The Canterbury Tales The Knight's Tale
The first tale of the pilgrimage begins with a prince named Theseus who married the queen of Scythia, Hippolyta, bringing her back to Athens with her sister Emelye, after conquering their Amazon kingdom. As he returned home, Theseus saw many women in black, kneeling and shrieking on the side of the highway. The eldest woman asked Theseus for pity because she and all of the women lost their husbands at Thebes. The lord of Thebes, Creon, refused to bury the dead bodies. Instead, he simply tossed the bodies into a large pile, leaving them to rot. An embittered Theseus declared vengeance upon Creon and ordered his troops to go to Thebes to fight.
While in Thebes, Theseus vanquished Creon and the soldiers began to dispose of the dead bodies. While doing so, they came across two young knights who were not quite dead: royal cousins named Palamon and Arcite, who were then imprisoned by Theseus for life. While in prison, they spotted Emelye in the garden outside and both fell in love. Palamon prayed to escape prison to be with his Venus, while Arcite declared that he would rather die than not have her. The two cousins argued and quarreled over who wanted Emeyle more, calling one another traitors: "And now thou woldest falsly been aboute / To love my lady, whom I love and serve / And evere shal, til that myn herte sterve. / Nay, certes, false Arcite, thow shalt nat so! / I loved hir first, and tolde thee my wo. Knight's Tale, l.284-288
One day during their bickering, Pirithous, one of Theseus's childhood friends, came to Athens. He knew Arcite in Thebes and requested his freedom. Arcite leaves prison with the solitary promise that he would never be seen again in Theseus's kingdom. So, although Arcite had his freedom, he could not pursue Emelye. Palamon was jealous of Arcite, because he believed that Arcite could raise an army against Theseus to return for Emeyle's love. At this point in the tale, the Knight interjects a question. Which is worse: Palamon, the imprisoned man who can still see Emelye or Arcite, the free man who cannot see his beloved?
Arcite has been free for two years in Thebes. One night he dreamed that he saw Mercury telling him to be free of care and hope. He should go to Athens to overcome his grief and see his beloved. He planned to disguise himself and pass as an unknown. He did so and assumed a post as a page with the name of Philostratus for Emelye's steward. Theseus soon named this page a squire of the chamber. At the same time, Palamon was living in prison still for seven years and soon devised a plan to escape and flee the city. He planned to hide outside the city and go towards Thebes. The morning of Palamon's escape, Arcite was horseback riding in the same area. The two men spotted one another and revealed their true selves. They planned to meet in the same place the next day and fight for Emelye. They did so armed in battle gear, while Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emelye were hunting. The hunting party came across the battling cousins and stopped the violence. Palamon reveals Arcite's and his own identity to Theseus as they both reveal their love for Emelye. Theseus immediately ordered their deaths until the women took pity on the cousins, begging for mercy. Theseus agrees and states that they cannot declare war on anyone else except they must wage a battle against each other, with one hundred knights each, to decide whom Emelye will marry.
For the famous duel between Palamon and Arcite for Emelye's hand in marriage, Theseus had an ostentatious and loud theater built a mile in circumference. On the day of the battle, each cousin brought a lucky charm and each prayed to Venus. Palamon asked Venus to let Arcite kill him if Arcite is the man to marry Emelye. The statue of Venus shook at this prayer, alluding to her presence. Emelye prayed to Diana so that she could remain a maiden for the entirety of her life. She craves peace and a rekindling of the friendship between the two men. However, she will abide and marry one of them if it is her destiny. Arcite prayed to Mars for a victorious battle. The Gods are actively participating in this war.
Theseus's rules of battles stated that nobody should suffer a mortal blow. They also stated that if one party is exhausted and cannot fight, he must leave the field. Both armies are prepared and equally ready to fight. Arcite initially pursued Palamon with vengeance, which he returned equally. Arcite's aid took down Palamon and pierced him with a sword. Palamon was almost saved by his aid, when they are both wounded. Theseus declared Arcite the winner, thus disappointing Venus. As Arcite was declared the winner, a large earthquake trembled the grounds, frightening the horse Arcite was upon, and throwing him off. Arcite was killed by the fall. Before he died, however, he told Emelye that her future husband, Palamon, was the most worthy man she could marry. Theseus ordered the new wedding of Emelye and Palamon after a commemorative funeral for Arcite.