As defined by Oxford Dictionaries, Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his collection of poems, The Canterbury Tales, to reflect the current topics and issues of his time period. This collection of tales was written in England in 1392 during the reign of Richard the Second. The fourteenth century was the start of the Hundred Years War, and taxes were being raised on the peasants of England. This led to several revolts against the hierarchy and the feudal system which was still in place as a way of categorizing social and economic classes; this system was used all around medieval Europe up until the 17th century. Artists and writers of this time used their talents to express their opinions on daily life. Whether they did not like the king, they were unpleased with their social rankings, or even disagreed with something the clergy said, they could use writing or art as an outlet for their views. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s humorous nature through satire is prevalent in “The Pardoner’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” “The Merchant’s Tale,” and “The Reeve’s Tale,” proving that comedy and comedic characters can always enhance any story’s plotline.
An author’s given dialogue to his characters, in Chaucer’s case the Pardoner, gives the character a sense of individuality to the reader and brings a new side to the story. Their uniqueness in tone and diction reflect the person that they are and the people they will become as the story progresses and the plot thickens (Bloom 3). The comedic style that Chaucer uses to influence the reader’s view of the Pardoner’s character gives the satire in the tale a stronger outlet. One of the Pardoner’s greatest flaws is that he is incapable of hiding his feelings; he is a character that one can read like the pages of a book. The only place where his weakness is not present is in the church. As he preaches, all one can see of what he is thinking is the words he is saying to impact the church. He hides his true thoughts and actions behind his sermons, making him almost a fraudulent character (Bloom 5). The Pardoner’s secret is revealed by the Host, exposing his true being. This secret gave the Pardoner self-security, and it was taken from him. Before, the Pardoner could use his words to overtake any situation, but now his power is no more (Bloom 9). In the prologue to the tales, the Pardoner is revealed to be the Summoner’s sexual partner. This makes him seem like even more of a hypocrite because of how he cries out “Come hither, love, to me,” yet his sermons are still convincing of his innocent nature (Bloom 8). “The Pardoner’s Tale” starts off with a brief explanation of how horrid the Pardoner really is. He sells fake relics and pardons, and he uses his sermons to acquire more money. “Before the sermon, the Pardoner tends primarily to develop his heightened view of life’s ugliness and the universality of sin. After it he concentrates more on the self-condemning mockery of the forms of religious ministry. This division points to and helps explain the development of the Pardoner’s conscious of himself and more of his power and his powerlessness” (Hallissy 87). The Pardoner’s most used topic is “greed is the root of all evil”, mainly because it convinces his audience to give away their money so that they are not tempted by its “evil”. His tale, much like his sermons, is based on greed and how money is one of the world’s deadliest temptations, literally. In the tale there are three men who are chasing death, but instead find a pile of money. One of the men goes back to town to get food while the others stay to watch the money. While on his trip to town, the man who went alone decided to poison the food for the other two men to prevent them from getting a share of the money. Similarly, the two men who stayed with the money devised a plan to kill the man they sent off so that they would only have to split the money two ways. In the end, they all found death, due in part to each other. Chaucer’s way of writing the Pardoner, and his tale as pure ironic comedy truly enhance the story, by weakening the backbone of the Pardoner, and allowing for a scandalous plot.
