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From the beginning through Theseus’s decision to hold the tournament Fragment 1, lines 859–1880
Long ago in Ancient Greece, a great conqueror and duke named Theseus ruled the city of Athens. One day, four women kneel in front of Theseus’s horse and weep, halting his passage into the city. The eldest woman informs him that they are grieving the loss of their husbands, who were killed at the siege of the city of Thebes. Creon, the lord of Thebes, has dishonored them by refusing to bury or cremate their bodies. Enraged at the ladies’ plight, Theseus marches on Thebes, which he easily conquers. After returning the bones of their husbands to the four women for the funeral rites, Theseus discovers two wounded enemy soldiers lying on the battlefield, nearing death. Rather than kill them, he mercifully heals the Theban soldiers’ injuries, but condemns them to a life of imprisonment in an Athenian tower.
The prisoners, named Palamon and Arcite, are cousins and sworn brothers. Both live in the prison tower for several years. One spring morning, Palamon awakes early, looks out the window, and sees fair-haired Emelye, Theseus’s sister-in-law. She is making flower garlands, “To doon honour to May” (1047). He falls in love and moans with heartache. His cry awakens Arcite, who comes to investigate the matter. As Arcite peers out the window, he too falls in love with the beautiful flower-clad maiden. They argue over her, but eventually realize the futility of such a struggle when neither can ever leave the prison.
One day, a duke named Perotheus, friend both to Theseus and Arcite, petitions for Arcite’s freedom. Theseus agrees, on the condition that Arcite be banished permanently from Athens on pain of death. Arcite returns to Thebes, miserable and jealous of Palamon, who can still see Emelye every day from the tower. But Palamon, too, grows more sorrowful than ever; he believes that Arcite will lay siege to Athens and take Emelye by force. The knight poses the question to the listeners, rhetorically: who is worse off, Arcite or Palamon?
Some time later, winged Mercury, messenger to the gods, appears to Arcite in a dream and urges him to return to Athens. By this time, Arcite has grown gaunt and frail from lovesickness. He realizes that he could enter the city disguised and not be recognized. He does so and takes on a job as a page in Emelye’s chamber under the pseudonym Philostrate. This puts him close to Emelye but not close enough. Wandering in the woods one spring day, he fashions garlands of leaves and laments the conflict in his heart—his desire to return to Thebes and his need to be near his beloved. As it -happens, Palamon has escaped from seven years of imprisonment that very day and hears Arcite’s song and monologue while -sneaking through the woods. They confront each other, each claiming the right to Emelye. Arcite challenges his old friend to a duel the next day. They meet in a field and bludgeon each other ruthlessly.
Theseus, out on a hunt, finds these two warriors brutally hacking away at each other. Palamon reveals their identities and love for Emelye. He implores the duke to justly decide their fate, suggesting that they both deserve to die. Theseus is about to respond by killing them, but the women of his court—especially his queen and Emelye—intervene, pleading for Palamon and Arcite’s lives. The duke consents and decides instead to hold a tournament fifty weeks from that day. The two men will be pitted against one another, each with a hundred of the finest men he can gather. The winner will be awarded Emelye’s hand.
The Knight’s Tale is a romance that encapsulates the themes, motifs, and ideals of courtly love: love is like an illness that can change the lover’s physical appearance, the lover risks death to win favor with his lady, and he is inspired to utter eloquent poetic complaints. The lovers go without sleep because they are tormented by their love, and for many years they pine away hopelessly for an unattainable woman. The tale is set in mythological Greece, but Chaucer’s primary source for it is Boccaccio’s Teseida, an Italian poem written about thirty years before The Canterbury Tales. As was typical of medieval and Renaissance romances, ancient Greece is imagined as quite similar to feudal Europe, with knights and dukes instead of heroes, and various other medieval features.