Palamon And Arcite Analysis Essay

Essay Summary and Analysis of The Knight's Tale

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Summary and Analysis of The Knight's Tale

The Knight's Tale, Part I:

The Knight begins his tale with the story of a prince named Theseus who married Hippolyta, the queen of Scythia, and brought her and her sister, Emelye, back to Athens with him after conquering her kingdom of Amazons. When Theseus returned home victorious, he became aware that there was a company of women clad in black who knelt at the side of the highway, shrieking. The oldest of the women asked Theseus for pity. She told him that she was once the wife of King Cappaneus who was destroyed at Thebes, and that all of the other women with her lost their husbands. Creon, the lord of the town, simply tossed the dead bodies of the soldiers in a single pile and refused to…show more content…

The Knight poses this question: which has the worse case: Arcite, who has his freedom but not access to Emelye, or Palamon, who can see Emelye but remains a prisoner?


The Knight tells a tale of courtship and chivalry, focused on the deeds of soldiers and princes, the social milieu in which the Knight travels. Even the structure of the tale obeys the structure and hierarchy within society. The Knight does not start with the main characters of the tale, Arcite and Palamon; instead, he begins at the apex of society, describing the exploits of Theseus of Athens, working downward until he reaches the less distinguished Theban soldiers.

The Knight's Tale adheres to traditional values of honor in which there are strict codes of behavior which one must follow. This code of chivalry is not necessarily polite and decent. In the morality of the tale, Theseus' sudden decision to ransack Thebes to right a wrong is perfectly acceptable as punishment for a transgression against the honor of the dead soldiers.

The dynamics of the Knight's tale are relatively simple. The tale is instructive, positing the question of which knight ­ Arcite or Palamon ­ has a superior situation. The situation and the moral questions that it poses thus become more important than the qualities of the individual characters. They exist to be moved by the events of the story: to be imprisoned and set free whenever the plot demands, or to fall in love at first sight when it is

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A reasonable sympathy with conventionalism requires our understanding that the experience of the idealizing imagination is no less varied than that of realistic observation, and no less true. If the themes of most of Chaucer's conventional poems seem to converge toward the single point of recognizing supernal values in human affairs, the nature of the pointing differs with each poem. We do not read Chaucer, after all, for his philosophical conclusions, but for his workings-out, his poetry. Similarly, if tradition seems to codify Chaucer's poetry according to a fixed number of general forms in a defined area of style, the particular structure and local style of each poem are unique.

Chaucer's conventionalism should neither be dismissed nor taken for granted. The criticism of the Knight's Tale has long suffered from both of these errors.20 The trouble has been in the kinds of assumptions brought to the poem, in an attention to its poor dramatics rather than its rich symbolism, to its surface rather than its structure. The poem is nominally a romance, adapted from Boccaccio's Teseida. The plot concerns the rivalry of Palamon and Arcite, Theban knights, who while they are imprisoned by Duke Theseus fall in love with his fair kinswoman, Emilye. Arcite is released from prison and Palamon escapes; they finally fight for Emilye's hand in a tournament. Arcite wins, but at the moment of victory, in a supernaturally inspired accident, he is thrown from his horse and thereafter dies. After a period of mourning, Palamon marriesEmilye. This plot has been taken to be the poem's main feature; but unless we wish to attribute to Chaucer an unlikely lapse of skill or taste, it will not sustain very close scrutiny. The "characterization" of Palamon and Arcite has been widely invoked as a key to the poem. In one view the two knights have quasi-allegorical status, representing the Active Life versus the Contemplative Life. But there is little argreement on which knight is the more "contemplative" or the more admirable: if Palamon, the ending is poetic justice, if Arcite, it is irony21. The existence of any significant characterization in the, poem has been seriously questioned:

In the Teseide there is one hero, Arcita, who loves and is eventually loved by Emilia, a young woman characterized by a natural coquetry, an admiration for a good-looking young knight, and love and sympathy for the wounded hero. Palemone is a secondary figure, necessary to the plot because he brings about the death of Arcita.

