Once upon a time, the legendary Theseus, duke of Athens, had conquered the country of the Amazons. He brings home their queen, Hippolyta, as his wife, and he also brings her younger sister, Emelye.
The Knight sets his tale among ancient royalty, immediately situating himself as a member of the noble class.
If the story were not so long, says the Knight, I would tell you all about how Theseus defeated the Amazons, and what a great battle it was, and what a glorious wedding––but I have a long road ahead to plow, and so I will begin.
The Knight first introduces his characteristic tale-telling style of occupatio, or pretending he will not talk about the very thing he immediately proceeds to describe.
As Theseus is riding into Athens, he sees a group of women in black clothing weeping and wailing by the side of the road. He asks them why they are grieving, and they tell him that they are noblewomen from Thebes who have come to Athens to seek Theseus’s help against the tyrant Creon. After his victory in a recent war, Creon has barred the women from burying the bodies of their vanquished husbands.
The Knight provides an elaborate frame narrative for his story: before he reaches the heart of the tale (that is, the story of the two knights), the Knight spends a lot of time setting the stage and describing the backstory of Theseus’s world.
Theseus is deeply moved by their sad story and vows, as a true knight, to avenge the noblewomen. He sends Hippolyta and Emelye ahead to Athens and leads his army to Thebes. Theseus quickly slays Creon, conquers the city, and returns the bones of the slain husbands to the grieving women.
Theseus is shown to be the noble conqueror: he is both a powerful warrior and a just ruler, invested in maintaining power over his lands and avenging evil tyrants’ wrongdoings.
After the battle, as scavengers are taking armor and treasures from the slain armies, they find two young knights lying side by side named Arcite and Palamon. Though both are badly wounded, they are not quite dead yet. By their coat of arms, the scavengers can tell that they are of royal Theban blood. Theseus proclaims that the knights should be brought to Athens to be held prisoner perpetually and with no possibility of ransom.
The purpose of the Knight’s description of Theseus’s accomplishments becomes clear when Palamon and Arcite, the two main protagonists of the story, arrive on the scene. Again, Theseus’s justice is demonstrated by the fact that he lets the knights live (albeit as permanent prisoners).
One morning in May, Palamon is looking out the window of the tower where the knights have been imprisoned when he spies Emelye, who has risen early to pay her respects to nature. She is even lovelier than all the fresh flowers. “Ah!” cries Palamon, as if he had been struck through the heart.
The theme of knights falling in love through a single glance at the object of their desire is common in chivalric tales. The ritual of the gaze forms the basis of courtly love, which does not need to involve physical consummation.
The cry awakens Arcite, who asks Palamon what ails him. Arcite thinks that Palamon is bemoaning their imprisonment, but Palamon replies that he has received a wound through his eye straight to the heard: he has seen woman below who is so beautiful that he does not know whether she is a woman or a goddess. He guesses that she is Venus and prays to her to release himself and Arcite from captivity.
Palamon’s cry that awakens Arcite is both a demonstration of how strong his feelings are for Emelye as well as a foreshadowing of the rift that their rivalry over the lady will drive between them. Arcite takes Palamon’s description of Emelye as a goddess literally, which will later come to haunt Palamon.
Meanwhile, Arcite looks at Emelye and is just as love-struck as Palamon. They quarrel over who has the right to love her. Palamon reminds Arcite that they have sworn to be faithful first to each other and never to let the love of a lady come between them. Because he loved her first, claims Palamon, he has the right to her hand. Arcite replies that Palamon thought she was a goddess, not a woman. Arcite also points out that neither one of them will ever be able to claim Emelye, since they are sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment. Strife builds between the knights.
According to the chivalric code, the bond between brother knights should be stronger than courtly love: no love for a woman should come between these men. However, because they have let Emelye come between them, the social balance has been disrupted. Arcite takes Palamon’s figurative description of Emelye as Venus and interprets them literally for his own advantage.
One day, Duke Perotheus, a close friend of Theseus, visits Athens. Perotheus, as it turns out, had known and loved Arcite at Thebes, and he petitions Theseus to free Arcite. Theseus agrees on the condition that if Arcite is ever found on Theseus’s lands, he will be killed.
Perotheus’s defense of Arcite demonstrates the strength and importance of chivalric bonds in medieval society: even though Arcite is Theseus’s sworn enemy, Perotheus’s defense makes Theseus alter the terms of punishment.
