Study Guide

Palamon and Arcite in The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Palamon and Arcite

Two Knights, One Personality

Why put Palamon and Arcite together into a single character analysis? Aren't they two separate characters? Well, yes and no. Yes, their totally identical plotlines diverge about midway through "The Knight's Tale," and yes, literally speaking, they are two separate bodies. But the differences between them end there: in every other way, Palamon and Arcite are identical. It's like they have the same exact personality.

Plucked from a pile of dead bodies, and half-dead themselves after Duke Theseus's bloody attack on King Creon of Thebes, these two Theban knights are imprisoned in a tower next to Theseus's garden. From their "cote-armures and by hir gere," their captors recognize them as two cousins from a royal Theban family.

Once in prison, both cousins fall in love with Emily in exactly the same way – love at first sight – and describe their lovesickness as a wound that reaches their heart through their eyes. Both knights enter into a period of great suffering because of their separation from Emily. They moan and groan and waste away as each one is convinced that the other has the advantage with Emily.

Poster Boys for Gentleman Knights

In lots of ways, both Palamon and Arcite represent everything that a knight ought to be. For one, they've sworn an oath of brotherhood, which requires them to protect one another and to help each other out with everything. Taking an oath of sworn brotherhood is a really knightly thing to do, just like joust-fighting, dueling, and falling hopelessly in love with a beautiful damsel. Yeah, Palamon and Arcite have the noble knight act down pat. We think it's pretty clear that Palamon and Arcite are the poster boys for gentleman knights. No wonder everybody is always complimenting them on how noble they are.

Love is a Greater Law

OK, you say, but what about that really un-knightly thing that both Palamon and Arcite do – breaking their sworn oath of brotherhood in order to both chase Emily? That's a tricky one.

You see, in addition to fulfilling his knightly duties, an ideal knight is also supposed to fall in love with a beautiful woman, in whose service he grows ever more noble, brave, and worthy. This "courtly love" requires a knight to place this woman on a pedestal and be willing to sacrifice everything else in his life to win her. As Arcite tells Palamon, "love is a gretter lawe" (307). It's perhaps the only acceptable reason for a knight to abandon his oath.

You could even argue that Emily is so perfect that any perfect knight must fall in love with her. From this perspective, Palamon and Arcite's rivalry is just their fate. It's out of their hands and doesn't reflect at all upon their performance as knights.

In fact, by falling in love with Emily, Palamon and Arcite are just fulfilling their roles as courtly lovers. It just so happens that in this instance, that role conflicts with their other one as brother knights. Both knights are attempting to fulfill both roles, which has a lot to do with why they're identical as characters. It's not going out on a limb to say that rather than being actual characters, Palamon and Arcite are just conduits for the roles they're fulfilling: bodies whose identities are entirely determined by the obligations and expectations of the job description for "knight," on the one hand, and "lover," on the other.

Questions of Fate

So, two noble knights, both playing the same roles in the same situation, both in love with the same woman…wouldn't it have made more sense for the knights' characters to be at least a little bit different? At the very least, then we'd have less of a headache trying to keep straight who's doing what, right?

Well, maybe. But on the other hand, Palamon and Arcite being identical means that we can't say that one is any more deserving of Emily than the other. Seriously. Didn't you have a hard time knowing who to root for? Usually in these kinds of competitions we love to pick sides – you know, Team Edward or Team Jacob; Team Peeta or Team Gale. Here, instead of making Team Palamon or Team Arcite T-shirts, we just decided to wait and see what would happen. The guys seemed equally worthy of Emily.

One of the things that "The Knight's Tale" is concerned with is the seeming randomness of fate. In other words, do the events in people's lives happen for no reason, or can we somehow "deserve" what happens to us? This tale gives us two characters who are basically the same, but by chance, come to very different endings (marriage or death). It seems to us that "The Knight's Tale" is saying that a person's character has very little to do with his fate – it's simply outside of his control.