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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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NOTE:

The idea of aloneness versus "company," the ideal of the common good, appears throughout the tale. Theseus, the good ruler, consults his parliament and travels with others. Aloneness, some readers believe, means the way to death.

In a circular pattern, we are back in May, and "Were it by aventure or destinee (As, when a thing is shapen, it shal be)" (lines 607-608) Palamon escapes just in time to see Arcite reveal his identity in the grove. Palamon threatens to kill him for breaking their knight's code and his promise to Theseus not to return. Again, we are meant to see which promises are the more important. As we see later, Palamon considers the knight's honor (which is tied to Venus) to be more important than winning a battle. Arcite believes the battle the most important thing.

They agree to fight to the death the next day. Destiny is so strong that it determines what happens, in this instance and also in all situations-"All is this ruled by the sight above" (line 814), i.e., God's knowledge. According to the divine plan, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emelye arrive in the middle of the battle. Here is where Palamon shows honor by confessing the whole mess and asking for death.

Theseus is angry that they are fighting "withouten judge or other officer" (line 854), in other words, outside the order imposed by law and reason. He agrees to spare their lives when the women plead for mercy and he sees that the fight is over love. He is still angry in his heart, "Yet in his reason he them both excused" (line 908).

Theseus decides to settle the problem in an ordered game of battle where no one will be killed. This battle will determine whether love or might triumphs.

Part III opens with a lavish description of Theseus' building of the joust arena and the altars prepared for the gods of the main characters: Venus for Palamon, Mars for Arcite, Diana for Emelye. Each god is depicted in the cruelest terms-Venus as the goddess of lovers' "broken sleeps" and "cold sighs" (line 1062); Mars as the war god that brings death and destruction; Diana, goddess of chastity, as a cruel huntress.

Each knight prays for victory and gets a sign that he interprets as meaning that he'll be victorious. At the same time, the gods argue it out in the heavens, with Saturn, the god and planet of death, promising Venus that her man Palamon will win eventually. But she and Mars must keep peace between them for awhile, since their opposition creates "swich divisioun" (line 1618).


Even though Saturn is a mean spirit, his main purpose here is to create harmony among the gods and the mortals below. Life can't exist without harmony or without pain, Saturn is saying; the suggestion is that this is the reason behind fortune's ups and down.

The final section takes us onto the battlefield where Arcite's knights fight for Mars (and Emelye) and Palamon's for Venus (and Emelye). The rhetorical description of the battle, which some say represents sexual struggle, embodies human conflict the way cowboy films do; knights fall off horses and the crowd cheers or boos. Finally Mars' knight Arcite wins the contest.

When Arcite's short-lived victory is literally overturned by his pitching horse, we're told that the "expulsive," "animal," or "natural" virtues couldn't help him.

NOTE:

Three virtues, the vital, natural, and animal, were believed to control the body. In Arcite, the animal virtue, connected with the brain, can't expel the poison from the natural virtue, connected with the liver. "Nature" loses her hold on his life.

He dies "Allone, withouten any company," without having gained the desire of his dreams.

The only consolation for Arcite's death comes from Theseus' old father Egeus, who knows "the world's transmutation" and has seen it change "both up and down" (lines 1981-1982). This reminds us of love as well as life, for we've been told before that lovers go "now up, now down, like a bucket in a well" (line 675). The world always changes according to fortune, Egeus says, and he reminds us of the wider context of the tale when he says

This world is just a thoroughfare of woe, And we are pilgrims, passing to and fro. (lines 1989-1990)

There is even some humor in the orderly telling of Arcite's funeral, which the Knight describes by saying what he won't describe. But after this ritual of death and honor, life begins again with Theseus explaining the point of the tale, that life's order is a natural one, of fortune, love, life, and death. Everything is part of a perfect whole established by the First Mover (God), but lives its allotted time before the next generation succeeds.

Then it is wisdom, as it seems to me, To make a virtue of necessity.... (lines 2183-2184)

In other words, Theseus makes the best of the nature we are given. Pain and death are inevitable, but let's enjoy it all to get the most out of life. What Palamon and Arcite couldn't settle between them-the problems of passion, duty, and fortune-are resolved by Theseus in this wise speech.

The marriage of Palamon and Emelye is the outcome of this philosophy, and also shows how, within the wheel of fortune, happiness can exist along with, even because of, sadness and suffering.

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