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Theseus’s construction of the stadium through the end of the tale Fragment 1, lines 1881–3108
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.
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.
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