But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gypon
Al bismotered with his habergeon,
For he was late ycome from his viage,
And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.
Theseus, duke of Athens, returning with Ypolita from his conquest of the Amazons, turns aside to defeat Creon, the tyrant of Thebes, who has unjustly refused burial for his victims. Among the wounded are Palamon and Arcite, young Thebans of royal blood. Theseus condemns them to perpetual imprisonment. From the window of their cell they see the lovely Emily, Ypolita's young sister, with whom both fall in love. They argue over who shall have her, though both are helplessly imprisoned. Perotheus, a friend of Theseus, obtains Arcite's release on the condition he never returns to Athens. Arcite is so ravaged by love he is no longer recognizable; he returns to Athens, disguised, and takes service in Theseus' household. Palamon, by help of a friend, escapes from captivity. He hides in a woodland where he comes upon Arcite bemoaning his love for Emily. The two former friends engage in deadly battle. Theseus, hunting with his queen Ypolita and Emily, comes upon the duel and stops it. The ladies plead for the lives of the young men, and Theseus spares them and arranges for a great tournament, with one hundred knights to a side, to determine who shall have Emily. The tournament is held a year later. Palamon prays to Venus to grant him Emily and the goddess agrees; Arcite prays to Mars for victory, and Mars agrees. Wise old Saturn finds a way to satisfy both Mars and Venus. Palamon loses the tournament; he is captured, and Arcite rides through the arena in triumph. But a fury sent from hell by Saturn frightens his horse, who suddenly rears and fatally injures him. Medicine does not avail, and he dies. All are deep in mourning, Theseus is so saddened that only his old father Egeus can comfort him. But years ease the pain, and in Parliament Theseus proposes the marriage of Emily and Palamon, which brings final peace between Thebes and Athens. They live in perfect love, with never a harsh word between them.
Since this is the first long narrative assigned in this course, students may wish to read through a more detailed summary of the Knight's Tale in order to get a clear idea of the narrative before turning to the Middle English version. (Students reading this text for the first time may also find an interlinear translation helpful (though they should move on to the Middle English as soon as possible.)
Chaucer's story of Palamon and Arcite is based on Boccaccio's Teseide. It proved to be one of Chaucer's most popular works; Shakespeare collaborated on a dramatic version (see The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, ed. Eugene M. Waith, Oxford, 1989), and he drew on the Knight's Tale for his Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer's Night's Dream.
Boccaccio had based his work on the Thebaid of Statius, and he aimed for an elevated, classical style. By quoting Statius at the beginning of the tale, Chaucer shows that he too aims at the "high style." Compare the opening lines of the Knight's Tale (KT, 859-874) with the opening stanza of Anelida and Arcite (Riverside Chaucer, p. 376), an earlier experiment in the same mode.
Nevertheless the Knight's Tale is a romance, though a very unusual one, rather than a pseudo-classical epic; its high style, learned astrological references, and heavy infusion of philosophical, mainly Boethian themes set it apart from most English popular romances of the time. Yet its emphasis on the noble life, the courtly love of Palamon and Arcite for Emelye, and the concern with duels, tournaments, and aristocratic ceremonial show its concern with matters of romance in its broader sense.
The tale is well suited to the teller, since Chaucer's Knight has had a long and distinguished career in the profession of arms. For the careers of some actual knights of the time, many of whom had been at the same places where the Knight had campaigned, see the testimony offered by various knights and squires (including Chaucer) in the Scrope-Grosvenor Trial. The tale the Knight tells is an expression of the noble ideal as it was probably understood by many of the knights who testified in that trial.
The Knight's Tale has evoked much interpretive criticism; for starters:
David Aers, "Imagination, Order and Ideology: The Knight's Tale," from Chaucer, Langland, and the creative imagination, 1980, pp. 175-95.
Susan Crane, ""Medieval Romance and Feminine Difference in the Knight's Tale," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 12 (1990), pp. 47-63.
Charles Muscatine, ""The Knight's Tale," Chaucer and the French Tradition, pp. 175-190.
Charles Muscatine's interpretation is still the dominant reading, but a great variety of points of view can be accommodated by so complex a work as this, and students who choose to explore the bibliographies will find a broad range of opinion.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Knight's Tale, click here.