Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Copyright © 1987 by Michael Macrone.

Hoo! Namoore!

Theseus Stynteth al hir Grucching and Maketh hem Pleye

The narrator of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale[1] can hardly be accused of subtle characterization, at least by the standards one is now used to applying to those constructions we call “characters.” Yet there are moments in the poem when the narrator asks us to evaluate characters on a more or less human scale, to weigh them in more or less psychological terms as well as in terms of their representing cultural values and expectations. The famous “demande d’amour” at 1347 and following, where the narrator steps out of the narration to address the audience as “Yow loveres,” is just one example.

Indeed, it seems that the narrator[2] would direct at least some of our attention to the “contest of character” between Palamon and Arcite—like all good narrators, he hopes to capture our attention and direct our interpre­tation. But there is a question as to whether we are intended to take him seriously (at his word) in these moments. Charles Muscatine, for one, contests the assumption that the meaning of the tale is to be found in what he calls its “poor dramatics” or “surface.”

Th[e] plot has been taken to be the poem’s main feature; but unless we wish to attribute to Chaucer an unlikely lapse of skill or taste, it will not sustain very close scrutiny. The “charac­terization” of Palamon and Arcite has been widely invoked as a key to the poem. In one view the two knights have quasi-allegorical status, representing the Active Life versus the Contemplative Life.… [But the] existence of any significant characterization in the poem has been seriously questioned….[3]

Muscatine chooses to examine the larger symbolism of the poem, its relation to conventions, and the ways that “form and style are so functional that they point directly to the meaning” (p. 177). In short, “When we look at the form in which [the conventional stage business of the tale is] organized, we find symmetry to be its most prominent feature. The unity of the poem is based on an unusually regular ordering of elements” (p. 178). According to Muscatine, the narrative order of the poem, which he details so brilliantly, represents a kind of faith, which persists even in face of the disorder which challenges the attempts of characters in the poem to order their universe in accord with a larger design: “When the earthly designs suddenly crumble, true nobility is faith in the ultimate order of all things” (p. 190).

Muscatine thus ironizes the surface claims of the narrative drama—it does not mean what it says—in order to find a stable resolution (“faith”) at the level of narrative form. E. Talbot Donaldson similarly ironizes the surface of the tale, in a study of the masculine narrator’s investment in a feminine “idea”:

   Of course [Emelye’s] portrait lacks individuality. The whole Knight’s Tale lacks individuality, for it is less concerned with real people than with the ideas and ideals by which people live an a real world, on which often seems devoid of purpose or significance.[4]

Thus for Muscatine, the tale works by representing a sort of faith, an idea of order; for Donaldson, the tale works both by provoking characters’ (and the narrator’s) investment in an idea of the feminine, and by recalling the reader to a transcendent, if supramoral (and inscrutable), justice.[5]

These two readings, especially Muscatine’s, demonstrate the general shape of criticism of the tale since 1950. Following Muscatine, a number of critics have taken up the question of stylistics and of the tension between a priori disorder and imposed order in both the tale’s content and form. And while such relatively recent considerations have of course entailed studies of enormous diversity—one need merely compare Muscatine’s, C. David Benson’s and Frederick Turner’s readings of the poem to understand the scope involved—critics have generally idealized the ordering impulse[6] (and Theseus as its bearer[7]) and have implicitly or explicitly identified this impulse with Chaucer’s intention.

But if we are uncomfortable with questions of characterization and with straight readings of the narrator’s demands and claims, is it because we “know better” than an older generation of critics? Or do we simply care more about different aspects of the text? Muscatine is quite right to point out that from a certain standpoint, the tale as drama is a failure; but this standpoint bears its own assumptions, including specific ideas of irony and unity. And once ironizing begins, where does it end? Other critics have taken Muscatine’s lead, but have not rested on a faith in order, even if such a faith was implicit in Chaucer’s intention.

Chaucer, as everyone knows, was an excellent practitioner of what would be in later times called “negative capability.”[8] As such he has, like Shakespeare after him, provoked numerous squabbles over the location and limits of irony in his work, squabbles which are of course staked ultimately on intention. But as Donald Howard has said,

When we approach [Chaucer’s] last and greatest work, we want to know what happened in his mind when he conceived and executed it. Of course, one can never fully know what is in another’s mind, yet we know a writer’s mind in part when we read his work. … The idea of a literary work is not the same as its “intention”—an author’s intentions can be frustrated or subverted, sometimes happily so, and they can be unconscious. The intention—like the form, unity, structure, style, or “world”—of a literary work is identifiable in the work and shares in the culture of the author’s time. All are part of the idea of a work.[9]


We might understand what the poet wrote for his contem­poraries, but not necessarily what he wrote for himself or for posterity. … It is fair to say he wrote for us as well as for his contemporaries. So we want to know what the work is, not merely what it was.
    … There are those who believe that a great literary work has the power to generate an indefinite number of valid critical accounts, as many at least as there are critics. … History itself prompts rival interpretations; probably everything does. It is possible to delimit an area of “objective” historical interpre­tation, … but no one has persuaded me that the real meaning of a poem can be established from this sort of inquiry. It depends on what you mean by “real.” (pp. 4-6)

For my own part, I must say that Chaucer’s precise intention—for his contemporaries or otherwise—is beyond my grasp. Whether, for example, Chaucer idealizes Theseus, or the Knight, or even “chivalry,” is a question beyond the scope of this paper. Which is not to say that Chaucer’s “point of view” is not an issue, but rather that it would be odd if such a point of view were unitary and fully conscious to the author. In any case, the narrative point of view which Chaucer provides in the tale is itself a bit slippery, and difficult to sort out in its relation to the various narrative positions available (narrator, Knight, “Chaucer the pilgrim,” Chaucer the author, etc.).[10] I shall prefer to concentrate less on establishing Chaucer’s intention[11] than on narrative effects which operate (in a non-unitary way) in the text as a text (as a more or less delimited narrative).

My version of this position is inevitably formalistic (perhaps even structuralist), and it will involve an ironic reading of Theseus (of Theseus as Theseuses, as a series of effects). I take in hand definitively modern questions of strategies of mastery, how they operate (through their representative, Theseus), and how they appropriate challenges to their operation (“disorder”). In the process, I will touch on Dale Underwood’s point that the celebrated “order” and “symmetry” of the tale contain, and in some sense produce, disorder and dissymmetry (and vice versa).[12]

Marriage and Control

It has been noted by many critics who discuss symmetry in The Knight’s Tale that the poem begins and ends with a marriage.[13] This would seem a rather obvious detail; yet whether it is true that the two marriages establish symmetry or circularity depends on the specificity of focus. Certainly, there is an important structural continuity between the two events, expressed in the fact that Ypolita and Emelye are sisters and in the almost total suppression of their desires from either direct discourse or narrative representation.[14] Both sisters and their marriages are used by Theseus in and as the application of his statecraft and authoritative operations, without regard for their desires, history or individuation.[15]

Yet there are important differences, at the level of detail and narrative mechanics, between the two marriages, differences which qualify the symmetry/circularity.[16] It is worth noting, for example, that Theseus’s marriage to Ypolita is a fait accompli at the inception of the narrative; it happens offstage and is not represented in the poem. This marriage, moreover, is compressed along with other background detail and various evaluations of Theseus’s stature; this compression elides fuller descriptions of the conquest of the Amazons in Statius’s Thebiad and in Boccaccio’s Il Teseida. We arrive, that is, in medias res, and Theseus’s wedding Ypolita is in effect simply another item in the catalog adduced to quickly illustrate “his wysdom and his chivalrie” (865).

The marriage of Palamon to Emelye, on the other hand, while not represented in detail, is elaborately anticipated by not only Theseus’s “Firste Moevere” speech, but by the entire narrative in all its momentum. The ceremony itself, and the aftermath of general bliss, is treated as an immaterial denouement: necessary to include for closure (as the seal upon the narrator’s stated moral), but subordinated to the drama of betrothal, at least in terms of narrative investment.[17] Emelye’s fate is staged, moreover, on a much more complex and grander scale than Ypolita’s; the business of The Knight’s Tale is to represent the sequence and interrelations of conflicts and powers which bear upon the delivery of Emelye over to Saturn, Arcite and Palamon, in that order.

My intent here is to argue not only that Emelye’s ultimate commission to Palamon enjoys the greater narrative investment, nor only that it is a more complex affair than the rape of Ypolita by Theseus. The second mar­riage involves more importantly a completely different application of power, and a more effective incorporation of desire into the mechanics of authority. In both cases, marriage becomes a means of securing the extension of Theseus’s power over other states. But in the first case, Ypolita is, along with Emelye, the spoils of war as well as its victim; the marriage seems an afterthought, and Theseus’s desire is in no way differentiated from his ruthless expansionism (a.k.a. “his wysdom and his chivalrie”). Ypolita’s subjugation as wife is both and extension, and a sort of closure, of Theseus’s violent campaign, which was undertaken independent of any specifically sexual desire.[18]

Emelye’s subjugation, on the other hand, operates within a different and more sophisticated mode of power. A fuller investigation of its structures and operation will be provided later; but, to put it simply, Emelye is wedded not in consummation of violent domination, but rather as the instrument of “peaceful” domination. This is what I shall call “Phase III” of the mechanisms of power expressed in the character of Theseus. But between Phase I (marriage as spoils and consummation of war) and this last phase, there is a passage through a second phase, wherein Theseus appropriates and structures the conflict between Palamon and Arcite over Emelye; this is the phase in which marriage becomes the alibi of war, where desire—rather than extending conquest (as indistinguishable from the state’s domination of Femenye) or accomplishing it (as a metonymy for domination which may be ritually and “peacefully” effected in place of violence)—both motivates and structures conflict, as origin and goal.

Phase I

Whenever The Knight’s Tale is set beside Boccaccio’s more autobiographical Il Teseida, its most direct source,[19] one can anticipate that the exposition of Chaucer’s additions and variations (or, less often, deletions and compressions) is meant to support a reading of point of view based on intentions deduced from the differences. These appeals to intention, although based on the same evidence (which may catalogued in a more or less objective manner), have not exactly resolved critical debate, at least in terms of the characterization of Theseus. Some critics, for example, ascribe Theseus’s special brutality in The Knight’s Tale to Chaucer’s working more realism into the text, or to his efforts to make the tale more “mediæval” than his primary source.[20] Others have claimed that a more important intention was to strengthen (over the head of the narrator and despite his explicit evaluations of Theseus) the general qualification or critique of Theseus’s authority which is embedded in the tale (and the Tales) as a whole.[21] It might also be argued that the narrator’s revision of Boccaccio here is a brushstroke in filling out the character of the Knight, who might be said to have a transference relation to Theseus and his authority. The justice, injustice, and/or overall significance of Theseus’s often harsh treatment of individuals and whole peoples is, so to speak, in the eye of the beholder; although the interpretation that this is a dash of realism may be convincingly established, one is at liberty to interpret the change as functional in larger narrative and dramatic terms as well.

