Last Updated on November 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481
Duke Theseus is returning to Athens after his victory against the Amazons with his new wife, Ypolita, the Amazon queen, and her sister, Emelye, when he meets several mourning women. Their husbands have died at Thebes, and the city’s king, Creon, will not allow them burial. Theseus attacks Thebes and rights the wrong. He also takes two Theban prisoners, cousins Arcite and Palamon, whom he condemns to perpetual imprisonment.
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Palamon sees Emelye walking in the garden one May morning and falls immediately in love with her. Arcite, too, spies her with the same result. Rivalry quickly develops, and the cousins are miserable. A friend of Arcite secures his release from prison provided he returns to Thebes and never shows his face in Athens again on pain of death, but now Arcite grieves at losing the sight of Emelye.
Arcite pines so much that his whole appearance changes, and he decides to go back to Athens in disguise to serve in Theseus’s household and be close to Emelye. No one recognizes him, and he rises up through the ranks. Palamon, meanwhile, escapes from prison, and the cousins meet in a grove where they both lament their fate and end up in a violent fight. Theseus, Ypolita, and Emelye come upon them when they are out hunting. Theseus would prefer to execute them both on the spot, but the ladies beg for their lives.
Upon hearing the reason for the conflict, namely, love of Emelye, Theseus decides to hold a tournament. Whoever wins will marry Emelye. Arcite and Palamon have a year to gather their retinues and return to Athens.
During that year, Theseus builds a grand theater for the tournament, complete with elaborate temples to Venus, Mars, and Diana. These temples each vividly exhibit the characteristics and effects of the god or goddess. When Arcite and Palamon return, they are accompanied by grand retinues of knights, including kings. They enter Athens with elaborate pageantry and spectacle. Theseus entertains them well, and the people enjoy the show.
On the morning of the tournament, Palamon prays to Venus, Arcite to Mars, and Emelye to Diana. Palamon and Arcite receive what they interpret as favorable signs. Palamon will win his lady, and Arcite will have victory. Diana tells Emelye that she must marry one of the two men. Saturn intervenes between Venus and Mars.
Theseus declares that no one in the tournament is allowed to deliberately kill another. The tournament proceeds until finally Arcite captures Palamon. He has the victory for which he prayed. But as he rides his victory lap, Saturn frightens the horse, and Arcite is badly injured. He dies after telling his beloved Emelye to marry Palamon. Theseus puts on a grand funeral as all of Athens mourns and in the proper time arranges the marriage of Emelye and Palamon, who live happily together for the rest of their lives.