Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Friendship

By Geoffrey Chaucer


'It nere,' quod he, 'to thee no greet honour
For to be fals, ne for to be traitour
To me, that am thy cosyn and thy brother,
Ysworn ful depe, and ech of us til oother,
That nevere for to dyen in the peyne,
Til that the deeth departe shal us tweyne,
Neither of us in love to hyndre other,
Ne in noon oother cas, my leeve brother,
But that thou shouldest trewely forthren me
In every cas, as I shal forthren thee.
This was thyn ooth, and myn also certeyn.'

This passage establishes the specifics of Palamon and Arcite's relationship. Not only are they cousins but also sworn brothers. Apparently, the terms of the oath they have sworn to one another specifically forbid hindering one another in love.  This is a particularly inconvenient promise, since they're now in love with the same woman.

'Nay, certes, fals Arcite, thow shalt nat so!
I loved hire first, and tolde thee my wo
As to my conseil, and to my brother sworn,
To forthre me as I have toold biforn,
For which thou art ybounden as a knyght
To helpen me, if it lay in thy myght,
Or elles artow fals, I dar wel seyn.'

Talk about adding insult to injury.  Not only does Palamon say that Arcite shouldn't love Emily; he also implies that Arcite is duty-bound as his sworn brother to help Palamon win her for himself. If we were Arcite, we'd be hopping mad right about now.

And myn is love, as to a creature;
For which I tolde thee myn aventure
As to my cosyn and my brother sworn.

Arcite echoes Palamon's claim that the only reason he mentioned Emily to his friend was because he trusted his sworn brother. This is a method of playing upon the other's feelings, of trying to make Palamon feel like he's betraying a confidence or sacred trust by claiming Emily for himself.

We stryven as dide the houndes for the boon,
They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon.
Ther cam a kyte, whil they weren so wrothe,
And baar awey the boon bitwixe hem bothe.
And therfore at the kynges court, my brother,
Ech man for hymself, ther is noon oother.

Arcite compares himself and Palamon to hounds that fight over a bone, only to see it snatched away by a bird. His point seems to be that he and Palamon should pay attention to the object of their affections rather than to who gets her or doesn't. His declaration that at the king's court it's "ech man for hymself" doesn't mesh very well with the idea of sworn brotherhood. With this statement, then, he's effectively declaring their oath meaningless.

But to th'effect, it happed on a day
To telle it yow as shortly as I may,
A worthy duc, that highte Perotheus,
That felawe was unto duc Theseus
Syn thilke day that they were chidren lite,
Was come to Atthenes his felawe to visite.

Immediately following the falling-out between Arcite and Palamon, the tale gives us an example of another childhood friendship – one that's lasted for many years. Palamon and Arcite's apparently weak bond appears all the more feeble in comparison.

For in this world he loved no man so,
And he loved hym als tendrely agayn.
So wel they lovede, as olde bookes sayn,
That whan that oon was deed, soothly to telle,
His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle.

It may sound strange to our modern ears to hear a friendship between two men described in these terms of tender love. But describing friendships between men this way is a tradition that medieval writings inherit from the classical era. In fact, ancient Greek philosophers believed that the friendship between two men was the strongest and most sacred bond of all human relationships. Theseus and Perotheus's friendship is what a friendship <em>should </em>be, and you get the feeling that, unlike Arcite and Palamon, they wouldn't abandon it for anything.

[He] seyde, 'Arcite, false traytour wikke1
Now artow hent that lovest my lady so,
For whomthat I have al this peyne and wo,
And art my blood, and to my conseil sworn,
As I ful ofte have seyd thee heerbiforn.'

What does Palamon mean by saying that Arcite is sworn to his "conseil"? One possibility is that he means Arcite is sworn to <em>keep </em>his counsel, or secrets. But what's not clear is why both Palamon and Arcite accuse one another of betraying their secrets by loving Emily.

'For I defye the seurete and the bond
Which that thou seist that I have maad to thee.
What, verray fool, thynk wel that love is free,
And I wol love hir, maugree al thy myght!'

Just as he did when they were in prison together, Arcite rejects the bond between himself and Palamon in favor of love. By saying "love is free," Arcite means that no one can forbid or prevent someone from loving whom he wishes. We can't argue with him there.

'And ye shul bothe anon unto me swere,
That nevere mo ye shal my contree dere,
Ne make were upon me, nyght ne day,
But been my freendes in al that ye may.'

Theseus makes Palamon and Arcite promise not to wage war against him, concluding by saying they must be his "freendes." By "freendes," then, Theseus really means political allies, and adds another kind of relationship to the form friendship takes in this tale. 

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 oght his freend been of his deeth,
Whan with honour up yolden in his breeth,
Than whan his name apalled is for age.

Theseus implies that the best friend is one who dies rather than bring dishonor to his friends. He also says that a friend ought to be happy for one who dies in his youth, before old age has had a chance to dim his reputation. These ideas may seem strange to us, but they're true to ancient Greek society, in which honor and reputation were someone's most precious "possessions."