the outcome of which will decide which man wins Emily's hand in marriage.
Part Three: Theseus builds a fabulous theater, a mile in circumference, for the tournament. He erects three temples on the grounds: one to Venus, the goddess of love; one to Mars, the god of war; and a third to Diana, goddess of the hunt and of maidens.
At the end of the year, both Arcite and Palamon return to Athens, each with 100 distinguished knights. Just before the battle, Arcite, Palamon, and Emily each worship at the shrine of his particular patron. Palamon prays at the temple of Venus and receives a sign that his wish will be granted. Before the shrine of Diana, Emily prays that she may be allowed to remain a virgin, but Diana appears and tells Emily that all the gods have decided that she must marry one of the lovelorn young men. Arcite worships at the shrine to Mars who gives him a sign that he will be victorious.
Inevitably, war breaks out among the gods once these conflicting promises are given. Jupiter intervenes and Saturn promises Venus that Palamon shall win Emily's hand.
Part Four: Before the tournament begins, Theseus decrees that no deadly weapon may be used in the tournament. The contest must be decided by force alone, for he will permit no deaths among so noble a company. Furthermore, if one leader is captured by the opposing force, the rival will immediately be declared the victor.
Toward sundown, Palamon is wounded and captured. Arcite is declared the winner. Venus is infuriated by this victory of Mars, so Pluto makes the earth erupt where Arcite sits in victory. Arcite is thrown from his horse and grievously injured. Within a few days, Arcite dies of his wounds, on his deathbed making peace with his cousin Palamon. A fabulous funeral is held to honor the slain lover; an extended period of mourning followed.
When the period of mourning was concluded, Theseus sends for Palamon and Emily. After a discourse in which he explains that the noble death of Arcite fulfilled the will of the great god Jupiter, Theseus prevails upon Emily to look with favor upon Palamon's years of devotion. The two are finally married and live in love and harmony all the rest of their days.
Discussion and Analysis
In keeping with medieval custom, it is fitting that the Knight should tell the first tale as he is the highest ranking member of the company socially. He graciously accepts the shortest straw with chivalrous courtesy.
The Knight's Tale is an almost perfect example of a romance, containing nearly all the features characteristic of this form of narrative. First, the theme of the tale intertwines ideal love with chivalrous conduct. Both young men fall passionately in love with Emily, but their love is inspired by her perfect beauty and later by her virtue; their love has no hint of sensuality. Furthermore, all of the characters deal with one another in a manner completely chivalrous and honorable. The conflict between Arcite and Palamon arises only when Arcite betrays an oath to Palamon, continuing to declare his love for the same woman to whom Palamon has pledged eternal love. This choice was disloyal in a knight's code of conduct, but it is the only time any of the characters depart from the courtly ideal.
Secondly, the story is set in the romantic long ago, another characteristic of the romance. Although it is an obvious anachronism, these medieval knights act out their drama in ancient Greece where the mythic, pagan element enters the tale and takes control of the outcome. Venus, Mars, and Diana war with one another so that the characters become their pawns in a struggle among the gods. Destiny also plays an enormous part in this pagan setting. It is only by chance, or destiny, that the young cousins are found alive on the battlefield; it is by chance that they both glimpse Emily and fall in love with her at almost the same moment. Arcite and Palamon also meet in the grove of trees by chance. Destiny decrees that Theseus ride into that exact spot and prevent the two from murdering each other.
Finally, the wisdom and justice of the authority figure, Theseus; the long and dramatic struggle to win the hand of the beloved; and the settling of the quarrel through a test of combat are further features which distinguish The Knight's Tale as a romance.
Chaucer's enormous acquaintance with all of medieval literature is particularly evident in The Knight's Tale. It is based on Boccaccio's Teseide, however, Chaucer cut a great deal of the story and adapted its character to suit medieval times. At many points in the story, particularly in places where the characters speculate on questions relating to the nature of good and evil, the author has inserted speeches from Boethius' The Consolations of Philosophy. The use of Greek mythology has already been noted. These examples are good evidence of Geoffrey Chaucer's particular brilliance-his ability to meld disparate elements into stories with a quality of newness and uniqueness.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support