As Arcite leaves Athens, he bursts into a complaint, lamenting that he must leave his prison––which now seems a paradise––because he will no longer be able to see Emelye. When Arcite departs, Palamon is thrown into a fit of despair and complains that he will never have the chance to go to Thebes and gather his army so that he might win Emelye’s hand. The Knight poses the rhetorical question of whether Palamon or Arcite is worse off.
Arcite’s and Palamon’s complaints follow the traditional medieval form: both knights bemoan their current state and explain in great detail why the other’s position is more desirable. The dueling complaints emphasize the contest between the knights for love of Emelye, and the reader must decide which knight is in the worse situation.
When Arcite returns to Thebes, he suffers from “loveris maladye.” He cries “Alas!” constantly, stops eating, grows so gaunt and sickly that he is unrecognizable, and moans to the stars. After spending a year or two in this lovesick condition, Mercury visits him in a dream and tells him to return to Athens, where he will find the end to his woe.
Arcite’s release to Thebes puts him in a sort of catch-22 situation: even though he has his freedom, the one thing that he wants to do––marry Emelye––is denied to him because the one condition of his freedom is that he not return to Athens.
Arcite determines to go to Athens despite the danger of death. He looks in the mirror and realizes he has become so thin that he can disguise himself as a poor laborer and therefore have the chance to see Emelye every day.
Arcite has pined away so much for Emelye that he no longer looks like himself, with suggests the danger of a knight having an excess amount of love. He can wear different clothing to appear to be a different person.
In Athens, Arcite takes the name Philostrate and finds a job as a page working for Emelye. He is so courtly and well-mannered that within a few years’ time, he becomes one of Theseus’s favorite squires. Theseus gives him gold, and Arcite has money secretly brought to him from Thebes.
Even disguised as a commoner, Arcite’s noble, knightly upbringing shines through, which both emphasizes the hierarchies of medieval society and also suggests the possibility of some meritocracy.
Meanwhile, Palamon has pined away in prison for seven years, living as a martyr in an unimaginable hell. Finally, one night in May, he drugs his jailer and flees the city. Palamon finds a grove to hide in during the day so that at night he can return to Thebes and amass an army to wage war against Theseus and win Emelye’s hand.
While Arcite has at least had his freedom, even if he has been separated from Emelye, Palamon has been forced to stay within sight of his love but never able to speak to her. His escape may not be entirely noble, but his brave intentions toward his lady love are certainly chivalric, if somewhat foolish.
By chance, Arcite comes to the very same grove to pay respects to May. Arcite weaves himself a garland, sings praises to the spring, lapses into a melancholy stupor, then laments his tragic fortunes. At first, Palamon, hearing but not seeing Arcite, thinks that the fields have eyes and the woods have ears, but then he realizes that it is his old companion.
Since the Knight’s Tale is a romance set in a mythological time, the coincidence of Arcite and Palamon arriving in the very same grove on the same day after seven years apart is accepted within the terms of the tale.
Palamon leaps out from his hiding place, calls Arcite a traitor, declares himself to be Arcite’s mortal foe, and challenges him to a duel. Arcite renounces the bond of brotherhood that they had previously pledged to each other and says that he is ready to fight for the hand of the lady. They agree to meet the next morning.
The rivalry between Palamon and Arcite has only grown stronger since they have been apart, especially since they are now each forming elaborate, separate plans to woo the hand of the same lady.
The next morning, Palamon and Arcite return to the woods, Arcite having gone back to Athens to get weapons for both of them. The two knights fight each other so fiercely that they are up to their ankles in blood.
Even though the knights are sworn rivals, they still abide by the codes of chivalry, and since Palamon cannot obtain his own weapons, Arcite outfits them both.
That morning, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emelye are riding through the woods to go hunting. They happen to ride into the grove where Arcite and Palamon are fighting. Astonished, Theseus cries for the fight to come to a halt and demands to know who these two knights are. Palamon answers, revealing that Arcite has been living in Theseus’s court as Philostrate and admitting that he broke out of prison, but that everything they both did was for love of Emelye. The knights admit that they deserve death.
When Theseus and his hunting party find Palamon and Arcite, the two knights demonstrate their noble, chivalrous nature by immediately confessing the truth (though Palamon does emphasize the fact that Arcite has been deceiving Theseus as a page under a false name). Both knights at once subject themselves to Theseus as a higher power.