Chaucer gives a new definition to the dirty joke through the language and build up of the characters in “The Miller’s Tale.” This tale is most known for the ludicrous, bawdy language used by Chaucer to bring out the Miller’s character. “The Miller’s Tale” starts with the drunken Miller rudely interrupting the host’s wishes to tell stories in order of class. Right then, the reader can tell that his tale will be interesting (Sauer 90). The vulgarity of “The Miller’s Tale” is the prime example of how Chaucer used the genre and plot of the tales to enhance the understanding by the reader of the characters in his collection. The Miller, being of a low social regard, tells a “churl’s tale” or dirty joke as any humor-driven lower classman would at the time (Hallissy 75). The tale starts with a married couple, and two men fawning over the wife. John’s trust in leaving Alison home alone while he goes to Osney is where his downfall begins. While he is away, it gives Nicholas and Absolon a secure amount of time to make a move on Alison. Alison being “sexually deprived” is thrilled to find out that she has several men under her spell. This ends poorly for John, because his wife ends up cheating on him, and in the end he is regarded to as a fool (Hallissy 77). In an elaborate plan to sleep with Alison, Nicholas makes up a dream that he had from God. He tells John, Alison’s husband, that like Noah, God is telling Nicholas to tell the people of a great flood. John believes him, and sleeps in a tub on the roof of his house with Alison. Nicholas devised this plan so that if anyone asked John what he was doing, he would seem crazy (Sauer 91). “…prively caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde, ‘Ywis, but ich have my wille/For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille” Nicholas’ complete lust for Alison is amplified by Chaucer’s usage of the word “spille.” Used as a pun, he writes to mean if Alison did not sleep with him, then he would expire, as in die or ejacualte (Sauer 91). Chaucer’s almost immature humor is seen through the bedroom scene when instead of kissing Absolon, Nicholas sticks his buttcheaks outside the open window and farts in his face. This later on comes back to literally bite Nicholas in the butt when Absolon greets him with a hot poker instead of his lips (Sauer 91). The whole persona of the Miller and his own personal humor is defined by the genre of his story; Chaucer’s usage of the Miller’s background to bring a better depth to his tale makes for a more enthralling plot.
Chaucer’s usage of sarcasm in “The Merchant’s Tale” almost redefines his own humor. Through the prologue, the Merchant burdens the other pilgrims with his marital issues. After being married for almost two months, the Merchant was left with a biting agony rooting from his unbearable wife. He voices his contemptuous view on marriage, and yet his tale praises the role of wives in marriage. At first, the guests are confused at his sudden change of heart, but then they surely realize the bitter sarcasm of the entire tale. His story starts off with a brave Knight who wishes to be married, like anyone would, the Knight went to his friends for advice. One of his friends accuses all women of being unfaithful, and condemns those who are married. The other, wants no part of the Knight’s love interests and tells him to make up his own mind. The Knight then picks out a young woman, May, whom he wishes to marry. The Knight, being a man of high class has many attendants and servants, one of these attendants, Damyan, falls in love with the young maiden brought home by the Knight. In this tale, the plot developed quickly, and one can almost immediately see the foreshadowing of the adultery between Damyan and May, but Chaucer enhanced the typical cheating story like any other writer would by adding several conflicts to the lustful partners (Hallissy 185). During this time period, any relationship outside of marriage was considered sinful and needed to be controlled properly (Hallissy 185). He is so enchanted by her beauty and grace that he becomes ill. The Knight, being a good man, sends his wife and handmaid to Dayman’s side until he is returned to good health. After being together for so long, May sends Dayman a note confessing her love for him; however, their relationship is put at a hault when the Knight suddenly goes blind, and does not allow May to leave his side. One night before bed, May slips Dayman a key to the Knight’s secret garden. The usage of the garden is also considered a form of satire because of how it “enhanced” sexual tension for the marriage act. The privacy and beauty of the garden attracted Januarie. The medieval people were very much against any kind of romantic settings that could help cause any type of physical attraction to another person (Hallissy 185). As foreshadowed, the two have relations in the garden, and comically, at that same moment, the Knight’s sight is suddenly restored (Pearcy 3). The cleverness in plots, such as Dayman and May’s prove to the reader how invested Chaucer was into making what could’ve been a typical story of adultery, into almost a whole scheme of deception and lies (Kolve 78). Chaucer’s uniqueness in style has brought him critical acclaim: “This tale became an idiom because of the popularity of a tale about an old man marrying a young maid, and the relationship not ending on good terms. The term ‘January-May wedding’ is used to describe a couple made up of an old man and a young woman” (Pearcy 4). The added humor, wit, and irony in this tale introduces an original perspective on the typical adulterous fabliaux.
