Languishing in prison, Palamon and Arcite are hopeless. They think they will end their lives in a prison cell. Suddenly, though, their energies gain a focus in the person of Emily, walking through the nearby garden one Mayday. Both men vow to themselves to devote the rest of their lives to loving her.
Palamon and Arcite commit fully to their chosen course of action (being in love with Emily) by breaking their vows of sworn brotherhood to one another in order to pursue her. When Arcite is released from prison and able to gain a position as part of Emily's household staff, things seem to be looking up for him. The same is true for Palamon when he manages to escape from prison.
At this point, both men may think things are going well. Arcite gets to be close to his beloved every day, and now that Palamon has escaped from prison, he'll find a way to do so, too. All of that changes when the two accidentally meet in the forest, however. Suddenly, their rivalry rears its ugly head in full force, and they resort to violence to resolve it. When they're interrupted by Theseus, who proposes a joust, that violence is only postponed. That said, they're both excited to get a chance to win Emily.
Things couldn't slip much further out of our heroes' control than this. When Palamon and Arcite pray at the temples of Venus and Mars, they put their fates in the hands of the gods, whose political skills will decide them. Jupiter tells his daughter, Venus, that her petitioner will get his way. We think this means that Palamon will win the joust, but we're about to be surprised. In any case, somebody's about to lose, or maybe even die. A sense of foreboding is mounting.
Arcite asked Mars to help him win the joust. He got his wish, but unfortunately, that doesn't mean that he gets to live. Jupiter causes a freak earthquake, and Arcite is thrown from his horse. Arcite has only himself to blame, since he resorted to violence and broke his oath of sworn brotherhood in order to pursue Emily. Although this is a tragedy for Arcite, thanks to Theseus's reflection that the living should go on living, it doesn't have to be one for Palamon. His petition to Venus – that he win his true love – is granted when he is able to marry Emily in Arcite's place. So it's only a sort-of tragedy.