Hippolyta and Emelye, moved to tears by the knights’ misfortune, beg Theseus to spare their lives. Theseus decides that mercy is the best policy and forgives Palamon and Arcite, declaring that they have been led into their folly by their allegiance to the god of love. Theseus makes Palamon and Arcite swear never to wage war against him.
Just as the noblewomen’s tears had moved Theseus to pity earlier in the Knight’s Tale, so Hippolyta and Emelye’s pleading make him merciful in his judgment of the two foolhardy knights.
Theseus orders Palamon and Arcite to return in exactly fifty weeks’ time with a hundred knights each, ready to do battle for the hand of Emelye.
As knights, the only acceptable way to vie for Emelye’s hand is not just to duel, but to show knightly valor in battle.
Theseus builds an elaborate, ornate, mile-wide amphitheater for the tournament. The lavish stadium contains three temples to three different gods: a temple to Venus, goddess of love, above the eastern gate; a temple to Mars, god of war, above the western gate; and a temple to Diana, goddess of chastity, to the north.
The Knight gives an extremely long, detailed account of every aspect of this fantastic theater to show off his very best rhetorical flourishes and powers of description.
The walls of the Temple of Venus portray allegorical figures from various love myths. There are also portraits of historical figures who have been victims of seduction. In the Temple of Mars, a terrifying forest is painted on the wall, in front of which stands a statue of omnipotent Mars. The Temple of Diana features pictures from myths about the goddess as well as the image of the goddess as a moon.
Venus’s temple shows both the heroic and the sinful sides of love. The temple of Mars is more focused on the terrifying destruction that comes of war rather than the glory. Diana’s temple shows both symbols of chastity and symbols of change.
Finally, the day of the battle arrives. Palamon and Arcite come to Athens with their armies of a hundred knights. Palamon and Arcite have also each brought a king to lead their armies: Palamon has brought Lygurge, king of Thrace, while Arcite has Emetreus, king of India. All the knights are received by Theseus with great hospitality.
The Knight’s description of Palamon’s and Arcite’s armies shows the structure of a properly staged, full-blown duel between two knights: rather than solving the battle impromptu in the forest, the contest becomes a form of entertainment for the kingdom.
On the Sunday night before the battle, Palamon rises at two o’clock in the morning with the lark and goes to the temple of Venus to pray. He asks the goddess for the possession of Emelye, praying specifically that he might win the lady rather than asking for victory in battle. The statue of Venus shakes, which Palamon interprets as a sign that his prayer has been granted.
Palamon rises at two in the morning because this is supposed to be the most auspicious hour to pray to Venus. Palamon does not pray to win the battle but only to win Emelye. The shaking of Venus is ambiguous, but Palamon sees what he wants to see in it.
The third hour after Palamon rises, Emelye goes to the temple of Diana. Emelye cleanses herself, performs sacred rites, and prays to Diana to keep her maidenhood and to live forever as a virgin. She asks Diana to cure Palamon and Arcite of their love for her and to restore the bonds of friendship between them. If she must marry one of them, however, Emelye asks that she marry the one who desires her the most. One of the sacrificial fires suddenly goes out, and Diana appears in an image to Emelye. Diana tells her that the gods have decreed she must marry one of the knights, but that she cannot say which one.
Unlike Palamon and Arcite, who see and hear signs from the gods but do not interact with them, Emelye sees the goddess directly. Diana informs Emelye that she cannot remain a virgin forever but does not tell her which knight will win her hand, suggesting either that mortals cannot know everything about their fates or that the gods themselves do not yet know the outcome.
During the next hour, Arcite goes to the temple of Mars to pray. He reminds Mars of the pain he suffered for the love of Venus and begs for victory in battle. Arcite offers to cut his previously uncut hair and beard as a sacrifice and swears to serve Mars for the rest of his life if the god grants him victory. The statue of Mars shakes and murmurs, “Victorie!”
Arcite goes to the temple of Mars at the hour meant to be most auspicious to that god. He prays only to win the battle, not to win the love of Emelye, because he assumes that the two are one and the same.
The scene shifts to the heavens, where Venus and Mars are having a disagreement over the outcome of the battle. Saturn, father of the gods, must step in to settle the dispute. He tells Venus that Palamon will win the hand of the lady, but that Mars will help Arcite keep his honor.
Mars wants Arcite to win the battle, which would mean that he would win Emelye’s hand, but Venus wants Palamon to win Emelye. Finally, Saturn steps in and explains that both of these outcomes will be true.
