|AUTHOR:||Catherine A. Rock|
|TITLE:||FORSWORN AND FORDONE: ARCITE AS OATH-BREAKER IN THE "KNIGHT'S TALE"|
|SOURCE:||The Chaucer Review 40 no4 416-32 2006|
Chaucer's Knight's Tale is a story of chivalry and of romance, a tale of two captive knights who fall in love with the same maiden, with disastrous results. Palamon and Arcite are virtually identical, yet in the end one dies and the other marries Emelye. Why does the adventure close in this seemingly arbitrary way? Does Arcite deserve to die in such a gruesome fashion? Throughout the tale both young men act, for the most part, according to the rules of chivalry. Underlying the tale, however, are issues of brotherhood, trouthe, and loyalty. Although Palamon upholds these knightly duties fairly consistently,(FN1) Arcite is guilty of a number of transgressions that account, I argue, for his ultimate fate of death after winning the battle for the maiden.
From the beginning of the Knight's Tale, the Knight is at pains to demonstrate the virtual equality of Palamon and Arcite. The two knights are discovered after a battle lying in a "taas of bodyes dede" (I 1005).(FN2) In such a configuration, it is difficult to distinguish individuals at all. When the pillagers separate the bodies, however, they discover these two lying together, wearing the same heraldic device (I 1011-12). G. F. Beltz explains that knights of the same household are dressed similarly so that, "in the heat of battle, the enemy might mistake one for the other" and the knights would thus share the same perils.(FN3) The two knights are never clearly differentiated physically; indeed, the appearance of the young men is entirely omitted. Robert R. Edwards refers to the two as "two versions of a single figure,"(FN4) and Lee Patterson says they are "indistinguishable at the level of worth."(FN5) They become differentiated only through their love of Emelye, the sister-in-law of Theseus.
Besides being royal cousins, Palamon and Arcite have strengthened their responsibility to each other by swearing an oath of brotherhood (I 1131-38). The importance of this oath cannot be overestimated, according to an incisive study by Robert Stretter. Stretter notes that the pledge is "a legally binding oath of mutual support," and that, because such an oath does not appear in Boccaccio's Teseida (the source of Chaucer's tale), Chaucer's addition must be considered significant.(FN6) Stretter emphasizes the fact that medieval readers would have recognized the brotherhood bond "as shorthand for a (theoretically) indestructible male friendship."(FN7) Chaucer writes of such bonds elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales, where they are crucial factors in the stories.(FN8) The narrator Knight does not dwell on this oath: after the breaking of the oath, Palamon mentions it only once again, in the grove (I 1583). There are enough other oaths in the tale, however, so that verbal contracts--and this one in particular--are never long out of the minds of the audience. No one other than the two knights is apparently aware of this particular instance of oath-breaking. Significantly, Palamon does not mention it at the crucial moment when he confesses both his and Arcite's transgressions to Theseus. He evidently considers the oath to be a private matter between the two knights, symbolic of the bonds they share, and something they must resolve themselves.
The oath of brotherhood was closely related to the oath of knighthood. John of Salisbury writes of "the binding sacrament of an oath" that specified the duties of soldiers, who were "to pour out their blood for their brothers ... and, if need be, to lay down their lives,"(FN9) a concept that supports the idea of knights dressing alike in order to confuse the enemy in battle. Ramón Lull, in his thirteenth-century Book of the Order of Chivalry, notes that "those who uphold the order of chivalry should not engage in false swearing and untrue oaths."(FN10) Oaths are part of the code of chivalry and are to be taken very seriously.(FN11) Richard Firth Green declares that the oath is commonly a key factor in Middle English metrical romances, and that "stress on the virtue of absolute fidelity to one's given word is ubiquitous,"(FN12) a crucial point for the purpose of this essay. Palamon and Arcite, when we first see them, are grievously injured and lying side by side among the dead after a battle (I 1009-19). To all appearances, they have attempted to fulfill their oaths--both of brotherhood and of knighthood--by defending each other and very nearly dying for each other.
When the knights first see (and fall in love with) Emelye, Palamon upholds the brotherhood oath, while Arcite promptly breaks it. Palamon first sees the maiden, immediately falling on his knees and praying to Venus either to help both the knights to escape from prison, or, at least, to have pity on both of them: "Of oure lynage have som compassioun" (I 1110). Palamon, true to his oath, includes Arcite in his prayer for mercy. Arcite is unaware of Emelye until his attention is drawn to her by his companion, and when he sees Emelye, his first thought is for himself: he desires her and has no thought for his friend. Palamon reproaches him for breaking their oath of brotherhood, in which they pledged:
"That nevere, for to dyen in the peyne, Til that the deeth departe shal us tweyne, Neither of us in love to hyndre oother, Ne in noon oother cas, my leeve brother, But that thou sholdest trewely forthren me In every cas, as I shal forthren thee--This was thyn ooth, and myn also, certeyn ...."
Such oaths did, in fact, concern more than simply a knight's promise to help another in battle; they also included, in the words of Maurice Keen, "all that affected his honour, his fortune and his emotional entanglements."(FN13)
Palamon thus reminds Arcite of his duty as a knight, accusing him of false swearing:
"For which thou art ybounden as a knyght To helpen me, if it lay in thy myght, Or elles artow fals, I dar wel seyn."