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The story is a tragedy, caused by the mistake of Arcita in praying to Mars rather than to Venus. In Chaucer's story there are two heroes, who are practically indistinguishable from each other, and a heroine, who is merely a name. In the Italian poem it is possible to feel the interest in hero and heroine which is necessary if one is to be moved by a story. . . . In Chaucer's version, on the other hand, . . . it is hard to believe that anyone can sympathize with either hero or care which one wins Emelye.

In this approach the lack of characterization is the story's greatest weakness; what remains is merely an elaborate and now archaic game:

Chaucer saw in the Teseide a plot which, with some alterations, could be used effectively to present one of those problems of love which the votaries of courtly love enjoyed considering. . ....which of two young men, of equal worth and with almost equal claims, shall (or should) win the lady? Stated in such simple terms, the problem may seem foolish, but to readers who could be interested in such questions of love . . this problem would be no doubt poignant. . . . Obviously in so far as the ideas of courtly love have passed into oblivion since the middle ages, narratives in which they are basic cannot appeal to modern taste 22.

Long ago, Root suggested the possibility that the poem was not written under the assumptions of naturalism:

If we are to read the Knight's Tale in the spirit in which Chaucer conceived it, we must give ourselves up to the spirit of romance; we must not look for subtle characterization, nor for strict probability of action; we must delight in the fair shows of things, and not ask too many questions. Chaucer can be realistic enough when he so elects; but here he has chosen otherwise. . . . It is not in the characterization, but in the description, that the greatness of the Knight's Tale resides....[It] is preeminently a web of splendidly pictured tapestry, in which the eye may take delight, and on which the memory may fondly linger 23.

Root's conclusion shares in the general critical distrust of the poem; while recognizing its texture he depreciates its meaning, as if these rich materials could not at the same time be the carefully chosen, well-ordered machinery of serious poetry. Generations of readers have made this the most perennially

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valued of the Tales. But neither Root's nor the naturalistic interpretations begin to suggest the depth and complexity which one would expect to find in a work with such a reputation. Now although it is not always necessary to proceed inductively from style to reach a satisfactory interpretation of a poem, the method is sometimes useful in making clear certain assumptions with which the poem should be approached. In the Knight's Tale, furthermore, form and style are so functional that they point directly to the meaning.

The pace of the story is deliberately slow and majestic. Random references to generous periods of time make it chronologically slow. Though Chaucer omits a great deal of the tale originally told by Boccaccio in the Teseida, he frequently resorts to the rhetorical device of occupatio to summarize in detail events or descriptions in such a way as to shorten the story without lessening its weight and impressiveness. Further, there is an extraordinary amount of rhetorical descriptio in the poem, all of which slows the narrative. The description of the lists is very detailed, and placed so as to give the impression that we are present at their construction, an operation that appears to consume the full fifty weeks that Theseus allows for it. The narrator's repetitious "saugh I," and his closing remark, "Now been thise lystes maad" (2089) cooperate to this effect.

We can hardly fail to note, too, that a great deal of this descriptive material has a richness of detail far in excess of the demands of the story. At first glance, at least, many passages appear to be irrelevant and detachable. For example, we have sixty-one lines of description of Emetrius and Lygurge; yet so far as the action of the poem is concerned, these two worthies do practically nothing.

Like the descriptions and narrator's comments, the direct discourse in the Tale contributes to its slowness. There is virtually no rapid dialogue. Speeches of twenty-five or thirty verses are normal, and one, the final oration of Theseus, takes more than a hundred. More than length, however, the nondynamic quality of the speeches is characteristic of the whole poem's style. Many of them have only a nominal value as action or as the instruments to action. Formal, rhetorical structure, and a function comparatively unrelated to the practical necessities of the dramatic situation are the rule. This is true even where the speech is addressed to another character. For instance, when old Saturn is badgered by his granddaughter Venus to aid her in her conflict with Mars, he replies as follows:

"My deere doghter Venus," quod Saturne, [2453]
"My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne,
Hath moore power than woot any man.
Myn is the drenchyng in the see so wan;
Myn is the prison in the derke cote;

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Myn is the stranglyng and hangyng by the throte,
The murmure and the cherles rebellyng,
The groynynge, and the pryvee empoysonyng;
I do vengeance and pleyn correccioun,
Whil I dwelle in the signe of the leoun.
Myn is the ruyne of the hye halles,
The fallynge of the toures and of the walles
Upon the mynour or the carpenter.
I slow Sampsoun, shakynge the piler;
And myne be the maladyes colde,
The derke tresons, and the castes olde;
My lookyng is the fader of pestilence.
Now weep namoore . . ."