It is significant that, the first time we see Theseus in action, his brand of justice consists in unchecked ruination and appropriation of Thebes, whose sin rests on the shoulders of Creon alone.[22] Creon is eliminated early in the game;[23] but the devastation continues, even after “by assaut” Theseus had “wan the citee” (989):

Stille in that feeld he took al nyght his reste,
And dide with al the contree as hym lest.
To ransake in the tass of bodyes dede,
Hem for to strepe of harneys and of wede,
The pilours diden bisynesse and cure
After the bataille and disconfiture.     (1003–8)

This conscientious description of the aftermath, realistic as it may be intended to be, functions mostly to set the scene for the discovery of Palamon and Arcite in the aforementioned “tass” at 1009–14. Its necessity for the advancement of plot, however, inevitably introduces actions one can assume would otherwise be swept under the rug of Theseus’s honor. The main question of interest is indeed how the actual siege of Thebes relates to Theseus’s stated intentions, and to the acclaim he desires for those intentions.

Comparison of Il Teseida with The Knight’s Tale also certifies that Theseus’s obsession with honor is the narrator’s creation. Some critics have taken in hand Theseus’s irritated and narcissistic greeting of the Theban widows (905–8) in laying out a case against idealizations of the “duc.”[24] Yet I think it is a mistake to treat this narcissism as a “character flaw”; the implications are further reaching, because they point to an essential quality in Theseus, constitutive of his character as embodiment of mechanisms of power. His stated intentions in avenging the widows are that “al the peple of Grece shoulde speke/How Creon was of Theseus yserved/As he that hadde his deeth ful wel deserved” (962–4).[25] Theseus carries out a communally-determined justice so that his action would be spoken, so that the narrative of his revenge would be circulated, referring back to his name as its center.[26] Fame, or honor, here is the rationale; subjugation and pillaging of Thebes is the result. But is there any difference? In effect, Theseus’s concern for honor participates in the same desire consummated in his conquest-as-reflex: the desire to overmaster any and every independent people and territory, and to subject it by magnetizing it upon the body and narratives of the autocrat; to sublimate all potential difference and tether it to the singular point at the center of narrative and power.

To put all this more simply, if no less dogmatically, Theseus is concerned with preserving the singularity of his position: his standing without equal, and the subjugation of differences into dependencies. (I speak not of any “conscious” intentions on Theseus’s part—that is, motivations explicitly ascribed to the psychological and characterological effect called “Theseus”—but rather of motivations and mechanisms which may be derived from his position within the tale.) Conquest and subjugation of difference is plausibly the motivation behind the war on the Amazons (the details are left completely unarticulated by the narrator, that is, left to our inference), which is an exemplary Phase I aggression. The war on Thebes also clearly falls within this paradigm: while the stated intentions are revenge and aggrandizement, the results are violent subjugation and incorporation (even of the armor and clothing) of Thebes. In the process, Creon, the initial target of the attack, is eliminated, thus removing a conspicuous threat to Theseus’s singularity (as autocratic authority; as embodiment of a unitary code of law; as focus and authorizer of narrative).

It cannot even be said that, whether as touch of “mediæval realism,” as plotting device, or as ironic qualification, the brutality of the entire operation (which replicates many aspects of Creon’s crime[27]) defies the code of justice which would seem to preclude it. It is hardly plausible that the piling up and looting of corpses is not sanctioned by Theseus—especially when the narrator so clearly implies otherwise by prefacing the description of these actions with the statement that Theseus did with Thebes whatever he desired—”as hym lest” (1004).[28] It would be difficult indeed to distinguish the legal code or code of honor Theseus represents from his imperialistic conquesting—which justifies rape and plunder because the victims, while outside the code (while “other”), are excluded from its terms, and because the means of incorporating them (Phase I) necessitate violation by the phallus of the insatiable power those means are meant to extend.[29]

Phase II

Palamon and Arcite are first named by the narrator as the “pilours” pull them, “liggyng by and by” and bearing the same heraldic signifier (“Bothe in oon armes,” 1012)—details which establish from the start their (deadly) bond or common identity—from the “taas” left in the wake of Theseus’s “assaut.” After the scavengers “han hem carried softe unto the tente/Of Theseus” (1021–2), hard Theseus sends them back to Athens to be imprisoned without ransom, a detail which has been used to demonstrate the excessive harshness of the “worthy duc”’s (1025) methods.[30] But the narrator chooses this moment to insert an odd and out of place closure, telling us that

[Theseus] took his hoost, and hoom he rit anon
With laurer crowned as a conquerour;
And ther he lyveth in joye and in honour
Terme of his lyf; what nedeth wordes mo?
And in a tour, in angwissh and in wo,
This Palamon and his felawe Arcite
For everemoore; ther may no gold hem quite.    (1026–32)

There are many difficulties with this passage; the most obvious is that we are to get plenty “wordes mo” on the career of Theseus.[31] A second problem is the fragment of 1030–32, which lacks a verb, implying that “lyveth … Terme of [hire] lyf” (1028–9) is to be carried over as predicate for a compound subject.[32] Where the first problem could be ascribed to pure narrative mechanics—the narrator wishes to change the subject to the cousins and put Theseus on hold (which must be done very politely)—the second will not be disposed of so conveniently.

I have two suggestions to make here: first, that the closure of 1023–29 is not as misplaced as it might seem; and, second, that lines 1030–2 are probably not meant to be descriptive—and even if they are, they still have a certain connotative propriety. In the case of the narrator’s capping off of Theseus’s brilliant career, let me suggest that a certain kind (or phase) of Theseus has, for all narrative purposes, come to an end. The Theseus who appears later in part one (at 1192) is clearly continuous with the Theseus “crowned as a conquerour” in part one; yet his methods will undergo significant change, and his application of authority will become much subtler.

In the case of the apparent commission of Palamon and Arcite to perpetual imprisonment, let me suggest that the narrator has momentarily forsaken a descriptive position above the consciousness and activities he constructs for Theseus, and has located himself within that construction: the narrator here does not observe, but rather speaks Theseus, in a sort of style indirect libre of the duke’s intentions. This suggestion is supported by the fact that the narrator seems to often locate himself within the world-view of Theseus; that is, he identifies with Theseus and internalizes the voice, value system and code of law that the duke represents (or vice versa).[33] The descriptions “worthy duc,” “With laurer crowned as a conqueror,” and “joye and honour” at 1025–28 are clearly articulated from within a point of view continuous with Theseus’s (Palamon and Arcite, for example, would pre­sumably not concur).

The same alliance of the narrator’s point of view with Theseus’s is of course a regular feature of the first 170 or so lines of the poem; the descrip­tions “wysdom and … chivalrie” (865) and “muchel glorie and greet solemp­nytee” (870) are similar evaluative statements of ambiguous actions. Yet the narrator’s position does not wholly overlap with the position of Theseus, as the somewhat acerbic language at 990–1010 attests (this descriptive lan­guage could never be articulated by a Theseus, even a realistic mediæval one). When the narrator slides into Theseus’s position, the effect is pro­nounced and significant.

But let’s consider the possibility that the difficult syntax at 1030–2 leads us neither to the conclusion that the narrator is simply re-articulating Theseus’s decree and figuring forth his intentions, nor to the conclusion that Chaucer was not concerned to correct what might have been sloppy phrasing. It is possible that the lines are, in some sense, descriptive, and that Palamon and Arcite are indeed “for everemoore” (or at least “terme of [hire] lyf”) condemned to inhabit a prison-tower. This would not be the literal tower in which they are impounded, but certainly a similar one: one created, so to speak, in its image. Just as Theseus incorporates a twin threat within a phallic reification of his authority, so too Palamon and Arcite, submitting to the forced incorporation (or introjection), internalize the structure of that authority, building a little version of Theseus’s “tower” around the limited psychology the narrative ascribes them.

From the ashes of their “lynage” (1110), Palamon and Arcite are “rescued” to be reborn as characters in a drama that Theseus does his best to control.

Before I turn to the crucial (primal) scene in which Palamon and Arcite discover Emelye, I will digress for a moment on the archi­tecture of that scene. In his Chaucer’s Imagery of Narrative, V.A. Kolve presents some suggestive ideas concerning the prison-tower and its relation to the garden, upon which I should like here to expand. As Kolve points out, “[t]he action requires that the garden be within sight of the prison tower, but Chaucer (following his original, the Teseida of Boccaccio) goes beyond that, to insist on their architectural contiguity” (p. 86). He refers to these lines:

The grete tour, that was so thikke and stroong,
Which of the castel was the chief dongeoun,
(Ther as the knyghtes weren in prisoun
Of which I tolde yow and tellen shal)
Was evene joynant to the gardyn wal
Ther as this Emelye hadde hir pleyynge.   (1056–61)

Although Kolve concedes that Emelye in her garden is “in subtler, less apparent ways, as constrained as” Palamon and Arcite (p. 91), his main emphasis is on the dramatic tension the narrator establishes by contrasting so strikingly the difference in tower and garden, and the difference in the ways the cousins inhabit their space and Emelye hers.

Indeed, the narrator is himself struck with his own dramatic contrast, to the point of a repetitive emphasis uncommon in Chaucer. The sense of Emelye’s brightness (“this fresshe Emelye the shene,” 1068[34]) and freedom is thoroughly shattering to the new lovers, and becomes a fixation both for them and the narrator. Donaldson provides a list of the signifiers which multiply and cluster about her form: “May, May, May, May; lily, stalk, flowers, garden, flowers, garland; green, rose, yellow, white, red; morning, day, sunrise,” all from 1034–55.[35] The dramatic power of the line “She walketh up and doun” (1052) points to the contrast of the sudden mobility of the language with what, as Kolve says, “has been to this point essentially a poetry of stasis, permitting only the barest minimum of physical movement within a formal architectural tableau” (p. 91). He notes that the words “romed,” “romynge,” “romen,” and “rometh” together appear six times in 54 lines (1065–1118), and thrice in lines 1065–72 alone (pp. 88–9), attached not only to Emelye, but to Palamon and Arcite as well. Their stasis is ruptured by the desire to “rome”—or, better, a roaming desire.

