By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Knight’s Tale’ is the first tale told in Geoffrey Chaucer’s long work The Canterbury Tales. Following his introduction in the General Prologue, the Knight proceeds to tell this tale of romantic rivalry between two friends – a story which would later inspire a Shakespeare play (of which more below).
You can read ‘The Knight’s Tale’ in the original Middle English here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Knight’s Tale’: plot summary
The play is set in pagan (pre-Christian) times. Theseus, the duke of Athens, has just successfully defeated the Amazons, a caste of warrior queens, in battle and brought two of the women, Hippolyta and her sister Emelye, back to Athens with him. He forces Hippolyta to marry him.
No sooner has Theseus returned than he has to go and defeat Creon, the tyrannical ruler of Thebes, who has murdered a number of Theseus’ subjects. Following the conflict, two men, Palamon and Arcite – Creon’s nephews – are recovered from under a pile of corpses, still alive. Theseus orders the two men to be taken back to Athens and imprisoned.
While in prison, Palamon spots Emelye outside his window and immediately falls head over heels in love with her. In his excitement he tells Arcite about her, and Arcite, too, falls for this beautiful woman. The two brothers quarrel over their rivalrous love for a woman neither can have. Both of them lose many nights’ sleep in pining over Emelye and the fact they cannot be close to her.
However, one day Arcite is released from prison, his case having been successfully put to Theseus by Potheus, Theseus’ friend. Arcite rises to a high position at Theseus’ court and grows close to Emelye. Later, Palamon manages to escape from prison and when he bumps into his old love rival, the two brothers decide to fight over Emelye’s hand.
But Theseus catches the two men fighting, but when Emelye and Hippolyta intervene on their behalf he agrees to spare their lives, deciding that they should settle the matter in a more civilised way: through a public tournament. He sends them away, giving them a year to raise troops to rally to their respective causes.
A year later, the two men, along with Emelye, go to the religious temple to pray for the right outcome. Palamon and Arcite both believe the ‘right’ result is for them both to win, which is clearly impossible. Emelye is told by the deities that she will marry someone, but she doesn’t know who.
Venus, the goddess worshipped by Palamon, pleads with the god Saturn for Palamon to be victorious. Arcite wins the tournament, but Saturn intercedes and causes the man to die when his horse stumbles, tossing the man from the saddle. Palamon and Emelye are married, with Palamon becoming the ruler of Thebes, his homeland.
‘The Knight’s Tale’: analysis
Although Chaucer appears to have begun work on The Canterbury Tales in 1387, the text of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ probably predates his conception of that longer work, and is thought to have been composed in the early 1380s. Like a number of Chaucer’s tales, it is a loose adaptation of a work by the Italian writer Boccaccio, although Boccaccio himself was reworking older material (the Thebaid by the Roman author Statius).
The Knight’s tale, as befitting a man of his rank and chivalric reputation, is a noble romance about the world of chivalry: the code of nobility to which knights were expected to adhere. However, neither of the tale’s two male leads, Palamon and Arcite, live up to the chivalric ideal. Their first encounter with Emelye is pure courtly love, with the man (or here, men) admiring the unattainable beautiful woman from afar. As they are literally in prison at the time, Emelye couldn’t be much farther out of their reach.
However, they are prepared to squabble over Emelye and it is only Theseus’ tempering influence – and the fact that they are spared execution thanks to the intervention of the two women – that ‘civilises’ their feud so they settle the matter the ‘proper’ way, via a tournament.
As Lesley A. Coote points out in her informative contextual notes to The Canterbury Tales (Wordsworth Poetry Library) (a cheap and highly useful edition of The Canterbury Tales, with the original text presented in Middle English alongside handy glosses to obscure words), the 1380s was a time when knightly chivalry was undergoing something of a reappraisal.
The ongoing war with France (which would become known as the Hundred Years’ War) was out of favour with people at the time, and the English victories at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) seemed a distant memory. Pacifists like John Wyclif’s Lollards (religious reformers) and even Chaucer’s fellow poet John Gower were questioning the moral case for war.
When analysed in such a context, Palamon and Arcite fighting over a woman seems like petty squabbling rather than the chivalric ideal. And the end of the tale, with Arcite’s sudden death, reminds us that one might win a victory only to be struck down by something else soon after. At a time when the recent Black Death was still a very real and horrific memory for many people, Saturn’s divine intervention would doubtless have carried an extra sting.
It is thought that this element was Chaucer’s addition to the original story, inspired by his reading of the Roman author Boethius, who believed that men were constantly at the whim of fate (the idea of the ‘wheel of fortune’ ultimately stems from Boethius).
One of the weaknesses of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (its excessive length and relative lack of action aside) is the lack of clear distinction between Palamon and Arcite. If they are meant to embody particular qualities, it is not easy to tell them apart and identify which values they respectively represent.
Nor are the women in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ given an especially active role. Elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales we find them cavorting in trees with their paramours, or presenting their bare backsides out of windows (see ‘The Miller’s Tale’, which follows ‘The Knight’s Tale’ in the collection and is a comic response to it); we even encounter witches, whose purpose is to show men the evil of their ways.
But we don’t find such women in the more sober romance that is ‘The Knight’s Tale’. Chaucer made his heroine Emelye less spirited and independent than Boccaccio’s female lead, reducing her to an agentless pawn fought over by the two men. Similarly, Hippolyta is literally a possession owned by her enemies, having once been a powerful Amazonian queen.
‘The Knight’s Tale’ would provide the source material for a lesser-known late (collaborative) play by William Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Later still, in the late seventeenth century John Dryden would adapt Chaucer’s tale as one of his fables, as Palamon and Arcite.