Theseus In The Knight's Tale

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In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” Theseus possesses a God-like presence, configuring the events and characters to his liking, such as the courtship of his sister Emelye and the tournament between Palamon and Arcite. However, while Theseus cultivates an authoritative greatness through his military prowess and elegant rhetoric, it nonetheless a shallow pretense of greatness that disguises his tyrannical need to control. The Knight’s ekphrastic description of Theseus’s banner– a static image that embodies Theseus’s stately essence and personhood– particularly illustrates his artificial facade. Moreover, the description of the statue of Mars in Theseus’s arena closely echoes the description of his banner, and in turn parallels Theseus…show more content…
In describing Theseus’s banner, the Knight states, “So shyneth in his whyte baner large, / That alle the feeldes gliteren up and doun” (Chaucer 976-77). Here, the Knight advertises Theseus’s banner as a kind of beacon or star– a source of light that can lead an individual to victory, political influence, or moral righteousness if he or she chooses to follow it. The shine of Theseus’s banner in turn equates Theseus to a beacon or star, which subliminally compels the reader to blindly follow Theseus and accept whatever truths he offers. The statue of Mars ultimately bolsters this shimmering portrait of Theseus, as “over [Mars’] heed ther shynen tow figures / Or sterres [...] This god of armes was arrayed thus” (2043-44; 2046). Because Theseus’s banner also depicts Mars, the stars surrounding the statue further characterize Theseus as a source of light and guidance in the tale. However, both passages also suggest that Theseus’s authority relies on this flashy but disingenuous persona. As the Middle English Dictionary defines “gliteren” as “to flash, sparkle, shine; reflect light,” and “to have a false or misleading glitter” (MED, “gliteren”), the Knight’s word choice reveals Theseus’s falsity, illustrating how he merely reflects light, but does not actually possess it. His greatness is simply a spectacle or facade– one that…show more content…
When describing the statue, the Knight states, “The statue of Mars upon a carte stood armed, and loked grim as he were wood” (2041-42). While the Knight ascribes a menacing countenance to Mars, his comparison between the statue and “wood” negates Mars’ life-like qualities. Likewise, he reminds the reader that, while it may depict a powerful god, the statue is nonetheless an unchanging piece of stone. This distinction between life and the representation of life is prevalent in Theseus’s banner, which also depicts “The rede statue of Mars, with spere and targe” (975). Using the superfluous descriptor “rede statue” or red image, the Knight clarifies that the banner carries only the flat representation of Mars. Moreover, given that the banner is itself an image, a picture of a picture ultimately represents Theseus, who appears as merely the static, hollow representation of a great figure like Mars. However, the statue of Mars actively participates in the Tale, as it enables the real Mars to hear and respond to Arcite’s prayers. That said, Mars is nevertheless passive to Jupiter’s higher authority and does not possess any true influence in the tale. Furthermore, the Knight prioritizes the sculptor’s agency over Mars, stating, “This god of armes was arrayed thus [...] With sotil pencil was depeynted this storie / In redouting of Mars and of his glorie”
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