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In “The Knight’s Tale,” the first story of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses the triangle to investigate the abstract complexity of life’s most powerful emotion—love. Since “love is law unto itself,” it can be a challenge to examine its erratic nuances critically. Yet Chaucer, through the symbolic geometry of a triangle, masterfully establishes a narrative structure based on the simultaneous balance and tension between the conflicted lovers, Palamon, Arcite and Emily.
Palamon and Arcite’s relationship forms the base of the triangle. The two men are inextricably bonded by their origin and fate and dearly love one another, in a brotherly way. Until their paths diverge, Palamon and Arcite are treated as identical characters. Half dead from an attack by Duke Theseus, they are rescued from a pile of bodies, only to be imprisoned in a tower next to Theseus’ garden. Their undifferentiated personalities and unquestioned loyalty to one another form the original strong and stable foundation of the triangle.
Palamon and Arcite’s first vision of Emily instantly creates the third point of the love triangle and completely restructures the geometry of the story. This love at first sight brings a new dimensionality to the relationship and individuality of Arcite and Palamon. Emily represents the object of desire and at first the cousins appear to relate to her in a virtually identical manner. But on a closer reading, a subtle distinction between them is already evident. Palamon, who was the first to spy Emily, accuses Arcite of having a “mystical…holy love” for Emily as opposed to his own love for her as a “human being.
” This distinction seems to be a commentary by Chaucer about the difference between romanticized “courtly love,” versus the honesty of “true love. ” The two men now have increasingly divergent understandings of love and a growing resentment for one another. Yet, they remain locked together in a triangulated relationship, due to their shared desire for Emily. Both remain strongly connected by their psychological rivalry, even when Palamon remains in prison and Arcite is free. Arcite fears that Palamon has “the victory in this adventure,” while Arcite mourns that Palamon now has “the fruit.
” Palamon and Arcite’s tragic rivalry for the hand of Emily is both amplified and thwarted through their mutual competition. When a triangle is applied to love there is bound to be discord. Strong relationships are based on the connections between two people—not three. A love triangle, by its very name, implies tension and dissatisfaction. Like a dissonant chord in music, a love triangle seeks resolution. In “The Knights Tale,” this resolution is forced upon the threesome by Theseus’s staged showdown in a jousting tournament.
Just before the inevitable battle, they each choose a different god to hear their prayers. Arcite asks Mars for help to win the battle, while Palamon asks Venus to help him win Emily’s heart. Through their choice in gods, at this time of great turmoil, both friends’ motives are exposed. Arcite desires the glory that comes with the victory for Emily’s hand, while in contrast, Palamon simply wants Emily in the spirit of love. These contradicting motives are reinforced later as Arcite triumphantly rides to Theseus, rather than to Emily, his prize.
In doing so, he falls on his chest, killing himself. His self-aggrandizing action suggests Arcite is more motivated by the prestige granted to him by Theseus, than by his love for Emily, which the reader was misled to believe in. To emphasize this point, his unorthodox death symbolizes that he died at Venus’s hand—the hand of love. By comparison, the unwavering devotion of Palamon for Emily suggests that true love cannot only endure but triumph in the most hopeless of circumstances.