Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Knight's Tale" Parts 3 and 4


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: Emetreus (Demetrius) and Lygurge (Lycurgus), allies of Arcite and Palamon, as well as Venus, Mars, Diana, Saturn, a Fury, an unnamed "he" who fights in the battle, and the massed chorus of the people of Atthenes)


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:

Part 3--

1) Theseus' erection of the stadium to control Palamon's and Arcite's erotically-fueled violence is an excellent example of medieval uses of formal spectacle to represent and to reshape important relationships in the moral or political order. (This included what we would consider the cycles of nature and stages in one's life, as well, since all could be understood either within the clergy's ideology of a divine order or the nobility's ideology of feudal hierarchical relationships.) Note the narrator's emphasis on Theseus' "dispence" or great expenditures of capital to build "lystes roially" (I: 1882, 1884). An economic analysis of this tale might look at the way wealth is used both practically and symbolicaly. For instance, consider in Part 2, when Arcite disguised as Philostrate is given wealth by Theseus to maintain his estate, how that gift was the necessary correspondent to the service and generosity with which "Philostrate" demonstrated he was worthy, a "member of the club." If you keep your eyes open in later tales, you'll see evidence of late medieval attitudes toward money's symbolic and functional nature which will pose an interesting challenge to modern economists' notions of capital as an "instrument." (For a book-length study that explores some of these issues where they intersect the common medieval equation of coining money and uttering speech, see R.A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer and the Currency of the Word.)

2) Chaucer's own employment as Richard II's Clerk of the Works required him to oversee construction of lists for a tournament at Smithfield, held in May 1390. See RC (834) for leads on where you could learn more about this tournament. Note especially that Chaucer has preserved the improbably enormous size of the stadium, which could have held all 35,000 estimated inhabitants of London (in 1375) in only about 17% of its seats. This thing is, for Chaucer's day, huge.

3) The major change Chaucer makes in the stadium's architecture is the location of three "oratories" (temples for giving prayers) in its walls. Venus' oratory is on the East wall, Mars is on the West wall, and Diana is on the North wall. Who is left out and how does the architecture make it completely obvious that some god has been left out? (See 835 for further critical comment.) Why is this omission made and why is it no commented upon by the narrator? (The critics do not appear to have noticed this glaring omission--please let me know if you discover one who has. There could be an article in this.)

4) The first temple described belongs to Venus. The personification allegory is borrowed from Boccaccio, but note what Chaucer has left out (835). Why are these attributes of love missing from the Knight's version of Love? We also see a typical example of what I have been calling "stories in the margin," the practice (borrowed from classical authors) of filling descriptive details with narrative elements that allude to tales with interpretive relevance to the tale we're hearing, perhaps suggesting a previous example of what will happen or setting the reader's expectations so the narrative can overturn them. What do Narcissus, Solomon, Hercules, Turnus and Cresus share in common with respect to love? What unites Medea and Circe? And why would these be the figures on Venus' temple walls? What aspect of love is evoked by them?  Consider especially the Knight's summation of the temple's significance (I: 1947-54), one performance of which I have recorded here to show how the narrator might emphasize a world-weary, negative view of love.

5) Mars' temple is second in precedence, but note that this is not the order in which the characters later will go to pray. Why is it second in this descriptive order? (Compare the "General Prologue" pilgrim order with the actual tale order.) The temple is decorated with images of the terrible things we might expect to find associated with the god of war, but the point of view of this description suddenly shifts from third person omniscient ("he saw" or "there was") to first person ("I saw" at ll. 1995-2040). Why might a Knight-narrator suddenly slip into the tale he narrates? (Judson Allen's work on William Langland's Piers Plowman calls this slippage of the narrator into identification with the tale narrated "assimilation.") The things discovered in these decorated walls also might bear comparison with Boccaccio's version to see if Chaucer has modified them. As in the case of Venus' temple, Mars is associated with famous figures from the past, Julius Caesar, Nero, and Marc Antony. To one who knows Roman history, this is not like saying "war killed these men," but rather each died because of some different kind of unfriendly act--how, and what is the Knight saying about this aspect of conflict? Note that most of the occupational examples (sailor, carter, cook) are destroyed by the tools of their trade.

