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