False swearing and breaking one's oath were serious offenses. As Green points out, the concept of oath-worthiness was important for the Anglo-Saxons and remained an issue as late as Elizabethan England, when people who broke their oaths could be fined for so doing.(FN14) Arcite defends himself with a weak argument for breaking the oath, turning Palamon's words around and accusing Palamon of being false because it was Arcite who first loved Emelye as a woman, while Palamon mistook her for a goddess. Since he immediately saw and accepted the reality of the situation, he argues, his right is superior to that of his companion. Arcite continues his defense with a second argument, saying essentially that love is above the law (I 1153-68), an argument that defies the sacredness of oaths of knighthood and brotherhood. Finally, he definitively breaks with Palamon, concluding, "Ech man for hymself, ther is noon oother" (I 1182).
Arcite's second argument, that of love being above the law, deserves some attention. This argument turns on the point of natural law versus positive--that is, "formally agreed to, imposed, legislated, made known, written down"--law.(FN15) When the oath was sworn (a matter of positive law), both knights presumably entered into it with the intention of upholding it. When the knights see Emelye, however, Palamon argues that Arcite must support him because of the oath, while Arcite (who cannot benefit in this situation from that oath) argues that the pledge is superseded by a higher law, that of love. Arcite's way of thinking is that he cannot live without Emelye, that she is a requisite part of his existence. This line of reasoning, Green says, "is a variant of the legal maxim necessitas non habet legem ... which was used as a defense by those driven to steal the bare necessities of life: food, drink, and clothing."(FN16) Here we have a major conflict in the way the two knights think. Lois Roney argues that Palamon loves by choice, Arcite loves irresistibly: "If Arcite had seen her first, as in the Teseida, Palamon would simply have chosen not to love her and that would have been the end of the conflict."(FN17) Palamon speaks as if he believes that Arcite's love is a matter of choice. He tells Arcite several times that the latter has no right to love Emelye (I 1146-51, 1588-90); finally in the glade he tells Arcite that he will kill him unless he stops loving the maiden: "Chees which thou wolt, or thou shalt nat asterte!" (I 1595). If the situation were reversed, Palamon might well jump on the defense offered by natural law. After all, we have no indication of Arcite's desire to renege on the oath until he sees Emelye. She is the great temptation, the object without which he cannot live, and natural law suits his purpose. Palamon, at this point, has no reason to follow natural law: the previously-agreed-to (positive law) oath supports his cause.
Love for a maiden is normally seen as an admirable adjunct to a knight. In this case, however, as Stretter points out, "Whereas brotherhood is traditionally viewed as constant, egalitarian, and selfless, the kind of love Palamon and Arcite feel for Emelye is fickle, domineering, and above all, selfish."(FN18) The knights' love for Emelye does not raise them to a higher level of noble feeling, but rather lowers them to the level of squabbling like spoiled children, each determined to hurt the other in order to possess not the desired object itself, but simply the right to admire that object.
Brotherhood and love are often at odds in romances. Steven F. Kruger notes that male bonding in Chaucer is usually "unstable," a fact he claims is "consistently tied to its competition with heterosexual attraction," particularly here and in the Shipman's Tale.(FN19) Susan Crane agrees, declaring that love and brotherhood "occupy overlapping terrain in men's allegiances."(FN20) When brotherhood and love come into conflict, the difficult problem must be resolved. Douglas Brooks and Alastair Fowler put the problem into historical perspective: "The full wrong that [Arcite] is doing to Palamon is not understood unless one recalls that in the Middle Ages promises were really supposed to be kept, and that in any case, the value of love was inferior to that of friendship."(FN21) One of the most striking examples of this tenet in medieval literature is found in Amis and Amiloun, in which Amis kills his own beloved children in order to cure his sworn brother Amiloun of leprosy with the children's blood. The wife of Amis agrees to this procedure, agreeing to the supremacy of the brotherhood bond over those of love and kinship.(FN22)
Modern critics, however, disagree about whether Arcite is justified in his actions. Alfred David defends Arcite's breaking of the oath, agreeing with the knight that all must give way before the power of love.(FN23) Peter Brown and Andrew Butcher see the debate from Palamon's point of view: "For Palamon, to break the oaths and bonds of kinship is to be a traitor and, deny the obligations of knighthood is to act without honor."(FN24) Seeing this behavior as symptomatic of a larger problem, H. Marshall Leicester points to it as an example of "the well-attested decline of chivalry in the period ... the constant treachery and switching of sides ... and the continual subordination of chivalric ideas to political necessities."(FN25) Although an audience of romance readers--and perhaps women in particular--would have applauded the actions of Arcite, his peers in the world of the tale--other knights--had they known, would have condemned him for breaking his oath and for going against his fellow knight in this way, causing dissent among the ranks of sworn soldiers and brothers. Arcite's breaking of the oath is, in short, bad chivalric form.