And finally, the rest of the speech, a mere eight verses, is devoted to promising Venus his aid. We can safely assume that Venus knows all about her grand-father.The long, self-descriptive introduction, therefore, must have some function other than the dramatic.

Going on now to the nature of the action, we find that while the chivalric aspects of the scene are described with minute particularity, there is very little in the Knight's Tale of the intimate and distinctive details of look, attitude, and gesture that mark some of Chaucer's more naturalistic poems. It is replete with conventional stage business. There are swoons and cries, fallings on knees, and sudden palenesses; there is a symphony of howls, wails, and lamentations.

When we look at the form in which these materials are organized, we find symmetry to be its most prominent feature. The unity of the poem is based on an unusually regular ordering of elements. The character grouping is symmetrical. There are two knights, Palamon and Arcite, in love with the same woman, Emilye. Above the three and in a position to sit in judgment, is the Duke Theseus, who throughout the poem is the center of authority and the balance between the opposing interests of the knights. In the realm of the supernatural, each of the knights and the lady has a patron deity: Venus, Mars, and Diana. The conflict between Venus and Mars is resolved by the elder Saturn, with no partiality toward either. In the tournament each knight is accompanied by one hundred followers headed by a particularly notable king, on one side Lygurge, on the other Emetrius:

In al the world, to seken up and doun, [2587]
So evene, withouten variacioun,

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Ther nere swiche compaignyes tweye;
For ther was noon so wys that koude seye
That any hadde of oother avauntage
Of worthynesse, ne of estaat, ne age,
So evene were they chosen, for to gesse.
And in two renges faire they hem dresse.

This arrangement of the two companies in two renges is one of many details of symmetry of scene and action in the poem. At the very beginning we find a uniformly clad company "of ladyes, tweye and tweye, / Ech after oother" (1019). When Palamon and Arcite are found in the heap of bodies at Thebes, they are "liggynge by and by, / Bothe in oon armes" (1011). We find that they are cousins, "of sustren two yborn" (1019). In the scene following the discovery of Emilye, each offers a lyric on the subject

(1104 ff., 1118 ff.). When Arcite is released from prison, each delivers a complaint in which even the vocabulary and theme are symmetrical:

"O deere cosyn Palamon," quod he, [1234]
"Thyn is the victorie of this aventure."
. . .
"Allas," quod he, "Arcita, cosyn myn, [1281]
Of al oure strif, God woot, the fruyt is thyn."

In the second part, the narrator divides his attention between them, in alternate descriptions; and in the fight subsequent to their meeting they are evenly matched:

Thou myghtest wene that this Palamon [1655]
In his fightyng were a wood leon,
And as a crueel tigre was Arcite . . .

Theseus appears, "And at a stert he was bitwix hem two" (1705). He sets the conditions of the tournament in round numbers: " 'And this day fifty wykes, fer ne ner, / Everich of you shal brynge an hundred knyghtes . . .' " (1850- 51). In the third part the narrator describes the making of lists, in the same place as where the first fight occurs. Th lists are circular in shape, a mile in circumference. They are entered from east and west by identical marble gates. The altars or temples of Mars and Venus are situated above these gates. Northward (and equidistant from the other two, no doubt) is the oratorie of Diana. The three temples are described in succession, and each description is subdivided in the same way: first the wall-painting with its allegorical figures, and then the statue of the deity itself.

