The Canterbury Tales
The Knight’s Tale, Parts 3–4
Theseus’s construction of the stadium through the end of the tale Fragment 1, lines 1881–3108
Summary: Part 3
Theseus prepares for the tournament by constructing an enormous stadium. By its gate, he erects three temples to the gods—one for Venus, the goddess of love; one for Mars, the god of war; and one for Diana, the goddess of chastity. The Knight provides a lengthy description of each temple. The tournament nears, spectators assemble, and both Palamon and Arcite arrive with impressive armies. The Sunday before the tournament, Palamon visits the temple of Venus and supplicates her in the night. He tells her of his desire for Emelye and requests that she bring him victory in the name of love. The statue of Venus makes an enigmatic “sign” (the reader isn’t told what the sign is), which Palamon interprets as a positive answer, and he departs confident. That dawn, Emelye also rises and goes to the temple of Diana. Desirous to remain a virgin—“a mayden al my lyf” (2305)—she begs Diana to prevent the impending marriage. But an image of Diana appears and informs her that she must marry one of the Thebans. Obedient, Emelye retires to her chamber.
Arcite walks to the temple of Mars and begs the god of war for victory in the battle. He, too, receives a positive sign: the doors of the temple clang, and he hears the statue of Mars whisper, “Victorie!” (2433). Like Palamon, Arcite departs the temple in high hopes for the coming day. The scene then shifts to the gods themselves. Saturn, Venus’s father, assures her cryptically that despite Mars’s aid to Arcite, Palamon will have his lady in the end.
Summary: Part 4
The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
After much feasting, the spectators assemble in the stadium. The magnificent armies enter, appearing evenly matched. After Theseus has sternly delivered the rules, the bloody battle of flashing swords and maces begins. Though Palamon fights valiantly, Arcite sees his chance and brings Palamon “to the stake”—he claims him with a sword at his throat. Emelye rejoices as Theseus proclaims Arcite victorious. Venus, on the other hand, weeps with shame that her knight lost, until Saturn calms her and signals that all is not over. At Saturn’s request, the earth shakes beneath Arcite as he rides toward Theseus. The knight’s horse throws him, crushing his chest. Gravely wounded, the company transports Arcite to bed, where physicians attempt in vain to heal him. Arcite expresses his love to Emelye, and then tells her that if she decides to marry another, she should remember Palamon, who possesses the qualities of a worthy knight—“trouthe, honour, knyghthede, / Wysdom, humblesse” (2789–2790).
All of Athens mourns Arcite’s death. Emelye, Theseus, and Palamon are inconsolable. Theseus’s father, Egeus, takes Theseus aside and tells him that every man must live and die—life is a journey through woe that must, at some point, come to an end. After some years pass, the mourners heal, with the exception of Emelye and Palamon, who continue to go about sorrowfully, dressed in black. During one parliament at Athens, Theseus berates the two for grieving too much. He reminds them that God ordains that all must die, and refusal to accept death is therefore folly. He requests that they cease mourning, and that his wife’s sister take Palamon for her husband and lord. They obey, and as they realize the wisdom of Theseus’s advice over many years, Emelye and Palamon enjoy a long, loving, and happy marriage.
Because Egeus has lived long enough to witness Fortune’s rising and falling pattern, he is the only human character in the Knight’s Tale who understands that Fortune’s wheel is the plot’s driving force. Egeus is therefore the only man capable of comforting Theseus amid the general lament over Arcite’s accidental death. In his final speech to Palamon and Emelye, Theseus shows that he has learned his lesson from Egeus. Echoing the old man’s words, the duke argues that excessive mourning over disaster is inappropriate. His speech conveys a message of humility, instead of an attempt to explain the meaning of Arcite’s death. A benevolent order may exist in the universe, Theseus asserts, but human beings should not seek to pry into it, or set themselves against it by prolonging mourning too long.
The gods, whose role is to develop instability in the lives of the characters, are the instruments of Fortune. The Knight’s extensive descriptions of the symbolic decorations of the temples of Venus, Mars, and Diana help shed light on the gods’ roles. The walls in Venus’s temple depict the traditional sufferings of the courtly lover—sleeplessness, sighing, and burning desire. But they also portray the sinfulness that love can cause—lust, jealousy, idleness, and adultery—a more Christian, moralistic message. Moreover, these walls also present love’s invincibility and irresistibility, in scenes taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The relationship among these three ideas of love is left unresolved.
Mars’s temple is also remarkable. Instead of representing the glories of war or battle with which the Knight is well acquainted, the walls display hypocrites, traitors, and murderers, together with disasters that have nothing to do with war, such as the cook who is scalded despite his use of a long ladle. Diana’s portrayal is the most ambivalent of the three. Traditionally, she is the goddess of chastity and protector of virgins, but everything depicted on her temple’s walls suggests that she causes change. Many of the images are of friends or enemies that she transformed, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Diana herself is symbolically represented by a moon that is waxing but that will soon begin to wane. The imagery in her temple, and her refusal to grant Emelye her prayer that she remain a virgin, indicate that there is no refuge, even in chastity, from the transformations human beings must undergo in life.
The decoration of each of the three temples, then, shows the wills of the gods as opposite to human desires. Venus and Mars are both represented as forces that cause catastrophe and suffering, rather than glory and happiness, in human life. Whereas Venus represents emotional and spiritual sources of suffering, Mars represents all of the violent and brutal physical perils that await humans, whether through accident or malice. And Diana is represented as a force who will not allow things to stay the same.
Saturn is not depicted, but his decision about how to reconcile the conflict between Mars and Venus reveals his understanding of his role, as does his description of himself, which strongly echoes the description of Mars’s temple. Saturn associates himself with drowning, strangling, imprisonment, secret poisoning, and other forms of vengeance. The major difference between Mars and Saturn is that Saturn claims that his journey through the zodiac is much longer than that of the others, and that his actions are part of an overall plan that emerges over a long period of time. Saturn’s disasters represent a kind of correction, or balancing of the scales, ensuring that everything is overturned and transformed by the passage of time.
Yet, there is some suggestion in the Knight’s Tale that humans can affect their own destinies. Several major shifts in the plot come about when one character intercedes on another’s behalf. The weeping women in the opening intercede on behalf of their dead husbands, and Theseus conquers Thebes. Perotheus intercedes on Arcite’s behalf, and Arcite is let out of prison. The court women interrupt to plead that Theseus spare the two soldiers’ lives.
Some critics have suggested that in this pattern of intercession Chaucer presents us with an ideal form of government: no man can govern entirely on his own. Truly good government is accomplished with the help of an outside party that stops the ruler from behaving tyrannically. Twice, women prevent Theseus from acting entirely on his own, a good friend is able to intervene to rescue Arcite, and Arcite himself influences Theseus’s desire to see Emelye and Palamon married. Some critics further interpret this need for counsel along gender lines. It is no accident, they suggest, that women stop Theseus from ignoring the burial rites of their husbands, and from killing Palamon and Arcite. These critics believe that this female intercession means that every good male governor needs and depends upon wifely counsel to keep him from becoming ruthless.
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