Chaucerian Play: Comedy and Control in The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales is a set of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. The stories were told by a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral, in hopes to see a shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. To make time go by the host recommended each pilgrim tell a tale. Some pilgrims matched their stereotype of that time but most do not. Passive Women in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?

One thread that goes along with this is whether or not the women of The Canterbury Tales are passive within the tales told.


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In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the journeys and life lessons of thirty fictitious pilgrims. Scholars explain that only one of the thirty pilgrims was indeed Chaucer, but other characters in the Canterbury Tales represent the struggles of Chaucer as well. Through the use of satiric elements and skilled mockery, Chaucer creates a work that not only brought courtly love to the forefront of medieval society but also introduced feministic ideals to the medieval society.

Many tales of courtly love. He wrote about these problems in a set of tales widely known as The Canterbury Tales. The first is The General Prologue which describes a pilgrimage to Canterbury that many people endure, but on this specific journey, twenty-nine different people travel together to Canterbury. He uses two types of satire to relinquish these opinions, juvenile and horacian. A general definition of satire is saying one thing. The Canterbury Tales serves as a moral manual in the Middle Ages. In the tales, Geoffrey Chaucer portrays the problems of the society. An alternative ordering seen in an early manuscript containing The Canterbury Tales , the early-fifteenth century Harley MS.

Fragments IV and V, by contrast, vary in location from manuscript to manuscript.

Chaucerian play : comedy and control in the Canterbury tales

Chaucer wrote in a London dialect of late Middle English, which has clear differences from Modern English. From philological research, we know some facts about the pronunciation of English during the time of Chaucer. In some cases, vowel letters in Middle English were pronounced very differently from Modern English, because the Great Vowel Shift had not yet happened.

Although no manuscript exists in Chaucer's own hand, two were copied around the time of his death by Adam Pinkhurst , a scribe with whom he may have worked closely before, giving a high degree of confidence that Chaucer himself wrote the Tales. No other work prior to Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage.

It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of The Canterbury Tales , a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organise the journey.

Like the Tales , it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken to flee from the Black Death. It ends with an apology by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales.

A quarter of the tales in The Canterbury Tales parallel a tale in the Decameron , although most of them have closer parallels in other stories. Some scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand, surmising instead that he may have merely read the Decameron at some point. They include poetry by Ovid , the Bible in one of the many vulgate versions in which it was available at the time the exact one is difficult to determine , and the works of Petrarch and Dante.

Chaucer was the first author to use the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius ' Consolation of Philosophy appears in several tales, as the works of John Gower do. Gower was a known friend to Chaucer. A full list is impossible to outline in little space, but Chaucer also, lastly, seems to have borrowed from numerous religious encyclopaedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard 's Summa praedicantium , a preacher's handbook, and Jerome 's Adversus Jovinianum.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories built around a frame narrative or frame tale , a common and already long established genre of its period. Chaucer's Tales differs from most other story "collections" in this genre chiefly in its intense variation.

SparkNotes: The Canterbury Tales: Study Questions & Essay Topics

Most story collections focused on a theme, usually a religious one. Even in the Decameron , storytellers are encouraged to stick to the theme decided on for the day. The idea of a pilgrimage to get such a diverse collection of people together for literary purposes was also unprecedented, though "the association of pilgrims and storytelling was a familiar one". While the structure of the Tales is largely linear, with one story following another, it is also much more than that. In the General Prologue , Chaucer describes not the tales to be told, but the people who will tell them, making it clear that structure will depend on the characters rather than a general theme or moral.

This idea is reinforced when the Miller interrupts to tell his tale after the Knight has finished his. Having the Knight go first gives one the idea that all will tell their stories by class, with the Monk following the Knight. However, the Miller's interruption makes it clear that this structure will be abandoned in favour of a free and open exchange of stories among all classes present.

General themes and points of view arise as the characters tell their tales, which are responded to by other characters in their own tales, sometimes after a long lapse in which the theme has not been addressed. Lastly, Chaucer does not pay much attention to the progress of the trip, to the time passing as the pilgrims travel, or to specific locations along the way to Canterbury.

His writing of the story seems focused primarily on the stories being told, and not on the pilgrimage itself. The variety of Chaucer's tales shows the breadth of his skill and his familiarity with many literary forms, linguistic styles, and rhetorical devices. Medieval schools of rhetoric at the time encouraged such diversity, dividing literature as Virgil suggests into high, middle, and low styles as measured by the density of rhetorical forms and vocabulary.

Another popular method of division came from St. Augustine , who focused more on audience response and less on subject matter a Virgilian concern. Augustine divided literature into "majestic persuades", "temperate pleases", and "subdued teaches". Writers were encouraged to write in a way that kept in mind the speaker, subject, audience, purpose, manner, and occasion.

Chaucer moves freely between all of these styles, showing favouritism to none. Thus Chaucer's work far surpasses the ability of any single medieval theory to uncover. With this, Chaucer avoids targeting any specific audience or social class of readers, focusing instead on the characters of the story and writing their tales with a skill proportional to their social status and learning. However, even the lowest characters, such as the Miller, show surprising rhetorical ability, although their subject matter is more lowbrow.

Vocabulary also plays an important part, as those of the higher classes refer to a woman as a "lady", while the lower classes use the word "wenche", with no exceptions. At times the same word will mean entirely different things between classes.

SparkNotes: The Canterbury Tales: Context

The word "pitee", for example, is a noble concept to the upper classes, while in the Merchant's Tale it refers to sexual intercourse. Again, however, tales such as the Nun's Priest's Tale show surprising skill with words among the lower classes of the group, while the Knight's Tale is at times extremely simple. Chaucer uses the same meter throughout almost all of his tales, with the exception of Sir Thopas and his prose tales. It is a decasyllable line, probably borrowed from French and Italian forms, with riding rhyme and, occasionally, a caesura in the middle of a line.

His meter would later develop into the heroic meter of the 15th and 16th centuries and is an ancestor of iambic pentameter. He avoids allowing couplets to become too prominent in the poem, and four of the tales the Man of Law's, Clerk's, Prioress', and Second Nun's use rhyme royal. The Canterbury Tales was written during a turbulent time in English history.

The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Western Schism and, although it was still the only Christian authority in Western Europe, it was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy , an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe , is mentioned in the Tales , which also mention a specific incident involving pardoners sellers of indulgences , which were believed to relieve the temporal punishment due for sins that were already forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession who nefariously claimed to be collecting for St. Mary Rouncesval hospital in England.

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The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention that allowed dissemination of the written word never before seen in England. Political clashes, such as the Peasants' Revolt and clashes ending in the deposing of King Richard II , further reveal the complex turmoil surrounding Chaucer in the time of the Tales' writing.

Many of his close friends were executed and he himself moved to Kent to get away from events in London. While some readers look to interpret the characters of The Canterbury Tales as historical figures, other readers choose to interpret its significance in less literal terms.

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After analysis of Chaucer's diction and historical context, his work appears to develop a critique of society during his lifetime. Within a number of his descriptions, his comments can appear complimentary in nature, but through clever language, the statements are ultimately critical of the pilgrim's actions. It is unclear whether Chaucer would intend for the reader to link his characters with actual persons. Instead, it appears that Chaucer creates fictional characters to be general representations of people in such fields of work.