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The symmetry of description continues with parallel accounts of the two rival companies, each containing a portrait of the leading king. (2117-89). Then follow the prayers of the principals: Palamon to Venus, Emilye to Diana, Arcite to Mars. The prayers are made in careful order at the hours dedicated by astrology to those deities24, and each prayer is answered by some supernatural event. Internally, too, the three prayers show a striking similarity of design, each beginning with rhetorical pronominatio and continuing with a reference to the deity's relations with the opposite sex, a self-description by the speaker, a humble assertion of incompetence, a request for assistance, and a promise to worship. The spectators enter the lists and are seated in order of rank. The combatants, Palamon and Arcite, with banners white and red respectively, enter the field through the gates of Venus and Mars.

After Arcite's death, his sepulcher is described. It is erected "ther as first Arcite and Palamoun / Hadden for love the bataille hem bitwene" (2858-59). This is also where the lists were built25. The funeral procession, like the procession to the lists, is characterized by precise order, and the details of the funeral are full of the same kind of ordering:

....the Grekes, with an huge route, [2951]
Thries riden al the fyr aboute
Upon the left hand, with a loud shoutynge,
And thries with hir spetes claterynge;
And thries how the ladyes gonne crye ....

Further elements in the poem's symmetry of structure and scene could readily be brought forward.

Chaucer's modifications of the Teseida seem to have been made precisely in the interest of the kind of organization I am describing. By selection and addition he produced a poem much more symmetrical than its source. Chaucer even regularizes the times and places of the incidents in Boccaccio. He adds the character Emetrius, the parallel descriptions of Emetrius and Lygurge, and the description of Diana's temple26. His crowning modification is the equalization of Palamon and Arcite.

These general and inescapable observations on the nature of the poem make clear how it must be approached. The symmetry of scene, action, and character grouping, the slow pace of the narrative and the large proportion of static description, the predominantly rhetorical kind of discourse -- along with a lack of subtle discrimination in the stage business -- all indicate that the tale is not the best kind in which to look for either delicate characterization or the peculiar

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fascination of an exciting plot. Subtle delineation of character is neither called for in the poem's design nor possible of achievement through the technical means Chaucer largely employs. There is neither rapid dialogue, nor psychological analysis, nor delicate and revelatory "business" in the poem. Nor does the Knight's Tale amount to much as plot and story interest go. Its value depends little on the traits that make a good story: a swift pace, suspense, variety, intrigue. Its main events are forecast long before they occur27. The structure of the poem, indeed, works against story interest. Symmetry in character grouping, movement, time and place, supports the leisurely narrative and description in producing an over-all sense of rest and deliberateness. The general intention indicated by the poem's materials and structure lies in a different direction. Its grouping and action, rather than existing for any great interest in themselves, seem constantly to point to a nonrepresentational, symbolic method. There is a decisive correlation of all its elements on this level.

The Knight's Tale is essentially neither a story nor a static picture, but rather a sort of poetic pageant. Its design expresses the nature of the noble life,

That is to seyn, trouthe, honour, knyghthede, [2789]
Wysdom, humblesse, estaat, and heigh kynrede,
Fredom, and al that longeth to that art .....

The story is immediately concerned with those two noble activities, love and chivalry, but even more important is the general tenor of the noble life, the pomp and ceremony, the dignity and power, and particularly the repose and assurance with which the exponent of nobility invokes order. Order, which characterizes the structure of the poem, is also the heart of its meaning. The society depicted is one in which form is full of significance, in which life is conducted at a dignified, processional pace, and in which life's pattern is itself a reflection, or better, a reproduction, of the order of the universe. And what gives this conception of life its perspective, its depth and seriousness, is its constant awareness of a formidably antagonistic element -- chaos, disorder -- which in life is an ever-threatening possibility, even in the moments of supremest assured-ness, and which in the poem falls across the pattern of order, being clearly exemplified in the erratic reversals of the poem's plot, and deeply embedded the poem's texture28.

