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The Knight’s Tale. An Historical Hypothesis. Tale belongs to Chaucer’s neoclassical/Italian period (1380s), when he’s working both with Italian poets (Boccaccio, Petrarch, Dante) and with classical epic, using the former as a way to reach back to the latter.

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an historical hypothesis
An Historical Hypothesis

Tale belongs to Chaucer’s neoclassical/Italian period (1380s), when he’s working both with Italian poets (Boccaccio, Petrarch, Dante) and with classical epic, using the former as a way to reach back to the latter.

Also part of this period: The Monk’s Tale: a poem with a real generic and rhetorical relationship with The Knight’s Tale.

Chaucer in both is experimenting with vernacular equivalents of Latin rhetoric, specifically with the resources of abbrevatio and amplificatio: he’s “applying” Geoffrey’s Poetria nova to English poetry, using the Italians as a model.

In Monk’s Tale, he did this by much abbreviating stories from various sources

In Knight’s Tale, he took a single poem, Boccaccio’s Teseida, a 12-book epic, and cut it down to four books, leaving the “joins” quite visible

(By the time he wrote Canterbury Tales, his rhetorical craftsmanship was very much greater: Nun’s Priest’s Tale and, we’ll see, Miller’s Tale, leaves their predecessors in the dust, rhetorically speaking, looking antiquated)

the plot of boccaccio s teseida delle nozze d emilia c 1340
The plot of Boccaccio’s TeseidadelleNozzed’Emilia (c. 1340)

Theseus makes an expedition against the women of Scythia, wins victory in battle against them, and is married to their queen Ipolita (Book I).

(KT 875-88: occupatio1)

He returns to Athens, and immediately after departs for Thebes, at the entreaty of the Greek widows, the bodies of whose husbands the new ruler of Thebes, Creon, will not permit to be buried: Thebes is sacked, and two royal Theban cousins, Palemone and Arcita, who are found nearly dead on the battlefield, are taken back to Athens an imprisoned (Book II). 

From their prison-window both see Emilia, Ipolita’s younger sister, and both fall in love with her; Arctia is released from prison at the intercession of Teseo’s friend, Peritoo, and leaves Athens (Book III). [end of KT Book 1: Chaucer adds passages from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, 1251ff and 1303ff]

After many wanderings, he returns to Athens, sufficiently disguised by his sufferings, and serves in Teseo’s court under the name of Penteo (Book IV). 

Palemone hears of this, escapes from prison, and confronts Arcita in a grove where he is accustomed to sigh out his love; they fight, but are interrupted by a hunting party under Teseo, who decrees that they must join battle in the lists for the hand of Emilia in a year’s time, with a hundred knights each (Book V).  [KTBook II]

the plot of boccaccio s teseida delle nozze d emilia c 13401
The plot of Boccaccio’s TeseidadelleNozzed’Emilia (c. 1340)

[Insert into Boccaccio: KT 1881-2092: Book 3a]

The year passes; the champions arrive, and are described at length (Book VI).

The lovers and Emilia pray to their deities, and the battle is prepared for (Book VII).  [end KT Book III]

The battle is described at length; Arcita wins (Book VIII). 

Arcita is accidentally hurt, but nevertheless celebrates his victory and weds Emilia (Book IX).  [mostly omitted in KT]

Arcita dies, elaborately (Book X). [much shortened] 

He is given elaborate funeral (Book XI). [KT 2913ff occupatio] 

Teseo recommends that Emilia and Palemone marry; they are married (Book XII). [end KT Book IV: more Boethius, 2987ff]

summary of processes
Summary of Processes

Chaucer both shortens and lengthens, but always with the effect of intensification and always towards the production of orderor symmetry, sometimes to a claustrophobic degree:

e.g., the two “Boethian” speeches on destiny Arcite and Palamon give at end of Book 1; the temples of Mars and Venus in Book 3

His focus is masculinizing and martial, but also dark. He tells the story of a marriage (Emily and Palamon, Boccaccio’s main interest) but greatly emphasizes the various narrative undertows: epic, a form traditionally resolved positively, moves towards tragedy.

e.g., Saturn’s speech, 2453ff, which heralds the “happy ending”; Arcite’s death, 2743ff, as “dark”; yet cf much cheerful martial material, e.g. 2600ff.

Establishes a pattern for the Tales, that a generic structure is put in play, then “tested” almost to, perhaps beyond, point of destruction.

symmetries and settings
Symmetries and Settings

Egeus -- Theseus – Hippolita – Emily -- Palamon – Arcite

Saturn – Jupiter – Juno -- Diana – Venus -- Mars

Settings: 1) Femenye (Amazonia): the untamed feminine: defeated as a precondition of poem’s assertion of heroic masculinity;

2) Athens: site of heroic masculinity, marked, in part, by its ability to subdue the female, an act that also demands a subduing of the self;

3) Thebes: site of passionate, thus corrupted, masculinity, still in thrall to the female. In this model of the poem, Theseus finally unites Thebes and Amazonia into a harmonious whole through marriage of Palamon and Emely, a marriage that replicates his own with Hippolita. This heroic “knight’s tale” has Theseus at its dead center.

  • Does Theseus, uniquely, have “agency” in KT?
  • Does Theseus control the poem’s action?
  • Does it matter to him to do so?
  • How are we to understand his “prime mover” speech?
  • If Theseus represents “heroic masculinity,” also rational masculinity, how are we meant to think of this quality?
  • Is Theseus a power for good in his world?