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THESEUS, the wise duke, is firm but fair. We have a picture of him as the strong conqueror, but also as the figure who, like God, dispenses justice along with mercy. For this reason, some have seen Theseus as the major character in the Knight's Tale. He personifies the idea of just and reasonable leadership. It's no accident that he rules Athens, the ancient center of learning and reason. He conquers the Amazon nation because it is fitting that a man should be the higher power over women. (This is according to the ideal of knighthood, not necessarily Chaucer's own view. As we shall see, Chaucer pokes fun at some of the courtly conventions even though he greatly admires the Narrator-Knight's behavior.)
Theseus is the representative of order, throughout the tale making a great show of ceremonies and games-such as the joust and the hunting of the hart-that are played by ordered rules.
ARCITE believes that Theseus is not really his "mortal enemy," nor is his cousin Palamon. But Arcite is the favorite of Mars, the god of war, so he does not listen to reason.
Instead he follows his own willingness, which first leads him to go against his cousin, then against his own good fortune. Imagine having your life saved-twice, no less-and cursing your luck because you are set free rather than put to death. We are meant to see Arcite as a man foolish in his willfulness. He is blind to his good fortune: he even complains about men who bemoan fortune's twists, which is exactly what he's doing.
Because of Mars he wins the joust, but he does not realize that fortune is changeable. Only at his death does he begin to see reason and ends the grudge he's been holding for so long against Palamon.
Does PALAMON get the lady Emelye because he's the better, more valiant knight? He certainly is valiant in the joust-it takes twenty men to capture him-and he is the one who tells Theseus the truth about Arcite's identity and their shared love for Emelye. But where Arcite is overly willful, Palamon refuses to put any stock at all in people's ability to change their situations. He languishes in jail, believing that "man is bounden" to "God's observaunce."
While some readers think that both men are ideal knights from a popular romance, others think Chaucer intended irony in their descriptions, and that indeed neither one of them is worthy of the lady. Or you might think that both are equally worthy, since each has his faults and blind spots yet sincerely upholds what he thinks is right.
What about EMELYE, the object of affection in all this? For it's hard to see her as much more than an object. Part of the humor of the Knight's Tale comes from the fact that these two knights are pining away over beautiful Emelye for years, while she doesn't yet know they exist. They are ready to kill each other over her, yet we discover that she would rather stay a virgin than marry either one of them.
We may not be quite sure how to take her because we see her only through the eyes of the two knights, who see her in different ways. A hint may be in the way she accepts the dictates of Diana, the goddess of chastity, that she must marry; and so she casts a "freendlich eye" on Arcite when he wins her hand. In general, we're told, women follow "the favour of fortune" (line 1824), as the products of nature do.