Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152
After a witty and informal prologue, the play opens with the wedding procession of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Before the marriage ceremony can begin, the festivities are interrupted by three queens in black who implore Theseus to come to their aid. Their husbands have been slain fighting against Creon, king of Thebes, and Creon will not permit their bodies to receive a decent burial. Theseus sympathizes with the queens but orders that the nuptial ceremonies proceed. When the queens persist in their pleas, Theseus directs an army to be readied to march against Thebes but makes it clear that he intends to go forward with the marriage. The distracted queens, now aided by both Hippolyta and her sister Emilia, finally persuade Theseus to delay his wedding and wedding night and to move against Creon and Thebes immediately. Theseus asks his lifelong friend Pirithous to act on his behalf and see that the ceremony and festivities proceed, takes leave of his bride with a kiss, and departs with the three queens.
In Thebes, Palamon and Arcite, nephews of Creon, resolve to leave Thebes because they cannot tolerate Creon’s cruel tyranny any longer. As they prepare to venture forth on their own, word comes that Theseus is at the gates of Thebes with a mighty army. The cousins, loyal to Thebes if not to Creon, prepare to defend their city against Theseus.
The Athenians are victorious, and Theseus, triumphant, tells the widowed queens that they are free to bury their dead with all due rites and honors. Palamon and Arcite fought bravely, but they have been wounded and captured. As they recover from their wounds in an Athenian prison, they impress the jailer and his daughter with their dignity, grace, and stoic acceptance of their fate: life in prison. The two young men speak eloquently of what their confinement means, of a future without the joys of the hunt or combat, without courtship or marriage, without family. They determine, however, to make their prison a sanctuary remote from the evils that befall men and to be one another’s family, to unite their spirits in love through the years to come.
No sooner have the young cousins pledged undying loyalty to one another than Palamon sees Emilia, Hippolyta’s beautiful sister, walking in the garden below the prison cell. He falls in love with her at first sight, as does Arcite when he too beholds the young beauty. Palamon asserts that, because he saw her first, Arcite must not love her. Arcite responds that Palamon, who called her a goddess, may love her spiritually; Arcite, on the other hand, will love her as a flesh and blood woman.
In the face of their new passion for Emilia, the cousins’ pledge to honor and love one another disintegrates. Palamon rages that, if they were free, he would take Arcite’s life for betraying their friendship and his own honor by loving Emilia. Arcite sees no betrayal in his love for Emilia and defies Palamon; consequently, their relationship is transformed from one of love and loyalty to one of rancor and rivalry.
For unrevealed reasons, Arcite is freed by Theseus and banished from Athens, but he takes no pleasure in his freedom because he imagines that Palamon can still see Emilia whenever she visits the garden. Desperate with longing for the sight of Emilia, Arcite assumes a disguise and returns to Athens. He has the good fortune to arrive just when athletic games are being held in honor of Emilia’s birthday. Arcite wins virtually every contest, conducts himself with humility and grace, and is rewarded by Theseus, who does not recognize him. The king accepts Arcite into his household and designates him to be a serving man to Emilia.
The jailer’s daughter falls madly in love with Palamon and helps him escape. Still manacled, Palamon takes refuge in the forest near Athens. Days later, Arcite—on a spring outing with the court—comes upon the escaped prisoner, who is weak and starving. In spite of Palamon’s continued hostility to him, Arcite returns to the forest the next day with a file for his manacles, food, and drink. Palamon is restored to health, and the two cousins agree to resolve their quarrel with swords.
Arcite steals weapons and armor and returns to engage in mortal combat with Palamon. Theseus and his court are also in the forest hunting, and they receive unexpected entertainment from a group of country folk, who perform a lively dance for them. The jailer’s daughter, now truly mad with grief at what she imagines to be Palamon’s betrayal of her love, is one of the dancers.
Palamon and Arcite arm each other with great courtesy and then struggle violently. Theseus and his party come upon the battling youths, and the king is outraged by their actions; he calls for their immediate execution. In a scene echoing that of the three queens in black, Hippolyta, Emilia, and Pirithous plead with Theseus to be merciful. Reluctantly, he relents and declares that they may live if they renounce their love for Emilia and forget her; both refuse. Theseus then determines that the cousins may go free, but they must return in one month, each accompanied by three knights, and settle their quarrel in the lists. The victor will marry Emilia, and the loser and his companions will be put to death.
As the month passes, the jailer’s daughter grows even madder. Her father, a young suitor for her hand, and a doctor all attempt to restore her sanity. Emilia, meanwhile, has expressed no desire to marry either cousin. In fact, she confides to Hippolyta that she does not believe she can ever love anyone as intensely as she did a young female friend who has died. She has no intention of ever marrying. Emilia stoically accepts her fate, however, and struggles in vain to choose one or the other of her suitors as her favorite.
On the night before the appointed battle, Arcite prays to Mars, the god of war, to give him victory; Palamon invokes Venus, the goddess of love, asking her to give him Emilia; and Emilia asks Diana, goddess of chastity, to bring victory to the youth who loves her best. Ironically, all their prayers are answered: Arcite is victorious but dies during the victory parade in a riding accident. Palamon and his companions are spared execution at the last moment, and he is awarded Emilia. Emilia is thus joined to the man who professed to love her most truly. The joy of the couple’s union is darkened by the death that made it possible, one love achieved at the cost of another. The subplot is resolved in an equally disturbing and murky manner, as the jailer’s daughter, now supposedly recovered, has agreed to marry her young suitor.
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