Le Morte d’Arthur

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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Journeys and Quests Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Le Morte d’Arthur, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon

The book largely supports and defends the ideals of honor and chivalry, but these ideals are then often contrasted with the actions of many knights who fail to live up to them. As part of the requirement of maintaining their honor, the Knights of the Round Table must either defend a woman—or one’s “ownership” of a woman—or else defend their land and property from rivals. Malory gives us an unflinching view of the petty jealousy and rivalry of many of the knights, although his tone shifts regularly from gravity to irony, depending on the situation.

Launcelot, for instance, is usually a more tragic than comic character in his wholehearted desire to compete for Guenever’s heart, and to defend her against any other rivals (even though she is married to King Arthur). The lust between Launcelot and Guenever—and the increasing lack of subtlety in their affair—ultimately leads to the downfall, not only of Arthur, but also of the kingdom itself. The affair sets in motion a series of circumstances, from Arthur’s sentencing of Guenever to death to the murder of several knights to the declaration of war between the two camps, that seem to lead inevitably to a tragic conclusion. The code of honor that the knights follow, indeed, seems to make revenge a never-ending affair, as each side continues to declare an act of revenge for the other side’s prior act. This is also true in the realm of politics, as with King Arthur’s knights’ battles with Rome, just as much as it is in love.

Other subplots in the book emphasize just how extensive these so-called values of competition and revenge can become. The love triangle between Sir Tristram, Isoud (whom he loves), and King Mark, who marries Isoud, is shown as tragic but also, as with Guenever and Launcelot, immoral, given that it rests on adultery. In this case, too, competition and jealousy are part of an unending process of battle and response, one in which secular desire and pride are portrayed as just as powerful, if not more so, than the Christian and courtly ideals the knights are supposed to follow.

Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge appears in each book of Le Morte d’Arthur. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur

Below you will find the important quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur related to the theme of Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge.
Book 4 Quotes

I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost by the faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I had liefer to die with honour than to live with shame; and if it were possible for me to die an hundred times, I had liefer to die so oft that yield me to thee; for though I lack weapon, I shall lack no worship, and if thou slay me weaponless that shall be thy shame.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker), Sir Accolon of Gaul
Page Number: Vol 1, 132
Explanation and Analysis:

With the help of his lover Morgane le Fay, Sir Accolon of Gaul has managed to get his hands on Arthur's sword, Excalibur, which is why he is able to fight so successfully against the king. Now, Arthur's sword is broken, and two possibilities arise: either Arthur yields to Accolon and asks for his mercy, or he accepts death, since he has lost. By choosing the latter, Arthur reiterates his commitment to the chivalrous code, vowing to remain honorable even if it means he must die. Paradoxically, Arthur takes pride in granting mercy to others whom he conquers himself, but he considers it shameful to ask for this same mercy.

Arthur thus claims that he considers certain values more important than simply triumphing against enemies. He is left without a weapon, but this fact is far less a cause for shame than yielding to Accolon would be. Still, he acknowledges at the end that Accolon must adhere to the same values that he does, and it would be shameful for Accolon to kill Arthur without a weapon, just as it would be shameful for Arthur to seek to avoid death.


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Book 5 Quotes

Then the king wept, and dried his eyes with a kerchief, and said, Your courage had near-hand destroyed you, for though ye had returned again, ye had lost no worship; for I call it folly, knights to abide when they be overmatched. Nay, said Launcelot and the other, for once shamed may never be recovered.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker), Sir Launcelot du Lake (speaker)
Page Number: Vol 1, 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Launcelot and Sir Cador, in charge of thousands of Roman prisoners, find themselves met by a massive army of 60,000 men sent by Lucius to rescue the prisoners. Even though Launcelot and Cador are with only 10,000 men, they still fight and successfully hold off their enemies. When they return to Arthur to tell him of what happened, the king is shocked but also impressed at how valiantly his knights have fought. It is perhaps Arthur's love for his men, especially Launcelot, that causes him to modify his fierce sense of honor here - he claims it would not be shameful for them to have withdrawn, since they were so unequally matched. Launcelot, however, won't accept any kind of modification of the code of chivalry. For him, strict consistency is necessary for a knight to maintain his glory - if he is even "once shamed," he can never recuperate that former glory. As a result Launcelot feels it necessary to welcome and even to seek out whatever battles he can.

