The Canterbury Tales 2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis
by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Canterbury Tales Study Guide

Subscribe Now

2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 1,746 words.)