Marie begins "Equitan" by briefly explaining how the Bretons "composed lays for posterity and thus preserved them from oblivion." She praises their foresight, and then promises to tell one she has heard, about Equitan, the lord of Nantes.
Equitan is much loved in his time, and enjoys pleasure and women above all else, and in this way he "upholds the principles of chivalry." Marie cautions that love, without sense or moderation, puts the lover's life at risk. Equitan is served well by a loyal seneschal (a noble administrator) who runs Equitan's lands while the lord is out hunting and at play.
The seneschal is married to a particularly beautiful woman, of whom the king has heard much. Without meeting her, he begins to desire her and so one night on a return from the hunt decides to take lodging at the seneschal's home. That night, in meeting the lady, he is struck by love and grieved by the temptation to cuckold his loyal seneschal. He spends a restless night debating the merits of pursing an affair, and in a beautifully ironic monologue convinces himself that to pursue the lady would be of worth to all involved. He resolves to pursue the affair.
The next day, he sets off to hunt but turns back from a professed illness, which upsets his seneschal who wants the king to have a nice time while visiting. Of course, the king's plan involves not illness but dalliance, and he invites the wife to his chambers, where he confesses his love for her.
They debate the issue. She speaks first, dispassionately arguing that, as a man of higher rank than her, he will certainly leave her once he's had his fun. She argues that love must be based on equality and loyalty, and that his high rank would make both impossible in their case. He passionately retorts that such behavior is "not courtly," and that a "wise and courtly lady" such as she should be sought after with the most courtly behavior. He then grants her the power in the relationship, promising to act as her vassal and treat her as his lord. Satisfied, she agrees and they faithfully agree to carry out a secret affair that, Marie assures us, "was later to be the cause of their death."
Their relationship continues for a long time, during which time the king often asks to be bled (a medicinal technique) alone as a cover story for their assignations. Meanwhile, the seneschal continues to run the court and the king's courtiers grow concerned that the king is not pursuing a wife. The lady hears of these concerns, and worries he will be driven from her to a suitable marriage arrangement. When they meet again, she laments terribly her pain at the prospect, which leads him to insist he would never forsake her, and would in fact make her his wife if the seneschal were to die. The wife has her opening and suggests a plan to end her husband's life. She tells Equitan to come hunting at their home, and on the third day, after being bled with the seneschal, to suggest they both have baths. The lady would make sure that the husband's water would be boiling hot so that he would die upon submerging himself, and nobody would ever know who was the culprit.
Three months later, the plan is set in action. The men take a hunt and are bled while the lady prepares their baths. When Equitan and the lady meet in the bathing room, waiting for the seneschal to return, they end up deciding to have sex instead. Though they left a maiden to guard the door, the seneschal bangs it open upon his return to find them in their compromising position. The king, wanting to hide his sin, jumps quickly into the scalding hot bath, where he is killed. Betrayed, the seneschal throws his wife in after the king, and she dies as well.
Marie warns us that "evil can easily rebound on he who seeks another's misfortune," and then reminds us that this story has been preserved by the Bretons.
Marie ends this lay with an explicit lesson, but the simplicity of the moral is belied by the various levels of irony and complexity that run through this very famous contemplation of love, loyalty, and moderation.
In "Equitan" do we get our first tragic end, in stark contrast to "Guigemar" (which is itself more the anomaly in Marie's work). What most separates the love here from that of the preceding lay is that the love between Equitan and the lady here is almost entirely selfish – each person loves not the other person, but him or herself. Marie stresses these qualities in them even before their affair begins. Equitan is described as a king whose greatest pursuits are pleasure and non-committed relationships. He is a pure hedonist, to the point that he neglects his duties as king, leaving them to his loyal seneschal to complete. And the lady, who is praised in generic terms as Marie's characters usually are, is nevertheless only described in physical terms. Her virtue lies solely in her beauty, not in any admirable personality, a truth which will be played out in their dialogue when she uses her position as the desired to secure beneficial terms for herself.
Through both of them does Marie yet again critique the values of chivalry. Equitan is explicitly described as a model of chivalrous values, and the lady is praised by him as a lady of "courtly" and "noble disposition," even as her behavior must seem to Marie's audience to be quite atrocious. We are drawn to Marie's authorial interjection at the start of the lay, where she warns not only against lack of moderation, but of a lack of understanding of love. It is as though she thinks that the chivalrous emphasis on self is sure to lead to some kind of disaster or, at the very least, vice.