The descriptive sections of the Tale support this interpretation perfectly, not only in the long passages that come immediately to mind, but also in the short flights that interrupt the narrative more than is warranted by what little information they add to the mere story. By contributing to currents that run continuously

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throughout the poem -- currents that make up the main stream of the noble life -- these superficially "irrelevant" descriptions achieve a secure position in the poem's pattern, and ultimately contribute in an important way to its meaning. The portraits of Emetrius and Lygurge, for instance, have this kind of poetic relevance although their contribution to the surface narrative is slight. Emetrius has "A mantelet upon his shulder hangynge, / Bret-ful of rubyes rede as fyr sparklynge" (2163-64). Lygurge wears

A wrethe of gold, arm-greet, of huge wighte, [2145]
Upon his heed, set ful of stones brighte,
Of fyne rubyes and of dyamauntz.

Unlike the portraits in the General Prologue, here the imagery is organized around no three-dimensional conception of personality; it is conventional, framed in the flat, to express the magnificence that befits nobility. I have noted that after all the description of these two kings they hardly figure in the narrative. The inference, however, is not that the portraits are a waste and an excrescence, "merely decorative," but that they perform a function that is not directly related to the action and is independent of the question of character. They contribute first to the poem's general texture, to the element of richness in the fabric of noble life. More specifically, Chaucer solves the problem of describing the rival companies by describing their leaders; not Palamon and Arcite, but their supporting kings29. Their varicolored magnificence, like Theseus' banner, makes the whole field glitter up and down -- black, white, yellow, red, green, and gold. Their personal attributes -- the trumpet voice of Emetrius, the great brawn of Lygurge, their looks, like lion and griffin -- give both a martial quality that we are to attribute to the whole company. About the chariot of Lygurge run great, white, muzzled hunting dogs, big as bullocks. Emetrius' pet animals are a white eagle, lions, and leopards. The fact that these animals are tame only makes the comparison with their masters the more impressive. And practically every other detail is a superlative, the quality of which contributes to martial or royal magnificence.

In some of the descriptions in the Knight's Tale, Chaucer is at his very best as a poet:

The rede statue of Mars, with spere and targe, [975]
So shyneth in his white baner large,
That alle the feeldes glyteren up and doun;
And by his baner born is his penoun

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Of gold ful riche, in which ther was ybete
The Mynotaur, which that he slough in Crete.
Thus rit this due, thus rit this conquerour,
And in his hoost of chivalrie the flour....

Even in so short a passage, the power bestowed on this description suggests a function deeper than mere ornament. It links with a score of other passages as an expression of Theseus' preeminence in war and chivalry30. For instance the very opening of the poem, with its compressed but powerful description of the conquest of the Amazons and the marriage of Ypolita, is devoted to this end, and the texture of the following incident of the mourning women of Thebes, which acts as a kind of prologue to the Knight's Tale proper, widens and perpetuates our notion of Theseus as variously the ruler, the conqueror, the judge, and, not least, the man of pity. Among many subsequent details, the magnificence of the lists and of Arcite's funeral is directly associated with Theseus' dispensations.

The establishment of this preeminence is essential to the meaning of the poem and is carried out in many aspects of it. There is an obvious correspondence between the quality of these descriptions and the position of Theseus as the central figure in the poem's pattern of characters. And like the descriptions, the speeches in the poem have a great deal of metaphoric value. If they do not operate very effectively in the interest of plot and characterization --Theseus has been likened to Polonius! -- it is because they serve other and more poetic ends; they too contribute to the pattern of tones and values which is the real substance of the poem. Those of Theseus again show him as representative of the highest chivalric conceptions of nobility. As the most noble human figure he presides over the events and interprets them. His final oration is a masterpiece of dignity. Theseus assembles his parliament, with Palamon and Emilye, to make an end of the mourning for Arcite. The speech is carefully and formally introduced:

Whan they were set, and hust was al the place, [2981]
And Theseus abiden hadde a space
Er any word cam fram his wise brest,
His eyen sette he ther as was his lest,
And with a sad visage he siked stille,
And after that right thus he seyde his wille....