The brotherhood oath of Palamon and Arcite soon comes into juxtaposition with that of Theseus and Perotheus. Dating back to their childhood, the friendship of the two men is so strong that when Perotheus dies, Theseus goes to hell to retrieve him (I 1191-1201). Helen Cooper points out that it was Chaucer who added this detail, which was not part of the classical story, to turn it "into an example of friendship stronger than death."(FN26) Besides being friends in the classical sense, the two men are also "felawes," or sworn brothers.(FN27) Although Theseus had been unwilling to release the knights for any ransom (I 1030-32), Perotheus persuades him to release Arcite for the sake of friendship alone (I 1204-1207). In essence, the brotherhood of Theseus and Perotheus is responsible for the release of Arcite, an act that confirms the brotherhood of the older pair while physically severing the brotherhood of the two young knights. Arcite is not, however, permitted to go freely; he first has to swear an oath to Theseus that he will never, on pain of death, return to Theseus's country (I 1209-15). To these terms Arcite swears--but he later breaks this oath as well, presumably arguing to himself that this is another case where natural law should prevail over the positive law of an oath, sworn in this case to Theseus.(FN28)
The brotherhood of Palamon and Arcite seems truly dead. In fact, more than simple brotherhood is at stake here. Elizabeth Fowler points out that social bond of Palamon and Arcite is based on a number of relationships, including "kinship, citizenship, class, sworn brotherhood, [and] knightly obligation."(FN29) Arcite is thus repudiating more than simply an oath; he is, in fact, damaging this entire constellation of bonds. We have no indication that he makes any move to have Palamon released from prison. Whereas Palamon had prayed to Venus to release both him and Arcite, Arcite, when freed, apparently fails to ask his old friend Perotheus to plead with Theseus on behalf of Palamon. In addition, during the several years when Arcite lives in Thebes pining for Emelye, there is no mention of an army being sent to rescue Palamon (who is, after all, also of the royal family), nor is it made clear whether Arcite even informs anyone of Palamon's captivity. If, in fact, these indications (or their absence) are meaningful, Arcite is behaving in an unchivalrous and uncourteous manner.
But here something strange happens in the text: Arcite the warrior becomes Arcite the lover. Chaucer's Knight refers to him twice this way--first, to distinguish him from Palamon (Arcite and Palamon are "the lovere and the prisoner" [I 1339], respectively), and second, to reference him as "this woful lovere daun Arcite" (I 1379). Once in Thebes, Arcite sickens and fades away because of lovesickness (I 1355-79), rather than (as Palamon thought he would do) raise an army to fight Theseus and so win Emelye (11285-90). The question becomes, then, whom does Arcite serve? His first allegiance must be to Thebes; he is, after all, a member of the royal house of that city. At the tale's opening he is a knight who has been fighting for--and very nearly died on behalf of--Thebes. He owes allegiance to his Theban lord as well as to fellow knights of that city. Additionally, he owes allegiance to Palamon, his cousin and sworn brother. To this point the knight's life has been geared to war and to brotherhood with fellow knights and, most particularly, Palamon. On the divine plane Arcite the knight also serves--by extension--Mars, god of war and knighthood. When Arcite falls in love with Emelye, however, knight becomes lover, serving his lady and also, of course, Venus, goddess of love. He thus breaks not only with Palamon, but also with Thebes and his fellow knights. Arcite would rather be in Athens, where he might see Emelye, than in Thebes. Nothing in the text indicates that upon his return to Thebes he lives the life of a knight; instead, he spends his time thinking of and pining for the maiden. Thus his devotion to Mars also vanishes. Love of the maiden becomes his entire reason for living, with his loyalty now directed to Emelye and Venus.
Arcite later returns to Athens disguised "as a povre laborer" (I 1409), where he works "[t]o drugge and drawe" (I 1416) in the court of Theseus. As we have already seen, he breaks his (positive) oath to Theseus in order to return to Athens. Here we must question the reason that Arcite returns to Athens as a servant rather than as a knight to fight for Emelye. When he is first released from prison, he looks back with longing on the days when he could see Emelye from the window, when he was "in blisse and nat in wo" (I 1230). Over the years Arcite has come to see Emelye as unobtainable; he does not even consider the possibility that he might be able to marry her. She is a semi-divine, unobtainable object, and the best he can hope for is to worship her from a distance. He claims to have served Emelye even while in prison (I 1231); as a servant of her household, he actually does serve her physically, and he can see her periodically (thereby returning to a state of "blisse"), although she may be completely unaware of him. There are other cases throughout the literature of the period where knights abase themselves for maidens,(FN30) but doing menial labor in the service of one's greatest foe is an extreme form of such abasement, enacting, in fact, a serious transgression for a knight. First of all, there is the problem of humbly serving one's enemy. Second, Arcite is contravening one of the precepts of knighthood. According to the 1387 book L'Arbre des Batailles, "a knight must not till the soil, or tend vines, or keep beasts ... otherwise he will lose knighthood and the privileges of a knight."(FN31) The ignominy of the situation does affect Arcite, however. When he thinks himself alone in the grove, he laments how he, of the royal blood of Thebes, is brought so low:
"And now I am so caytyf and so thral, That he diat is my mortal enemy, I serve hym as his squier povrely."
