Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Knight's Tale" Parts 1 and 2


Chivalric romance, with elements of epic (gods take interest, larger than life hero) and satire (Theseus' mockery of courtly love excesses, pathos of Palamon's and Arcite's attempts to know their fates).


Rhyming couplets, arranged in four parts which correspond roughly to the following mood changes: epic to romance (the "enamourment" of Palamon and Arcite, and their "lovers' dilemma"); romance to epic (the fateful encounter in the woods and Theseus' intervention); epic (formal description of stadium and lovers' parallel prayers, gods' response); and romance to epic (tournament with blunted weapons ends in happy victory, but suddenly the play-battle ends in a real death).  The Riverside Chaucer's Explanatory Notes offer a nice, efficient summary of the wide-ranging critical opinions about the tale's "romance" or "epic" character (827). However, the mixture of moods is hard to deny, and their effect upon readers clearly is intentional.


The mythic hero, Theseus, the duke of Athens, his queen, Ypolyta, her sister, Emelye, and the cousins (and sworn brothers) Palamon and Arcite of Thebes.

(Minor characters: Perotheus, Theseus' boyhood friend, and the man who helps Palamon escape from prison)


Theseus, who can conquer the Amazons and Thebans, can't conquer Fate.  Palamon and Arcite, who fight for love, kill first their friendship and then one dies.  Emelye, the shy ingenue, prays for chastity but winds up with the winner.  The gods work things out in the end, so what should we poor humans do?  Colin Fewer (Purdue U., English 240) summary of parallel passages comparing Boccaccio's Il Teseide and "Knight's Tale": Of course, as a good scholar and careful researcher you would always double-check Fewer's precis of the Boccaccio text against (at least!) the English translation of Boccaccio, available in the Library's print collection.

Interpretive Issues:

Before we go any further...

0)  Beginning with "0" like IBM, let's take a moment to think what kind of animal a Geoffrey Chaucer might be.  He'll be called a "medieval" English author by the GRE question writers and your grad school comprehensive exam board.  However, several things distinguish him from other "medieval" English authors like Will Langland (Piers Plowman), John Gower (Mirour de l'Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis), Julian of Norwich (Showings), and the Pearl-Poet (Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness, Patience).  Unlike his contemporaries, who see the world in terms of the soul's struggle with sin and often represent that struggle allegorically,  Chaucer resembles the later Humanist writers in his focus on the human condition and his use of classical literature for plots, characters and techniques.   Langland might be said to have the social vision, but he frames it in moral terms in an allegorical plot.  Gower uses classical material (e.g., in CA) but forces it into traditional medieval moral contexts.  Julian is alligned with the Continental women's mystical tradition, in which allegory becomes realized in visions, and she professes almost no care for worldly matters.  Only P-P's Gawain has something of Chaucer's human-centered focus, from which God has retreated as a major motivator of action, but P-P's other work depends on moral dramas which often are allegorical.  Chaucer is the first major writer in English to fuse classical pagan narrative issues and techniques with the medieval English tradition.  Boccaccio has shown him the way in KT's source, Il Teseide, but Chaucer typically has increased the tale's focus on characters' mental processes, reducing the tendency to see them as romance type-characters.  You will never see KT for the remarkable innovation in medieval English literature which it is if you do not spend at least a few minutes reading some of these other contemporaries' works.  Since it's still early in the semester and you may have time, you can find P-P, Gower and Langland represented on Labyrinth's Middle English text archive.  Julian's works can be found on Luminarium.  Of all the versions, the most beautiful and careful is Julia Bolton Holloway's website based on the Westminister Cathedral/Abbey Manuscript, with excellent images of the MS.

Part 1:

1) The tale begins when the Knight tells us, apparently approvingly, that Theseus has "conquered al the regne of Femenye" (I: 866). The gloss points out that this indicates the land of the Amazons, but it also implies "land of women," or even "the power of the Feminine," itself. Less than three hundred lines later, two knights will be "conquered" by their love for Emelye. How do the gender dynamics of this tale help to shape its structure, and what do you suppose the pilgrim Knight really might be saying about the mythic hero's "conquest"?  Depending upon our oral performance, we might begin to view him either with veneration or ironically even in the first five lines, which appear in silent reading to establish Theseus unambiguously as "swich a conquerour / That gretter was ther noon under the sonne" (I: 862-3).  Click here to hear a "venerating" reading, followed by one which invites ironic reception because of its emphases on the tale's source and the effects of time.