The speech itself is adapted from Boethius. It is a monologue of sentence and doctrine in the medieval manner. The progress of it is logical and orderly:

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Theseus takes up first principles, then general examples from nature, and finally the matter in hand. Chaucer makes no effort to conceal its scholastic character. As a parliamentary address it is not outside the realm of possibility; but this is the least justification for it. A deeper one is its perfect agreement, in organization and content, with the principle of order which Theseus both invokes and represents throughout the tale. In a sense the representative of Fate on earth, the earthly sovereign interprets the will of the divine one:

"Thanne may men by this ordre we1 discerne [3003]
That thilke Moevere stable is and eterne."

"What maketh this but Juppiter, the kyng,
The which is prince and cause of alle thyng,
Convertynge al unto his propre welle
From which it is dirryved, sooth to telle?
And heer-agayns no creature on lyve,
Of no degree, availleth for to stryve.
Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it wee1 that we may nat eschue ...."

The king is an inveterate enemy to rebellion: "And whoso gruccheth ought, he dooth folye, / And rebel is to hym that al may gye" (3045-46). The principal representative of chivalry espouses a highly idealistic conception of the value of a good name:

"And certeinly a man hath moost honour [3047]
To dyen in his excellence and flour,
When he is siker of his goode name;
Thanne hath he doon his freend, ne hym, no shame.
And gladder oghte his freend been of his deeth,
Whan with honour up yolden is his breeth,
Than whan his name appalled is for age,
For al forgeten is his vassellage.
Thanne is it best, as for a worthy fame,
To dyen whan that he is best of name."

The actions and speeches by the central figure are the normative ones in the poem. Those of Palamon and Arcite are lesser and contributory, in the sense that they only provide the questions and the elements of variety which are to be resolved; it is Theseus who expounds the resolutions. The knights' actions are, in

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fact, exemplary of life as it is lived. In this light, it is important to differentiate carefully between the balance of tone that Chaucer preserves in his treatment of them and the more or less direct evidences of satire and of tragedy which many critics have seemed to find there. Theseus' speech on the loves of Palamon and Arcite (1785-1820), for instance, has prompted the suggestion that here Chaucer revolts against the courtly code which the knights represen31t. First of all, it must be seen that the poet is not here dealing with courtly love per se, but only with love, on a par with chivalry, as one of the persistent facts of the noble life. The tournament is held, we remember, "For love and for encrees of chivalrye" (2184). The emphasis, however, is not as in the courtly allegory, where the inner life is explored and where the action revolves about the pursuit and defense of the lady's rose. The lady in the Knight's Tale is merely a symbol of the noble man's desires. And the question of love is never in debate here. We take love in this society for granted, and then go on to discover how faithfully experience in love exemplifies the pattial blindness of all earthly experience. Love, we find, can create dissension between sworn brothers; can make a man lament his release from prison; make him forsake safety and native land; and, after unending toll of time and strength, it can leave him bloody and desirous of death. Theseus' speech on love, as his speech on Arcite's death, is normative and judicial; and to the noble, the mature mind, the paradoxically impractical quality of love is both laughable and admirable. The rivalry and consequent exploits of Palamon and Arcite are so impractical, and yet so much a reflex of their knightly spirits, that there is something to be said on both sides. Theseus' speech, therefore, is a mature appraisal, not an adverse criticism, of courtly love; certainly not a reflection of Chaucer's "strong revolt against the code."

The leavening, balancing element of common sense is signalized here, as it is usually signalized in Chaucer, by a lapse of the high style and the introduction of colloquialism:

"But this is yet the beste game of alle, [1806]
That she for whom they han this jolitee
Kan hem therfore as muche thank as me.
She woot namoore of a! this hoote fare,
By God, than woot a cokkow or an hare!"

With all this humorous ventilation of the subject, however, the real power of love is not denied:

"But all moot ben assayed, hoot and coold; [1811]
A man moot been a fool, or yong or oold,--

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I woot it by myself ful yore agon,
For in my tyme a servant was I oon.
And therfore, syn I knowe of loves peyne,
And woot hou soore it kan a man distreyne,
As he that hath ben caught ofte in his lass,
I yow foryeve al hoolly this trespaas ...."