Kolve is surely right, within the limits of a certain characterology, to say that

The two knights fall in love with Emelye for her beauty, unmistakably, but for the beauty of her freedom most of all. They cannot describe her—for they cannot see her—apart from the liberty and ease of her movement. From within the prison they fall in love with a creature who seems to incarnate a condition the exact opposite of their own. (p. 90)

Yet, despite his fine treatment of the concept of the prison amoureuse —that is, the prison that is roaming desire—as well as of the prison/freedom chiasmus in Arcite’s lamenting his release, Kolve makes little of the fact that, after all, the garden was a prison to begin with. In other words, the narrator is less describing freedom in describing the garden than indulging in a nostalgia for it, and more generally, in a nostalgia for nature before culture.

It seems to me that both prison and garden serve as literal and metonymical representations of Theseus’s rule. As Kolve remarks, the wall enclos­ing the garden in which our heroes first see Emelye is an extension of the tower, or vice versa; prison and garden wall stand as emanations of each other, and ultimately as emanations of Theseus. Based on what we are shown of the city, it is easy to extrapolate from the “evene joynant” architecture out through a series of interlocking enclosures, subdivided, like a hive, into conti­gu­ous cells, limited at last by the city walls. But, as we know, Theseus’s sense of his own honor, of the viability of his own selfhood and power, impels him to secure regions beyond the mere walls of Athens; the cellular city is only the encrusted core of the control securing the duke’s identity.

Emelye’s garden, again, is one cell among many, and as Kolve shows, a cell intimately linked with the prison tower where Palamon and Arcite play out their crisis of desire. Emelye is first and foremost a prisoner of war, which is really not much different from being Theseus’s sister-in-law. Yet the garden is the locus of a different form of quarantine than that impressed on the Theban lovers. The garden, when the locus of narration, occasions an openly nostalgic pastoral desire in the narrator, whose discourse abruptly shifts in tone and who, as Donaldson shows, is not quite able to distinguish Emelye from Spring itself.[36] The narrator’s voice, in a sense, becomes captured, like Emelye, in the garden, although of course the narrator is the very agent of (re)constructing that garden, along with the entire narrative. In short, the garden is a site of the narrator’s language, a site both distin­guished from its contiguous prison tower (by the discourse constructing its at least relative freedom) and intimate with it (by contiguity in the narrative, by spatial contiguity, by its ultimate enclosure within both Theseus’s “walls” and the narrative itself).

Emelye is a caged bird, but the rhetoric of the representations of both her and her cage (which are hard to distinguish) labor to naturalize that cage, transferring all ostensible claustro­phobia, and “angwissh and … wo” (the desire touched off by Emelye/garden) to the prison proper. Emelye/garden is made to seem —as it dramatically seems to Palamon and Arcite—the locus of an otherness against which the claustrophobic sameness of the prison confine (its order, its enclosure of doubled masculinity) seems to shatter itself.

The garden is a crucial stepping stone or liminal space for Palamon and Arcite, mediating their passage from prison to grove.[37] (This passage is not symmetrical, of course.) The garden serves a rhetorical function (for the narrator and for Theseus) which is of the utmost importance: it inspires, or rather captures, a nostalgia for unenclosed (“uncivilized”) space; which is to say, the garden represents nature appropriated to civilization; it is a sort of game preserve,[38] or as Frederick Turner would put it, “nature domesti­cated.”[39] Because it is indeed just another cell in Theseus’s hive, the garden is precisely and essentially “domestic”; the “nature” it represents is merely an effect. But this effect, and its limitation within nostalgia, are not trivial functions. Producing such spaces to capture desire within nostalgia serves a deeply conservative function, ultimately ratifying the domesticating forces. Using Frederick Turner’s schema, which identifies Venus with forces of domestication, Mars with pure nature, and Diana with nature domesti­cated,[40] we may say that Diana is always and essentially in the service of Venus. Theseus’s garden stages nature, and a concomitant nostalgic desire, only to contain both nature an desire within their appointed cells. The garden wall all too clearly interlocks with the prison.

Unfortunately (or rather, fortunately, as I intend to demonstrate) the desire—or as the narrator puts it, “double soor” (1454; cp. 1298, 1338)—inspired by Emelye/garden (hard to tell them apart) in Palamon and Arcite eventually propels them, at least temporarily, beyond the city enclosure, seemingly beyond Theseus’s control. This temporary escape from the Venus/Diana orbit centered about the person of Theseus[41] (and his satellite, Emelye) is the result primarily of the fact that there are two bodies vying for that one desire. Palamon or Arcite alone, it seems (see below), would rather willingly have bought into the garden/Emelye mystique (which is not plotted by Theseus—that’s not the point).

This brings us back to the issues of singularity and symmetry which are so important to Theseus and the narrator, respectively. As Dale Underwood has suggested, symmetry or balance is, at least in part, the source of a disorder it is meant to control or supersede. I will now add that, in a similar manner, singularity (being in a position to orchestrate control; being without peer) also necessarily produces its own challenge, in order that the control it assumes may be reasserted and extended perpetually. There is always another other, another territory to subject, a new opportunity to narrate and be narrated. The self-subverting aspects of both symmetry and singularity are shown forth in the conflict of Palamon and Arcite over shared desire and in Theseus’s appropriative response to it.

In their initial responses to the vision of Emelye in the garden, Palamon and Arcite individually articulate their subjection to her or to Fortune, and through them to Theseus. Before recognizing the cause of Palamon’s tortured “A!” at 1078, Arcite attempts to soothe his cousin by reasserting the necessity of submission: “For Goddes love, taak al in pacience/Oure prisoun, for it may noon other be./Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee” (1084–6).[42] Palamon replies that, not the prison, but a lady, or rather Venus, has hurt him “thurghout [his] ye” (1096). On his knees, he prays, he thinks to Venus, for deliverance from prison and for compassion “Of oure lynage” (1110); unfortunately for Palamon, Venus doesn’t hear, because he’s actually praying to Emelye, which doubles his subjection to Theseus (he subjects himself to Theseus’s subject). Arcite, whose head is more level and whose internalization of the prison, as we have seen, is more thorough, recognizes Emelye for the woman she is, and replicates Palamon’s double subjection in a more direct manner:

“The fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly
Of hire that rometh in the yonder place,
And but I have hir mercy and hir grace,
That I may seen hire atte leeste weye,
I nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye.”   (1118–22)

There would indeed, it seems, be little more to say if the desire triggered by Emelye, which inspires the abnegation of will and slays in only a comfortably nostalgic way (nostalgic for “lynage,” for roaming on the old patriarchal prairie), were unilateral. But the problem is precisely the doubling and symmetry of this desire which, if arrived at unsymmetrically, quickly equalizes itself between the two cousins, who struggle for priority in what soon seems to them the same desire for the same object.

We have reached here a crisis of singularity and symmetry, wherein two equal desires are competing for one place. Judith Ferster points out that “[i]t is not merely that [Palamon’s and Arcite’s] love for Emily causes them to hate each other, but also that their interaction with each other mediates their love for Emily.”[43] Such mutual mediation only intensifies the violence of the hatred, whether or not it is, as Ferster claims, a learning experience. Following René Girard, we could say that the hatred is a response to a “crisis of no-difference,” or “crisis of degree,”[44] and that it is a struggle for differentiation and singularity which is later played out in the grove and in the amphitheater.[45] This reading supports the claim that symmetry produces a violent disorder—Palamon’s and Arcite’s symmetrical desire ruptures their patrilineal bond, just as desire had ruptured their selfhood.[46] Palamon and Arcite had “[y]sworn full depe” as “cosyn[s] and … brother[s]” (1131–2) to never hinder each other in love and to always “forthren” each other “in every cas” (1135–8). This “ooth” of mutuality and symmetrical progress is deeply riven with internal contradiction, set loose by Emelye/garden. As Arcite responds when Palamon has reminded him of their commitment to a shared identity (with only one desire allowed at a time),

“Wostow nat wel the olde clerkes sawe,
That ‘who shal yeve a lovere any lawe?’
Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan,
Than may be yeve to any erthely man;
And therfore positif lawe and swich decree
Is broken al day for love in ech degree.”   (1163–8)

This misappropriation of Boethius[47] picks up on Palamon’s conflation of legalistic claims to priority with demands upon a shared identity. In the process, Arcite would seem to articulate a threat to the law “yeven” by that “erthely man” (or is he?) Theseus; but the fact that such a challenge is staged within a state of subjection not so easily escaped is attested to in Arcite’s pragmatic attempt to resolve the violence “peacefully”:

“And eek it is nat likly al thy lyf
to stonden in [Emelyes] grace; namoore shal I;
Fore wel thou woost thyselven, verraily,
That thou and I be dampned to prisoun
Perpetuelly: us gayneth no raunsoun.”    (1172–6)

This self-subjection of course repeats nearly word for word the narrator’s report of Theseus’s sentence upon the cousins: “to dwellen in prisoun/ Perpetuelly,—he nolde no raunsoun” (1023–4). Arcite himself attempts to articulate and apply the internalized decree so as to shut down the crisis of no-difference and its resultant violence. “Greet was the strif,” however, “and long bitwix hem tweye” (1187); the ineffectuality of Arcite’s speaking in the place of Theseus will eventually require Theseus’s own reincorporation of the dispute which threatens his order and violates his territory.

But first, Perotheus intervenes on Arcite’s behalf, and that the narrator turns immediately to this intervention after noting the strife between cousins points up the fact that Theseus and Perotheus are able to resolve on a unilateral desire where Palamon and Arcite are not. Perotheus is described three times in nine lines as the longstanding “felawe” of Theseus (1192, 1196, 1200), just as Arcite is referred to as Palamon’s “felawe” at 1031. (This word will take on an opposed meeting at 2548.) Here, we are introduced to “Theseus Phase II,” the Theseus who is able to qualify absolute decrees in order both to speak forth a unilateral desire (the significance of speaking forth will be addressed below) and to extend more extensive decrees and controls.[48] Arcite is freed to bear from Athens his internalized prison—Theseus need not fear a Theban counterstrike, which Palamon suggests (to himself) at 1286–7 that Arcite spearhead (Arcite will just lan­guish)—but he is freed conditionally, and with a new commission from Theseus. The duke sets out his conditions and sets an absolute penalty; if Arcite defies the law, “with a swerd he sholde lese his heed./Ther nas noon oother remedie ne reed” (1216). Theseus Phase II discards a harsh old absolutism to preserve singularity under the auspices of an equally harsh (but more spatially extensive) new absolutism. Theseus Phase II is adept at making adjustments of control seem merciful.

