Emelye’s Garden Scene in “The Knight’s Tale” and Boccaccio’s Teseida
In “The Knight’s Tale”, Chaucer clearly draws on themes used by other writers, and is particularly influenced by the work of Giovanni Boccaccio. In Boccaccio’s Teseida dell Nozze d’Emilia, he creates the character of Emilia, with whom the Theban brothers Arcites and Palaemon fall in love. In “The Knight’s Tale”, Chaucer introduces his version of the love interest Emelye in the garden scene. In a comparison between this scene, found in Part I of “The Knight’s Tale”, and Boccaccio’s Teseida, readers can examine the differences between the manner in which the two authors characterize the woman in question. Whereas Boccaccio gives Emilia depth and introduces her as a main character, Chaucer provides considerably less detail regarding Emelye, thereby deemphasizing her importance in the work and underscoring the significance of the two brothers and their interactions.
In “The Knight’s Tale”, featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells his own version of Boccaccio’s Teseida. Though the basic plot is the same, Chaucer is very selective in what he chooses to tell his audience. In the Oxford Guides to Chaucer, Helen Cooper notes that “‘The Knight’s Tale’ tells the same story [as the Teseida] at less than a quarter of the length (65).” One example of how Chaucer shortens the tale is by offering only a brief description of Theseus’s conquest of the Amazons and his return to the city, which takes Boccaccio two books to depict. The Knight, the narrator of Chaucer’s tale, opts to skim over the battle scenes because he has “a large feeld to ere” (886). This technique alerts the reader to the fact that the second portion of Boccaccio’s tale is the portion that must be given a new spin. The context of the sighting of Emelye in the Garden in “The Knight’s Tale” is the same as its source scene in the Teseida in that Emeyle, the sister of Theseus, is strolling through the garden when Acrite and Palamon spy her and fall in love immediately.
Despite the similar manner in which he treats this character, Chaucer makes several significant changes to the love interest in his tale. In both texts Emeyle/Emilia is a beautiful blond who gathers flowers in the garden while singing. However, the texts differ in the descriptions of these actions. In the Teseida, Emilia “sings charming love lyrics” and “amorous songs” (3:8-10). In “The Knight’s Tale”, however, there is no mention of Emeyle singing love songs. Instead, Chaucer simply notes that “as an aungel hevenyshhly she soong” (1055). Chaucer deliberately omits these types of descriptions in an effort to minimize the romantic love theme in the story and emphasize the dynamic between the brothers.
Similarly, Chaucer changes Emeyle’s level of awareness about the affections of Arcite and Palamon. In Boccaccio’s version, Emilia becomes aware that the brothers are watching her, and returns to the garden numerous times. Emilia “knew that she was indeed liked, she took pleasure in it, and considered herself more beautiful, and now adorned herself the more every time she returned to the garden” (Boccaccio 3:19). Not only does she realize their affections, but she also encourages those affections by “contriving to give more pleasure to whoever was watching her” (3:29). Boccaccio also devotes time to Emilia’s characterization, describing her as being “too young for mature love” and vain (3:19 and 30). By providing the readers with such detail, Boccaccio paints a vivid picture of Emilia’s appearance as well as of her character.
Unlike Boccaccio, Chaucer makes no mention that Emeyle notices the affections of the brothers, and thus does not suggest that Emeyle makes any effort to please the men. In Chaucer’s work, “Emily is unaware of their presence, where in Boccaccio, she is something of a deliberate coquette” (Cooper 67). Additionally, “Emilia’s numerous visits are reduced to a single one” (Cooper 67). Because of this, the reader does not get as full of a picture of her, and thus pays less attention to the character. Chaucer removes these details in an effort to draw the reader’s focus away from the love interest and towards the brothers and their interactions with each other.
The effort to detract attention from Emeyle in the garden scene is emblematic of Chaucer’s broader literary agenda in “The Knight’s Tale” in that the entire story focuses on depicting the brothers in what Chaucer feels is a realistic manner. Chaucer’s “motive was to focus attention on the love-passion of the two men, making what had been artificial in the Teseida ‘not only earnest but absolutely genuine’” (Dodd as quoted in McAlpine 176). The garden scene is just one example of Chaucer’s willingness to shorten and omit scenes and details to place emphasis on the areas he deems important. By focusing less on the love interest, Chaucer steers the story away from the Romantic genre and transforms it into an epic.
In “The Knight’s Tale” Chaucer re-imagines Boccaccio’s Teseida, describing a more realistic interaction between the brothers. Because Chaucer wishes to focus on Arcite and Palamon, he focuses less on Emeyle, who is a well-developed character in Boccaccio’s work. Though Emeyle is still an important character in the story, Chaucer omits unnecessary scenes and details to minimize her importance so that the reader will focus more on the tension between the Theban brothers.
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