The role of justice in the knight’s tale

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As human beings, I think we would like to believe it is within our power to bring justice to those who deserve it. In context of the Knight's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, one would expect reward or punishment to correlate with actions. Would most of us agree that there is an innate tendency to believe in the existence of a rational, moral cycle between cause and effect? Whilst the notion of Karma was unknown to Medieval England, Christianity includes beliefs not radically divergent from Karma, where the commitment to a single Christian God and deeds in-line with scripture result in a positive afterlife. The images of heavy “human” items such as the ballasts and boats are set against the following lines

Justice in The Knight's Tale seems to imply that a good dead does not result in eventual reward and is determined more objectively by the pagan gods. Its role is not simply based on the external perception of actions, but more on whether or not that action had a morally sound intention. Justice also converges with the role of fortune on a single level, that whilst fortune is an indiscriminate force both are out of conscious human control. A.C Spearing corroborates this viewpoint by stating “What happens in The Knight's Tale is the combined outcome of planetary influences working both through and on the characters.” Divine providence or purveiance seems to be the driving force behind justice. Chaucer has not simply re-told Boccaccio's original Teseide, but has re-worked it into a tale which echoes a strong Boethian influence of which I shall touch on later. These ideas of form and shapelessness are interwoven by language that is at once “earthly” and heavenly. This poem accomplishes its task of questioning the relationship between the ethereal and intangible nature of a “pure” emotion

The belief that justice is susceptible to human influence in The Knight's Tale is hinted at with the characterisation of Thesues, who embodies Athenien reason and justice. He is comparable to the Knight who is telling the tale, as he also, is an idealized representation of the bellatores estate. His arguably hypocritical revenge on the tyrant Creon is simply “wanton violent destruction” according to critic David Aers. Do we view this violent manner of bringing justice as simply chivalric pagan tradition? The animal imagery used in reference to Theseus explains this a little further, ‘But been a leon, both in word and dede'. His comparison to a lion justifies his inclination to using violence as a tool to bring justice. His reasoning seems ironic as the harder he attempts to uphold justice through violence, the more carnage follows as a result. Using the rationale of Theseus one would have an infinite and ultimately futile cycle of revenge which never resolves the initial injustice. For example, having a hundred-a-side battle to settle a squabble between two men. The flawed human judgement of justice echoes why in our own era, capital punishment in England has been eradicated, because evidence alone is inevitably liable to human error and doubt when considering internal motives. Divine providence, on the other hand, is capable of bringing justice based on what people morally deserve (or pray for in The Knight's Tale), rather than on what it appears they should deserve. This point, to me, emphasises that justice should be left to the wisdom of a higher order and not taken into the hands of a mortal, even one of “worthy” stature such as Theseus. Theseus could be perceived as an attempted bridge between divine justice and human justice. However, human error prevents him from being as objective as a God. On occasion, emotion indicates the true motives of a person and Theseus thus carries out sounder judgement. For instance, the widows who are distraught are pitied by Theseus because of their lamenting and tears, he thus ensues justice (albeit in a violent manner). It is also evident in the compassion he has on Arcite and Palamon upon witnessing their petty duel. He is forgiving of their deceptive actions through a common empathy with their amor hereos (or love-sickness).

Let us now consider the fate of Arcite and Palamon. As we have established, justice seems determined by the moral intentions behind actions and therefore, it is arguably upheld to the right individuals. The God's seem to bring justice on evidence of sincerity; Venus and Mars use as this as a benchmark for answering both prayers with positive outcomes without contradicting one another. To expand, it may seem initially unjust that Arcite never obtains Emelye, with years of incessant love-sickness and his life-threatening return to Athens. Does his pejoration in status and appearance imply that he loves Emelye more than Palamon? There is some shockingly coherent animal imagery between the description of the godly temples and the characteristics of the two sworn brothers. To quote the findings of Spearing “Venus is exemplified by Circe, who transformed men into beasts” Maybe Palamon is more susceptible to love than Arcite as he notices Emelye first and receives the arrow through his eye, presumably from cupid's bow. It can not be merely coincidence that Palamon chose to pray to Venus, the God of Love, whilst Arcite chooses Mars which depicts a “wolf devouring a man” Arcite's ambition for Emelye's love mirrors that of Palamon's, but the mistake he makes is following his natural belief that violence reaps reward,( much like Theseus.) Justice in the tale also seems to have a hierarchy not dissimilar from our contemporary legal system, where the father, Saturn sees to it that justice ensues on behalf of Venus and Mars. As Arcite wins the battle and Palamon receives Emelye, it seems that justice is upheld by the Gods. Further strengthening this point is the fact that Arcite returns to Athens, knowing the consequence to be death. He did however, not know “how” he was going to die, but the fact that he dies in Athens points to Boethius and the notion of divine preordainment.

Arcite and Palamon occasionally misperceive their ill-fortune as injustice, most notably during imprisonment. Arcite's release by the negotiation of Perotheus seems unjust in that Palamon is equally innocent, yet he receives such a different fate. In the second book of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Fortune expresses how people often wrongly interpret their fortune as a subjective judgement on their actions, confusing her role with that of the planetary gods who reward and punish discriminately. Upon Arcite's exile, he deems his absent view of Emelye worse than death “That hast the sighte of hire, and I th'absence”, whilst ironically Palamon is jealous of his cousin's potential to return and obtain the once unobtainable, petrachan-esque love interest “Sith thou art at the large, of prisoun free, And art a lord, greet is thyn advauntage”. Arcite's fate proves that one man's fortune can be a double-edged sword and thus be at the core one's own downfall. Chaucer himself acknowledges this subjective ambiguity as the Knight openly asks “Who hath the worse.”

The First Mover speech is a poignant parody of Boethius and his understanding of the forces of justice, fortune and order in a pagan world. Whilst Theseus essentially states that everything dies, it takes pressure off the question of justice or injustice over Arcite's demise. Boethius questions why good men fall to evil, such as himself in prison, and fortune is actually an unjust notion in itself.

I would like to briefly surmise that I have argued that motives for actions are what determine justice rather than simply actions. This justice is logical and carried out by the pagan gods. The main source of ambiguity is fortune which can be perceived as injustice. Chaucer's adoption of Boethian principles in the tale try to explain how the pagan world is ordered, but it left me with more questions than answers. Personally, I believe the philosophical aspects of the ‘First Movere' speech and Consolation concerning justice are both better discussed in depth rather than briefly touching on them in a ten minute presentation, that would hardly seem just presenting them alongside more definable and concrete ideas of justice.

Questions...class.....Ben? J