2) Theseus' triumphal entry into "Atthenes" (sound both the "t" and the "th"!) is interrupted by the pleas of the widows of Corinth whose husbands, after dying in battle against the Thebans, were left unburied by the Theban ruler, Creon. (See Sophocles' Antigone for another literary response to this mythic situation.) This appeal will have a "twin" in the appeal of Ypolita and Emelye to spare the lives of Palamon and Arcite in Part 2 (I: 1748-60). This is the first of many formal parallelisms in the tale that reflect the Knight's interest in balance, but it also sets up a thematic pattern in which Theseus' will is moved from its course by the pleas of women. How might you describe the Corinthian women's rhetorical appeal to Theseus--to what standards of behavior and values do they point in their request? What does this do for the tale's underlying system of values, and how might this reflect the Knight's character? (Note especially those repeated invocations of "Fortune," personified--also "hir that turneth as a bal" in "Truth" [page 653, l. 9].)

3) The shield and pennant of Theseus are described in some detail (I: 975-80), especially the figures of Mars and the "Mynotaur." Look up the story of Theseus and the Cretan Labyrinth in Edith Hamilton's Mythology or Robert Graves' The Greek Myths for a quick review of the creature's origins and Theseus' encounter with it. Think about the way myths encode basic understandings about human nature, etc. What does this half-bull-half-man stand for, and why is his prison a labyrinth? Why would the conqueror of "Femenye" put the Minotaur and not the Labyrinth on his pennant? What does it mean that his shield bears the god Mars?  For a brief explanation of "coats of arms," click here.

4) Palamon and Arcite are introduced with an almost off-hand lack of attention to detail that tends to make them seem like identical twins. Boccaccio's Il Teseida della nozze d'Emelia, from which this plot was taken, individuates the cousins far more clearly, but Chaucer's version makes them more different from Theseus than from each other (RC: 827). What does the revision of these two knights do to the tale's overall dynamics, especially with respect to the tale's romance/epic and female/male struggles?

5) Poor Emelye is even more reduced in size and "roundness" from the character "Emilia" in Boccaccio. This could be part of the tale's overall condensation of the source (almost 10,000 lines in Boccaccio to 2249 lines in KT). However, Chaucer did much more than merely cut the source's lines and paste them together in his own. Only about 700 lines in KT correspond to lines in the Teseida, so Chaucer clearly is re-writing the tale to suit his own purposes. What rules does he follow for making a Romance type-character like "Emelye" and how might they relate to his revision of Palemone into Palamon and Arcita into Arcite?

6) Arcite and Palamon, who were cousins by birth and had sworn to be faithful as brothers (I: 1131-2), immediately fall to fighting after they see Emelye in the garden. What principles do they invoke to defend their claims to love her and how do those rules compare with those we know from Andreas Capellanus' The Art of Courtly Love? Does either "brother" have a stronger case? And note that this quarrel is juxtaposed directly with Perotheus' appeal to Theseus for Arcite's freedom on the grounds of Perotheus' having been "felawe...unto duc Theseus / Syn thilke day that they were children lite" (I: 1192-3--see Hamilton or Graves for their classically famous friendship which led Perotheus to accompany Theseus even to the Underworld when his friend needed him). What's the Knight (and Chaucer) up to here? Note that release of a prisoner "withouten any raunsoun" was an enormously high mark of esteem because ransom payments were a major, non-inherited source of income to knights of Chaucer's day (I: 1205). 

