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Forsworn and Fordone: Arcite as Oath-Breaker in the Knight's Tale
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Forsworn and Fordone:
Arcite as Oath-Breaker in the Knight's Tale

Chaucer's Knight's Tale is a story of chivalry and of romance, a tale of two captive knights who fall in love with the same maiden, with disastrous results. Palamon and Arcite are virtually identical, yet in the end one dies and the other marries Emelye. Why does the adventure close in this seemingly arbitrary way? Does Arcite deserve to die in such a gruesome fashion? Throughout the tale both young men act, for the most part, according to the rules of chivalry. Underlying the tale, however, are issues of brotherhood, trouthe, and loyalty. Although Palamon upholds these knightly duties fairly consistently,1 Arcite is guilty of a number of transgressions that account, I argue, for his ultimate fate of death after winning the battle for the maiden.

From the beginning of the Knight's Tale, the Knight is at pains to demonstrate the virtual equality of Palamon and Arcite. The two knights are discovered after a battle lying in a "taas of bodyes dede" (I 1005).2 In such a configuration, it is difficult to distinguish individuals at all. When the pillagers separate the bodies, however, they discover these two lying together, wearing the same heraldic device (I 1011–12). G. F. Beltz explains that knights of the same household are dressed similarly so that, "in the heat of battle, the enemy might mistake one for the other" and the knights would thus share the same perils.3 The two knights are never clearly differentiated physically; indeed, the appearance of the young men is entirely omitted. Robert R. Edwards refers to the two as "two versions of a single figure,"4 and Lee Patterson says they are "indistinguishable at the level of worth."5 They become differentiated only through their love of Emelye, the sister-in-law of Theseus.

Besides being royal cousins, Palamon and Arcite have strengthened their responsibility to each other by swearing an oath of brotherhood (I 1131–38). The importance of this oath cannot be overestimated, according to an incisive study by Robert Stretter. Stretter notes that the pledge is "a legally binding oath of mutual support," and that, because such an oath does not appear in Boccaccio's Teseida (the source of [End Page 416] Chaucer's tale), Chaucer's addition must be considered significant.6 Stretter emphasizes the fact that medieval readers would have recognized the brotherhood bond "as shorthand for a (theoretically) indestructible male friendship."7 Chaucer writes of such bonds elsewhere in the Canterbury Tales, where they are crucial factors in the stories.8 The narrator Knight does not dwell on this oath: after the breaking of the oath, Palamon mentions it only once again, in the grove (I 1583). There are enough other oaths in the tale, however, so that verbal contracts—and this one in particular—are never long out of the minds of the audience. No one other than the two knights is apparently aware of this particular instance of oath-breaking. Significantly, Palamon does not mention it at the crucial moment when he confesses both his and Arcite's transgressions to Theseus. He evidently considers the oath to be a private matter between the two knights, symbolic of the bonds they share, and something they must resolve themselves.

The oath of brotherhood was closely related to the oath of knighthood. John of Salisbury writes of "the binding sacrament of an oath" that specified the duties of soldiers, who were "to pour out their blood for their brothers . . . and, if need be, to lay down their lives,"9 a concept that supports the idea of knights dressing alike in order to confuse the enemy in battle. Ramón Lull, in his thirteenth-century Book of the Order of Chivalry, notes that "those who uphold the order of chivalry should not engage in false swearing and untrue oaths."10 Oaths are part of the code of chivalry and are to be taken very seriously.11 Richard Firth Green declares that the oath is commonly a key factor in Middle English metrical romances, and that "stress on the virtue of absolute fidelity to one...