N.B. Tense changes in this summary reflect the usage of the historical present in the original.
Theseus, duke of Athens, returns in triumph from Scithia, where he has conquered and married the queen of the Amazons, Ypolita. Her young sister Emelye accompanies them. As he comes to the edge of the town, his progress is interrupted by a group of weeping ladies, kneeling and clad in black.
The eldest explains that they are waiting here at the Temple of Clemency to ask Theseus' help. She is the queen, Cappaneus' wife, and the others all noble ladies, cast down by Fortune. The tyrant Creon has captured Thebes, killed their husbands, and will not allow the bodies to be buried.
The noble Theseus, moved by their plight, turns aside from Athens and leads his army to Thebes, where he slays Creon and defeats his army. He captures the city, tears down its walls, and has the bodies of the ladies' husbands properly cremated and buried.
As the pillagers ransack the bodies, the heralds recognize among the wounded two princes of the royal blood, born of sisters. Theseus sends them to Athens to dwell in prison perpetually.
Years pass; one May morning the beautiful Emelye goes a-Maying in the garden below the tower in which the prisoners are held. She gathers flowers and sings like an angel.
One of the prisoners, Palamoun, while he is lamenting his fate, happens to look out a window; he casts his eye on Emelye and cries out in pain. His fellow prisoner, Arcite, thinks he is depressed by their imprisonment and urges him to accept their destiny; they are victims of the stars. You are mistaken, Palamoun says; I was wounded through the eye by the woman or goddess I saw in the garden. He kneels and prays to Venus that if she is indeed the woman whom he saw in the garden she help him and Arcite out of prison.
Arcite looks through the window, sees Emelye, and is wounded as badly as Palamoun. He says he must have her mercy and her grace.
Palamoun is angered; he reminds Arcite that they are not only cousins but sworn brothers; he loved Emelye first and Arcite is duty bound to help him. Arcite replies that he loved her first --Palamoun thought she was a goddess, not a woman. Besides, love is a greater law than any other, and other laws may be easily broken in its name. But, why are we arguing, he asks; we are doomed to remain here in prison and neither of us can have her.
They continue bickering. One day Theseus' dearest friend Perotheus comes for a visit. He knows Arcite well and pleads with Theseus to release him. Theseus frees Arcite with the condition that he, on pain of death, never return to Athens.
Arcite is devastated by the news of his release. He would rather remain in prison, for then he would at least have the sight of she whom he loves. He repents that he ever wanted out of prison; alas, how little we understand the workings of Fortune. We often desire what brings our own destruction; I wanted freedom from prison; now that freedom exiles me from happiness; without the sight of Emelye, I shall die.
Palamoun laments as loudly as Arcite. Arcite, he says, has the better part: he is free from prison and can return to Thebes, where he can raise an army and make war on Athens, while Palamoun must remain in prison. He burns with jealousy. He complains of the cruel Gods, who torture the guiltless. Beasts, at least, are bound by no laws, and need not fear punishment after death. Saturn condemns me to prison, and Venus afflicts me with jealousy of Arcite.
Thus Palamoun remains in perpetual prison and Arcite is exiled and will see his lady never more. You lovers, I ask you this: Which has the worse?
Arcite returns to Thebes, where he so suffers for love that he neither eats nor drinks. He is so afflicted with love-sickness that his entire appearance, even his voice, is so changed that no one would recognize him.
Mercury appears to Arcite in a dream and commands him to go to Athens. He sees in a mirror how greatly changed he is, and determines to go to Athens disguised as a poor laborer. He is hired by Emelye's chamberlain; he works so hard that in a year or two he is made a page of her chamber. Theseus is so impressed that he makes him a squire of his household and holds him dear. This continues for three years.
Meanwhile Palamoun suffers in prison, so oppressed by love that he nearly loses his wits. But in the seventh year of his imprisonment, on the third night of May, whether by chance or destiny, with the help of a friend he escapes prison. The guard was given wine laced with opium, and Palamoun fled to a nearby forest, intending to set out the next day for Thebes.
Arcite, unaware of what Fortune has in store for him, sets out to do honor to May, and he happens to ride to the place where Palamoun is hiding. Palamoun sees Arcite, but he does not recognize him. Suddenly Arcite's mood changes -- as often happens to lovers -- and he falls in despair. How long, Juno, he says, will you war on Thebes and its royal line? I, once called Arcite, am now called Philostrate, deprived of my own name. Worse, Love has struck me so hard that I shall die. Emelye's eyes slay me! He faints.
