Parallel Performances of a Passage from "Knight's Tale"

[This page is in tended to give you a rough model for how to incorporate pre-recorded performances into your CT tale presentation.  You can still elect to perform the passage(s) "live" rather than pre-recording them.  You also have the choice to use Audioboo or a digital recorder of your choice.  Please post your presentation materials (bibliography, notes, images, sound files) to the course on GoucherLearn so that your colleagues can make use of them.  As always, I am eager to help you prepare.  It's a time for both of us to learn more about Chaucer's art by concentrating our closest attention on specific passages.]

Knight's Tale" ll. 859-63

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,                 859
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;              860
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,       861
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,            862
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne. 863

1)  Why I picked this passage to perform--The first lines of the tale typically are used to establish the speaker's attitude toward her/his tale and to set hearers' expectations.  In this case, the Knight's voice can treat this pagan chivalric romance as a serious matter to be used as an example of proper conduct or as something ironically recalled and intended to entertain more than to serve as a model of correct knightly behavior.  Since the pilgrim Knight is telling a story about members of his own estate (i.e., the nobility), even though the tale is set in a distant time and place he might intend it to be taken seriously.  Because it is a pagan tale about classical Greek characters, however, he might also treat some aspects of it more skeptically than he would a tale about contemporary English knights (see the "Monk's Tale" for the "modern instances").  The teller may also shift back and forth between serious and satirical voices.  The "General Prologue" portraits' contrast between the pilgrim Kinght and his son, the pilgrim Squire, could establish a conflict between two kinds of knighthood or "chivalry," an older, combat-grounded form of feudal service to one's lord, and a newer, fashion-conscious and artistically talented form of courtly service to one's lady. Theseus may stand for the Knight's vision of the former, older chivalry, and Palamon and Arcite may stand for the latter, newer chivalry. Testing the two voices, one earnest and one skeptical or even playful, specifically allows us to consider whether we should take seriously Theseus' conquest of "femenye" ("femaleness," or more concretely, the realm of the Amazons).

2)  What performing the passage helped me see--The first version is so serious that it admits almost no doubt about the glory of Theseus' conquest of the Amazons or his excellence as a warrior.  The second raises the pitch of certain words to draw attention to the slightly daft notion of a "conqueror" making war on a nation of women and bringing their queen home as his wife.  Myth allows such events because it tries to explain mysteries of human culture (Levi-Strauss's "double structure"--how does the tale's literal content help explain male dominance of femaleness in a patriarchal culture?  Males conquered and subdued females by battle).  Realistic or what Chaucer might call "historial" narrative must pass tests of plausibility.  What female leader, conquered in battle by a male opponent, would consent to marry him?  How can such pagan fables have anything serious to teach us about marital relations today?  Might the deeper significance (again Structuralism or Psychoanalytic) have more to do with Theseus' attempt to conquer the female/vulnerable side of his own character as it is open to fate's unpredictable wounds?  In that case, we're reading psychological allegory, not historical fact.

3)  How might the passage help us read the rest of this tale or other tales--The Knight and his mythic stand-in, Theseus, both come to treat the erotic plot of Palamon's and Arcite's competition for the hand of Emelye as a somewhat comic affair, but the Knight and Theseus also treat the armed combat that results as a deadly serious matter.  At least until the narrator's last despairing or even flippant comment about medical care for massive thoracic injuries, warfare draws the Knight's most serious attention, as much for its unintended civilian casualties as for its cost to "chivalry."  There is less ambiguity about the Knight's treatment of the "courtly love" plot which may begin a larger thematic examination of love and marriage as a tale topic.  As early as Chaucer's own era, readers appear to have sensed a strong "marriage" theme in the tales, in addition to the anti-clerical satire, moral didacticism, and erotic comedy.  Twentieth-century critics under the influence of "New Criticism" sought thematic unity in the Canterbury Tales by reading many of the tales as a "marriage debate" about the proper balance of power and responsibility between male and female wedded couples.  Because KT always starts the tale-telling game in all surviving tale orders, its teller's attitude toward marriage and gender roles might be extremely important.  It also might help prepare us to judge the Miller as a reader, since his interruption of the Host's attempt to pass the teller's role to the Monk seems based on Robyn's challenge to the Knight's Tale's depiction of courtship, love, and marriage.  Does the Miller misread an ironic Knight, or does he justly expose the aristocratic myth of courtly love as nonsense?