We see this again in part two when Theseus finds the cousins marring his landscape and his day of peaceful hunting. This entire scene is interesting for a number of reasons: it is an early climax in the tale, marking off the escalation of conflict from the initiation of its resolution; its various actions, gestures and utterances map out the structure of “Phase II” authority; it enlightens the ways in which women are situated in this structure; and it brings together all the major players in the drama for the first time.

Theseus (guided, we are told, by destiny [1663–78]) and his party[49] come upon Palamon and Arcite fighting “breme, as it were bores two” (1699). The simile is notable: the cousins are likened to boars so as to emphasize the untempered ferocity of their violence, but the comparison accomplishes the sort of dehumanization we have seen implicit in Theseus’s campaign against “Femenye,” and more graphically in his assault on Thebes. Sure enough, “conquering” Theseus intercedes in a manner very reminiscent of his headlong hurl to Thebes:

The duc his courser with his spores smoot,
And at a stert he was bitwix hem two,
And pulled out a swerd, and cride, “Hoo!
Namoore, up peyne of lesynge of youre heed!
By myghty Mars, he shal anon be deed
That smyteth any strook that I may seen.
(1704–9; emphasis mine)

Theseus reserves to himself the right to smite. He rushes in to reappropriate the conflict and assert his uncontestable right to subject anyone—who these two are, “no thynge he ne woot” (1703)—within his sight, that is, within his presence. What seems to anger him the most, appropriately enough, is not that the two are fighting “hardy,” but that they are fighting “[w]ithouten juge or oother officere,/As it were in a lystes roially” (1712–3).[50] Theseus once again reacts narcissistically, as prime judge and officer in these parts, threatening death (absolute judgment) if either cousin should “smyteth any strook” not dedicated to his authority and outside the network of his judgment. In this absolute reaction, the reaction of the “conqueror”—however much it acts to close down independent violence and reassert his singularity—Theseus suggests to himself a way to prolong the conflict as an opportunity to prolong his control over it.

Theseus listens as Palamon incriminates himself and his former “felawe,” demonstrating his total internalization of the prison he had only recently escaped.[51] Palamon, in fact, has internalized Theseus’s power (i.e., Theseus) so well, that he speaks Theseus as well as the duke himself:

     “Sire, what nedeth wordes mo?
We have the deeth disserved bothe two.
Two woful wrecches been we, two caytyves …;
And as thou art a rightful lord and juge,
Ne yif us neither mercy ne refuge. …
This is thy mortal foo, this is Arcite,
That fro thy lond is banysshed on his heed,
For which he hath deserved to be deed. …
[I have] thy prisoun broken wikkedly.
I am thy mortal foo …
… I axe deeth and my juwise …
… bothe han we deserved to be slayn”   (1715–41)

This is a rather stunning performance, such a fine rendition of the voice of authority that Theseus accepts it as his own word: “‘This is a short conclusioun./Youre owene mouth, by youre confessioun,/Hath dampned yow, and I wol it recorde’” (1743–5).[52] Because Palamon has long ago capitulated, Theseus is denied the pleasure of being able to torture this confession out of him before killing the both of them (1746–7). This is precisely the point: Theseus swears again upon “myghty Mars” at 1747, just as he had done at 1708, securing his authority in the name of the patron god of Phase I conquest; but his first reaction has been to bring the same methods to bear upon a very different situation. This is a situation where he faces “foo”s who have already been conquered and subjugated—first at Thebes and then in the cells of Athens. Furthermore, the otherness he wishes to extinguish is an unauthorized struggle that is itself one generation removed from the authorized order established about the singular point of Theseus. It is a struggle for a singular position of subjection —for the right to endure the hideous pain of desire inflicted by an unknown and hopelessly remote Emelye, herself a “first order” subject. “Double soor” is double subjection; and, reduced to just one singular anguish, it will still be double subjection. The cousins fight for the singular right to suffer.

Nevertheless, the otherness within this crisis of no-difference still represents an affront to the code of judgment, simply because, beyond at least the literal walls of his prison, it escapes Theseus’s coding. But, whether he knows it or not, the continuance of the struggle is in his service, both because it effectively deflects any animus from his authority (which is an additional reason, beyond the larger issue of internalized subjection, that Palamon’s naming himself and Arcite as “mortal foo”s of Theseus is a joke), and because, properly controlled, it offers an opportunity for him to colonize the struggle and to write its script. His rash condemnation of the cousins to death (or rather, Palamon’s doing it for him) would close down these possi­bilities; but it provokes the women of the hunting party to respond in a way which will offer him an opportunity to reconsider.

Led by Ypolita (“for verray wommanhede,” 1748) and Emelye, the women of the party begin to weep for pity (out of and in supplication of pity). This is the extent of expression the narrator allows women in the entire tale, excepting Emelye’s doomed supplication at 2297–2330 (which is itself a plea for pity; but let’s not forget her heavenly song at 1055). In effect, weeping and wailing come to seem women’s social function. But what does this function serve? In part one, the widows weep Theseus into an aggression that is less in the service of their justice than in the service of his reputation for justice. There, the womens’ plight served as an occasion for more violent subjection and incorporation; here, weeping would seem to deter Theseus’s violence.

But in both cases, womens’ voices serve to recall Theseus from initial narcissistic indignation so that he is able to consider his position within narrative. That is, Theseus is able to recognize that deviation from a straight and absolute path might make for an even better—and longer—story. In an internal monologue, Theseus abstracts his position, identifying momen­tarily with the subjects who would be given more and more opportunity to speak his name. Theseus tells a story, and attempts to write himself the best part possible.[53] When he finally speaks, “al on highte” (this seems another moment of narrative identification with the duke’s intentions), he begins by addressing Cupid in terms one easily deduces he would like fame to bestow upon him:

“The god of love, a, benedicite!
How myghty and how greet a lord is he!
Ayeyns his myght ther gayneth none obstacles.
He may be cleped a god for his myracles;
For he kan maken, at his owene gyse,
Of everich herte as that hym list divyse.”  (1785–90)[54]

There is a wonderful echo of “herte” here against “hart,” the object of Theseus’s domesticated war this fatal day. Theseus’s plan, finally, is to domes­ticate the unauthorized war between Palamon and Arcite, to turn it into a contest, on only his own terms, “at his owene gyse.”

The amphitheater Theseus erects “in his own image” (in the image of the city whose walls represent the enclosure of his authority, in the image of the enclosing prison[55]) was already in place in Il Teseida. This implies, metonymically, not only the fact that Teseo is a less compulsive activist in his own cause than Theseus, but further that Theseus needs to create, for the new sort of story he’s scripting, a stage adorned with the requisite signifiers, specially produced to represent his particular “intention.” The entire structure stands as a reification of Theseus’s mind; while various artisans—in fact, every “crafty man” “in the lond” (1897)—are put in Theseus’s employ in the construction of the amphitheater, they contribute no inde­pendent intention. Everything is “doon” by Theseus, or so the narrator tells us (e.g., at 1905 and 1913)—presumably even the anachronistic represen­tations of Julius, Nero and Antonius in the temple of Mars, who in fact has by “manasynge” “depeynted” their deaths (2034–5). Theseus, as constructor of the temples of Venus, Mars and Diana (their homes away from home), seems to have established, or presumed, a direct line to their intentions.[56]

That the gods’ temples are so dismal, and that the narrator is so deeply invested in representing them, of course present large issues for any reading of the tale’s significance. However, I wish only to make a few brief points about the long descriptive passages at 1914–2088, so that I may move on to conclude this line of argument. As has been shown elsewhere, the depictions which in a very real sense constitute the temples are committed to the fact that the very beings who are represented as guiding and control­ling human action and labor are also represented as the prime sources of disorder in this fictionalized world. With modern critical assumptions in hand, we might say that these deities are hypostatizations of more or less violent desires which are detached and projected in an anxiety produced by lack of mastery over them.[57] I make this point only to preface another point more directly relevant to the text: Theseus’s inclusion of these represen­tations in a temple of his own design is meant to signify his mastery over them.[58] Of course, such mastery is in every way but one phantasmatic: the one exception is Theseus’s actual rhetorical mastery.

Theseus does not change the content of the conflict he appropriates; he simply changes the form: he recodes the desire within the structure over which he presides. Emelye is traded over to the victor, not as payment for the performance, but rather as the means of resecuring desire once it has been pared down to one. Before, Palamon and Arcite fought for the right to suffer “wo” over Emelye; now they are to engage in coded war for the right to possess her. But she will still be subject to Theseus, which is why he can give her away without giving her away. He merely orchestrates the alliance of two separate lineages, lineages he had already destroyed in all but name: he preserves the notion of lineage so that he may flatten it into affiliation and polarize it about himself. As Theseus says, “I speke as for my suster Emelye” (1833).

To say that Theseus re-codes the conflict is to say that he takes over its script; he inserts it into a larger narrative which bears his signature. Needless to say, no one has a choice about playing her or his role: “Lo heere youre ende of that I shal devyse” (cp. 1790); “My wyl is this, for plat conclusioun,/Withouten any repplicacioun” (1844–6). In his tenure as author(ity) of this narrative, and with the construction of the lists, Theseus multiplies desire: that is, he adds surplus:

For every wight that lovede chivalrye,
And wolde, his thankes, han a passant name,
Hath preyed that he myghte been of that game;
And wel was hym that thereto chosen was.
For if ther fille tomorwe swich a cas,
Ye knowen wel that every lusty knyght
That loveth paramours and hath his myght,
Were it in Engelond or elleswhere,
They wolde, hir thankes, wilnen to be there, —
To fighte for a lady, benedicitee!     (2104–2115)

The surplus desire is spread not only across a continent, but across the ages; the narrator attests here to the enduring power of the code that Theseus marshals (or “martials,” in the domestic sense), and of the extensibility of identification with its rules. The repetition of “his/hir thankes” seals this testament: “every lusty knyght” recognizes the code, identifies with the narrative, and desires to become a character in the script. Their desires are captured in advance, and merely need be invoked by the author with a repetition of the form (“To fighte for a lady, benedicitee! “). Actual and direct desire for the lady—to say nothing of the lady’s desire—is hardly an issue; it is more that desire for the lady is being represented and is being used as an alibi for war. The lady is used, quite simply, as a rationale. This is no less true of her use by Palamon and Arcite; actual possession and direct use of Emelye does not really figure until Theseus takes over the story,[59] and that she be given away is demanded by the genre of the narrative. This gift motivates the recoded conflict (motivates it more extensively, so that it may draw in more characters) and ensures the continued subjection of the victor’s desire and “lynage.”