These words are like a sword in Palamoun's heart. He leaps out and shouts that Arcite is a false traitor and that he, Palamoun, is his mortal foe. Unless he renounces his love for Emelye, one of the two must die.
Arcite replies that he will love Emelye despite all. He will supply Palamoun with food and drink and he will bring him armor and weapons, and the next day they will fight to the death.
It is true; love will have no fellowship. Early the next morning Arcite returns with the weapons, and they fight as fiercely as wild beasts, up to the ankles in their own blood.
Fate, which executes God's will, is so strong that sometimes something happens that will not happen again in a thousand years; all is ruled by God's foresight. Theseus, who loves to hunt the great hart in May, has risen early and ridden out a-hunting, accompanied by Ypolita and Emelye, all clad in green, and they come to the forest where Palamoun and Arcite are fighting.
When Theseus sees them he commands them to stop and demands to know who is here fighting without judges or other officers. Palamoun confesses their identities: This, he says, is your mortal foe Arcite, who called himself Philostrate and who loves Emelye,and I am Palamoun, who also loves her. He admits they both deserve death.
Theseus says that indeed they shall both die. But his queen, moved by womanhood, begins to weep, and so does Emelye and all others. They kneel and beg Theseus for mercy until at last his anger abates; pity comes quickly to a noble heart. A lord should have pity and take account of circumstances in rendering judgment.
How mighty a lord is the God of Love! He rules each heart as he wishes. See what he has done to Palamoun and Arcite. They could have lived royally in Thebes but Love has brought them here to die. That is what Love has done for them. But the best joke is that she for whom they are fighting knows nothing about it. Yet a man must be a fool, either when young or when old. I know that from my own experience; I was a lover once. Having said this, Theseus forgives the two young men.
Theseus then says that each of them is worthy to marry Emelye, but obviously she cannot marry both. Therefore he will sponsor a great tournament a year hence; Palamoun and Arcite are each to bring a hundred knights. Whoever slays his opponent or drives him out of the lists will win Emelye. The two young men rejoice and return to Thebes to gather their armies.
Men would think me neglectful if I failed to tell you of the great expense that Theseus incurred in building the lists. It was built round, with walls and a moat, with seats in tiers. There was a white marble gate on the East and another on the West. Above the eastern Gate is a temple of Venus, on the west side a temple of Mars, and on the north a temple of Diana, goddess of chastity.
I must not forget to tell you of the sculpture and paintings in these chapels.
On the walls in the temple of Venus are painted sighs, tears, lamenting, and other sorrows that lovers suffer, along with their oaths and Pleasure, Hope, Desire and such; indeed Venus' principal dwelling was painted there and her garden with its porter Idleness, and also Narcissus, Solomon, and others whom love has overcome. The statue of Venus was naked, floating on the sea, with a musical instrument in her hand and a rose garland on her head. Her blind son Cupid stood before her, with his bow and arrows.
The temple of Mars was a dark and grisly place, like the temple in Thrace that is his principal residence. A stormy forest is painted on the wall, made of steel, dark, and guarded by heavy iron-bound doors. There is Felony, rage, murder, and such. There are paintings of corpses with their throats cut, devastated towns, burning ships, hunters killed by bears, infants devoured by sows in their cradles. There are paintings of the murder of Julius Caesar and Nero and others whose deaths were shaped by the stars. The statue of Mars stood on a chariot, with the stars Puella and Rubeus above him and at his feet a red-eyed wolf, devouring a man.
The temple of Diana was painted with scenes of hunting and chastity, with Calisitopee transformed into a bear, Dane (Daphne) transformed into a tree, and Acteon devoured by his own dogs, because he saw Diana naked, as well as others whom the goddess punished. Her statue was seated on a hart, a moon at her feet, dressed in green and with a bow and arrow. A woman in childbirth lay before her, calling for her help. The colors for this cost a great deal.
Now I turn to Palamoun and Arcite. The day of their return approaches, and they come to Athens, each with a hundred knights. So noble a company was never seen, for everyone who loves chivalry and would have a good name wanted to take part. You know well this would be the same case today. To fight for a lady -- bless me! -- that is a sight to see!