Here Arcite speaks as a knight rather than as a lover: he knowingly contravenes his oath of fealty to his own lord by serving the enemy, albeit in disguise and not in a fighting role. Only after this lament does he mention Emelye and say that he is doing so because of her (I 1563-71). Although now very much under the influence of Venus, Arcite still has the presence of mind to realize and be disturbed by the fact that his love has brought him to this chivalric dishonor.
When Palamon and Arcite meet in die grove, die oath again comes to die fore. Arcite, the lover wandering among the greenery, sings and makes a garland (11497-1512). Palamon, recently escaped from prison, leaps at him in a towering rage and accuses him again of unchivalrous behavior:
"Arcite, false traytour wikke,
Now artow hent, that lovest my lady so,
For whom that I have al this peyne and wo,
And art my blood, and to my conseil sworn,
As I ful ofte have told thee heerbiforn,
And hast byjaped heere duc Theseus,
And falsly chaunged hast thy name thus!"
Palamon first reminds Arcite that they are kin as well as sworn brothers, and then he reproaches Arcite both for fooling Theseus and for changing his name to hide his true identity, presumably in a cowardly way. Arcite is, by Palamon's reckoning, a traitor. As Green tells us, one type of treason that was important in the late fourteenth century was "a personal conception of treason in which the offense was committed against someone who had good reason to trust the traitor, often because they were bound to one another by oath."(FN32) This is the exact state of affairs we have here. According to Palamon's view of the situation in the context of positive law, Arcite has wickedly and knowingly betrayed him. In Palamon's eyes, Arcite has broken his trouthe, a wide-ranging concept in the Middle Ages. R. A. Shoaf says the term can refer to either verity or fidelity.(FN33) Green goes further, specifying three categories of meaning, two of which concern us here. Legally, he says, trouthe can be a promise or an agreement. Ethically, it can mean fidelity or sincerity, that is, an aspect of character.(FN34) Arcite promptly renounces the oath (his trouthe in the legal sense):
"For I defye the seurete and the bond Which that thou seist that I have maad to thee."
Arcite in his anger tries to cast doubt on the actuality and the force of the oath: "Which that thou seist that I have maad to thee." Ethically, he is demonstrating lack of fidelity and sincerity. In oral societies, according to Green, oaths were often accompanied by rituals in order to make the swearing of the oath more memorable to all concerned.(FN35) We have no indication whether this oath had been made in public or not, and in the enemy's city of Athens one would not expect to find witnesses, had there been any in the first place, so there is no one to refute Arcite's claim. Having just renounced the brotherhood oath, Arcite then swears a different oath to Palamon: "Have heer my trouthe; tomorwe I wol nat faille" (I 1610). By this pact he promises to return that very evening with food, drink, and bedding for Palamon, and to bring armor and weapons for them both the next day.(FN36)
When the knights meet the next morning, they act honorably, despite their disagreement, helping each other to arm for battle, "As freendly as he were his owene brother" (I 1652), an ironic moment, according to Cooper, because each intends to kill the other.(FN37) Although they disagree and are about to battle to the death, they once again act as honorable knights should. This secret battle among the trees, meant to resolve the argument over the oath, will in fact resolve nothing. As V. A. Kolve puts it, "the combat of Palamon and Arcite is not socially sanctioned and serves no human purpose: it is covert and irrational, and it destroys a sworn bond of brotherhood."(FN38) Each hopes, in short, to force the other to stop loving Emelye. If one dies, then obviously he can no longer love her, leaving the other free to love her by himself. In actual fact, were one to win the battle, his ability to win her would not be improved. Arcite, after all, has spent a number of years in the service of Theseus and has not yet, as far as we know, spoken to her. The winner would win nothing, and would have succeeded only in killing an excellent knight, a member of the royal house of Thebes, his own best friend.
When Theseus arrives and breaks up the battle, we see that, although the oath is broken, the two knights continue to act as--and are treated as--brothers, and their fates remain closely tied together. Palamon, in an action that Roney terms "not exactly praiseworthy,"(FN39) informs Theseus that both knights deserve to die: Palamon for breaking out of prison and Arcite for having broken his oath to Theseus and returning to Athens in disguise (I 1714-41). The two men are no longer brothers, yet if one dies, he seems to be saying, so too must the other, so as not to leave the second with an unfair advantage. Each must therefore die for the other, as they were pledged to do under the oath. Theseus at first sees the battle as an affair falling under the jurisdiction of Mars. Twice he swears by the god:
"By myghty Mars, he shal anon be deed That smyteth any strook that I may seen."
and, in condemning them both,
"Ye shal be deed, by myghty Mars the rede!"
The queen and the ladies, however, argue that the issue is one of love, not war, and the duke, softening his judgment, rescinds his oath to kill the knights. This reversal should not be seen, however, as an example of weakness or oath-breaking on Theseus's part, for he changes his mind because die ladies sue him for mercy, and "pitee renneth soone in gentil herte" (I 1761). Since the issue is love, he decides to give the knights more than they could have wished for, and far more than they could have obtained by fighting secretly by themselves: they now have an opportunity to fight for the hand of Emelye (I 1845-61). Palamon and Arcite eagerly pledge to return to Athens a year later to settle the issue.