The other “gift” Theseus extends, with a nice little rhetorical flourish, is the gift of life to the loser of the contest. (This gift is purchased, as it turns out, with the death of the victor.) At a certain level of the narrative (Theseus’s and the narrator’s) this gift will leave a residue, or surplus: an extra desire that must somehow be accommodated in the resolution. The resulting narrative would be less “clean” and less absolute; but Theseus is in a new phase where he recognizes the value of such surplus to the making of a better and more sophisticated narrative. His timing in qualifying the initial (mortal) terms of the contest couldn’t be better: the “peple” have in a real sense forgotten that it was Theseus himself who had proclaimed this a mortal contest, or at least they have long since accepted the initial terms as internal to the chivalric code and the code of justice under which they were levied. After the “heraud” had announced the new terms—setting a new frame around an only marginally less brutal battle[60]—proclaiming them “the lordes wille” (2560), the “voys of peple touched the hevene,” bearing up Theseus to the realm where the events of battle are predetermined.

“God save swich a lord, that is so good,
He wilneth no destruccion of blood!”
Up goon the trompes and the melodye,
And to the lystes rit the compaignye,
By ordinance, thurghout the citee large,
Hanged with clooth of gold, and nat with sarge.   (2563–8)

Theseus’s goodness—for sparing at once life and lineage—is spoken and sounded all the louder, and is more gold and less “sarge” than ever. The people respond to a careful orchestration not only of pronouncement and pageant, but also of even more fundamental rhetorical strategies. “Mercy” of course presupposes strict and absolute judgment; he who is merciful is he who has been authorized to be absolute. Bestowing mercy in no way qualifies justice, quite the contrary. Mercy makes justice all the more secure and palatable; mercy is the alibi of justice. Both mercy and justice are in the control of authority, and the former is exercised with even more freedom (it is part of the code but is not “codified”). Theseus’s exercise of “mercy” here shows a new understanding of the application (Phase II) of power.[61]

As for the contest itself, “what nedeth wordes mo?” Well, a few words are called for. Palamon and Arcite, successfully, and Emelye, unsuccessfully, have transferred their desires over to the deities who have presumably predestined the resolution. Theseus and the gods together circumscribe the battle; for its duration, Theseus (“arrayed right as he were god in trone,” 2529) turns over to them direction of the only part of the narrative he has not actively scripted. The kings and knights multiply one hundredfold the number of bodies competing for that one desire, fighting for it as if the fight were real. In Theseus’ script, the identity of the winner is of no substance, but his position has been determined, and the closure worked out in advance.

Yet that one loophole in Theseus’s plans—that bare bit of selection he left up to higher powers—widens into a rupture. For the gods to resolve two desires (the cousins’) that must be made singular into two desires (Venus’s and Mars’) that may both be satisfied, Theseus will have to face a delay in closure. Like the wailing of women, the manipulations of Saturn afford Theseus an opportunity to take advantage of dilation, to recognize that narra­tive deviation allows the narrator to speak longer, and with even more control over the audience. Theseus is learning the art of sophisticated storytelling.

A first problem is the actual methods by which the first half (Mars’s) of the deities’ dual desire is satisfied. Theseus will have to seal off any question there may be of his judging Arcite the winner. Amid a curious and inverted justification of what might very well have been interpreted as Arcite’s cheating, the narrator expands at length on the evidence which could countermand his reading. Even more strange is his report of Theseus’s reaction. The narrator delivers his final (“descriptive”) word: “In nas arretted [Arcite] no vileynye;/Ther may no man clepen it cowardye” (2729–30); Theseus leaps in:

For which anon duc Theseus leet crye,
To stynten alle rancour and envye,
The gree as wel of o syde as of oother,
And eyther syde ylik as ootheres brother   (2731–4).

The narrative in fact protests too much, setting off Theseus’s “crye” as surplus interpretive control. The reader is left uneasy, but Theseus’s affiliation of the two camps recalls them to the fact that their opposition was from the start merely formal, that they had always shared one desire under the code of chivalric contest (“To fighte for a lady,” etc.). He affirms the “brotherhood” that circumscribes their conflict, even when brotherhood had originally provoked it.

Pluto’s intervention not only nullifies whatever question of Arcite’s tactics may have escaped the official interpretation; it also takes care of the problem of what to do with the extra desire factored out of Theseus’s equation. As we have seen, Theseus can take care of the rowdy knights and the wounded pride of half of them with a simple declaration of closure. This declaration, which posits that, in the battle for difference, there was complete symmetry, satisfies them within the code under which their desires were channeled into the spectacle. But, had Arcite lived, there was the chance that Palamon’s desire would, from its repressed position, fight back against the code and subvert the closure of the narrative in which it had been captured. But this is not likely, at least on the assumption that Palamon would remain in the same psychological locus of subjection he had exemplified at 1713 and following.[62] In any case, it seems certain that Theseus would know how to handle that dilation if it were to come about.

From this perspective, the fact that Theseus’s attempts to impose order are frustrated by exterior desires, “chance,” “destiny” or what have you seems less a statement on the narrator’s/Chaucer’s part that human attempts to order are noble but futile—which the narrator/Chaucer may very well have believed—than a demonstration of the flexibility of hegemonic/patriarchal authority to absorb and use “disorder.”[63]

Phase III

We have seen heretofore the ways in which Theseus has learned to appropriate conflict into his narratives and to construct alibis for subjection. I wish now to turn to the last phase of the evolution of power structures in the poem: the phase in which Theseus employs narrative to ensure subjection in advance. This phase is anticipated in the coding of the contest, in which desire was both captured and provoked by Theseus’s significations and constructions.

As the narrator’s deeply invested description of Emelye in the garden heralded the second movement of the poem, so too does the description of Arcite’s funeral herald its finale. The narrator cannot even control his occupatio in describing the rituals of cremation, indicating that his desires once again subvert his efforts to control narrative rhythm. He details in a quite remarkable way the domestication of nature within cultural codes: the appropriation of 21 different trees to the ritual (2921–3), the disinheritance of the local nature-”goddes” (2925–6), the combustion of sticks, straw and garlands along with cloth and spices (2933–7). He dwells on the ritual with nostalgia not only for Arcite, but for an order supplanted long before the gods were sent scurrying. Ritualized and keyed to nostalgia, Arcite’s funeral both interprets his death (in anticipation of Theseus’s speech) and sublimates any leftover anxieties about its violation of the authorized script.

When, “[b]y processe and by lengthe of certeyn yeres,/Al stynted is the moornynge and the teres/Of Grekes, by oon general assent” (2967–9), a general parliament under the direction of Theseus meets to shape a new order. It appears that Thebes is a repressed that has returned as a problem (or at least as a problem in poten­tia), a detail that still doesn’t quite fit into the story. Phase I tactics (violent incorporation, etc.) haven’t done the trick; nor have Phase II tactics (taking Palamon, the surplus or remainder, as a metonymy of the subjected). Rather than wait around for alien desires to arise, and then have to do another “screen adaptation” (which always threatens to leave a recalcitrant surplus) Theseus seizes the opportunity to kill all remaining birds with one anticipatory stone.

It has been an implicit hypothesis of this paper that in the world of The Knight’s Tale, desire produces ruptured subjects, taking “subject” in almost every possible sense. Such ruptured subjects can make good, clean members of a patriarchal society, but in their pain (equated here with desire) there is a surplus of violence, brought most clearly to the fore whenever things start getting too symmetrical. Violence itself, in its relatively “pure” state, ruptures more thoroughly, but also leaves behind threatening residues (resentment, quick bodies in a “taas” of corpses, even a sudden taste for agitation). That is, violence seems to call forth more violence; the residues can never be eliminated to satisfaction. Moreover, it is often difficult to tell desire apart from violence within this narrative (within any patriarchal narrative?): witness the cousins’ language in the latter part of part one (“hir beautee hurte hym so,” “Arcite is hurt as muche as he, or moore,” “‘The fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly,’” etc.).[64]

The residues and ruptures effected by desire/violence can be, as we have seen, useful to authority; a certain amount of dilation allows for more narrative plotting and for more occasion to speak (and be spoken), and speak (be spoken) more broadly. Yet such dilation is, so to speak, not “natural” to patriarchal narratives and structures; without an assured last word, God knows what might be said if things go on too long.[65]

Thus, for these reasons and more, it becomes important for Theseus to seal the narrative without recourse to violence and with the cancellation of desire.[66] It becomes equally important to the narrator—whether or not there is an anecdotal justification in the frame of the tales—to produce a satisfying conclusion which also cancels any excess narrative desire. The wedding of Palamon to Emelye, which accomplishes the “peaceful” subjection of Thebes, is the last word of the plot; but to ensure that any uncoded desire has been fully reappropriated, it is necessary for the act to be anticipated by its interpretation.

The “Firste Moevere” speech, if bad philosophy,[67] is a rhetorical marvel.[68] We are clearly informed of its purpose by the narrator: first, we are told that the parliament has “yspoken” ”pointz” concern­ing alliance with certain countries and the full “obeisaunce” of Thebes (2972–4).[69] The line immediately following (2975) begins “For which,” i.e., “For which purpose,” indicating 2973–4 as the purpose clause governing 2975 and following. I quote:

For which this noble Theseus anon
Leet senden after gentil Palamon,
Unwist of hym what was the cause and why ….
Tho sente Theseus for Emelye.
Whan they were set, and hust was al the place,
And Theseus abiden hadde a space …
… after that right thus he seyde his wille:   (2975–86)

Theseus brings Palamon and Emelye into his presence, certainly so that he may announce to them their betrothal, but also, as the compression in the lines just quoted indicates, to deliver his speech (his “wille,” colon) in its anticipation. (The declaration of his “wille” includes both the philosophical ruminations as well as the command to marry.)

