Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Fate and Free Will

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Fate and Free Will

[…] 'Lord, to whom Fortune hath yiven
Victorie, and as a conqueror to lyven,
Nat greveth us youre glorie and youre honour.'

The oldest of the lamenting woman begins her petition to Theseus by reminding him not only of the gifts he's been given – victory and the life of a conqueror – but also of the fact that his successes are dependent upon Fortune, or fate. She wants to remind Theseus of a sort of "karmic debt," that is, to make him feel obligated to repay the universe for the gifts it's given to him by helping these women in need.

'For certes, lord, ther is noon of us alle,
That she ne hath been a duchesse or a queene.
Now be we caytyves, as it is wel seene,
Thanked be Fortune, and hir false wheel.'

The mourning woman has just attributed Theseus's success to Fortune; now she calls Fortune false. She's reminding Theseus that, just as she quickly fell from prosperity to poverty, so can he. He'd better try to please the powers that be in order to try to stay on top. And why does this woman call Fortune's wheel "false"?  Maybe because you can't trust Fortune to allow your prosperity to last.

'For Goddes love, taak al in pacience
Oure prisoun, for it may noon oother be;
Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.
Som wikke aspect or disposicioun
Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun
Hath yeven us this, al though we hadde it sworn;
So stood the hevene, whan that we were born.
We moste endure it, this the short and playn.'

Arcite counsels Palamon to have patience, for their imprisonment is the will of Fortune. He attributes it to a "wikke" position of the constellations on the day they were born, linking their fate to astrology.  His advice to "endure" the hand they've been drawn echoes the later reflection of Theseus that it's best to accept one's fate with patience and good will.

[…] 'Venus, if it be thy wil,
Yow in this gardyn thus to transfigure
Bifore me, sorweful wrecched creature,
Out of thisprisoun helpe that we may scapen!
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 tirannye.'

Palamon concludes his prayer to Venus with a seeming willigness to accept the shape of his "destynee," whatever it may be. However, he asks that his lineage live on, revealing his belief that the continuance of one's bloodline may be the sole means of thwarting death.

'Wel hath Fortune yturned thee the dys,
That hast the sighte of hir, and I th'absence;
For possible is, syn thou hast hir presence,
And art a knyght, a worthy and an able,
That by som cas, syn Fortune is chaungeable,
Thow maist to thy desir som tyme atteyne.'

Here, Arcite, who is newly released from prison, considers that Fortune has favored Palamon, who still gets to see Emily from his prison cell every day. Arcite's words of despair actually contain the seeds of hope for him: if, as he says, Fortune is "chaungeable," isn't it possible that she will soon decide to favor him again?

'Allas, why pleynen folk so in commune
On purveiance of God or of Fortune,
That yeveth hem ful ofte in many a gyse
Wel better than they kan hemself devyse?'

Arcite follows this question with many examples of people who asked for something from the gods, only to have that very thing they asked for be the cause of their own demise. Arcite's point is that he was foolish to pray for his release from prison, since now that release is the cause of his despair. Of course, Arcite's speech here also casts doubt upon the justifiability of his sorrow: how is he to know that the fate Fortune has prepared for him is not what he wants? Arcite gives himself no position from which to judge what happens to him as either good or bad.

Arrayed was this god, as he took keep,
As he was whan that Argus took his sleep;
And seyde hym thus, 'To Atthenes shaltou wende,
Ther is thee shapen of thy wo and ende.'

Mercury tells Arcite that the end of his suffering is "shapen."  By this, he means that it is already decided – shaped, or constructed. Arcite's fate waits for him in Athens.

'Love hath his firy dart so brennyngly
Ystiked thurgh my trewe careful herte,
That shapen was my deeth erst than my sherte.'

Arcite says that his death, or succumbing to love, was "shapen," or constructed, before his "sherte," by which he means swaddling-shirt. What he's saying is that his love for Emily was fore-ordained by Love before he was even born.

'And forthy, I yow putte in this degree;
That ech of yow shal have his destynee
As hym is shape, and herkneth in what wyse.'

Theseus precedes his plan for Arcite and Palamon's joust by saying that it's a way for both men to achieve his destiny. What's interesting about this is that Theseus plays such a big role in shaping it. But rather than just choosing one of the men to marry Emily, he decides they should fight it out: he must truly believe that a higher power is better qualified than he is to decide all their fates.

Thus may ye seen, that wysdom ne richesse,
Beautee ne sleighte, strengthe ne hardynesse,
Ne may with Venus holde champartie,
For as hir list, the world than may she gye.
Lo, alle thise folk so caught were in hir las,
Til they for wo ful ofte seyde 'allas!'

The poet portrays Venus, or Love, as the most powerful god, against whom mere mortals are powerless to resist. In fact, all the people painted on her walls were just caught in her "las," or lasso. Their lives were subject to forces greater than themselves.

Depeynted was the slaughtre of Julius,
Of grete Nero, and of Antonius;
Al be that thilke tyme they were unborn,
Yet was hir deth depeynted ther-biforn
By manasynge of Mars, right by figure.

The deaths of Caesar, Nero, and Marc Antony are preordained and painted on the walls of Mars's temple before these men are even born. The presence of this fortunetelling on the walls of the stadium where Palamon and Arcite are to fight their joust gives a sense of inevitability to its outcome.  Whoever the winner and loser, his fate was "shapen" just as surely as the fates of these Romans who are yet to be born.

So was it shewed in that portreiture,
As is depeynted in the sterres above
Who shal be slayn or elles deed for love.

Here the narrator compares the paintings on Mars's temple walls to the constellations. Just as the stars foretell the future, so do the paintings on the walls tell who will be killed or otherwise die for love. This passage links love and death as inevitable destinies men are powerless to resist.

[…] 'Doghter, stynt thyn hevynesse.
Among the goddes hye it is affermed,
And by eterne word writen and confermed,
Thou shalt ben wedded unto oon of tho
That han for thee so muchel care and wo.'

Diana's answer to Emily's prayer confirms what we've suspected all along, which is that the gods know what's going to happen. Diana's reference to an "eterne word" suggests that an even higher power than the gods is at work here. This could be seen as some version of fate, or the "Firste Moevere" Theseus refers to in his final speech.

'The Firste Moevere of the cause above
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th'effect, and heigh was his entente;
Wel wiste he why, and what therof he mente.'

Throughout "The Knight's Tale," many characters have complained about their fates. Here, Theseus advises everyone to take comfort, because God has a plan. Even though we might not know what it all means, Theseus implies, we can trust that God knows "why, and what therof he mente."  His speech is thus the perfect capstone to all the hand-wringing about fate that's occurred in the tale.

'What maketh this, but Juppiter the kyng,
That is prince and cause of alle thyng
Convertynge al unto his propre welle
From which it is deryved, sooth to telle,
And heer-agayns no creature on lyve
Of no degree availleth for to stryve.'

Theseus believes death is simply God converting the living back to the essence from which they were derived. Death is a part of life. It's mankind's fate, which he has no business trying to avoid. This fatalism may be comforting in a way, but it also raises the question of just how much someone ought to accept responsibility for the events of his life.