This kind of balance, if it precludes satire, does not of course rule out the possibility of irony. Indeed, such a tone is consonant with Theseus' maturity and dignity. But the several touches of this sort in the poem, and the tensions within its structure that might also be called ironic, neither point to the moral superiority of one knight nor support a tragic attitude toward either of them. It is true that, while Chaucer equalized the Palemone and Arcita of the Teseida, he carefully preserved a certain difference between them. One serves Venus, the other Mars. One prays for Emilye, the other for victory. But it does not appear that by preserving this distinction Chaucer implies any moral preference. As the whole background of the Tale shows, the worship of Mars is no less important an aspect of the noble life than the worship of Venus. To Arcite go the honor in war, the magnificent funeral, and the intangible rewards brought out in Theseus' oration. To Palamon goes Emilye; in her are described the rewards that accrue to him as the servant of Venus. That the differentiation between the knights is ultimately a source of balance rather than of conflict can be seen even at the beginning of the poem. Palamon sees Emilye first, but his claim is balanced by Arcite's contention:

"Thyn is affeccioun of hoolynesse, [1158]
And myn is love, as to a creature...."

Now this distinction is not clearly carried out beyond the passage in question, although it has been expanded by critics to allegorical and morally significant proportions. And even if it did exist as a sustained and fundamental difference between the knights, it would not create a moral issue in the poem32.

What further deadens any possibly moralistic or tragic implications in the fate of Arcite is a touch of Chaucer's lightness. Were Arcite's death ultimately attributable to some moral disjointedness of his own, we should expect it to be made abundantly clear. But in a literature in which the advent of death is one of the most powerful instruments of moral exemplum, Chaucer goes far out of his way to stifle any such construction. In describing Arcite's death, he involves the reader not in moral conclusions, but in complicated physical data with associations so cold and scientific that no moral conclusion can possibly be drawn

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(2743-58). The spirit of moral noncommitment is brought out clearly in final lines of the narrator's comment, where again we see the leavening, commonsensical element expressed through colloquialism:

Nature hath now no dominacioun. [2758]
And certeinly, ther Nature wol nat wirche,
Fare wel phisik! go ber the man to chirche!
This al and som, that Arcita moot dye ....

The critic must be on his guard here not to exaggerate the meaning of this digression, not to convert a deftly administered antidote for tragedy into an actively satiric strain. This would be to mistake Chaucer's balance for buffoonery. Immediately following this passage comes Arcite's most elevated speech. Were the narrator's remarks to be read as a satiric comment on Arcite's death, the whole noble fabric of the speech, and of the poem too, would crumble.

If Palamon and Arcite exemplify legitimate attitudes of equal value, and balance or supplement each other in providing not moral conflict but variety, we must look not at the relationship between them, but rather at their common position in relation to the universe, to find the real moral issue in the poem. And Chaucer expresses this issue not only through a tension between the poem's symmetrically ordered structure and the violent ups and downs of the surface narrative -- too plainly to be seen to require elaborate analysis, -- but also through a complication of texture, in the weaving of darker threads among the red and gold.

I have already suggested that the poem's speeches, like its descriptions, are largely part of its texture; many of them are less important as pointing to specific psychological ccharacteristics that issue in direct action than as elements in broader organizations, with deeper and more ulterior relevance to what goes on in the poem. Thus we have from Palamon and Arcite a considerable number of lyrics, some of them contributing only to the poem's general background of conventional love and chivalry, and others, more important, in which love lament melts into poetry of a more philosophical kind, and brings us to the heart of the issue.This latter characteristic of the poem's texture supports the view that love, which has been too often regarded as the poem's central theme, is used only as a vehicle of expression, a mode of experience of the noble life, which is itself the subject of the poem and the object of its philosophic questions. Thus, in the magnificent death speech of Arcite the lyric of love merges with the philosophical, the lady addressed becomes part of the speech's descriptive imagery, and the theme of love itself is subsumed in the category of all earthly experience:

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"Naught may the woful spirit in myn herte [2765]
Declare o point of alle my sorwes smerte
To yow, my lady, that I love moost;
But I biquethe the servyce of my goost
To yow aboven every creature,
Syn that my lyf may no lenger dure.
Allas, the wo! allas, the peynes stronge,
That I for yow have suffred, and so longe!
Allas, the deeth! allas, myn Emelye!
Allas, departynge of oure compaignye!
Allas, myn hertes queene! allas, my wyf!
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf!
What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, withouten any compaignye."