6) Diana's temple is dedicated to chastity and hunting, but once more the images are of people undone by the temple's god. Compare Daphne's, Acteon's, and Atalanta's fates for clues to how Diana fits this pattern. In her association with the moon and childbirth, Diana reveals her roots as in Astarte, worshipped in a Phoenecian fertility cult. Why might a fertility cult be at odds with Venus/Aphrodite's worship, whereas to the casual eye they deal with rather closely related activities?

7) The pilgrim Knight interrupts his narrative to assert that any knight who "loveth peramours" would have wanted to be in this tournament "To fighte for a lady, benedicitee!" (2111-2115). In doing so, he takes for granted something we have heard asserted in various places but which some women find particularly risible. Assuming it is not "natural," but a social construction which now largely has vanished from open social expression, where does this notion come from and what function does it serve in the medieval institution Chaucer's knight is describing?

8) Emetreus and Lycurgus are introduced as allies of Palamon and Arcite, and each of those allies has been proposed as a type of a god who interferes (Saturn and Mars, 837). Theseus' feast plugs them into a type-scene (compare the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, for a similar feast) that merges all the combatants together. Why do this after so formally introducing them in parallel but separate passages?

9) The first prayer is Palamon's to Venus. Why is he first to pray, followed by Emelye and Arcite? Remember precedence ("marching order") is extremely important to medieval English readers. He offers the god his service (homage) and prays for Emelye's possession, not victory. The statue of Venus shakes and he "took" this as a sign of the prayer's success, but the Knight does not interpret it either way. Compare this with the outcomes of the next two prayers in sequence. What's happening to the pagan-Christian tension we noted in Parts 1 and 2?

10) The second prayer is Emelye's to Diana, in which she says "I / Desire to ben a mayden al my lyf, / Ne nevere wol I be no love ne wyf" (2304-6).  In light of this tale's conclusion, what's the matter with the Knight's tale?  If you already know the Miller's response, how might that be a correction of this error?   Emelye also says, in which might make this less an error than it seems, "sende me hym that moost desireth me" (2325).  That suggests that she's not entirely as adamantly virginal as she appears at first.  Can this character be believed?  Does that second prayer set up a test that one of the knights appears to pass by the end?  

11)  As in Palamon's prayer to Venus, Emelye's prayer to Diana appears to instigate some supernatural behavior in the temple.   One burning brand dims and then blazes out brightly, and another dims and goes out entirely, the ends of the branch oozing "blody drops" (see the Aeneid V   where a blood dripping branch will bear the words of Polydorus, a Trojan who was betrayed and killed by Troy's false allies, or Dante's Inferno XIII where the words belong to Pier della Vigne, a suicide after betrayal by the Emperor's court).  This silent omen is accompanied by Diana's formal appearance and her direct speech instructing Emelye about the significance of what she has seen (2345, 2348-57).  What is happening to the pagan-Christian tension now?

12)  Arcite's prayer to Mars refers to a story which first enters Western European literature in the Odyssey (VIII) when the harper Demodokos sings of Ares' and Aphrodite's entrapment by Hephaestus while Odysseus listens in the hall of Alkinoos, who soon will send the hero home where he may encounter a wife seduced by the suitors who have beseiged her.  Chaucer couldn't have known this version yet, since Homer's version wasn't readily available to non-Greek-readers, but the Roman de la Rose contained a version (ll. 13835-74) as did Ovid's Metamorphoses (4: 171-89) and Ars amatoria (2:561-92), all of which were known to Chaucer's era.   How does its "story in the margin" shape our emerging constellation of allusions regarding Theseus' attempt to control Palamon's and Arcite's competition for Emelye?

13)  Arcite's promise of sevice, his banner, his allies' arms, and his beard and hair to decorate the temple produce another sequence of supernatural events.  How do those shaking door rings, bright burning fires, ringing hauberk on Mars' statue, and the spectral voices crying "Victorie!" compare to the kinds of messages received by Palamon and Emelye.   Especially note that those voices are what Arcite would be hearing when he receives his death-wound in Part 4.

