The Triangulation of Love in The Knights Tale

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Jaime Korman


The Triangulation of Love in “The Knight’s Tale”

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.”  

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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 ...

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