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...
(The entire section is 2,657 words.)