14)  Finally, the tale's pagan-Christian tension rips the epistemological plug out of the wall and introduces the pagan gods quarreling in "hevene above" (2439).  This means that we really have to accept their power and knowledge as being real, and (it appears) potent, not just the imaginings of silly pagan humans.  More importantly, Chaucer introduces to Boccaccio's classical heaven a "Saturn" who says "I do vengeance and pleyn correcioun" (2461).  What, and how, does this divine "hit man" correct?  Note especially that in Boccaccio it will be the angry Venus who will send the agent that causes Arcite's death.  What is the significance of this change for the tale's economy of values?

Part 4--

1)  The feast that the May-influenced citizens celebrate is described as in "Venus heigh servyse" (2487).  How are we to take that in the light of the pagan-Christian struggle we've been tracking?

2)  The tournament involves some interesting appeals to the nobility's founding ideology.  The populace responds to Theseus' declaration of limits on weapons and tactics, to reduce the chance of death, with cries praising this protection of "noble blood."  This combines the ordinary notion of inherited characteristics with a mystique of transcendent nobility that remains current in English culture until the present day in some quarters of the nation.   How doe it relate to the apparent equality of Palamon and Arcite, those cousins, as they prepare to battle for the right to Emelye's hand (2590-3)?  This relates to the custom of "trial by battle" in which God was said to insure that the victor would be the one with the just case.  How does that relate to the plot's use of the pagan gods, and how might it relate to Emelye's second prayer?

3)  The battle, itself, introduces some innovative narrative strategies.  Note the invention of a composite figure, "he," whose experience fo the battle we follow as a representative figure (2606-20).  In Palamon's moment of defeat, the Knight again uses a favorite device, formal parallelism, to link the surrender ("Who sorweth now...?") with the initial announcement of the battle at Part 2's end (1870-4) and the cessation of combat ("Hoo!" 2656) to the previous cessation of combat in the woods in Part 2.   Why link these events for aesthetic effect?  What kind of feeling is the Knight attempting to promote in his hearers/readers?

4)  Rapidly cutting to the world "above," we hear Venus complain to Saturn and are told, shortly thereafter, that "a myracle ther bifel anon" (2675).  You hardly need me to tell you that's a loaded use of "myracle," but note also that Chaucer has changed the tiny details of Arcite's behavior just before the Fury rises up and startles his horse, making him bare-headed and able to look Emelye in the eye, receiving the full force of her "freendlich ye" (2680).  This parody of the courtly love "enamourment" knocks him off his horse rather like Saul on the road to Damascus, and follows the Knight's wonderfully insouciant assertion that "wommen, as to sspeken in comune, / Thei folwen alle the favour of Fortune" (2681-2).  Whose feathers will that ruffle?  (If you think "the Wife of Bath!" think again after you read III: 563-74 on p. 112.)  It clearly associates this act with our old friend, Fortuna, but in a wonderfully covert fashion.  What's up?

5)  The irony hardly needs stating that only Arcite is mortally wounded.  Palamon's capture is deemed honorable and "It nas arretted hym no vileynye, / Ther may no man clepen it cowardye" (2729-30).   This hasty rush to head off conviction of those high chivalric "crimes and misdemeanors" is important because of the extraordinary shame attached to those key words, "vileynye" and "cowardye."  Look up their roots and see what you can make of why they might be associated with things no noble would bear.

6)   After the extremely explicit medical details of Arcite's last illness, added by Chaucer, we get a formal lament from Arcite  to Palamon and Emelye.  Why would Chaucer or the Knight add those physical details just before a formal rhetorical set speech in which he bangs out four anaphoric "Allas"-es?  Arcite also asks a great question: "What is this world?  What asketh men to have?" (2777).  How would a reader of the Knight's Tale be inclined to answer it? 

7)  After Arcite's expanded tribute to Palamon,ending "Foryet nat Palamon, the gentil man," Arcite cries "Mercy Emelye" and dies (2797, 2808).  Here Chaucer performs one of the great feats of literary legerdemain in English, stealing from Arcite his "soul flight," by which Boccaccio gave him a spiritually enlightening overview of the world's folly and a consolation for his own sufferings, and giving that "soul flight" to Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde (V: 1807-27, RC page 584).  Readers of the Troilus know why Chaucer gave such an "eclairissment" to that hero, but why does he rob Arcite of the vision?