Theseus begins, of course, by invoking the “Firste Moevere,” and continues by articulating the universal design—that is, by acting as its spokesman.[70] This immediately establishes his location within the scene he is staging, his transcendental voice. He arrogates the authority to speak of the world as “wrecched” (2995), and to reinforce submission to that wretchedness, at the same time deflecting attention from the mechanics of his rhetoric:

“That same Prince and that Moevere,” quod he,
“Hath stablissed in this wrecched world adoun
Certeyne dayes and duracioun
To al that is engendred in this place,
Over the whiche day they may nat pace,
Al mowe they yet tho dayes wel abregge.
Ther nedeth noght noon auctoritee t’allegge,
For it is preeved by experience,
But that me list declaren my sentence.”  (2994–3002)

Theseus continues in the same vein, articulating the structure of descent from a “parfit … and stable,” “eterne” “hool” to things “corrumpable” (3003–10), although he insists that “[w]el may men knowe” this; it is simply necessary to enforce the unquestionability of this metaphysics.[71] This is both because it pleases him to do so, and because it is important for him to quickly remind his auditors of their subjection in a larger scheme, and to associate their acquiescence in this with the sound of his voice. He is in effect fetishizing his authority to speak, by positioning himself in the place of that “thyng that parfit is and stable,” from which the audience’s ruptured subjectivity derives.

Egeus’s speech at 2843–9 is usually seen as laughable,[72] especially in the company of Theseus’s “Firste Moevere” performance;[73] what is not so often noticed, however, is that Theseus has picked up on his father’s words and incorporated them at 3017–34. Theseus’s version of “all things die” is certainly more rhetorically sophisticated—it is a sequence of developing analogies[74]—but it is no more profound. The important difference in the two passages is that, where Egeus stops at “Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore” (2849), Theseus turns this platitude to pragmatic account. Assuring Palamon and Emelye at 3035–40 that it is useless to strive against Jupiter, “the kyng, /That is prince and cause of alle thyng” (words only too apt to himself[75]), the king turns necessity into opportunity:

    Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it weel that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
And whoso gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,
And rebel is to hym that al may gye.   (3041–6)

This last statement transcends mere official opinion; it is a threat. Theseus at once prepares the couple’s submission to his plot, prepares them to read it as at once necessity and “vertu” (their virtue, his power),[76] and pre-interprets subjection within the code of “honor” (offered at 3047 ff. as a refuge from his threat).

Theseus paints the world as a place where having independent desire is foolish, rebellious and masochistic; it is a “foule prisoun” to which his own “prison” offers an attractive alternative—his prison offers redemptive codes, comforting aphorisms, a soothing voice to absorb desire. He recalls the couple from the memory of Arcite to the present of his will, by which (almost like magic) the “foule prisoun” and “sorwes two” (3061, 3071) can be made over into “O parfit joye, lastynge everemo” (3072).[77] Theseus’s “parfit joye” is of course another prison.[78] But when Theseus proclaims to Emelye his “fulle assent,/With al th’avys heere of my parlement” (3075–6), she is left no room even to cry; and when he speaks on behalf of Palamon (when he “speaks Palamon”), there is no need for Palamon to repeat words of subjection. Finally, Theseus has written all the lines. And sure enough, he gets his happy ending, and the last word too.[79]

*   *
*   *
*   *

In writing my own interpretive script for The Knight’s Tale, I have spoken internalized authoritative voices and incorporated new ones. Those voices I could pin down and identify have been cited where possible; but perhaps more important than the words those voices speak are the structures in which they speak and, more generally, the interpretive structures they collectively form. My script is certainly invested in a kind of mastery over the tale; but at the same time, it excludes both vast portions of the tale and the larger textual, biographical, cultural and historical contexts in which it speaks.

I am not going to try explaining away this contradiction, but I do feel an apology of sorts is called for. I admit that my reading, which would doubtless meet with disapproval among those who have labored to achieve some real understanding of Chaucer’s work, does violence to the text, appropriating it to a rather limited and, to some minds, inappropriate agenda. But I can hardly imagine an interpretation that doesn’t violate the text in some way, although the violation may be elegant and attractive. This does not excuse my rather formalist brand of violence—which creates a prison house of its own; but I feel that it frees me to recognize what I have done, and to at least stand by what I think are important questions.

With all respect and admiration for Chaucer’s work, I still feel that it is no terrible crime to speak of that work in terms the author most likely never intended nor dreamed of. This may be an alibi for laziness, but it at least has the merits of resisting deification—whether of Chaucer, his writing, or of his putatively idealized creations, such as Theseus. The fact that Chaucer’s Theseus is so intent on self-apotheosis makes it all the more necessary to offer resistance.

This brings us straight to the uncomfortable fact that, if it is indeed true that Theseus “wants” his name to be repeated and circulated in narrative, it is rather curious that I should choose to assent to his “desires.” A more effective form of protest, perhaps, would have been to ignore him altogether, with the intent of speaking concerns alienated by the authority he personifies. Indeed, this was something like my first intention, but that intention was rapidly appropriated: all my resistances were inevitably turned into occasions to directly or indirectly “speak” Theseus. This, therefore, became the focus of my attention, and the theme of my essay.

And in a way, I think it is possible to combat the narratives which use us, and strive to incorporate us into their plots, by re-writing them; that is, by repeating them with a difference. I think it possible, even though this paper has not done it, to repeat these stories until they sicken on themselves and lose their value as fetishes or as nature. And perhaps further, one can try to work from the inside out and appropriate the authorized signifiers to unauthorized narratives. Fighting fire with fire may just make a bigger fire, but it’s at least worth trying to slowly consume the prison.


[1]. All references to the text and apparatus of The Canterbury Tales will be to those prepared by F.N. Robinson for The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, second edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

[2]. I shall refer throughout to “the narrator” rather than to “the Knight,” even though Chaucer assigns the tale to the pilgrim figure. Yet I have not yet worked out—nor have the space to consider—the relation of narrative texture (which is somewhat polyvocal) to the position represented by the Knight.

[3]. Charles Muscatine, “The Knight’s Tale,” in Chaucer and the French Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 175. This section of the book was adapted from “Form, Texture and Meaning in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale,PMLA, LXV (1950): 911–29. All references are to the former text.

[4]. E. Talbot Donaldson, “The Masculine Narrator and Four Women of Style,” in Speaking of Chaucer (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), p. 49.

[5]. “Chaucer probably expected the reader to take sides, but if he intended that one young man should be recognized as the worthier he seems to have gone about it badly.… [F]rom the earthly point of view, justice operates with equal whimsicality in bringing Arcite to death and Palamon to happiness.… On the other hand, it must be remembered that justice merely seems whimsical to dwellers on earth, while the divine plan must be just; and something of this higher justice appears within the poem to lend support to Theseus’ postulation of the divine plan.… But on the divine moral plane the issues are unresolved and remain as curiously remote as the divine plan itself.” E. Talbot Donaldson, Chaucer’s Poetry (New York: Ronald Press, 1958), pp. 903–4.

[6]. Muscatine’s reading is of course the major example here. Among the critics who have directly or indirectly followed his lead are Peter Elbow, in Oppositions in Chaucer (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1975), pp. 73­–94; Robert Burlin in Chaucerian Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), esp. pp. 110–11; Charles A. Owen, Jr., in Pilgrimage and Storytelling in the Canterbury Tales (Norman, Okla.: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1977), pp. 87–96; and C. David Benson, in Chaucer’s Drama of Style (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), esp. p. 81.
      Dale Underwood, while declining to idealize Theseus’s “ordering impulses,” retains the notion of a central order which is divine and thus unavailable to the conqueror “under the sonne” (KT 863). See Dale Underwood, “The First of the Canterbury Tales,ELH 26 (1959): 455–69, rpt. in Discussions of the Canterbury Tales (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1961), passim. For other versions of skeptical approval of ordering impulses, see E. Talbot Donaldson, Chaucer’s Poetry, p. 902; and V.A. Kolve, Chaucer’s Imagery of Narrative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), esp. pp. 134 ff.
      Some of the more resolute opponents to order/Theseus include Elizabeth Salter, in Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale (London: Edward Arnold, 1962); Terry Jones, in Chaucer’s Knight, rev. ed. (New York: Methuen, 1985); David Aers, in Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 174–95; Stuart Justman, in “‘Auctoritee’ and the Knight’s Tale,MLQ 39 (1978): 3–14; and Richard Neuse, in “The Knight: The First Mover of Chaucer’s Human Comedy,” UTQ 31 (1962): 299–315.

[7]. David Aers claims that “Theseus has been represented time and again as the figure who understands ‘man’s proper life in submission to the perfect harmony of the universe,’ the authoritative bearer of Chaucer’s own ‘philosophical insight’” (p. 174).

[8]. Donaldson points to “Chaucer’s ability to describe things simultaneously from several distinct points of view while seeming to see them from only one point of view, and thus to show in all honesty the complexity of things while preserving the appearance of that stylistic simplicity which we feel to be so honest and trustworthy” (p. 47).

[9]. Donald Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 2–3.

[10]. In this respect, I agree with C. David Benson in his argument that the tales in general cannot really “dramatize” the figure of the teller (i.e., that the tales do not exist for the benefit of the tellers). Benson nevertheless hopes to demonstrate the unitary “style” of each tale in a drama of voices, and on the integrity of style I part company. See C. David Benson, Chaucer’s Drama of Style, ch. 1, and “Their Telling Difference,” Chaucer Review 18 (1984), esp. 61–2.
      On this problem, Donald Howard points especially to moments of comedy which seem inappropriate or contradictory, once one accepts that the speaker has a general tone: “This humorous element in the Knight’s Tale is the most controversial aspect of the tale: where one critic [Muscatine] writes it off as an ‘antidote’ to tragedy”—F.N. Robinson does the same at 2805 ff. n.—”another puts it at the center of things, but no one denies it is there. It introduces a feature which we will experience in many a tale: we read the tale as a dramatic monologue spoken by its teller but understand that some of Chaucer’s attitudes spill into it” (pp. 230–1). Howard goes on to discuss the function of “I” in the tale as a rhetorical marker indicating different ontological loci.

[11]. I will, however, remark on changes from the tale’s sources which at least demon­strate how Chaucer “individuated” his characters.

[12]. Underwood notes that “the most obvious and striking principle of order in the poem’s form derives precisely from what Muscatine has called the ‘violent ups and downs’ which distinguish the ‘surface narrative’” (38). And, at the thematic level, “in terms of human logic and order, the nature of man himself becomes a continual source of apparent disorder” (39).