7)  K.B. McFarlane has described an astonishingly similar, but real, oath of war-brotherhood between Nicholas Molyneux and John Winter, squires in the last year of  Henry V's successful military campaign in France.  In Harfleur, they swore to undertake certain specific things if one were captured and the other went free, and they also swore to behave in certain ways if they were successful in battle.  This oath might even have been inspired by the story of Palamon and Arcite, though if it was, Molyneux and Winter learned a great deal from the Theban knights' mistakes, but we can assume such compacts were not unheard of among young soldiers in Chaucer's day (for he was a squire held captive in France and was ransomed with money provided by Edward III).  Consult the "brothers" terms of agreement and think about the effects of Palamon's and Arcite's behaviors upon some young warriors in Chaucer's Knight's audience who might have sworn, or contemplated swearing such an oath.  What effects do the Thebans' love-induced acts create in such readers?  What should we expect and how are our expectations treated?  (K.B. McFarlane, "A Business Partnership in War and Administration, 1421-45," English Historical Review 78 (1963) 290-308.  And yes, the JRL has it in the stacks at  942.005 E58 Periodicals).

8) What is the effect of Arcite's release on Arcite, himself, and how is this paradox affecting Palamon? This leads to the Knight's famous "question of love," a commonplace strategy in the French texts involving "courtly love" which we'll see again at the end of "Franklin's Tale" (V: 1621-22). How does this shape the reader's reception of the tale, and how might it script the actions of a live audience for Chaucer's performance of the "Knight's Tale" in a courtly setting? How does this tale's division into parts (inherited from Boccaccio's epic machinery but reduced from 12 parts to 4) affect the reader's interpretation of the parts' contents? For an interesting experiment, remove lines 1347-54 and read straight through the break (as one does after the Theban princes are thrown in the clink at 1020-32). Also, if you want to test the strength of Chaucer's authorial vision of this tale in four books with divisions where we now find them, check the textual notes to see if any manuscripts have survived without the "question of love" and part division at this site (RC: 1123).

9) Note that Palamon, in the course of his lament, inveighs against the "crueel goddes that governe(s) / This worlde with byndyng of youre word eterne" (I: 1303-4). That's our old friend, Fortuna. Consider the force of his demand: "What governance is in this prescience, / That gilteless tormenteth innocence?" (I: 1313-14). Now remember that Chaucer the Pilgrim, his Knight, and all the inscribed audience of the Knight's tale are Christians on a pilgrimage. What do devout Christians believe about "prescience"--that is, Who has that power to know all? What enormous difference is there between the Theban knight and these pilgrims, and what poignant effect does that have upon the way Chaucer's contemporary audience would have understood Palamon's complaint?   (Shakespeare used a similar contextual strategy to ratchet up King Lear's pathos.)  Do you and your fellow seminar members think of yourselves more like Palamon does, or more like Chaucer's contemporaries? And finally, why is Chaucer causing his pilgrim Knight to tell this tale while explicitly raising, but not interpreting, this fundamental doctrinal problem? (This puzzle also is extremely important to our reading of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, which shares some lines with this tale, is about knights pondering their fortunes in Troy before its fall, appears to have been in composition at around the same period, and also is adapted from a tale by Boccaccio [Il Filostrato].)

Part 2--

1) Arcite returns to Thebes and promptly lapses into "love sickness," a disease which the medieval physician diagnosed from the symptoms the Knight described and medicated with various herbs and foods. The Knight calls it "the loveris maladye / Of Hereos," a very specific form of the illness that has peculiar mental effects. Check the Explanatory Notes and glosses for the technical terms. Can you interpret what Arcite is experiencing in modern terms, or is this a malady that only a medieval character could suffer since it depends upon mental attitudes and social conventions that mostly have disappeared?

2) The immediate product of Arcite's lousy health is a prophetic dream in which Mercury comes to him with a helpful message: "To Atthenes shaltou wende, / Ther is thee shapen of thy wo an ende" (1391-2). To readers familiar with the functions of Mercury (or Hermes), the classical messenger of the gods in epics like the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, this is a deeply troubling message because of its ambiguity. The "end" of Arcite's woe could result from a number of things, some good and some bad for Arcite, but all we know is that this "end" is meant to happen in Atthenes. Remember Oedipus and the Delphic Oracle. How might this establish the grounds for a shift from romance to epic mood? Did Chaucer get it from Boccaccio, or did he introduce it himself (RC: 832)?