When the knights return to Athens, it becomes apparent that Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye each have different goals and desires when they visit the temple of their chosen deity. Palamon, although he is a warrior, has been continually in the service of Venus since he first saw Emelye and prayed to that goddess (I 1101-7). Though harboring martial thoughts while in prison--about how Arcite could bring an army and win Emelye--Palamon was himself incapable of battle while remaining a prisoner (I 1275-94). Even as he fights Arcite in the grove, Palamon does not call on Mars, so that when Palamon arises early to pray in one of the three temples, his natural destination is the temple of Venus. He has remained faithful to the goddess throughout the tale, and now when he wants to win Emelye, his goal is to win love by means of a victory in the tournament. Significantly, among the paintings decorating the walls of the temple, one's eye is drawn to "The othes that hir covenantz assuren" (I 1924); even here in the temple of Venus, oaths matter, and all oaths are on the side of Palamon. The knight says specifically that he asks not for victory or glory, but only to "have fully possessioun / Of Emelye" (I 2242-43) and die in the service of Venus. He wishes for victory not by the terms of a knight, but rather by those of a lover. As when he first saw Emelye, Palamon prays for two things: first, to have Emelye and, second, if this is not possible, for Arcite to spear him through the heart so he will not care that his rival wins her (I 2238-58). Although he expresses his preference, he gives the goddess two options that seem to cover all possible scenarios. If he wins, he wins Emelye; if he loses, he loses his life as well as his love. The goddess indicates that his prayer is accepted, and he departs, happy (I 2261-70).
Emelye, for the only time in the tale, speaks her mind in the temple of Diana. She has been faithful to her goddess for many years as a virgin Amazon (I 2300-2301). She, too, prays for one of two outcomes: first, she asks that there be peace between Palamon and Arcite and that they no longer love her, or that they love someone else; second, if this is not possible, she prays that Diana will give her whichever knight loves her most (I 2314-25). Her words in the latter wish are interesting: she prays neither to be won by nor given to the knight who loves her best, but rather that he be given to her. Although she has been virtually invisible, always in the background of the Knight's Tale, Emelye is still an Amazon at heart, with a will to command her would-be lover. In return for the granting of her wish, Emelye pledges to remain in the service of Diana all her life, as she has done thus far (I 2326-30). Compared to the omens granted the two knights, Diana's signals tell Emelye both more definitely and more ambiguously what her fate will be: she cannot have her first wish, to remain apart from the two knights; she will, however, obtain her second wish, but Diana does not tell her outright which of the two men will be hers (I 2348-54).
Arcite prays, as would be expected, in the temple of Mars, but one wonders about the depth of his allegiance. Arcite the warrior had originally been very much in the service of Mars, god of war. When he falls in love with Emelye, however, he abruptly turns his back on the martial life and on Mars himself in order to serve Emelye and Venus, goddess of love. Now that he is to enter formal combat for the hand of the woman he loves, Arcite the prodigal knight, in his moment of need, prays to Mars on the morning of the tournament. Arcite's previous career as a common laborer and as a sighing, singing, garland-making lover is at odds with the role he now has to play, the role for which he needs the help of the god of war. In his prayer, Arcite tactlessly reminds Mars of the god's humiliating capture by Vulcan while in the arms of Vulcan's wife Venus. He mentions this episode to show that Mars, too, has had powerful feelings for a woman, aiming to convince the god to help him.(FN40) Roney notes that this situation is an example of "Arcite's total insensitivity to the feelings of others."(FN41) One might compare Arcite's prayer to Palamon's approach towards Venus: respectful, gentle, hopeful; in fact, according to Roney, Palamon deploys the terms "of fourteenth-century Marian piety." Arcite, in contrast, is all business and straightforward in his approach and prayer to Mars.(FN42) When the knight prays for a boon, he asks only for victory, with no second option (I 2402-20). Unlike Palamon, Arcite does not ask for a good and speedy death, which, in retrospect, is an unwise decision. Both Palamon and Emelye give their gods two choices, covering all the possibilities. Arcite unwisely gives only one option, so sure is he of himself and of his god. This certainty is later turned against him, as we will see. Arcite's request for victory is also "potentially ambiguous," since he prays for "victory" without specifying (perhaps assuming that it goes without saying) that he also means the winning of Emelye herself.(FN43) If Arcite wins, he pledges to be a servant of Mars for the rest of his life (I 2407-18), but can Mars believe him? Arcite has, after all, broken oaths previously on several occasions, so one might well ask what value Mars would place on Arcite's oath in this situation. Also, Arcite's mention of the Venus and Vulcan episode must have rankled the god of war. Mars does, however, tell Arcite that he will have victory in the tournament, so Arcite is content (I 2421-37).
Before the tournament begins, both armies of one hundred warriors are described as being exactly equal, much as the two knights themselves are:
For ther was noon so wys that koude seye That any hadde of oother avauntage Of worthynesse, ne of estaat, ne age, So evene were they chosen, for to gesse.
Just before the tournament, Theseus decides to change the rules of battle in such a way that no one will be killed (I 2537-42). There will be bloodshed, but he makes it clear that there will be no fight to the death. There is to be, rather, a game of war to entertain the spectators, with the trophy, the lovely Emelye, going to the victor (I 2543-60).