[13]. This is true if allowances are made for the narrator’s first nine lines and for his highly compressed wrap-up at ll. 3099–3108. Among the critics who have discussed this circularity are Frederick Turner, in “A Structural Analysis of the Knight’s Tale,Chaucer Review 8 (1974), esp. p. 285; Judith Ferster, in Chaucer on Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 27; Richard Burlin, in Chaucerian Fiction, p. 105; and P.M. Kean, in Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), II, 48–52.

[14]. Emelye is granted an opportunity (34 lines) in which to articulate to Diana her desires to remain a maid. Of course, she is the only of the supplicants who is immedi­ately and categorically denied, which establishes the fact that it’s business as usual in the heavens. Thereafter, the narrative takes up the cause and interprets Emelye’s gestures for us while utterly banishing her discourse. If one wishes to consider weeping and wailing as an expression of Ypolita’s and Emelye’s desires, this pads out the line count somewhat, but hardly contributes to any representation of subjectivity.

[15]. The women’s place within a matriarchal structure is of course significant—as it would be for one whose “subjectivity” coincides directly with his position as center and circumference of the ascendant patriarchal Law. The structural position of Emelye, once appropriated to patriarchy, becomes an issue—or rather, an alibi—at 1829 ff.

[16]. Turner (p. 286) points out some of the differences I do not raise here.

[17]. In these terms, Arcite’s funeral ceremony is vastly more significant within the scheme of the tale than Palamon’s marriage ceremony. This fact will be discussed below.

[18]. I am of course “filling in” with interpretation what are extremely sketchy details in the text; but, while my reading conflicts with or presumes upon the narrator’s, I in no way feel that it is unjustified. The narrative, in any case, does not differentiate motivations.

[19]. A good basic discussion of the sources of The Knight’s Tale is provided in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ed. W.F. Brian and Germaine Dempster (New York: The Humanities Press, 1958), which also includes a summary of Boccaccio’s text.

[20]. This claim is, for example, is presented (even if only in concession) by Underwood (pp. 40–1) and Donaldson (Chaucer’s Poetry, p. 904).

[21]. Cf. Aers, pp. 176–7; and Henry J. Webb, “A Reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Theseus,” RES 23 (1947): 289–96.

[22]. Burlin notes that “[i]t is difficult to know whether our modern sensibility intrudes, whether Chaucer miscalculated in carrying over too much material from his sources once he had omitted the rationale [for the brutality of the action] given by the previous Athenian-Theban conflicts, or whether we are indeed to see Theseus here imperfectly assuming the responsibilities of justice” (p. 109).

[23]. This fact is novel to The Knight’s Tale.

[24]. Ferster’s analysis of the scene is the most interesting that I know of; yet she takes Theseus’s narcissism as a more general hermeneutic and human problem. The “paradox” of the tale, as she sees it, is that “[t]he possibility of knowing or feeling with another is fragile and inextricably linked with selfishness” (p. 31).

[25]. The “That” at the head of l. 962 clearly introduces a purpose clause.

[26]. “Henry Webb rightly noted the ‘hints of selfish motives’ [at 896 ff.] and thoughts of ‘his own honor and popularity’ and Chaucer makes the duke’s self-centeredness rather pronounced (‘myn’, ‘my’, ‘myn honour’ (ll. 905–8)), while his motives in attacking Creon are inextricably bound up with his public military fame (ll. 960–6)—hardly unusual traits in rulers”—Aers, p. 175.

[27]. Cp ll. 939–47 and ll. 987–1008.

[28]. Lines 1003–6 are begging for a reading à la Stanley Fish: they “affectively” “mislead” us into carrying “he” over as the subject of 1005–6, and “as hym lest” as appositive. Underwood thinks we “must ask why, in mentioning that Theseus ‘dide with al the contree as hym liste’ (1004), Chaucer substituted a pillage of the dead and wounded for the more humane and orderly conduct related by Boccaccio. The events as narrated in the ‘Knight’s Tale’ undoubtedly reflect practices of Chaucer’s time. But … their very typicality stresses the paradoxical and cumulative elements of order and disorder in the principle of human order which Theseus represents” (pp. 40–1).

[29]. Such have been the rationales of more than one territorial and sexual imperialism, which have justified brutality by dehumanizing the other, excluding “it” from the code of justice until “it” can be wiped clean of independent subjectivity and appropriated as a “recoded” subject. What I here call a “Phase I” system has much in common with the “Imaginary”/narcissistic system of “Us”/”Them” (“Us”/”it”) described by French Freudians after Lacan, and applied to political science by Fredric Jameson.

[30]. The harsh and absolute character of Palamon and Arcite’s imprisonment is the narrator’s addition to the tale; see Aers (pp. 176–7), Jones (p.176) and Kolve (pp. 98 ff.). Once again, the Theseus of The Knight’s Tale is less sympathetic and more domineering than his counterpart Teseo in Il Teseida ; but also again, what to do with this fact has been the subject of debate.

[31]. Charles Owen opines: “And so the story would end if, as some have opined, Theseus were the representative and executor of divine power on earth. Clearly, he is not” (p. 89). Owen then refers us to 1673 ff.

[32]. This difficulty is only complicated if we supersede the editorial semicolon at 1029, which also introduces the (bare) possibility that the predicate to be carried over is “rit anon” from 1026, an even more contradictory option. No word seems missing; the lines scan.

[33]. The narrator continually projects himself into a point of view “present” within the narrative. This is especially obvious when he represents himself as an eyewitness, often in the present tense, for example in describing Emelye in the garden (1033 ff.; see Donaldson, “Four Women of Style”), and the temples in the amphitheater (e.g., 2062–74). Cf. Howard, pp. 86–7, where he points out that “[t]hroughout there is constantly present an ‘I’ who hovers over the story, representing himself as having been an eyewitness to the events.… The purpose here is to achieve immediacy through anachronism: the pastness of events is obliterated, ‘then’ drawn up into ‘now’.” This kind of immediacy, it seems to me (after Donaldson), also represents a slippage between “narrator” and “narrated,” that is, represents a form of desire.

[34]. “Shene” repeats “sheene” from 972 and looks forward to “Emelye the brighte” at 1427 and 1737, which becomes established as her epithet in the tale. This detail is of interest in considering her “fetish value” (as the “whole” for the fragmented lovers ruptured by her figure in the first place). “Sheene” (at least at 972) translates Boccaccio’s “chiara”; see Piero Boitani, Chaucer and Boccaccio (Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediæval Languages and Literature, 1977), p. 104.

[35]. “Four Women of Style,” p. 49.

[36]. Donaldson mocks the narrator’s nostalgia even as he demonstrates it: “all the best of nature in the Spring [is] all part of Emily, or rather, through the poet’s intricate craft, of these things is Emily all compact. She becomes not only the embodiment of all pretty young girls in the Spring, but a proof that the Spring of pretty young girls is a permanent thing,” etc. (“Four Women of Style,” p. 49).

[37]. As Burlin points out, the “episode in the grove [is] the only one undefined by a symbolic architectural setting” (p. 109).

[38]. Just as in the modern post-industrial state, national parks and “reservations” pretend to be islands of unspoiled nature in the socioeconomic order (despoil), when in fact they function primarily as an alibi for that order. (They exist to demonstrate that “civilization” has in fact not already completely colonized what may once actually have been “nature.”)

[39]. Cf. Turner, pp. 284–5.

[40]. Turner, pp. 282–3.

[41]. Actually, polytheist Theseus has the market cornered; his most explicit identification in the text is with Mars (e.g., 975, 1682, 1708, 1797); in a sense I hope becomes clear hereafter, Venus, Diana and Mars are mutual “alibis.” The Theseus most inclined to Mars is “Phase I” Theseus.

[42]. The concept of “Fortune” is of course always handy for self-subjection—as contemplation of the numerous modern equivalents of arbitrary determinism readily affirms.

[43]. Ferster, p. 26.

[44]. See, for example, René Girard, “Lévi-Strauss, Frye, Derrida and Shakespearean Criticism,” Diacritics 3 (1973): 34–8 passim.

[45]. “In the Knight’s Tale there are several potentially ‘irregular’ situations…. At the beginning there is the male-male relationship of Palamon and Arcite; there is the virginity of Emeleye [sic] …; there is also the potential danger of incest involved in the relationship of Theseus to Emeleye.… “Clearly the ideal solution would be for either Palamon or Arcite to marry Emeleye, for neither is closely related to her. The marriage would weaken the too-close union of the young men, head off any likelihood of Emeleye becoming frigid old maid, and take her off Theseus’ hands. But the problem is that both the young men want to marry Emeleye. Brotherhood is transformed into opposition, in itself an undesirable situation. However, even this state of tension could remain stable were it not that Perotheus … intercedes on behalf or Arcite…. Two male-male relationships overload the circuits, so to speak, and the situation becomes totally unstable”—Turner, pp. 288–9.

[46]. Cf. the self-shattering language of lines 1096, 1114, 1167, 1361, etc.

[47]. Cp. Boece, Bk. 3, m. 12. Cf. Aers, p. 182: “[Arcite] uses this old saying in exactly the way Pandarus does, not in the way the ‘olde clerkes’ like Boethius had done.”

[48]. As Stuart Justman puts it, “The rule gives way before the case, … as indeed the process of law is a process of ongoing redefinition to encompass new conditions” (p. 7). But Justman goes on to criticize Theseus’s “inconsistency” in his absolutism as his great failing; that may well be, but as I see it, it is also the basis of his new control.

[49]. In Il Teseida, it is Emilia alone who discovers the two lovers. The narrator’s change emphasizes Theseus’s sense of violation, as well as his direct mediation and control. Emelye has even less “choice” or “decision” to make in Chaucer’s text.

[50]. It is important to note that the comparison of Palamon and Arcite to boars (and to a lion and tiger, respectively, at 1656–7) implies that they have abandoned reason, but we have been told earlier that Arcite has insisted at least on coding the battle: “heere I wol be founden as a knyght” (1612). This code might do for the Knight who presumably narrates the tale, but it doesn’t do for Theseus, who insists on a code authorized by and centered upon his transcendent judgment. Donald Howard has a more pleasant reading:
The story presents fundamental passions of love and aggression which reduce the principles to an animal-like state …. But the knights are saved from this descent into animal behavior by the ruler’s imposition of a code.… … In the tale, civil virtues give the characters and their actions dignity. But this civility is, as perhaps with all imposed codes, an artifice (pp. 236–7).