Palamoun's company contains knights armed in every way. The great king of Thrace, Lygurge, is there himself; he rides on a chariot of gold, drawn by white oxen. He is richly clad in gold and jewels, and about his chariot run twenty-two white hunting dogs, each as large as a steer.
With Arcite is Emetreus, the great king of India, riding on a steed clad in steel and covered with cloth of gold; he seems like Mars himself. His saddle is covered with jewels, and he is handsome; he wears a garland on his head and carries an eagle. There are many noble lords in his company and many a tame lion and leopard.
All arrive early on Sunday morning. Theseus sees that they are richly housed and he entertains them at an elaborate feast. There is no time to tell you where they sat, what ladies were most beautiful or who spoke most feelingly of love; I must come to the point.
Sunday night, two hours before dawn on Monday morning, Palamoun goes to Venus' Temple. He prays to Venus to have mercy on him, and vows to be her true servant. He does not ask for victory but only that he have Emelye. He makes his sacrifice and the statue of Venus is motionless for a while and then shakes. He takes this as a sign that his prayer will be answered, though with some delay.
The third planetary hour after this, Emelye rises with the sun and goes to Diana's temple with her maidens. She washes her body and does her rite, but what it is I shall not tell. She prays to Diana, asking that she be allowed to remain a maiden all her life; Turn the hearts of Palamoun and Arcite away from me; if I must marry, send me the one who most desires me. She weeps. The fires on the altar go out, come to life again, and go out with a roaring sound, and blood drips from the brands. Emelye is frightened, but Diana appears and addresses her: You must wed one of them, she says, though I cannot tell you which. The goddess disappears with a clattering of her arrows, and Emelye, not knowing what this all means, leaves.
In the next planetary hour of Mars following this Arcite goes to Mars' temple. O fierce God of arms, he prays, I burned for love as you burned for the love of Venus that time that Vulcan caught you. Help me in the battle tomorrow, and I will be your true servant forever. The fires on the alter flared up, a sweet smell came up from the ground, Mars' armor clattered, and a low voice murmured "Victory!" Elated, Arcite returns to his lodgings.
At this a great dispute arose in the heavens between Venus and Mars. Jupiter could not stop it, but the aged Saturn, who had learned much in his long life, found a remedy. My daughter, he says to Venus, I who bring ruin to men, shall manage things so that Palamoun shall have his lady even though Mars will give victory to Arcite. Now to the main point.
There was great festivity in Athens that May. All Monday they jousted and danced. The next day there was great activity throughout the city; armor was donned, lords rode about, armorers worked, and yeomen and commoners thronged, music played, and all speculated about who would do best in the fight.
Theseus was awakened by the music and noise but he waited until the Theban knights came to his palace. Then he appeared before the people. The heralds called for silence and announced his decision: He desires no loss of life; projectiles, poleaxes, short knives, and short swords are not to be used. Each rider is to charge but once with a sharpened spear. If anyone is captured, he is to be brought to a stake where he must remain. If either leader is slain or captured, the fighting is to stop. The people cheer this proclamation, and the trumpets blow as the procession begins to pass through the city.
Theseus rides with the two knights to the lists and takes his place with Ypolita and Emelye. Arcite enters from the West gate, under the temple of Mars. At the same moment Palamoun enters from the east, under the temple of Venus. The two sides are evenly matched. The cry goes up "Do now your duty, proud young knights!"
The melee begins with a general charge; spears are shattered, swords hammer on helms, blood flows, and maces smash bones. Horse stumble; one knight falls under the hoofs of the horses, another tries to defend himself with a broken spear, others are hurt and taken to the stake. They fight all day, with Theseus ordering breaks for rest. Palamoun and Arcite duel fiercely; their blood flows freely.
All things must end. Finally Palamoun, wounded by Emetreus, is dragged down by twenty men and forced to the stake. When Theseus sees this, he orders the fighting to stop.
In the heavens Venus weeps so much at this frustration of her will that her tears fall in the lists. Saturn reassures her; Mars has had his will; now you shall soon be eased.
The trumpets blow and Arcite removes his helmet and rides through the field, looking at Emelye; and she looks upon him with a friendly eye (for women follow the favor of Fortune). Suddenly, a fury sent from hell by Saturn, rises up. Arcite's horse rears up, catching him unaware, and he falls violently forward on the pommel of his saddle; he falls from the horse, his breast-bone broken, blood running in his face. He is carried out of the lists and cut out of his armor; he was still conscious, calling for Emelye.