Of course, one element of chivalry that Equitan fails to honor is that of loyalty. The medieval feudal order stressed loyalty not only from the lower rungs, but also of the king to his vassals. Equitan acknowledges this loyalty in his first monologue, and indeed, the seneschal is much deserving of such loyalty from his lord, since the former is so diligent in running the kingdom so that latter might enjoy his frivolous pleasure pursuits. And yet Equitan is quickly convinced by his own rationalizations not only that he can neglect his loyalty to the seneschal, but that he is fulfilling his duty by pursuing the affair (see the discussion of the speeches below). Amusingly, the ultimate discovery that leads to the deaths is perhaps prompted by the very loyalty that the king eschews. The audience is given no reason to believe the seneschal would suspect any extramarital affair, which leads us to believe that the reason he bangs open the door at the end is because he is expected by his lord for a bath, and does not want to disappoint. Ironically, the very loyalty that the king writes off as irrelevant is what becomes the catalyst leading to his death.
It's worth paying special attention to Marie's use of both monologue and dialogue in this lay, since they are not only of literary value in their irony and character revelations, but also because they provide the most in-depth depiction of the lay's themes. The king's first speech, to himself, is full of irony and self-delusion. Marie tells us the king was indeed troubled by his love for the seneschal's wife, and he seems to understand that to pursue her would be to betray his loyal subject. But, perhaps because of his strong courtly values, the king convinces himself that he is doing both the seneschal and the seneschal's wife a service should he bed her. "How sad if such a beautiful woman were not in love or had no lover! How could she be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?" The irony is that what the king stresses as virtue – to bring her into the "courtly" world – is recognized as vice both by the reader and by the events that will punish them for their transgression. By the end of his monologue, the king has banished his guilt and cemented his selfishness. He uses his reason (which is not poor) as a tool to fulfill his selfish love, which again has been prompted only by the woman's beauty and not her personal qualities.
Their dialogue is even more rife with meaning. Notice how little the seneschal filters in to either of their speeches. The lady's is the most grievous. Where the king is undoubtedly overcome with passion for her, her address to him is noticeably dispassionate, and in fact is a clear attempt to gain favor in the court. She stresses the importance of equality in love – a worthwhile virtue – but all the while the irony is that she is attempting to get control over the king, to thwart the natural order. She is painted as the worst villain, since the king relies on delusion to justify himself while she needs no such delusion. Her speech is successful, since it leads him to abnegate his control, to grant her the power in the relationship. There is a wonderful irony in the way he promises her he will be true: "Those who are fickle in love and resort to trickery end up becoming a laughing-stock and are deceived in their turn." Of course, this is exactly what the king and lady are doing! They are being fickle in their love for the seneschal (hers a marital love, his a feudal love) and will indeed end up laughing stocks. After all, he dies naked. Lastly, her final speech to him is even more abhorrent (and yet wonderful to read) in the way she bathetically laments her passionate love for him, a love we have seen no evidence of previous. It is clear she uses her crocodile tears to recruit him in her murderous scheme, a literary device that continue to pay dividends in soap operas and murder stories today.
The message in this lay is less about the golden rule and more about moderation. Love is painted here as a type of fate; the king is struck by love's "arrow" (which recalls Cupid from the classical myths), suggesting he cannot control it. And yet he is in a position not to be able to control himself because he has never attempted to understand love, to understand it requires moderation between our passionate desire for pleasure and a commitment to another person. Marie's sense of fate is well drawn here. It certainly does exist in that there are powers that control us, and yet what defines our character is how we respond to those forces. The king does not lose his reason – we see it used in his first monologue – but he lets himself be blinded by his passion, drawn into the fallacious reasoning that he is serving the seneschal by bedding the lady. We must be careful of these self-serving, selfish loves that bring tragedy.
Lastly, it is again worth noting Marie's authorial interjections. She praises the Bretons to begin the lay, both for their nobility and for preserving this story. Scholars cannot trace this story to Breton or Celtic origin, which suggests again that Marie has taken liberties with other traditions and yet attributed them to her likely audience in order to gain their favor. And yet she slyly criticizes them while praising them, by staging an attack on popular courtly virtues, suggesting that true success comes from a deeper place than the superficial world of courtly love of beauty and order, from that deeper place of love that admits no falsehood.