Arcite eventually wins the battle, but at too great a cost. Palamon, wounded, is taken to the stake, so Theseus declares Arcite the victor. Saturn remarks that "Mars hath his wille, his knyght hath al his boone" (I 2669). Arcite does indeed receive all his boon, everything for which he prayed. He receives exactly what he requested--victory, and nothing more. While grandstanding, Arcite is thrown from his horse when a "furie infernal" (I 2684), sent by Pluto at Saturn's request, frightens the beast, and his long ensuing suffering and death are described in grisly detail. Both the reason for Arcite's unforeseen death and his suffering beforehand raise important issues. As Leicester sees it, the painfully detailed description shows the "fatal injury stripped of chivalric glamorizing, stripped almost of any meaning beyond the process itself, the insignificant horror of a senseless accident."(FN44) Most critics agree with Cooper that "There can be no moral or metaphysical justice in the different fates that befall [the two knights]; yet one dies wretchedly wounded, while the other lives out his life with Emily 'with alle blisse.'"(FN45) Some critics, such as Brown and Butcher, attribute Arcite's death to the knight's lovesickness--his melancholy--a disease traditionally associated with Saturn.(FN46) By and large, however, critics agree that there is no justification for Arcite's death.
Among the very few scholars who feel that Palamon should, by right, have won the final victory, Paull F. Baum argues that Palamon's consistent devotion to Venus is the reason for his ultimate victory.(FN47) Brooks and Fowler insist that Palamon is morally superior to Arcite and for this reason deserves victory. Their reasons are: (1) that Arcite breaks the oath of brotherhood; (2) that Arcite prays for "personal success in battle" while thoughtlessly alluding to Mars's adultery with Venus and faili'ng (unlike Palamon) to see past victory to a life with Emelye; and (3) that the style of Arcite's prayer to Mars shows pridefulness rather than the more suitable humility expressed by Palamon to Venus.(FN48) I contend, however, that Arcite's suffering and death--as well as his ultimate loss of Emelye--are caused by the knight's faithlessness, as shown by his oath-breaking and his changing of allegiances throughout the tale. The scene of Arcite's dying is the low point of the story. Arcite has repeatedly transgressed against both his "brother" Palamon and his "lord" Mars. For this reason he cannot both win the glory of battle and win Emelye.
Arcite might have been killed instantly by his fall, but such is not the case. Had his death been sudden, he would not have had time to redeem himself. As it is, he has sufficient time to think about what has happened and consider the causes. He receives victory as promised by Mars, but the gods do not allow him to enjoy his triumph. Believing firmly in the gods' agency, Arcite tries to understand why they snatched victory from him just when it seemed secure. He rethinks his quarrel with Palamon, comes to a conclusion, and, consequently, at the point of death, forgives Palamon and suggests that Emelye and Palamon marry (I 2783-97).(FN49) Arcite thus regains nobility by again supporting the brotherhood oath that he had previously forsaken. When recommending Palamon to Emelye, he lists his companion's admirable traits:
"That is to seyen, trouthe, honour, knyghthede, Wysdom, humblesse, estaat, and heigh kynrede, Fredom, and al that longeth to that art ..."
In his final moments Arcite recognizes Palamon's "trouthe, honour, knyghthede," qualities in which he himself fell short at times. Roney sees Arcite's suggestion to Emelye as a sign of further improvement to his character: "Th is the first time in the Tale that anyone has treated Emelye's feelings as real, further evidence that Arcite has received the gift of divine charity."(FN50) Because the brotherhood is renewed before Arcite's death, it is no insult to his memory when, later, Theseus insists on the wedding of Palamon and Emelye.(FN51) According to Crane, Arcite's recommendation of Palamon holds a meaning unfavorable to women, one in which "Arcite subsumes Emelye into a restored economy of brotherhood."(FN52) Countering this view, Patricia Clare Ingham argues that even if the brotherhood has been partially restored, it will never again be whole (even were Arcite to live) because a third party--in this case, Emelye--has intervened. She writes that, "the tale's denouement displays state-sponsored heterosexual union as a compensation for the losses to chivalric fraternity."(FN53) It is my contention, however, that Theseus undoes the good that Arcite attempted to accomplish by recommending Palamon to Emelye. With no concern for the maiden's feelings, Theseus had previously promised her as a prize to the winner of the tournament (I 1854-61). Now, some years later, he insists that Emelye and Palamon marry as a means of sealing an alliance between Athens and Thebes (I 2967-80, I 3075-82). Theseus thus assumes Palamon's ongoing willingness to marry Emelye and, without further discussion, has the two married (I3090-98).