Theseus returns to the city; men say that Arcite will recover and all look to their own wounds. Theseus comforts them all, and no one can call Palamoun's misadventure cowardly, since he was one man alone captured by so many. Theseus declares both sides have won, and he gives all gifts, holds a feast for three days, and accompanies each departing guest out of town.
Arcite's breast swells, increasing the pain at his heart. The clotted blood left in his chest corrupts and no medical attention can help. His body cannot expel the poison; the lungs swell, and every muscle is infected. Neither vomiting nor laxative can help; everything is broken; Arcite must die.
He sends for Emelye and Palamoun. He says to Emelye that though he cannot declare all his sorrows to her, he bequeaths her the service of his spirit. Alas, the sorrows that he feels for her. He asks her to take him in her arms and tells her that though he has had strife with Palamoun, there is no one so worthy to be loved as Palamoun, who loves Emelye. If ever you should be a wife, Arcite tells her, forget not Palamoun. With that word his speech fails; the cold begins to grip him and his heart begins to fail. His last words were "Mercy, Emelye." His spirit left to go I know not where.
Emily shrieks, Palamoun howls, and Theseus carries away the swooning Emelye. All of Thebes mourns for Arcite. No one could cheer up Theseus except his old father Egeus, who knew the inevitable changes of the world. He tells Theseus that just as no one has ever died who did not live, so no one lives who will not die. We are but pilgrims passing through this world.
Theseus sets about providing for the sepulcher. He decides it will be in the grove where he first came upon Arcite and Palamoun fighting for their love. He orders trees cut for the fire and arranges the bier, spread with cloth of gold, upon which lay Arcite, crowned with laurel. Theseus has the bier brought into the hall.
Then came Palamoun, weeping, and Emelye, saddest of all. Steeds bearing the trappings of Arcite are ridden by servants carrying Arcite's arms. They ride through the main street, spread with black, toward the grove. Egeus and Theseus walk bearing offering offerings; Palamoun comes with a great company, and then comes Emelye carrying a burning torch to start the funeral pyre.
Great work went into making the huge fire. First a great load of straw was laid. But I shall not tell how the fire was made nor the names of the trees that were used -- oak, fir, and such -- nor how they were felled. Nor how the gods and creatures of the forest fled for fear. Nor how the fire was laid first with straw, then sticks, then green wood and spices, cloth of gold and jewels; nor how Arcite lay there; nor how Emelye lit the fire; nor how she swooned nor what she said nor what jewels men cast in the flames; nor what other offerings were cast in; nor how the Greeks rode about the fire nor how Arcite was burned; nor the wake held that night, the funeral games, their return to Athens. I intend to be brief.
After some years the mourning abates. In Athens a parliament decides to make an alliance with Thebes. Theseus sends for Palamoun; he comes still clothed in black. Then Theseus sends for Emelye. When all were still, he said thus:
The First Mover knew well what he was about when he first made the fair chain of love, which unites the elements of fire, air, water, and earth. That same Mover has established limits of duration to all creatures, beyond which they cannot endure. By this order we can see that the First Mover is eternal. All in nature takes its beginning from something that is perfect and whole. And so all things must pass. The oak grows slowly and lives long but yet it dies. Stones under are feet are worn down. Rivers go dry. Cities pass away. Man and woman too must die. What causes this but Jupiter that turns all back to its origin. One cannot deny this.
Then is it wisdom to make a virtue of necessity and to accept cheerfully what we cannot escape. He who objects is foolish. Certainly it is best for one to die young, while he is at the height of his honor, rather than to die old when he is forgotten. To object to this is mere self-will. Why complain that Arcite is departed with honor out of the prison of this life? Let us rather thank Jupiter for his grace. Before we depart, let us make one perfect joy of two sorrows.
Sister, says Theseus to Emelye, my advice and that of my parliament is that you show some pity unto Palamoun and take him as your husband. He is a king's son and he has served you for many years. He tells Palamoun to take Emelye's hand. The bond of marriage was made between them, and they were wed with great bliss. He serves her so gently and he loves her so tenderly that there was never a jealous nor argumentative word between them. Thus ends the tale. God save this company!