3) Arcite's term of service in Theseus' court is a manual for "how to succeed at court." What are the criteria one must meet in order to "get ahead" in courtly society, and how does this relate to the Knight's core values? It's also perhaps significant that Arcite's pseudonym, "Philostrate" (I: 1428), "conquered by love," is the name of the work by Boccaccio from which Chaucer adapted the Troilus (Il Filostrato, see Part 1 note 8, above). This qualifies as a tacit allusion to both Boccaccio's work and Chaucer's adaptation of it. What might that tell us about what Chaucer intends us to see in Arcite's actions?

4)  Palamon's jailbreak is a wonderful illustration of Chaucer's use of conventional transition formulae common in English medieval romances. When the narrator wants us to compare Arcite's condition with Palamon's, he emphasizes his own role in moving us from one plot strand to another: "And in this blisse lete I now Arcite, / And speke I wole of Palamon a lite" (I: 1449-51). In the midst of the narration of Palamon's terrible imprisonment, however, an unusual event takes place, one not under the narrator's control but attributable to Fate or Divine Providence: "It fel that in the seventhe yer, of May / The thridde nyght (as olde bookes seyn, / That al this storie tellen moore pleyn), / Were it by aventure or destynee-- / As, whan a thyng is shapen, it shal be--" (I: 1462-66). How does this sudden event overturn the paradoxical situation that we were in at the end of Part 1, and what does it suggest about the events that follow? How might it relate to Mercury's sudden, unmotivated intervention in Arcite's life? What does it eventually result in for the Theban knights?

5) Arcite, the lover, naturally seeks leafy groves wherein to sing his love's praises, and is overheard by the escaped Palamon, who has taken refuge in this very wood, a typical instance of romance plot coincidence. What does this generic element suggest about the way the world works, and why would medieval audiences be so reliably delighted by them that countless plots would contain this kind of device?

6)  Palamon's tirade against Arcite's song creates another of those formal parallels that the Knight's narrative aesthetic is noted for (see Part 1, number 2).  In it, the offended knight makes out the case for his mortal offense at Arcite's behavior, and calls for satisfaction in a formal duel: "But for as muche thou art a worthy knyght / and wilnest to darreyne hire by bataille, / Have heere my trouthe; tomorowe I wol not faille...etc. (I: 1608-10). A reader of the Troilus coined the term "cosmic laughter" for the protagonist's after-death reaction to realizing what his life really had been about. Is there a cause for such laughter in Palamon's challenge to Arcite? (Theseus thinks so--see especially I: 1806-10.) Has Palamon really escaped from prison, or is he still "bound" according to a medieval English understanding of a knight's status?

7) The Knight's comments on Cupid explicitly contrast the pagan god of eros with "charitee," the Christian virtue Paul called caritas, or the disinterested love of one's neighbor. What does this contribute to the pagan-Christian tension that has been building in this tale? Note that this is the narrator's first-person interruption of the tale and may be taken to represent the Knight's opinion in his own life, as well as in the narrative's world.

8)  As Rick says in Casablanca, "Destiny takes a hand" again in the plot again when Theseus' May observance (the same thing that put Emelye in that garden and Arcite in the woods!) rides by the grove and sees them fighting.   Note that his first response is to part the combatants with the heralds' ceremonial "Hoo!," used to separate contestants at a tournament, and his complaint is that they don't fight with any "officere, / As it were in a lystes roially" (I: 1706; 1712-13). This passage has aroused much critical comment. What does it tell you about Theseus' world view (vs. the younger knights) and how might it explain his strategy for settling the dispute in Parts 3 and 4?