Arcite receives a grand and glorious funeral, described at length (I 2853-2966). Theseus explains that it was better for him to die in his youth and power than to have lived to old age, his deeds forgotten (13047-56). Charles Muscatine, among others, argues that Arcite receives what is most fitting for a knight: "the honor in war, the magnificent funeral, and the intangible rewards brought out in Theseus' oration."(FN54) By my assessment, Arcite himself would not have been content with death in arms, a grand funeral, and Theseus's laudatory speech. His death was not glorious, and he did not enjoy the fruits of victory. His injury did not come from combat, but from his horse throwing him onto his head, "his brest tobrosten with his sadel-bowe" (I 2691). This ignoble, freakish manner of death was allotted him because he had broken his word and changed allegiances earlier in the tale. Had the gods wanted him to have a glorious death, they could easily have managed it.(FN55)
Arcite is a basically good knight who strays from the ideal when he falls in love with Emelye. His love sets off a chain of events, including broken pledges and repudiated alliances, both earthly and otherworldly. When Arcite finally recovers his ideals, he is on his deathbed, and it is too late for anyone to save his life. Palamon and Emelye, however, remain faithful to their respective gods, and each is rewarded with an outcome prayed for. The three temple gods remain loyal as well to their respective mortals, keeping their oaths as signaled by the omens. Before the story began, Palamon and Arcite swore never to hinder the other "Til that the deeth departe shal us tweyne" (I 1134). Just before he dies, Arcite returns to the brotherhood oath, thereby healing the schism caused by his breaching it. The oath is thus restored briefly--but significantly--so Arcite dies with honor, as a warrior should.
Catherine A. Rock
Stark State College of Technology
North Canton, Ohio
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of The Chaucer Review for their valuable suggestions.
1. Note, for example, that when Theseus arrives to break up their battle, Palamon tells him about Arcite's disguise, saying that both knights deserve to die for what they have done.
2. All quotations of Chaucer are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987).
3. Qtd. in Patricia Clare Ingham, "Homosociality and Creative Masculinity in the Knight's Tale," in Masculinities in Chaucer: Approaches to Maleness in The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Peter G. Beidler (Cambridge, Eng., 1998), 23-35, at 26.
4. Robert R. Edwards, Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity (New York, 2002), 35.
5. Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison, Wise, 1991), 207. Peter Elbow also notes the similarities of the young men throughout the tale (Oppositions in Chaucer [Middletown, Conn., 1973], 78).
6. Robert Stretter, "Rewriting Perfect Friendship in Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Lydgate's Fabula Duorum Mercatorum, " Chaucer Review 37 (2003): 234-52, at 236-37.
7. Stretter, "Rewriting Perfect Friendship," 237-38. It is interesting to note that Chaucer himself was acquainted with a remarkable pair of sworn brothers, Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville. These two men spent much of their careers together and served as witness in 1380 when Chaucer was released from the famous case of "raptus" (Alan Bray, The Friend [Chicago, 2003], 32). The knights' relationship was so close that in 1391, when both men were serving near Constantinople and Clanvowe died, Neville died of grief several days later, and both were buried in the same tomb. The tomb carries heraldic symbolism very much like that of a married couple (Bray, 13-19). I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for calling my attention to this remarkable book.
8. In ShipT, for instance, daun John and the merchant are sworn brothers (VII 40-42), but the monk violates his oath by committing adultery with the merchant's willing wife. In PardT three drunks swear to become brothers, "To lyve and dyen ech of hem for oother, / As though he were his owene ybore brother" (VI 703-4). One of them later uses the oath (VI 808) to justify two of them killing the third, while the third has decided to poison the other two. FranT shows the oath in a different light when Dorigen imprudently swears to love Aurelius best of all men if he can accomplish an impossible task (V 989-98). When the impossible happens, it is Dorigen's husband Arveragus who holds her to her oath, telling her that "Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe" (V 1479). Paul Strohm refers to "opportunistic brotherhood" in FriT, SumT, and ShipT, where at least one of the characters never intends to uphold the oath (Social Chaucer [Cambridge, Mass., 1989], 96-102).
9. John of Salisbury, "From the Policraticus," in Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, ed. Robert P. Miller (New York, 1977), 175-79, at 176-77.
10. Ramón Lull, "From The Book of the Order of Chivalry," in Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, ed. Robert P. Miller (New York, 1977), 180-86, at 186.
11. The wages of unchivalrous behavior are death, as we see in the case of Creon. Creon, contrary to the rules of chivalry, does not permit the women to bury their dead, but instead allows dogs to eat the corpses (I 938-47). Theseus "swoor his ooth, as he was trewe knyght," to avenge the women (I 959). He then quickly slays Creon, conquers Thebes, tears the city down, and returns the dead to the ladies (I 985-93).
12. Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia, 1999), 62.
13. Maurice Keen, Nobles, Knights and Men-At-Arms in the Middle Ages (London, 1996), 45.
14. Green, A Crisis, 62-64.
15. Lois Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Themes of Scholastic Psychology (Tampa, Fla., 1990), 71.
16. Richard Firth Green, "Palamon's Appeal of Treason in the Knight's Tale," in The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England, ed. Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington (Ithaca, N.Y., 2002), 105-14, at 108.
17. Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale, 87.
18. Stretter, "Rewriting Perfect Friendship," 239.
19. Steven F. Kruger, "Claiming the Pardoner: Toward a Gay Reading of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale," in Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Thomas C. Stillinger (New York, 1998), 150-72, at 159.
20. Susan Crane, "Brotherhood and the Construction of Courtship in Arthurian Romance," The Arthurian Yearbook 3 (1993): 193-201, at 193.
21. Douglas Brooks and Alastair Fowler, "The Meaning of Chaucer's Knight's Tale," Medium AEvum 39 (1976): 123-46; repr. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1988), 35-58, at 51.