Book 7 Quotes

I took none heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wrecked upon them that I had do withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was; for peradventure though I had meat in King Arthur’s kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places, but all that I did for to prove and assay my friends, and that shall be known another day; and whether that I be a gentleman born or none, I let you wit, fair damosel, I have done you gentleman’s service, and peradventure better service yet will I do or I depart from you.

Related Characters: Sir Gareth (Beaumains) (speaker), King Arthur
Page Number: Vol 1, 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Beaumains has traveled much of the country with the anonymous damsel, attempting to prove himself and help her on her "adventure." Beaumains has conquered a number of knights quite impressively, but has still been subject to the damsel's regular insults and mockery. Finally, the damsel begins to acknowledge that she is somewhat impressed that Beaumains has endured all of this berating so stoically. Here Beaumains attempts to explain himself. He claims that he transferred his anger and frustration towards her onto the men against whom he fought. Indeed, her dismissal of him made him more eager to prove what a strong and chivalrous knight he was. 

For Beaumains, this kind of test is similar to what he put himself through as a menial kitchen boy at King Arthur's court - although he comes from a powerful family, it was important for him to prove his worth on his own, by setting a series of challenges and quests for himself, and completing them under a false identity, without the help of others or his own noble name. As a result, Beaumains has only underlined how he was worthy of great worship all along, even if his true identity remained unknown to others. Finally, he may be frustrated by the damsel, but as a woman she is particularly prized as someone whose admiration and respect he wants to provoke.

Book 9 Quotes

Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength. And because she deemed that Sir Launcelot loved Queen Guenever paramour, and she him again, therefore Queen Morgan le Fay ordained that shield to put Sir Launcelot to a rebuke, to that intent that King Arthur might understand the love between them.

Related Characters: King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot du Lake, Morgan le Fay
Page Number: Vol 1, 464
Explanation and Analysis:

As will be the case for much of the rest of the story, everyone but Arthur seems to know about the love between Launcelot and Guenever, and various characters, out of jealousy or plotting, seek to reveal the truth to Arthur. Morgan, one of these plotters, is motivated by her own lustful feelings for Launcelot (and so she is seemingly jealous of Guenever), and also has long hated Arthur and devised various schemes against him.

Morgan le Fay is one of the consistent villains of the book, but she is also one of the best examples of a powerful, independent woman—she is a queen by her own right, seemingly commands the loyalty of many knights, takes and discards her own lovers without marrying them, and has access to powerful and dangerous magic.

Book 10 Quotes

But wit ye well Sir Palomides had envy heartily, for all that night he had never rest in his bed, but wailed and wept out of measure. So on the morn Sir Tristram, Gareth, and Dinadan arose early, and then they went unto Sir Palomides’ chamber, and there they found him fast asleep, for he had all night watched, and it was seen upon his cheeks that he had wept full sore. Say nothing, said Sir Tristram, for I am sure he hath taken anger and sorrow for the rebuke that I gave to him, and La Beale Isoud.

Related Characters: Tristram (Tramtrist) (speaker), Isoud (La Beale Isoud), Sir Gareth (Beaumains), Sir Palomides, Dinadan
Page Number: Vol 2, 166
Explanation and Analysis:

During the tournament, Palomides, who has long been jealous of Tristram because he is also in love with La Beale Isoud, had hatched a plan to dishonor Tristram. He had borrowed a wounded knight's armor and had ridden out to fight against Tristram anonymously, making many at the tournament impressed with his skill. However, Isoud had been watching from a window in the castle, so she saw everything, and found Palomides' behavior shameful.

