Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Death

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Death

I wrecche, which that wepe and waille thus,
Was whilom wyf to kyng Cappaneus,
That starf at Thebes – cursed be that day! –
And alle we that been in this array
And maken al this lamentacioun,
We losten alle oure housbondes at that toun,
Whil that the seege theraboute lay.
(76-82)

The figure of the lamenting woman is a familiar one from both classical and medieval epic literature. Her role in the story is to remind the men of the consequences of their war-mongering. The widows in "The Knight's Tale" are a little different, though, because they actually <em>encourage </em>Theseus to go to war to avenge the desecration of their husbands' bodies.

[He] swoor his ooth, as he was a trewe knyght,
He wolde doon so ferforthly his myght
Upon the tiraunt Creon hem to wreke,
That all the peple of Grece sholde speke
How Creon was of Theseus yserved,
As he that hadde his deeth ful wel deserved.
(101-106)

Creon's death is necessary to make the public understand that his failure to perform the rituals of burial is unacceptable. The irony here is that by desecrating the dead, Creon becomes one of them himself.

To ransake in the taas of bodyes dede,
Hem for to strepe of harneys and of wede,
The pilours diden bisynesse and cure,
After the bataille and disconfiture.
(147-151)

The image of pillagers sifting through a pile of dead bodies is a gruesome one, which, like the figures of the lamenting women, reminds us of the horrors of warfare.

'And if so be my destynee be shapen
By eterne word to dyen in prisoun,
Of oure lynage have som compassioun,
That is so lowe ybroght by tirranye.'
(250-253)

Palamon's prayer to Emily (who at this moment he thinks is Venus) reveals that his desire to avoid death is due not so much to self-interest as to a desire for his family line to prosper. If he can't live, he asks that Venus at least allow some of his lineage to have success.

'The fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly
Of hire, that rometh in the yonder place,
And but I may seen hir atte leeste weye,
I nam but deed, ther is namoore to seye.'
(260-264)

Arcite's claim that he will die if he cannot see Emily every day comes directly from the courtly love tradition. The idea is that the beloved is supposed to be so central to the lover's being that a separation from her is like a separation from one's heart or soul, which causes death.

'Som man desireth for to han richesse,
That cause is of his mordre of greet siknesse.
And som man wolde out of his prisoun fayn,
That in his hous is of his meynee slayn.'
(397-400)

Here, Arcite reflects on the seeming randomness of fate.  He thinks that no matter how carefully he tries to plan his life for the better, a man can't possibly anticipate what will happen to him. It's significant that Arcite chooses to use the unpredictability of death as the example of this principle, given the way Arcite's <em>own </em>death illustrates it at the end of the tale.

'Syn that I may nat seen you, Emelye,
I nam but deed, ther nys no remedye.'
(415-416)

Arcite follows his claim that he will die if he can't see Emily with a performance of a living death. Refusing food, drink, and sleep, he seems to want to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

'What is mankynde moore unto you holde
Than is the sheep that rouketh in the folde?
For slayn is man right as another beest
[...]
And whan a beest is deed, he hath no peyne,
But man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne.'
(449-451, 461-462)

Palamon complains to God that he treats beasts better than men, because beasts have no afterlife and don't have to worry about what comes after their death. As we can see in both Arcite and Palamon's speeches about their separation from Emily, death and all it implies about the life of man are subjects of great concern to the characters in the tale. Theseus will address these concerns in his speech about death.

'And over al this, to sleen me outrely,
Love hath his firy dart so brennyngly
Ystiked thurgh my trewe careful herte,
That shapen was my deeth erst than my sherte.
Ye sleen me with youre eyen, Emelye!
Ye been the cause wherfore that I dye.'
(705-710)

Arcite implies here that his lovesickness, and metaphorical death, was preordained by Love. The connection between love and death is enforced not only by the language of courtly love that equates the two, but also because of the feeling of powerlessness over one's fate that both provoke in the characters.

[He] seyde, 'Sire, what nedeth wordes mo?
We have the deeth disserved, bothe two.
Two woful wrecches been we, two caytyves,
That been encombred of oure owene lyves.'
(857-860)

Palamon says that he and Arcite both deserve death. His characterization of himself and his cousin as "encombred of oure owene lyves" may reflect how depressed he is about being separated from his beloved.  It may also show how hopeless he feels about seeing her again. 

And with that word his speche faille gan,
And from his herte up to his brest was come
The coold of deeth, that hadde hym overcome.
And yet moreover in hise armes two
The vital strengthe is lost and al ago.
Oonly the intellect, withouten moore,
That dwelled in his herte syk and soore
Gan faillen, when the herte felte deeth.
(1940-1947)

This extremely detailed description of Arcite's death reveals clearly the narrator's belief that it is possible for someone to remain alive after their body dies completely. Only when the "intellect," or what we might think of as the soul, passes from the body, is a person truly dead. This passage also indicates the medieval belief in the heart as the dwelling-place of consciousness, rather than the brain.

His spirit chaunged hous, and wente ther
As I cam nevere, I kan nat tellen wher,
Therfore I stynte; I nam no divinistre;
Of soules fynde I nat in this registre,
Ne me ne liste thilke opinions to telle
Of hem, though that they writen wher they dwelle.
(1951-1956)

Here, the narrator says that death marks the limits of his knowledge. We wonder what he thinks about writers who do dare to write about the afterlife, like Virgil or Dante. Would he consider those poets to be "divinistres," or philosophers, rather than poets?

'Right as ther dyed nevere man,' quod he,
'That he ne lyvede in erthe in som degree,
Right so ther lyvede never man,' he seyde,
'In al this world that somtyme he ne deyde.'
'This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes passynge to and fro.
Deeth is an ende of every worldes soore.'
(1985-1991)

These words of wisdom about death come from Theseus's father, Egeus, who, because he is elderly, has a privileged perspective on it. Just as those who died once lived, so those who live will die. His characterization of the world as a "thurghfare ful of wo" on which pilgrims pass to and fro gives new meaning to the Canterbury pilgrims' journey, enabling us to see it as an allegory of the journey from earth to heaven.

'Of man and womman seen we wel also,
That nedeth, in oon of thise termes two –
This is to seyn, in youthe or elles age –
He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page.
Som in his bed, som in the depe see,
Som in the large feeld, as men may se;
Ther helpeth noght, al goth that ilke weye,
Thanne may I seyn that al this thyng moot dye.'
(2169-2176)

Just as he did with love in an earlier speech, here Theseus refers to death as the great equalizer – an experience that all humans share. This moment is yet another connection between love and death.

Thanne is it wysdom as it thynketh me
To maken vertue of necessitee,
And take it weel, that we may nat eschue;
And manely, that to us alle is due.
And who so gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,
And rebel is to hym that al may gye.
(2183-2188)

This idea, that it's better for a person to accept what he can't control, comes from the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Stoics believed in  controlling one's emotions and living life with logic and reason. They taught that since a person had very little control over what happened in the world, it was best to accept whatever life threw at you gracefully.  In this way, one avoids suffering.

And certeinly, a man hath moost honour
To dyen in his excellence and flour,
Whan he is siker of his goode name,
Thanne hath he doon his freend ne hym no shame.
And gladder oghte his freend been of his deeth,
Whan with honour up yolden in his breeth,
Than whan his name apalled is for age;
For al forgotten is his vassellage.
Thanne is it best as for a worthy fame,
To dyen whan that he is best of name.
(2189-2196)

The idea that it's better to die in your youth, at the height of your good reputation and valorous deeds, comes from a culture that values reputation almost more than life itself. This idea makes sense if you believe that your reputation is all that lives on in the world after you die.