22. See Edward E. Foster, ed., Amis and Amiloun, Robert of Cisyle, and Sir Amadace (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1997), 76, lines 2377-2400.
23. Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry (Bloomington, Ind., 1976), 188.
24. Peter Brown and Andrew Butcher, The Age of Saturn: Literature and History in The Canterbury Tales (Oxford, 1991), 210.
25. H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., The Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in The Canterbury Tales (Berkeley, Calif., 1990), 223. Stewart Justman also speaks out on this topic, arguing that "The Knight's is very largely a tale of slippage from rules," the first of which is Arcite's breaking of the oath ("Auctoritee and the Knight's Tale, "Modern Language Quarterly 39 : 3-14, at 6).
26. Helen Cooper, The Structure of The Canterbury Tales (Athens, Ga., 1984), 96.
27. Vincent DiMarco, explanatory notes to KnT, note to lines I 1191-1208 (Riverside Chaucer, 830-31).
28. F. Anne Payne, Chaucer and Menippean Satire (Madison, Wise, 1981), 214.
29. Elizabeth Fowler, "The Afterlife of the Civil Dead: Conquest in the Knight's Tale," Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Thomas C. Stillinger (New York, 1998), 59-81, at 66.
30. It will be remembered, for example, that in Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot, Lancelot, a a horse and after some hesitation, rides in a humble cart in order to go to the rescue of Guenevere, abasing himself for love of her; see Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart, trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 1997), 13, lines 345-76. In Malory, Pelleas's proud lady sends knights to him every week, who then defeat him in combat, and "than woll he suffir hem wylfully to take hym presonere because he wolde have a syght of this lady" (Malory: Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver, 2nd edn. [Oxford, 1978], 100).
31. Qtd. in Honore Bonet, The Tree of Battles, trans. G. W. Coopland (Cambridge, Mass., 1949), 131.
32. Green, A Crisis, 207-8.
33. R. A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word: Money, Images, and Reference in Late Medieval Poetry (Norman, Okla., 1983), 236.
34. Green's third definition of trouthe concerns the word in its theological and intellectual senses. Theologically, the word can mean a set of beliefs or absolute truth; intellectually, it deals with factual correctness (A Crisis, 9).
35. Green, A Crisis, 42.
36. At this point Palamon agrees, "And thus they been departed til amorwe" (I 1621). This line would seem to show that Arcite breaks this oath immediately by not returning with food, drink, and bedding, but it is possible that Chaucer omits this detail because so menial an action would have been less dramatic than simply parting until the next morning. It might also be that Arcite would have sent a servant with the promised items, but it seems unlikely he would have risked discovery by including someone else in his plans.
37. Cooper, The Structure, 97.
38. V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford, Calif., 1984), 108.
39. Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale, 91.
40. Jane Chance notes that this mutual feeling is "lust" (The Mythographic Chaucer: The Fabulation of Sexual Politics [Minneapolis, Minn, 1995], 209-10).
41. Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale, 88-89.
42. Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale, 77-78.
43. Scott Vaszily, "Fabliau Plotting Against Romance in Chaucer's Knight's Tale.," Style 31 : 523-42, at 533.
44. Leicester, The Disenchanted Self, 340. In addition, Kathleen A. Blake calls it "a pathetic, ignominious, and cruel way to die," which is "too disproportionately awful for Arcite to deserve" ("Order and the Noble Life in Chaucer's Knight's Tale?" Modern Language Quarterly 34 : 3-19, at 11).
45. Helen Cooper, The Canterbury Tales (Oxford, 1989), 76. Vaszily is also of this opinion ("Fabliau," 535). Charles Muscatine believes that if there had been a reason, Chaucer would have made it more obvious (Chaucer and the French Traditon: A Study in Style and Meaning [Berkeley, Calif., 1957], 186). Expressing similar opinions are Blake, "Order," 13; Patterson, Chaucer, 200-201; Barry Windeatt, "Literary Structures in Chaucer," in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, Eng., 2003), 214-32, at 222; and E. Talbot Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer (New York, 1970), 89.
46. Brown and Butcher, The Age of Saturn, 221.
47. Paull F. Baum, Chaucer: A Critical Appreciation (Durham, N.C., 1958), 93.
48. Brooks and Fowler, "The Meaning," 51-52.
49. Interestingly, this request echoes Emelye's prayer in the temple of Diana, when she asks that the one who loves her most be given to her (I 2323-25). Arcite on his deathbed asks Emelye to consider taking Palamon. He gives her the choice, rather than suggesting that Palamon should marry her.
50. Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale, 70.
51. Cooper, The Canterbury Tales, 80.
52. Susan Crane, Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Princeton, 1994), 54.
53. Ingham, "Homosociality," 27.
54. Muscatine, Chaucer, 186. Other critics who agree with this opinion are Charles A. Owen, Jr., Pilgrimage and Storytelling in The Canterbury Tales: The Dialectic of "Ernest" and "Game" (Norman, Okla., 1977), 93-94; and Roney, Chaucer's Knight's Tale, 82.
55. For instance, Arcite could have been injured in battle in such a way that he was still fighting when Palamon was led to the stake, and only after his victory was declared would the wound have caused his death.