Prof. Seemin Hasan
Poetry from Chaucer to Shakespeare
17 ENM – 11
GH – 2794
15th October 2018
Chaucer’s Art of Characterisation
Chaucer flourishes the fantastic colours of his words and paints different characters of his age with minute observation. Indeed, he is a great painter who paints not with colours but with words. Undoubtedly, he has The Seeing Eye, the retentive memory, the judgment to select and the ability to expound. His keen analysis of the minutest detail of his characters, their dresses, looks and manners enable him to present his characters lifelike and not mere bloodless abstractions. His Prologue is a real picture gallery in which thirty portraits are hanging on the wall with all of their details and peculiarities. Rather it is a grand procession with all the life and movement, the colour and sound. Indeed, his characters represent English society, morally and socially, in the real and recognizable types and still more representative of humanity in general. So, the characters in Chaucer’s “The Prologue” are for all ages and for all lands. Though the plan of the Canterbury’s Tales has been taken from Giovanni, Italian poet, Chaucer’s technique of characterization is original and unique. As a result his characters are not only of his age but universal in nature. They are not only types, but individuals. The pilgrims are the epitome of mankind. It is such a veritable picture gallery of the 14th century as the details of their physical appearance, their social status and character are so artistically presented that the whole man or woman come alive before our eyes.
Chaucer was the first notable creator of characters in English literature. He had no model. So, he created his own style of character portrayal. In his such works as Troilus and Crisede, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, The Canterbury Tales, The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer created some unforgettable characters and gave the picture of his age. His art of characterization is specially marked by three things namely realism, types and individuals and wit and humour. Chaucer remains one of the outstanding humorists in English literature and the Prologue bears out his genius as a comical author. The Canterbury Tales is deemed as a great comedy of the human society and this is particularly evident the way he presents his characters. In fact, the Prologue reaches the height of a grand social comedy in poetry. Thus the Prologue is not merely a wonderful document of the English social life of the 14th century but also as a delightful comedy of human life.
In presenting the characters, Chaucer follows the method of an artist with a brush in his hand, but his method in painting the characters is primitive. He is primitive also by a certain honest awkwardness, the unskilled stiffness of some of his outlines, and such an insistence on minute points as at first provokes a smile. Chaucer has adopted no definite pattern in the description of portraits. He seems to amass details haphazardly. Sometimes the description of the dress comes first and then he describes physical features. Sometimes he begins with analysis of character and adds touches of dress afterwards. We can easily get a vivid picture of the fourteen century in The Prologue because of its representative nature.
So, Chaucer has been called an outstanding representative poet of his age. Chaucer’s characters are individuals as well as types. They are introduced to us with all their idiosyncrasies of dress and speech. He describes them in the most natural genial, and humorous manner. He is a man of keen observation. Because of his faculty of observation, he imparts individual traits of his characters. Such details are not the features of their respective professions. He distinguish these people as individuals. For example, the Shipman has a beard, the Wife of Bath is “som- del- deef ” and ‘ gat -toothed’, the Reeve has long and lean legs; the Miller has a wart surmmounted by a taft of hair on the top of his nose and the Summoner’s face is full of pimples. Chaucer utilizes the technique of contrast in drawing the portraits of the pilgrims. The good and the bad rub shoulders together. We have paragons of virtue in the characters of the Parson and the Ploughman, we have monsters of vice in the characters of the Reeve, the Miller and the Summoner. The Knight is a foil to his son, the lusty Squire; the Oxford Clerk is the opposite of the Merry making Monk.
“The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations. As one age falls, another rises different to moral sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men. Nothing new occurs in identical existence…” (William Blake)
The lifelikeness of most of the Canterbury pilgrims has given rise to several scholarly attempts at identifying them among Chaucer’s known contemporaries. The Host of the Tabard Inn, later in The Canterbury Tales called Harry Bailly most probably pictures an actual fourteenth century Southwark innkeeper called Henry Bailly; and here and there are scattered throughout the portraits, hints of possible actual persons. One can think of several personal features so distinctive that one feels that Chaucer’s own observation noticed them somewhere in real life, but more often it is the occurrence of a name that adds lifelikeness to a portrait: the shipman hails from Dartmouth and is master of the barge `Mandelaynel, the Reeve comes from Bawds- well in Norfolk; the Merchant’s trading interests were largely concentrated in Middleburg in Holland end Orwell near Harwich ; the knight had taken part in campaigns some of which were topical in 1386 in connection with a famous lawsuit in which a knightly family known to Chaucer was involved. Such details of names of persons or places may well derive from Chaucer’s own knowledge, and with them some of the particulars of the persons described, and it is certainly no discredit to Chaucer’s art if he did derive some of his inspiration from living people.
In fact, there is a different method of almost every pilgrim. He varies his presentation from the full length portrait to the thumb-nail sketch, but even in the sketches, Chaucer conveys a strong sense of individuality and depth. Chaucer does not take a dramatic approach, he uses descriptive and narrative approach which suits the theme of The Canterbury Tales. Unlike Wycliffe and Langland, He has broad humanity and sympathy for all the characters, the just and the unjust. We feel a sense of comradeship with Chaucer. They are shown to possess those traits and humors and habits that characterize the men and women of all ages in the world. Their traits are universal, though some of them have changed their positions yet their nature is the same. Chaucer uses the technique of contrast in drawing the portraits of the pilgrims. The good and the bad rub shoulders together. We have the paragon of virtue in the Parson and the Ploughman and monsters of vice in the Reeve, the Miller and the Summoner. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer’s characters are three-dimensional i.e., having length, breadth and depth. For example, the Wife of Bath and the Monk are complex figures. Chaucer has been called an outstanding representative poet of his age because of the typical element in his characterization. So, Dryden says:
“All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other, and not only in their inclinations but also in their physiognomies and persons”
Mackaye, Percy. The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer . Duffield & Company. New York. 1914.
Pearton, E. “A Study of certain of the Characters and their Tales as an Expression of Chaucer’s Concern Regarding Abuses among the Priesthood and Religious Orders during the 14th Century”. University of Cape Town. 1979
“Chaucer’s Art of Characterisation”. Literary Articles. www.literary-articles.com/2009/02/chaucers-art
Naeem. “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer’s Art of Characterisation, Universality and Individuality”. NEOEnglish. 16 March.2010. neoenglish.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/prologue-to-the-canterbury-tales-chaucer
Shreshtha, Rome. “Chaucer’s Art of Characterization in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales”. 16 March. 2018. www.bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/chaucers-art-of-characterization.