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  • Chapter 3:Laying Siege to Female Power: Theseus the "Conqueror" and Hippolita the "Asseged" in Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale"
  • Tory Vandeventer Pearman

Keiko Hamaguchi rightly notes that feminist criticism on "The Knight's Tale" often ignores issues of race and ethnicity in favor of exploring a binary gender division. In response to such Eurocentric views of gender, Hamaguchi offers a post-colonial reading of the tale that examines Hippolita and Emily in relation to their ethnic status as Amazon women. Ultimately, Hamaguchi contends that Theseus, acting as colonizer, attempts to "domesticate" the women by suppressing their Amazon-ness.1 I find Hamaguchi's post-colonial lens important to a wider reading of the tale; however, Hamaguchi chooses to focus much of her essay on Emily, a move that mirrors most studies of gender in "The Knight's Tale."2 Though criticism on Emily has produced a rich conversation about a medieval understanding of the roles of women in negotiations of power and peace between men, such studies ignore the importance of Hippolita as the first object of Theseus' conquests. I contend that an examination of the language the Knight uses to describe Hippolita allows us to investigate not only the roles of medieval women in negotiations between men, but also the implications of gender and ethnicity in the acts of those who conquer and those who are conquered. Ultimately, the notorious abbreviations, gaps, and slippages of "The Knight's Tale" reveal an anxiety about the ultimate ends of political actions that seek to secure peace through means that subjugate Others.3

In this essay, I will show how what I will term the Knight's militarized language establishes and also undermines Theseus' reputation as a conqueror. The Knight's strategic erasure of Hippolita's and Emily's past and his superfluous praising of Theseus' military exploits render conquest ambivalent. Specifically, an investigation of the multiple meanings of the term asseged, the term with which the Knight describes Hippolita, will consider the ways in which the Knight uses the language of warfare to describe Hippolita's and her sister Emily's capture and exchange into marriage. Gender and ethnicity thus play an important role in who [End Page 31] has the power to conquer and who loses power to the conqueror in "The Knight's Tale." The tale demonstrates that assegers are men, and though other men like Palamon and Arcite can be asseged and, in turn, feminized, women, particularly non-Western women, are the ones who remain entrapped, silent, and powerless. As the silence of these women suggests, Theseus sustains peace through means that ultimately abject ethnic Others. As Fredric Jameson suggests, a text possesses a "political unconscious," or a narrative or social experience that has been suppressed within the text. Because a writer produces a text in a historical moment, the political and social struggles of that historical moment exist beneath the dominant narrative of the text.4 In conjunction with Jameson, Geraldine Heng's notion of a "feminine subtext" at work in many medieval texts is helpful to this analysis of "The Knight's Tale": "because the female is read as adjunctive (though necessary), a specifically feminine point of view . . . is never fully recovered;" instead, this "feminine subtext" runs underneath the surface of the text.5 I contend that what is suppressed in "The Knight's Tale" is both political and feminine; thus, the text's unconscious reveals that the marginalized voices of the text—those of ethnic women—must be suppressed in order to uphold one dominant ideology, that of Theseus's "civilizing" missions.

In order to understand better the significance of the language used to describe Hippolita, it is first important to map out how the Knight characterizes Theseus. Traditionally, critics have found Theseus to be either an ideal ruler or a tyrant.6 As the divided responses of these critics suggest, the Knight celebrates Theseus' status as a conqueror, while his militarized language also thoroughly destabilizes such a positive characterization; the ambivalence surrounding conquest allows for such varied responses. Throughout the poem, Chaucer's Knight develops Theseus' role as a conqueror by using militarized language to describe the duke: Theseus is a "conqueror...


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