Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler, now resident in the court of Kublai Khan. Marco is one of many emissaries reporting to Kublai, serving him by helping him to understand the subjects of his vast empire. At first, not knowing the Tartar language, Marco communicates with Kublai by means of gestures and pantomime, sometimes resorting to displaying objects to suggest narratives and descriptions. Once he has learned Tartar, Marco speaks, but, accustomed to the early emblematic communications, Kublai prefers to mix speech with pantomime. A sort of “mute commentary” is created when the two of them sit silently immobile, in private meditation, each imagining what the other is asking or saying. Regardless of idiom, Marco insists that all the cities he describes exist only as he has perceived them and that all communication is an act of creation. The emphasis placed on the perceiver applies equally to Kublai’s act of listening. As Marco explains, “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.” Marco’s insistence on this theory has the effect of arousing suspicion in Kublai and creates the principal dramatic tension of the story.
Kublai Khan, the Tartar emperor. As a listener to Marco’s fantastic descriptions, Kublai is impatient and becomes progressively more domineering. Kublai’s interest in the stories is motivated by his determination to possess his empire one day, which he believes he cannot do without knowing and understanding it. He thus hopes for patterns in Marco’s descriptions, so that, without knowing every city, he can comprehend the empire. At Marco’s claim that none of this is possible, Kublai shows his impatience with varying degrees of intensity: by demanding that Marco describe the cities simply and directly; by physically attacking Marco and accusing him of representing only dreams and moods; and, in occasional desperate attempts, by himself describing cities and asking Marco whether they exist. When Kublai decides to have Marco cease traveling to play chess with him, to deduce cities from configurations of the chessboard, Marco overwhelms Kublai by pointing out the infinite possibilities and suggestions in the very woods of which the board is made. Such exchanges depict Kublai as desperate in his desire for unambiguous realities and as ultimately defeated by Marco’s persistent uncertainties.