Breaking Down the Comic in the Canterbury Tales: Satire
From corrupt politicians to Real Housewives of Orange County, symbols of hypocrisy in modern day society exude personas that are ripe for criticism. These symbols also exist in Geoffrey Chaucer’s prominent anthropological work The Canterbury Tales, attesting to the endurance of class structure and its affect on human behavior throughout history. To depict his interpretation of society during the Middle Ages, Chaucer satirizes the differences between his characters’ flaws and their perceived propriety, implying that their selfishness impedes their ability to act morally. Specifically, he targets three aspects of society that crumble beneath the power of hypocrisy: expertise, wealth, and religion.
While readers expect the well-educated characters to convey respectable qualities, Chaucer exploits their pretentiousness instead. They concentrate too much on their esteemed image in society and too little on their actual work. The Sergeant of the Law, a supposedly wise man, “was less busy than he seemed to be” (Chaucer 322). He emits an exaggerated air of professionalism to gain respect. Likewise, the Doctor acts extremely knowledgeable in the field of medicine, yet his unscientific methods indicate his fraudulence. Although “he was a perfect practicing physician” (432), he practiced “by his horoscope” (426), treating his patients with diagnoses alluding to mythology. His ambition vastly exceeds his science-based capabilities; still, he holds himself in high regard and expects others to do so as well. The combination of these characters’ pride and deceit do not lend to a reputable image.
Chaucer adopts a negative approach towards the growing upper class through his mockery of their overindulgences. These characters appear foolish because their extravagant displays of wealth overwhelm the refined behavior that readers expect of them. The Merchant, for example, wore “a Flemish beaver hat and daintily buckled boots” (284) and “harped on his increase of capital” (285-286). He exhibits a holier-than-thou demeanor to show that he wants everyone to acknowledge his economic superiority. Chaucer also criticizes the Squire, who “was embroidered like a meadow bright” (91). The Squire, unlike his noble father, represents the more boastful side of wealth. Everything he does contributes to his charming image. Although he projects an exterior different than that of the Merchant’s, both he and the Merchant remain selfish to the core. Their top priority in flaunting their status becomes their weakness.
Most importantly, Chaucer highlights religious characters’ lack of true dedication to the Church’s values. Rather than abiding by Christian morals, they live by their own rules. The Monk’s nontraditionally religious lifestyle clearly illustrates his disregard for religion. Instead, he “took the modern world’s more spacious way” (180). His physiognomy also indicates his inner worth – he is bald, fat, and ugly, which implies that he lacks inner grace as well. He wears “fine gray fur, the finest in the land” (198) and liked “a fat swan best, and roasted whole” (210). These details prove that the Monk, like the upper-class characters, overindulges in material pleasures. Similarly, Chaucer suggests that the Friar also lives too lavishly with the money he earns. The Friar “was an easy man in penance giving” (222) and “knew the taverns well in every town” (244). His carefree attitude vexes Chaucer, who implies that the Friar does not take his job as a priest seriously enough. Some religious figures, on the other hand, do not reveal their hypocrisy so blatantly. The Prioress projects an aura of Christianity to appear holy in the eyes of the public. Yet, rather than focusing on her religious duties as a nun, she performs every act with the intent of appearing attractive. Chaucer describes her with details that give her an image of perfection – from her gold brooch that says Vincent Amor Omnia to her habit of “speaking daintily in French” (128). Like the Monk and the Friar, she upholds the expectation of purity because she serves as a religious figure. However, Chaucer quickly rejects any respect the audience holds for these characters by exposing their hypocrisy.
The Canterbury Tales satirically confronts the issue of greed – for money, power, and glory – during the Middle Ages. Greed affects almost all aspects of society, creating a system of hypocrisy within the upper classes. It especially affects the Church, whose members begin pushing religion aside in order to satisfy their personal desires first. Their failure to literally practice what they preach reflects the changing ideals in an era defined by budding mercantilism and expanding wealth. While Chaucer’s work does not directly criticize them, the irony of his prologue does leave the reader with an overall impression of the societal flaws during this era.
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