8)  After the women of Athens lament, "Why woldestow be deed . . . / And haddest gold ynough and Emelye?," Egeus delivers a speech about "this worldes transmutacioun" (2839).  That notion, most memorably captured in the final pages of Ovid's Metamorphoses, is used to advise all the mourners to turn their attentions from worldly things and to consider life a pilgrimage.  What is the source of that notion and how might it affect the pagan-Christian tension we've been following?

9)  Egeus is given most of the lines Boccaccio's Teseo used to console the lovers, and Chaucer substitutes, instead, the "First Moevere" speech based on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.   In it, he warns them that kings, as well as pages, must die (3030).  This notion of Death-the-leveler becomes extremely important in the fifteenth century, when plays like Everyman and the Dance of Death use death's ubiquity to argue for the essential unity of humanity in spite of apparent social differences.  Could that message have importance for the pilgrims? 

10)  The funeral pyre of Arcite, located in the same wood in which the two brothers quarreled in Part 2, brings the Knight another chance to do a formal type scene which originates in classical literature--the funeral preparations and procession.  In it, some strange effects are created.  Emelye brings the fire as was customary, he says (2911), so she'll literally set her lover on fire as she once enflamed his heart, and Arcite really will burn in love, as the Petrarchan conceit so often claims.  Then the Knight indulges in a well-known medieval "trope" (trick or turning of language) called "occupatio" in Latin--I'm too busy to do X.  So between lines 2919 and 2966 he tells us he's not going to tell us all those things about the funeral preparations that he in fact is telling us even as he tells us he won't do so.  The critics sometimes call his tone "hyperbolic" (841) or exaggerated for effect.  If it is, why is it?

11)  Theseus also uses the Boethian world view to discuss the proper attitude toward misfortune in lines 3041-44.  They are perhaps the most discussed in the criticism, especially because they echo so strongly the stoic notion of virtue as endurance with honor, and the Greek classical notion praising a death at the height of one's powers and honors.  The complex skein of interpretations of this passage is laid out in a very nicely written note on page 841, which I recommend to you as better than anything I could compose here.  Note, though, that "To maken vertu of necessittee, / And take it weel that we may nat eschue" is not the same as making a false good out of a bad situation.  In Middle English, the "vertu" that we make out of the straits of necessity is strength, and the "taking" in "take it well" is same idiom used when a knight "takes" up his sword, a gripping properly for use, not trying not to look sad in the team photo in a losing season.

12)  After the high moral philosophy of the "First Moevere" speech, Theseus' whirlwind forced "courtship" of Palamon and Emelye might seem a bit jarring if we resisted the Knight's pressure for formal closure of this tale.  Most of his appeal is to Emelye on Palamon's behalf--for obvious reasons!  Is it possible that the injunction to "take it weel that we may nat eschue" is meant to prepare her for this moment?  He appeals to her on behalf of her "wommanly pitee," Palamon's noble birth, his service to her (in the courtly love sense, since he hardly could be said to have done anything at her request!), and his deserving of mercy.  How does this "Happy Ending" in a noble wedding work as an end, especially the Knight's claim that Emelye loved Palamon and that they never quarrelled?  As you react to it, measure your response against the pilgrims who tell tales in response.  Are you a Miller or a Clerk or a Wife of Bath or a Merchant or...?

Secondary Critical Literature on KT:

Burlin, Robert W. "Middle English Romance: The Structure of Genre." The Chaucer Review. 30 (1995) 1-14.

This structuralist reading of "Knight's Tale" suggests that it can be understood in terms of a taxonomy of romances which situates their plots and ideology along two intersecting binary oppositions, the chivalric vs. the courtly.   It's a questionable opposition, but the analysis produces interesting results.   Also see Damon Hauser's some what cranky critique of Burlin's argument in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.

Harrison, Joseph. "'Tears for Passing Things': The Temple of Diana in the Knight's Tale." Philological Quarterly 63:1 (Winter
        1984) 108-116.
        Making a nice pair with Woods' 1991 article below, Harrison's examination of Diana's temple compares it to its original in Boccaccio's Il Teseide and finds many interesting ways in which Chaucer has altered the structure to emphasize Diana's relationship to mutability and change.  This aroused Ed Caruso to ask some very provocative questions in his annotation in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.  You also might want to consult Christa McLaughlin's note on the "Knight's Tale" chapter of Derek Pearsall's The Canterbury Tales, which examines how  Emelye's knowledge of the situation in which she prays differs from that of Boccaccio's Emelia.