[51]. Arcite is the one who, in part one, articulates his utter subjection to the prison (see above). Yet, as the one who has escaped rather than been delivered from that prison, Palamon curiously proves its subjective effectiveness: his escape implies that escape has always been within his means, but that he had long passively subjected himself. (Arcite is similarly passive on his return to Thebes and in his assumption later of a servant-identity.) His escape would seem a sign of his renunciation of even the internalized prison; we see that this is not so. The narrator, furthermore, refuses to decide whether Palamon has escaped through any act of will, referring us to old books as he tells us that the whole affair could have easily been one of “destynee” as of “aventure” (1465).

[52]. “It is not surprising that Theseus can agree so quickly with Palamon, because Palamon has created himself according to Theseus’s image of him”—Ferster, p. 33. This is doubly convenient for Theseus, as it allows him to seem to dedicate more quality time to “mercy.”

[53]. “There is a debate, but it is an internal one between his ‘ire’ and ‘his resoun’ (ll. 1765–6). He argues by painting an unflattering mental picture of an unmerciful lord and urging himself not to conform to it (ll. 1773–81)”—Ferster, p. 32.

[54]. Cp. “Lo heere youre ende of that I shal devyse” at 1844. Cf. Neuse, p. 310.

[55]. “In themselves the lists … created by Theseus are not only the perfect expression of human order as conceived by their maker; they are his little world, his ‘O.’ And when he created it, ‘hym lyked wonder weel’ (2092)”—Underwood, p. 39. “Theseus seeks in the tournament to create an exclusive order ; he replaces the wooded grove with a magnificent theatre, adorned with temples to the gods, and creates within it a world of ceremony in which a love conflict can be resolved under the rule of law. But he achieves at most an inclusive order. For all the perfection of its form, his great amphitheater can only encircle what is selfish, destructive and violent in man’s nature, released under the malign aspect of the planetary gods”—Kolve, p. 130.

[56]. If they are not “comedy,” as Neuse suggests (p. 302), it is hard to know what to do with lines 2036–7, which claim that the menacing of Mars “was … shewed in that portreiture,/As is depeynted in the sterres above.” (Was the portraiture itself “depeynted”?) An astrological notion of predestination (unique to The Knight’s Tale) is of course central to the narrator’s account of the events of the tale, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up if one tries to apply it wholesale. And, in any case, none of the other astrological signs which speak forth so many fates seems particularly available to the mortals in the play, especially Theseus. This fact indeed problematizes my reading, but the problems are inherent in the tale. Theseus does presume upon destiny, even when he is blind to it. The “mixed signal” given at 2036–7 might be explained as a hasty and rather sloppy attempt to “whitewash” careless anachronism; but I don’t see why cancelling the offending lines wouldn’t have been easier. And in any case, one must work with what one has.

[57]. This has also been suggested, for example, by Burlin: “The planetary deities … stand for the ‘ruling passions’ of their worshipers, writ large in the heavens” (p. 103); and Neuse: “[The divine presences] have a psychological function: the god a person serves is his ruling passion. The gods are men’s wills or appetites writ large” (p. 303). Turner suggests that in the tale enlisting the gods is the precise means by which Palamon and Arcite can begin to differentiate (p. 280).

[58]. “In the little world created by Theseus, the disorder—in both the portraiture of the gods and the ‘noble’ battle of the lists—is revealed through human art or order. That is to say both that the disorder is converted to order and that the order has within itself disorder”; Underwood, p. 39.

[59]. This should be clear from my remarks above regarding the “double subjection” of Palamon and Arcite. It is also noteworthy that Arcite subjects himself into the identity of a servant not to “act” on his desire, but merely to make his anguish more intimate. He articulates this desire and subjection not to Emelye, but to “fresshe May” (1510 ff.), Emelye’s metonymical counterpart. Thus, he ensures, as Palamon does in subjecting him­self to Emelye/Venus, that his desire remains attached to a representation rather than to an actual woman, thereby prolonging desire and rendering it subject to endless narration.

[60]. Aers insists that it “would be quite implausible to claim that Chaucer’s imagination and moral intelligence were unable to grasp the double-think involved in Theseus’ organization of such violence (when originally the matter had been a conflict between two young knights for a woman who wanted neither of them), and his public protes­tation that he did not wish to shed upper class blood (l. 2539). The fact [is] that the moral status of tournaments was at least a controversial topic in the period … “ (p. 181).

[61]. Stuart Justman, again to support conclusions with differ from mine, claims that it “is of course true that the ideal medieval ruler was to show, in Gower’s words, pity ‘melded with’ justice. To the medieval mind, there is no inconsistency between pity and justice. But there is inconsistency between the wrathful pronouncement and its subsequent annulment” (p. 7).

[62]. I am avoiding of course the entire question of characterization and of narrative inevitability from the perspective of the Knight, “Chaucer the Pilgrim,” the author or the received text. The whole question I raise is fruitlessly speculative, but it has its rhetorical uses.

[63]. This assertion will seem pessimistic to the point of collusion with authority. Yet the task, if one were to apply such observations to present conditions, is one of escaping authority’s narratives, which I think is difficult but by no means impossible. I will have a suggestion or two to make at the conclusion of this paper.

[64]. “Love as much as war brings with it discord and violence, turning the chivalrous bond of fellowship into the bloody duel in the grove. And love, like war, often comes uninvited, but once arrived proves to be a power over which its subjects have no control” —Burlin, p. 103.

[65]. And, like the name of God, the “last word” (often a proper name) needs to be protected from overuse, which threatens its fetish-value, and allows for unauthorized uses. It has been one project of this paper, for example, to speak the name of Theseus until it becomes sickening.

[66]. “At every point in the story where emotion tends to become swollen and disorderly [Theseus] is quick to restrain it. For he seems to recognize and practice a principle that is a part of the Boethian system but was not much practiced in the Middle Ages, as it is not always practiced by the hotheaded Theseus—namely, that excessive emotion is an enslavement of the spirit and a threat to order” —Donaldson, Chaucer’s Poetry, p. 905.

[67]. Burlin suggests, with regard to Consolatio Philosophiae, that what “is missing from [Theseus’s] speech is the ethical and metaphysical position Philosophy builds upon this magnificent cosmological image [the fair chain of love] in the latter half of the Consolation.… [Boethius’s] God, which is both the highest good and the highest happiness, is not available to the pagan lovers as a reasonable substitution for their radiant Emelye. Nor is Theseus able to contribute this ethical dimension to his First Mover” (p. 107). Other helpful analyses of the relation of Theseus’s speech to the Consolatio are undertaken by Howard (p. 235), Kolve (pp.139–45), and Underwood (p. 42).

[68]. Justman quotes R.A. Pratt calling Thesues “a somewhat impetuous monarch whose Boethian philosophizing ennobles his dignity as a master of ceremonies” (Justman, p. 5). My analysis of the speech here owes much (though I had forgotten) to Neuse, and overlaps with Aers’, to which I had access only after this treatment was written.

[69]. In fact, the narrative suggests the very tactics which Theseus now employs: securing obedience with alliance (intermarriage). The entirety of the parliamentary counsel is unique to The Knight’s Tale (see Jones, p. 196).

[70]. “The fact is that Theseus does not need to relate the principle of a First Cause to the human realm simply because in this realm he is the ‘prime mover’ responsible for almost all its weal and woe. For the successful prince, problems of responsibility, free will, or Fortune’s cruelty never really arise. And his watchword is: politics as usual” —Neuse, p. 305.

[71]. By emphasizing the “eternal” order, Theseus de-historicizes experience and flattens it into a dominating code that predates experience. Turner concludes that in the Knight’s poem, “the oppositions, hierarchies, and frames are all demonstrations of a great circular plan of Providence that is ‘stable and eterne.’ Like the First Mover, the central pattern of the myth is eternal, non-anecdotal, normative and prescriptive in its function” (p. 287).

[72]. See, for example, Aers’ scornful lash: “To utter such platitudes so portentously, especially in the present context, exemplifies marked intellectual and emotional debility” (p. 186). Aers points out the irony in Egeus’s lines, given that he “is a privileged, comfortably placed old man, with a long life behind him as a ruler,” etc. (p. 187). It could be argued, on the other hand, that Egeus is less a “character” than a “placeholder” of age, wisdom, etc., in which a set speech (from Boccaccio) may be slotted.

[73]. “Egeus enters into the Knight’s Tale only to be upstaged by his son—a role newly created for him by Chaucer. Egeus thus represents a superseded past …: first because his role in the Knight’s Tale represents a revision of Boccaccio, the literary father of the tale; second, because he is outdone by his son” —Justman, p. 13.

[74]. “In this scheme, human life is indistinguishable from that in the mineral world of hard stones or the vegetable kingdom of the long-lived oaks…. The pagan vision does not extend beyond the image of a universal machine in which a man is simply a self-important cog that consoles itself by imagining greater cogs” —Burlin, p. 106.

[75]. Aers attacks Theseus’s unquestioning assumption that the supreme deity shares his values, calling it a trait “characteristic of rulers who wish to sacralize their own government, imagining themselves as gods on thrones (l. 2529) and their order as beyond discussion or criticism.… He will use any portion of any system of ideas which seems to bolster up his own exercise of power, an eclecticism hardly unknown in our own day” (pp. 191–2).

[76]. “The First Mover speech is a piece of rhetoric designed to persuade Emily to acquiesce in a scheme that defeats her personal aim (to remain a virgin) but accomplishes Theseus’s political one”—Ferster, p. 35.

[77]. “Theseus cannot have it both ways: this life cannot at once be a foul prison, from which Arcite has thankfully escaped, and ‘O parfit joye’ (3072), upon which Palamon and Emily have entered. Such a contradiction is not permissible within the rigor or Boethian dialectic. The crowning paradox of the Knight’s Tale is that authority is nowhere so honored as in the undoing” —Justman, p. 9.

[78]. We recall “everemoore” from line 1032, where it was used to describe Palamon’s and Arcite’s prescribed term in prison (“a tour”). Such a correspondence is the stuff of “it can hardly be an accident …”; but it is unimportant whether or not the narrator, or even Chaucer, intends the parallel, as long as it functions for the reader as an escape hatch from Theseus’s claustrophobic machinations.

[79]. Only it is the narrator who really gets the last word, the payoff of a “moral” which eludes Theseus’s pagan pragmatism. Or is it the “Hoost” who, laughing and swearing, gets the last word in “the wordes bitwene the Hoost and the Millere”? Or is it the Miller? Or is it … etc. In the furrow of interpretive “rupture” are the seeds of interpretive dilation. I will obviously get in my last words, at least, before the next last words and attendant grade.

Originally written in May, 1987

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