After a magnificent feast, with much jousting and lusting, the knights rise early the next morning and go to the theater for the battle, looking splendid in their finest armor. A herald announces the battle rules to minimize loss of noble life: no weapons other than long swords, maces, and a few spears; no secret short swords; captured knights should be taken to stakes rather than killed; and that when Palamon or Arcite has been captured or killed, the fight is over.
Even though two hundred knights will be fighting in the mile-wide arena, the main show is the duel between Palamon and Arcite. Because this battle is a spectacle, not an out-and-out war, knights are supposed to tag each other out instead of kill each other, and the end of all fighting should occur along with the defeat of either one of the two main knights.
With Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emelye in the stands, Palamon rides in under the gates of Venus, Arcite under the gates of Mars, and the battle begins.
Palamon has adopted Venus as his guardian deity, and Arcite, Mars. This has turned into a battle of love vs. war.
All the knights joust in the great battle. After much brave fighting, twenty opposing knights, led by Arcite’s king Emetreus, wound and capture Palamon, thus ending the fight. Theseus declares Arcite the winner and says that he shall have the hand of Emelye.
According to the rules of the battle, the spectacle ends when Palamon has been overpowered. When Theseus ends the battle, the fight is over: they only need to duel symbolically, not literally, to the death.
Venus whines to Saturn that she has been disgraced, but Saturn tells her to watch and wait. As Arcite prances around the amphitheater in victory, the ground opens and a fury from hell scares his horse, causing Arcite to be thrown to the ground. Arcite is still alive, but terribly injured, and he is taken to a bed in the palace.
The fury from hell shows that Fortune’s wheel is inescapable: just when Arcite is on top of the world, he tumbles and falls. Also, the fury from hell serves as a warning to be careful what you wish for: Arcite prayed only for victory in battle, not for Emelye.
None of the other knights have been killed in the tournament. Theseus makes sure that their wounds are tended to, and he declares that Palamon has not lost his honor by being captured at the stake in front of the crowd.
The spectacle that Theseus has arranged among the knights has served its purpose for entertainment and art and has not caused unnecessary death. Theseus makes it clear that honor is not just a matter of victory but rather of a willingness to face an adversary with courage.
Arcite’s body is paralyzed and beginning to rot, and it is clear that he will shortly die. On his deathbed, Arcite sends for Emelye and Palamon. He tells Emelye that his ghost will continue to serve her after he dies and that he will always love her. He also tells Emelye that if she marries after he dies, she should marry Palamon, as there is no worthier man than he. The last words he breathes are “Mercy, Emelye!”
Even though Arcite and Palamon had become mortal foes, in his moment of death, Arcite allows the old chivalric bonds of brotherhood to triumph, declaring that if he cannot live, Palamon ought to marry Emilye.
Emelye, Palamon, and Theseus weep and wail inconsolably as all Athens mourns Arcite’s death. Egeus, Theseus’s father, consoles Theseus by reminding him of the inevitability of death.
Theseus’s father serves as the voice of reason: even though men may mourn, life and the kingdom must go on.
Theseus conducts an extremely elaborate funeral ritual for Arcite. Arcite is buried in the same grove where he and Palamon battled, and there is a long funeral procession. While claiming that he not going to describe the whole scene, the Knight launches into a very detailed description of Arcite’s funeral pyre, describing all the types of wood used to build it, depicting what Arcite’s body looked like, and explaining the rites of the ceremony.
The elaborate description of the funeral ritual is a lot like the elaborate description of the arena that Theseus builds for the heroic duel between the knights. The Knight again shows off his occupation, claiming that he will not tell us all about the funeral pyre that he then describes in great detail.
Several years later, there is a parliament in Athens to discuss which lands must have obedience to Thebes, and Theseus calls Palamon and Emelye to attend. Theseus delivers his “First Moevere” speech, which describes how the course of life moves in the intent of the great chain of love that the universe’s first mover has set into motion. We should trust in Jupiter’s wisdom, says Theseus. We can honor Arcite, but we must move forward with our lives. Theseus urges Palamon and Emelye to wed, and they all live happily ever after.
Theseus’s “First Moevere” (“First Mover”) speech contains many of the main morals of the Knight’s Tale: people should trust in the will of both their king and their gods, allowing themselves to be governed by wisdom greater than their own. The Knight ends his romance happily: even though Arcite has died, Palamon can continue the chivalric tradition and legacy, and even though Emelye does not get to remain a maiden as she wished, she does end with the knight who truly loved her.