Jensen, Emily. "Male Competition as a Unifying Motif in Fragment A of the Canterbury Tales." The Chaucer Review 24
        (1990): 320-28.

    Once you've figured out how you read the Knight's tale on its own, you are ready for Jensen's attempt to explain why it belongs with the Miller's, Reeve's and Cook's tales in the first (1 or A) fragment of the tales.  Her approach uses feminist analysis, aided by some new-historicist examination of commercial culture, to compare the various groups of competing males against the narrative positions assigned the women in their lives.  Also see Mika Sam's thorough and insightful note in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.

McAlindon, T. "Cosmology, Contrariety, and the Knight's Tale." Medium Aevum 55 (1986): 41-55.

    The tale's complex structure is here explained as yielding a harmonious balancing of opposing elements in a common medieval trope known as concordia discors.  (If this also sounds to you like the New Critical notion of organic unity produced by resolution of ideas in tension, you're probably right.)   McAlindon's attempt to join Theseus in binding up the universe in a rationally ordered scheme gets a useful critical comment from Kirkley Greenwell's annotation in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.   You also might want to check Patsy Lydon's annotation on the article, as well.

Roney, Lois. "The Knight." Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Theories of ScholasticPsychology. Tampa: U of South Florida P,
        1990. 232-245  (826.2 C49Sron)

    Roney's looking at the Knight's Tale as an illustration of various virtues of the spirit and mind taught by scholastic philosophers, especially temperance and patience.  The speech Theseus makes to himself while changing his mind about having Palamon and Arcite executed is a textbook illustration of a man practicing those virtues, mastering his temper and restraining his impetuousity (both of which had just gotten the younger knights into a lot of trouble!).  Also see Amy Dill's annotation in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.

Schneider, Paul Stephen. "'Taillynge Ynough': The Function of Money in the Shipman's Tale." Chaucer Review 11
        (1976-77): 201-209.

    Though its title wouldn't lead you to believe it, Schneider manages a comparison of the Shipman's bawdy fabliau to the Knight's tale because of its competition between a monk and a merchant for the sexual attentions of the merchant's wife.  See Jessica Kem's annotation in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.

Schweitzer, Edward C. "The Misdirected Kiss and the Lover's Malady in Chaucer's Miller's Tale." Julian N. Wasserman and
        Robert J. Blanch, eds., Chaucer in the Eighties. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse U P, 1986. 223-33.

    This comparison of the Knight's and Miller's tales focuses particularly on the love-sickness which afflicts Arcite and its companion ailment which makes Absolon's life miserable.  Perhaps you might be surprised at the survival of formalist analysis in medieval studies during the 1980s just like Rich Roisman was in h's annotation in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.   You shouldn't be--formalism came later to early literature studies, so it lingered longer.  It also has some peculiar affinities with medieval aesthetics, which argues for higher relevance for establishing authors' and audiences' "horizons of expectations" about the texts, as Hirsch or Jauss might think of the notion.   For further comparisons of the Knight's and Miller's tale, see Farrell's ELH article (1989) annotated by Marcia McNeil.

Woods, William F. "My Sweete Foo: Emelye's Role in The Knight's Tale." Studies in Philology. 88:3 (1991) 276-306.

    Woods provides a fairly traditional reading of Emelye's character in terms of the god/goddess mechanisms of parts 3 and 4 of the tale.   The paradoxical quality of her affiliation with Diana's "huntress" characteristics as well as with Diana's "virginal purity" characteristics is suggested in the title's quotation of Arcite's address to her in that Petrarchan conceit, "My sweet foo."  That, in itself, should be interesting since the next major English Petrarchanists are Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, over a century later.  Hmmm...  Also see Maria Elena Perez's annotation in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003.   You also might want to consult Woods' 1994 article on "Private and Public Space in the 'Miller's Tale'" which examines parallels between that tale and the Knight's, which the Miller intentionally parodies.  That article is annotated by Kirkley Greenwell in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminars Annotated Bibliographies: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, 3003.

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