9) Once Palamon has peached on Arcite, we get the second "women's intervention in the hero's plan" and Theseus changes his mind. In a manner characteristic of Chaucer (but RARE in medieval literature) we get an extensive account of his thinking and emotions before he responds to their plea. What does he think, and what does he say, and how might the Knight intend us to interpret this? Especially note that he says "For in my tyme a servant was I oon" of Love, and that he knows "hou sore it kan a man distreyne" (I: 1814, 1816). Look up "distrain" or "distraint" in a good dictionary, especially the OED or MED. If love can distrain one, what does that mean about promises and oaths made before love's effect, and what does that mean about our ability to maintain a consistent character in the world?   This also gives Chaucer a chance to use a line he has translated from Dante's Inferno, and which he also uses in a radically different context in "Merchant's Tale": "pittee renneth soone in gentil herte" (I.1761, also see IV.1987 on RC: 163).  It's not an unambiguous utterance, even in Dante's usage: "Amor, ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende" (Inferno Canto V), which typically is translated "Love, that on gentle heart quickly lays hold."   What does that tell you about Chaucer's usage, "pitee," and what does its context in Dante tell you about the hidden danger of that quality?  Especially, why does Chaucer seem to have substituted "pitee" for "Amor."  To read all or part of the Divina Comedia, either in English translation or in the original Italian, click here.

10) In lines 1821-1828, we see in summary an extremely important ceremony. Palamon and Arcite swear "homage" to Theseus, asking for his "lordshipe" and his "mercy." What relationship does this create between the two younger knights and the older one? How does it relate to Theseus' plan to end their quarrel over Emelye? Also, notice that the reaction to Theseus' plan is recorded for two out of the five main characters who are present (I: 1870-71). Whose opinion is left out and why? Who among the pilgrims would be more likely to notice the omission and what reaction would that hearer have?

11) The hinge between Part 2 and Part 3 is 921 lines into the tale, and we have 1228 to go. When you get to Parts 3 and 4, look at the passage of plot-time in those parts vs. the passage of plot-time in Parts 1 and 2. What has happened to the pace of the narrative and what is the Knight up to? Also, look up the story of the "Seven Against Thebes" in Hamilton, Graves, or in the play by that name by Aeschylus if you are truly a heroic scholar. With your recently refreshed memory of what happened when the seven Corinthian champions met the seven Theban champions in the battle at Thebes' seven gates, what do you think are the Knight's (and Chaucer's) dramatic intentions of bringing this tale to its structural midpoint, anticipating a climactic battle of "brother" against "brother" and their hundred retainers, with the party riding peacefully riding "To Thebes with his olde walles wyde" (1880)? For a modern comparison, imagine a novelist sending a recently rescued Japanese bomber pilot winging homeward "To Hiroshima with its old bridge over the river wide."

Secondary Critical Sources (borrowed temporarily from Essential Chaucer--mea culpa, soon to be replaced by our own annotations from previous seminars!):

Blamires, Alcuin. "Chaucer's Revaluation of Chivalric Honor." Mediaevalia 5 (1979):245-69.
        Defines the "fundamentally belligerent style of honor" in late medieval literature and society, and identifies
Chaucer's "profound misgivings" about this ideal of prowesss as expressed in Balade of Bon Conseyl,
Complaint of Mars, Sir Thopas, Knight's Tale, and especially Tale of Melibee

Boitani, Piero. Chaucer and Boccaccio. Medium AEvum Monographs, no. 8. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval           Languages and Literature, 1977, 210 pp.
        Documents Chaucer's use of Boccaccio's Teseida in Knight's Tale and explores the impact of the Italian
poem upon his intellectual and poetic career. Knight's Tale differs in style and characterization from its
source, but it is firmly rooted in its iconography and culture. Teseida inspired Chaucer to reinterpret the
poetry of Ovid, Statius, and the Roman de la rose; it introduced Chaucer to early humanism and helped
shape his poetic technique.

Brewer. Derek S.  "Honour in Chaucer." Essays and Studies 26 (1973):1-19. Reprinted in Tradition and Innovation in                Chaucer (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), pp. 89-109.
        Surveys many of Chaucer's references to honor to define his use of the term and demonstrate its
importance in his poetry, especially Troilus and Criseyde and Franklin's Tale. Honor is both inner
goodness and social reputation; it is a passive state of virtue or blood and an active meriting of honor or
honoring of others. Both masculine heroic honor and feminine chaste honor are transcended by the
spiritual honor of "trouthe."