Similarly, the speech of Arcite after his release from prison shifts from personal outcry to general speculation. Here, although Arcite mentions the paradoxical nature of men's designs with reference to the irony of his own position, he sounds a note which reechoes throughout the poem:

"Som man desireth for to han richesse, [1255]
That cause is of his mordre or greet siknesse;
And som man wolde out of his prisoun fayn,
That in his hous is of his meynee slayn."

The parallel lament of Palamon in prison is a variation on the same theme:

"0 crueel goddes that governe [1303]
This world with byndyng of youre word eterne,
And writen in the table of atthamaunt
Youre parlement and youre eterne graunt,
What is mankynde moore unto you holde
Than is the sheep that rouketh in the folde?
For slayn is man right as another beest,
And dwelleth eek in prison and arreest,
And bath siknesse and greet adversitee,
And ofte tymes giltelees, pardee.
What governance is in this prescience,
That giltelees tormenteth innocence?"

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The motive of misfortune and disorder is extended in ever-widening circles of reference in the descriptions of the three temples:

First in the temple of Venus maystow se [1918]
Wroght on the wal, ful pitous to biholde,
The broken slepes, and the sikes coldc,
The sacred teeris, and the waymentynge,
The firy strokes of the desirynge
That loves servantz in this lyf enduren . . .

On the walls of the temple of Diana are depicted the stories of Callisto, Daphne, Actaeon, and Meleager, all of unhappy memory. In the description of Mars's temple, the narrator is most powerful. He sees

. . .
  • the derke ymaginyng
  • [I995]
    Of Felonye, and al the compassyng;
    The crueel Ire, reed as any gleede;
    The pykepurs, and eek the pale Drede;
    The smylere with the knyf under the cloke;
    The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke;
    The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde;
    The open werre, with woundes al bibledde . . .

    In this context, the monologue of Saturn is the culminating expression of an ever-swelling undertheme of disaster:

    "Myn is the drenchyng in the see so wan; [2456]
    Myn is the prison in the derke cote;
    Myn is the stranglyng and hangyng by the throte,
    The murmure and the cherles rebellyng,
    The groynynge, and the pryvee empoysonyng...."33

    In Theseus majestic summary there is a final echo, the continuing rhetorical repetition as insistent as fate itself:

    "He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page; [3030]
    Som in his bed, som in the depe see,
    Som in the large feeld, as men may see . . ."

    This subsurface insistence on disorder is the poem's crowning complexity, its most compelling claim to maturity. We have here no glittering, romantic fairy-castle world. The impressive, patterned edifice of the noble life, its dignity and richness, its regard for law and decorum, are all bulwarks against the ever-

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    threatening forces of chaos, and in constant collision with them. And the crowning nobility, as expressed by this poem, goes beyond a grasp of the forms of social and civil order, beyond magnificence in any earthly sense, to a perception of the order beyond chaos. When the earthly designs suddenly crumble, true nobility is faith in the ultimate order of all things. Saturn, disorder, nothing more nor less, is the agent of Arcite's death, and Theseus, noble in the highest sense, interprets it in the deepest perspective. In contrast is the incomplete perception of the wailing women of Athens:

    "Why woldestow be deed," thise wommen crye, [2835]
    And haddest gold ynough, and Emelye?"

    The history of Thebes had perpetual interest for Chaucer as an example of the struggle between noble designs and chaos. Palamon and Arcite, Thebans, lovers, fighters and sufferers, through whom the pursuit of the noble life is presented, exemplify through their experiences and express through their speeches this central conflict.


    From Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning , Berkeley, 1957, pp. 175-190; printed with permission of the author.


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