I spend 3 days on The Knight's Tale and approximately three weeks on The Canterbury Tales, each year highlighting just a few of the stories, depending on the students in my class and which tales I believe will resonate best with the group I am teaching.
Day 1: Background Lecture and Discussion
Day 2: Exploration of Literary Technique and Story Telling
Day3: Finish the story and introduce public speaking about friendship and love
You can find a list of my questions in the resources of the specific section of each lesson.
My main objectives are to analyze the text with my students and to establish the major themes of the story because they will deliver and expository speech on the theme of friendship vs. love after we are done with the story. At this point I want them to have clear references to text that they can go back to and use in their speeches.
I understand that my students struggle with the poetic syntax even though we are using a modern translation, so I prefer to ground my analysis/explication with discussion.
I begin with a brief overview of courtly love using this definition and background on "Courtly Love" Poetry. I want students to understand that there is a definite shift in form from the blunt metrics of Beowulf to the rhythmic couplets of "A Knight's Tale" which denote mood changes. This shift in form is attributable to authorship and to concept of writing a story down rather than memorizing it. Chaucer has his name attached to these tales, so he is much more complex and careful, crafting stories that he knows people will read and attribute to him.
Students were assigned to read the first 350 lines from A Knight's Tale, focusing on the descriptions of Palamon and Arcite and the predicament they get themselves in.
I ask the students three basic questions:
Who are Palamon and Arcite? Why are they imprisoned? Who does Palamon see, and Arcite soon after, that threatens their friendship?
One student in particular, who has not had a very good track record with reading has really grabbed on to this story, and for the first time all year (and as far as I can remember when he was a sophomore) he leads the discussion. Typically I try to discourage one student from giving the whole summary of the story and I usually try to chunk out the pieces with analysis, but this student is so excited about the story I let him give the entire summary.
I then ask the students if there are any differences between Palamon and Arcite, and they agree there are none.
At this point a student asks me why Theseus doesn't just kill the pair and be done with them. I direct them back to lines 108-121 which describe the pair. I ask the students how the two knights are dressed. "In nice clothes, they are nobles." "And does that give them special privileges?" "Yes" they agree.
I explain to the students that it was customary for opposing sides in a battle to capture injured nobles and hold them ransom. The students find this idea intriguing and we explore it a little more.
Next we look at the lines where Emily is introduced and Palamon sees her for the first time.
The students paid particular attention to the lines:
He cast his eyes upon Emilia,
And thereupon he blenched and cried out "Ah!"
As if he had been smitten to the heart.
But they aren't buying it. "Can you fall in love at first sight?" I ask them. Five people start talking at once and I'm given some incredulous looks. "Yes", a student speaks up, "but it's really rare, and it has to be more than just looking at a girl over a wall."
"I don't think he fell in love," says another student. "I think he just likes what he sees a lot. I mean, com'on, he's in prison. He's probably desperate."
Now it's time for my eyebrows to raise. "What's the difference?" I ask.
"It's like, when your at an away game or a party or something and you see this girl, and she's really hot, so you call dibs to your friend, cause you know that he would like her too, but you saw her first."
"Call dibs?" I ask. I remember calling dibs on the front seat of the car, but not on another person. This is getting interesting to me, and I let the students continue. This is one of those off the plan moments when I see that my original plan to have the students work in small groups and analyze fate and astrology focused language is going out the window.
"Yeah," says another student. "It's how you keep from fighting with your friends over another person."
They proceed to explain to me that had Palamon 'called dibs' on Emily from the start he wouldn't have had any problems with Arcite. That Arcite would have had to back down. This is how it works.
"Okay," I respond a bit dubious. "But what about these lines (ll 1095-1115):
"Isn't Palamon telling Arcite who he saw and how he feels about her? In fact, isn't he asking for fate and the stars to help him pursue Emily; somehow magically lift him from his prison?"
"But that's not calling dibs," some one says. "It's just telling a friend that you like someone else and you wish that it would work out."
"Calling dibs," says another student, "means you actually say to your friend, 'hey, she's hot and I'm going to go for her'. Then your friend has to back you up."
"So if Palamon had called dibs, then this would have saved the big argument that comes next?", I ask.
Some students say yes, some say no. Some really aren't sure because it's possible that Palamon's invocation is a sort of knightly 'calling dibs'. What I realize when I finally get students calmed down, is that they're getting at the big idea I plan to introduce when they start their speeches.
I could see this easily becoming a debate, but unfortunately we're running out of time. I give students "A Knight's Tale" comprehension questions for homework that night with the instructions to complete the questions with the reading.