Some critics have suggested that the Knight’s Tale is an allegory, in which each character represents an abstract idea or theme. For example, Arcite and Palamon might represent the active and the contemplative life, respectively. But it is difficult to convincingly interpret the tale based on a distinction between the two lovers, or to find a moral based on their different actions. Palamon and Arcite are quite similar, and neither one seems to have the stronger claim on Emelye.
The main theme of the tale is the instability of human life—joy and suffering are never far apart from one another, and nobody is safe from disaster. Moreover, when one person’s fortunes are up, another person’s are down. This theme is expressed by the pattern of the narrative, in which descriptions of good fortune are quickly followed by disasters, and characters are subject to dramatic reversals of fortune. When the supplicating widows interrupt Theseus’s victory procession home to Athens, he senses that their grief is somehow connected to his joy and asks them if they grieve out of envy. But one of the widows formulates the connection differently, pointing out that they are on opposite sides of Fortune’s “false wheel” (925).
Soon, the widows’ husbands’ remains are returned to them, and Theseus once again emerges victorious. But as soon as the widows are raised up by Fortune’s wheel, Palamon and Arcite are discovered cast down, close to death, and Theseus imprisons them for life. But, no sooner are Palamon’s and Arcite’s fortunes dashed down than Emelye appears in the garden outside their prison as a symbol of spring and renewed life. When Arcite wins his freedom, each of the friends thinks that his condition is worse than the other’s.
Good fortune and bad fortune seem connected to one another in a pattern, suggesting that some kind of cosmic or moral order underlies the apparently random mishaps and disasters of the narrative. There are other such repeated elements in the story. The widows who supplicate for their husbands’ remains at the story’s opening are mirrored by Emelye and Theseus’s queen, who supplicate Theseus to spare Palamon and Arcite’s lives. Palamon’s appeal to Theseus to rightly judge their quarrel echoes the knight’s appeal to the listeners to decide who is more miserable. Additionally, when Arcite wanders in the woods, singing and fashioning garlands, he echoes Palamon’s first vision of Emelye through the tower window, when he saw her making garlands. Both acts take place in the month of May.