Clever and logical, Arcite uses words skillfully to influence and persuade those around him. He is concerned, too, with his reputation and conduct. At the beginning of the play, Arcite tries to persuade Palamon to leave corrupt Thebes to avoid becoming corrupted themselves. Later, after he and Palamon become rivals in their love for Emilia, Arcite generally treats his cousin in a chivalrous manner. Rather than take advantage of his cousin's weakened physical condition, Arcite brings him food and armor so they can have a fair fight, and he attempts to reason with Palamon on several occasions. Although Arcite tries to behave nobly, he is not perfect, and his honor is tested. He pursues Emilia after Palamon has already declared his love for her, a pursuit that is looked on as dishonorable in their code of behavior. Nor is it honorable, or noble, of Arcite to conceal his identity to gain a place near Emilia while he disobeys the banishment decree and his cousin lingers in prison. Moreover, he steals the armor and sword for Palamon from the Duke, robbing the patron who has been kind to him. In the end, however, his final acts before dying show his noble nature and his real love and friendship for his cousin. He gives Palamon Emilia without bitterness, wishes him joy, and asks forgiveness for the wrongs he has committed.
A passionate young man, Palamon follows his heart more than his head. Less rational than his cousin Arcite, Palamon might be considered something of a hothead, for logic does little to change his attitude. When he falls for Emilia, he is instantly and wholeheartedly smitten. When alone in prison after Arcite's banishment, he sinks to the depths of despair. When he rages against Arcite, his anger is unquenchable. Nothing but a fight to the death will satisfy him, no matter how Arcite tries to reason with him. Palamon also strives to be noble, but he doesn't always make honorable choices. He allows the jailer's daughter to help him escape from prison, even though he knows she or her father may face serious consequences for her action. Then, once he's free, he carelessly abandons her, leaving her to wander pathetically in the forest alone at night searching for him. Later in the play, Palamon donates a generous sum of money for her dowry as thanks for her kindness—although he never will love her. This offering may also have been made to make himself feel better about the suffering she has experienced because of his actions. Whatever his flaws, however, Palamon is favored by the gods, for it is he who wins Emilia in the end. He mourns sincerely for Arcite, understanding he has given up one love to gain another.
Emilia's life is relatively happy and carefree at first. Innocent and tenderhearted, she spends considerable time with her servingwoman discussing flowers, men, and love. In a conversation with her sister, Hippolyta, she reveals her past love for a girlhood friend, Flavina, who died when both girls were 11. Emilia is certain she will never love a man as she loved Flavina. Moreover, there are hints that support the interpretation that Emilia and her servingwoman may be intimate, loving companions. Emilia's attitude toward men and marriage seems to change somewhat, and she resigns herself to marriage when she must. She immediately begins debating the merits of Arcite and Palamon, both so noble and handsome she can't choose between them, especially knowing choosing one will send the other to his death. Indeed, it seems both are the much the same to her—if not one, then the other. She thus agrees to marry whoever wins their contest, leaving the outcome to fate. Her prayer to Diana, however, reveals she still would rather not marry at all. Emilia's tenderhearted nature is evident throughout the play. First she pleads with Theseus on behalf of the widowed queens. Later she implores him to spare Arcite and Palamon after they are caught dueling. She agonizes over choosing between the cousins and cannot bear to watch them fight, knowing one must die. In some ways Emilia is a pawn of the gods and the men around her. With her marriage mandated, she is helpless to prevent it. All she can do, even as an "Amazon," is pray for fate to be kind to her.
Courageous and noble, Theseus is a dedicated and successful commander. At the beginning of the play he leaves his own wedding feast to aid three widowed queens whom his enemy Creon has wronged. He defeats Creon, allowing the widows to collect their husbands' bodies to give them a proper burial. Honor is of the utmost importance to Theseus, a man of his word. Once he makes an oath, he is hard pressed to break it for any reason. This trait is put to the test by Arcite and Palamon's illegal duel in the forest. Though Theseus decrees they must die, he relents only when his family and friends beg him to spare their lives. Emilia reminds him he has also vowed never to deny her anything appropriate and within his power to grant. This promise gives Theseus an excuse to show mercy to the two noble cousins. Theseus is a strong believer in fate and the will of the gods. In the final speech of the play, Theseus examines how the gods have answered the petitions of Arcite, Palamon, and Emilia in a surprising but just manner. He accepts the rule of fate and urges all to make the most of what they have without questioning the will of the gods. Theseus's character remains much the same throughout the story as he presents a steady, strong example of nobility and leadership.
The jailer is a no-nonsense man doing his best to earn a living and raise his daughter, apparently, on his own. As a parent, however, he seems to have little knowledge of his daughter's actions and state of mind. He treats his noble prisoners, Arcite and Palamon, with dignity and does not abuse his position as prison warden. When his daughter goes mad, his concern and pity are sincere, and he tries to get help for her. Although he doesn't like the doctor's plans for his daughter's cure, the jailer goes along with them in the best interest of his daughter.
The jailer's daughter has a perfectly ordinary life at the beginning of the play. She works with her father and has vague plans to marry her wooer. The noble Palamon, however, turns her head, and she loses not only her heart but also her mind. She comes up with the ill-conceived idea to set Palamon free, convinced such an act will make him love her. Although he treats her politely, he has no romantic feelings toward her, for he is as in love with Emilia as the daughter is with him. When he fails to meet her later in the forest, she begins to go mad, imagining he has been eaten by wolves, but not imagining he thoughtlessly wandered off on his own. Moreover, she learns her father will be hanged for Palamon's escape, which makes her feel worse. Babbling incoherently about running away in search of Palamon, she thinks repeatedly of killing herself. When she later attempts to drown herself, the wooer rescues her. Although many think she cannot be cured, the jailer's daughter responds well to the doctor's unusual remedy. Her affectionate wooer, pretending to be Palamon, helps restore her sanity through kindness and love—and perhaps sex, too. In the end, with her sanity restored, she is preparing to marry the wooer. Furthermore, she has gained a considerable dowry through Palamon and his knights, who pitied her plight. Her troubles seem behind her and Palamon forgotten.
The wooer is a good-hearted young man who wants to marry the jailer's daughter, despite a meager dowry. They've discussed the match and she seems in agreement, but everything changes after Palamon arrives. When the jailer's daughter falls for Palamon and later goes mad, the wooer responds admirably, demonstrating loyalty and genuine concern for her welfare. After rescuing her from drowning, he ensures she is safe with her uncle before seeking out her father. He breaks the news of the young woman's madness to the jailer as gently as possible, sympathetic to the father's feelings. In addition, he takes responsibility when the doctor proposes he pretend to be Palamon. No indication is given of jealousy or resentment. His gentle words and loving kisses seem to do the trick, for the jailer's daughter recovers her senses, and their marriage is imminent. His kind nature is rewarded with a happy ending, while others in the story are not so fortunate.