Cummings, Hubertis M. The Indebtedness of Chaucer's Works to the Italian Works of Boccaccio. Menasha, Wisc.: George          Banta Publishing Co., 1916. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1965, 202 pp.
        A collection of essays that examines Chaucer's use of Boccaccio's vernacular works and concludes that he
was familar with only Filostrato and Teseida, that he neither knew Boccaccio personally nor sought to
emulate him, and that his debt was merely "that of a borrower." Somewhat dated, the discussion of
Filostrato and Troilus and Criseyde places the two within a single romance tradition rather than
emphasizing Chaucer's alterations. Chaucer's use of Teseida suggests that he wrote his version with the
Knight clearly in mind as narrator. Other discussions deny critical attempts to establish influence on
Chaucer of Boccaccio's Filocolo, Amorosa Visione, Ameto, Corbaccio, Decameron, and others.

Fyler, John M. Chaucer and Ovid. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979, 216 pp.
        Compares Chaucer to Ovid, identifying their mutual appreciation of the "comic pathos of human frailty,"
and tracing how each explores this pathos through manipulation of biased or reductionistic personae.
Offers Ovidian precedent for Chaucer's narrators, assessing their comic value and their relation to
Chaucer's world view. In House of Fame, the narrator tries unsuccessfully to understand "structures that
immediately fall apart." In Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Fowls, the narrators fail to understand
the facts of nature. The narrator of Legend of Good Women retells stories, but Alceste forces him to
leave out much of the traditional accounts. Identification with partisan actors limits the narrators of
Troilus and Criseyde and Knight's Tale, and Canterbury Tales portrays several unresolved perspectives,
including the Manciple's banality and the Nun's Priest's wry rhetoric.

Hatton, Thomas, J.  "Thematic Relationships between Chaucer's Squire's Portrait and Tale and the Knight's Portrait and Tale."          Studies in Medieval Culture 4 (1974):452-58.
        Contrasts Chaucer's sketches and tales of the Squire and Knight, emphasizing the disparity between their
attitudes towards chivalry, and arguing that Chaucer undercuts the Squire in order to encourage his court
audience to return to the values of the past.

Minnis, AListair J. Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity. Chaucer Studies, no. 8. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell
        & Brewer; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1982, 208 pp.
        Assesses Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Knight's Tale as romans d'antiquite. Anachronistic only in
social conventions, these works reflect Chaucer's conscious and sophisticated attempt to represent the
philosophy and faith of the pagan past, primarily its fatalism, polytheism, and idolatry. Surveys the
sources of Chaucer's understanding of the pre-Christians and examines his characters in the context of
their analogues to show that the poet received from tradition an opinion of the pagans that emphasized not
only their limitations but their "shadowy perfection." Particularly wise characters like Theseus anticipate
Christianity. Fatalism mars Troilus's love. Other characters considered include Calkas, Cassandra,
Criseyde, the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde, and the "young fatalists" of Knight's Tale: Emelye, Arcite,
and Palamon.

Payne, F. Anne. Chaucer and Menippean Satire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981, 302 pp.
        Traces the history of Menippean satire and demonstrates its impact on Chaucer's irony, diversity, and
disjunctions. The Menippean tradition in Lucan, Petronius, Apuleius, Martianus Capella, and especially
Boethius provide context for discussion of three Chaucerian narratives. Following Boethius's unresolved
conflation of Cynical, Platonic, Aristotelian and Augustian thought, Chaucer poses in Troilus and Criseyde
a tragedy of disjunction between event and character. His Nun's Priest's Tale is a "gleeful attack" on
theoretical explanations that disguise the Priest's sense of empty commitment. Knight's Tale parodies
Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and, in Menippean fashion, undercuts the Menippean acceptence of

Schless, Howard. "Transformations: Chaucer's Use of Italian." In Geoffrey Chaucer. Edited by Derek Brewer. Writers and                their Background. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1974. Reprint. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976, pp. 184-223.
        Sketches a method for assessing literary influence and demonstrates how Chaucer emulates his Italian
sources. Boccaccio's temple of Venus in Teseide becomes a temple of luxuria in Parliament of Fowls; the
static characters of Filostrato become dynamic in Troilus and Criseyde; Dante's terrifying Ugolino episode
becomes pathetic in Monk's Tale. Includes a survey of fourteenth-century Italian presence at the English
court and Chaucer's likely contact with it.

Back to the English 211 Syllabus View.

Back to the English 330 Syllabus View.