Now Palomides recognizes that his plan had backfired. Not only did he fail to win Isoud's admiration, but now she actively dislikes him, and Tristram - whom Palomides still admires despite his jealousy - is also irritated with him. Palomides' jealousy mingles with his sense of shame in a way that is so acute that he weeps all night long. Palomides is not even able to hide his feelings: Tristram, Gareth, and Dinadan witness his state of sorrow, and Tristram easily guesses where it results from. Palomides may be a valiant fighter in a tournament, but the opinion of a woman can easily triumph over him in other spheres.

For an it happeth an envious man once to win worship he shall be dishonoured twice therefore; and for this cause all men of worship hate an envious man, and will shew him no favour, and he that is courteous, and kind, and gentle, hath favour in every place.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever (speaker), Sir Palomides
Page Number: Vol 2, 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Guenever has been recovering from sickness at a seaside castle when Bleoberis and Ector de Maris leave the tournament and come find her, telling her about everything that has happened there. Guenever’s statement critiques the behavior of Palomides in particular, but it is also a general declaration regarding the unsuitability of envy for a chivalrous knight. Competition and revenge may be central aspects of this society, but even though it is justifiable to desire to avenge one’s losses, what is not defensible is to sulk about those losses or to actively act jealous and upset rather than graceful. In some ways, then, this taboo is about appearances more than true feelings – but this doesn’t mean that the taboo is any less powerful. Indeed, actions like those of Palomides can, according to Guenever, cast unforgivable shame on a knight, causing him to be shunned by others. Guenever’s statement also underlines the portrayal of women as subtle, careful judges of behavior and of the correct way to live and act.

Book 13 Quotes

My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto great dishonour. For when I sought worldly adventures for worldly desires, I ever enchieved them and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfit in no quarrel, were it right or wrong. And now I take upon me the adventures of holy things, and now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me and shameth me, so that I had no power to stir nor speak when the holy blood appeared afore me.

Related Characters: Sir Launcelot du Lake (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Holy Grail (Sangreal)
Page Number: Vol 2, 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Half asleep, Launcelot has seen a knight be blessed by the vessel of the Holy Grail, but a voice has told him to leave this place, since he is not worthy to achieve the Sangreal himself. Now, Launcelot seems to have a total epiphany regarding his prior actions. He recognizes that, although he is perhaps the greatest knight of the Round Table, his motivations have been worldly, if not selfish. He has pursued triumph and glory for his own interests, rather for the inherent goodness of the challenges themselves. As a result (and because of his affair with Guenever), he has been physically barred from even remaining close to the holy vessel.

Launcelot’s epiphany underlines the complexity at the heart of the book’s attitude towards chivalry, fighting, and spirituality. Winning at tournaments and triumphing over enemies is shown to be a good in itself, a source of great honor for knights; however, the book also signals that there is a greater good in being holy and selfless and acknowledging a religious rather than earthly hierarchy. It is in this latter category that Launcelot has failed, showing his only weakness. His love for Guenever is alternately portrayed as chivalrous and as weak or wrong, since it is an adulterous love. Without definitively abandoning this love, it is difficult to see how Launcelot will fulfill the terms of his vow to be a better person—at least according to the dogmatic Christian rules of the Sangreal.

Book 21 Quotes

Thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.

Related Characters: Sir Ector de Maris (speaker), Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 530
Explanation and Analysis:

As Launcelot had paid a visit to Guenever’s body to honor her at her burial, so too does his brother Sir Ector de Maris make his own pilgrimage to see Launcelot’s tomb and to honor his life. Ector’s words serve to recall Launcelot’s greatness – even if this greatness was marred at the end of his life by guilt and tragedy – through a series of superlatives, from “most curious” and “truest” to “meekest” and “gentlest.” Launcelot’s might, of course, largely lay in his powerful skill in jousting and in his chivalry among other knights. But Ector also acknowledges his qualities off the battlefield, at peacetime and among friends. Ector even suggests that his relationship with Guenever had much that was defensible and honorable about it, since his love for her was so powerful and he remained loyal to her at all costs. Ector’s final declaration thus underlines all the paradoxes and contradictions of Launcelot’s life, as the knight fought valiantly to fulfill the values of honor and chivalry, even as these values sometimes contradicted those of loyalty and love.