In “The Reeve’s Tale,” Chaucer writes of comic character and comedic consequences. He describes the conceitedness, pride, and arrogance of the character. The reader can also still clearly see the frame of the fabliau of adultery all throughout the tale (Pearcy 3). “The Reeve’s Tale” is an elaboration by Chaucer on the genre of treachery and duplicity more than a mere foreshadowing. The main satirical theme of adultery is tied into the story because of the importance of social class and social rankings to the characters. As seen in the prologue of the whole collection of tales, the host wants the tales to go in order from the highest social ranking, to the lowest. The drunken Miller’s impulsive decision to break the order of the tales angered the Reeve, but not as much as the tale that followed. “The Miller’s Tale” was a vulgar fabliaux that ended in the humiliation of a carpenter. The Reeve, being a carpenter at one point in his life, did not appreciate the tale, hence his need to integrate a Miller into his own story. “The Reeve’s Tale” is a crude story of a Miller, his wife, and his daughter, and the consequences of falsity. The Miller of Trumpington, a town outside of Cambridge, cheated several people by selling them fake flour. “A theef he was, for sothe, of corn and mele, And that a sly, and usuant for to stele” (Chaucer Lines: 85-8). This angered many, as any act of deception would, so two students, John and Aleyn, went to keep an eye on the Miller so that they would not get duped anymore. The Miller finds this out, and lets the boys’ horse loose, so instead of watching over the Miller, they are chasing their horse. Meanwhile, the wife of the Miller bakes a cake with flour stolen from the boys. Finally, when the boys retrieve their horse, it is too late to go home, so they have to sleep at the Miller’s house. Because of the lifestyle during this time period, and the small amount of money made by the Miller, everyone slept in the same room. This allowed for easy access to the wife of the Miller, and his daughter. John and Aleyn, in a plan to seek revenge on the Miller, sleep with his wife and daughter; however, when Aleyn goes to brag to John about how he slept with the Miller’s daughter he accidentally brags to the Miller. This then initiates a brawl between the three which ends in the battering of the Miller, and stealing the cake baked with their flour. The Reeve’s overweening attitude towards the Miller is clearly seen at full length due to the humiliation of the Miller of Trumpington. This brings a whole new climactic front to the entirety of the collection of tales.
In The Canterbury Tales, satire and comedy used by Chaucer while writing his characters and their stories is used to enhance and give an extra layer to the plot of the tales. Specific precedents in “The Pardoner’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” “The Merchant’s Tale,” and “The Reeve’s Tale,” prove not only that comedy and comedic characters can better the plot of a tale, but also that Chaucer does not stick to just one form of comedy while expressing humor; he uses his own style to justify his opinion on everyday life. The Pardoner’s ironic character dovetailed with Chaucer’s humorous plot entails a dramatic scandal not only in his tale, but in the actual life of the Pardoner. He preaches of issues concerning himself, and the satire seen in his tale was encrypted in the reasonings and actions of the characters in the tale. The Miller’s language and his tales’ tie to his own background bring a personalization to his tale. The vulgarity, scandal, and immature humor of the tale directly reflected the Miller as a Character. Relating to the time period, Chaucer uses adultery as a comedic output. The Knight and May’s marriage is considered almost a joke because of how wide their age difference is. Lastly, going back to crude humor, Chaucer’s integration of a Miller in “The Reeve’s Tale” lights a flame to the already growing tension between the Reeve and the Miller. The absurdity of the humor and incidents in the tale bring to fruition the character of the reeve and his carping towards the Miller. In today’s world, satire is still used to express opinions on current events and contemporary issues. Many broadcasted programs such as NBC’s Saturday Night Live uses satire as a channel for politics and pop culture to come together to inform their audience of global issues, but in a more entertaining, humorous way.