Chaucer's Art of Characterization in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer is the first great painter of character because he is the first great observer of it among English writers, In fact, next to Shakespeare, Chaucer is the greatest delineator of character in English literature. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer tried to paint faithfully the body and soul of the fourteenth century life. Before The Canterbury Tales we do not know a poem of which the primary aim was to depict and display the truthful spectacle of life.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

It is the greatness of Chaucer that in the Prologue his twenty nine characters drawn from different classes of society represent the fourteenth century society as vividly and clearly as Pope represented early eighteenth century life in his poems such as The Rape of the Lock and Dunciad. In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales Chaucer's England comes to life. We meet the Knight travel-stained from the war and as meek as a girl in his behavior; the Squire with curly locks 'embroidered' like a meadow full of fresh flowers, white and red; the Yeoman clad in coat and hood of green; the Prioress, earnest to imitate the manners of high society; the jolly Monk; the wanton and merry Friar; the drunkard Cook; the Merchant; the Oxford Clerk; the Lawyer; the Doctor; the Dartmouth Sailor; the Summoner; the Pardon; the Reeve; the Wife of Bath; the gentle Parson; the five guildsmen; the Ploughmen etc. All these characters are vivid and nicely sketched in the Prologue, which is a veritable picture gallery.

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 describes physical features. Sometimes he begins with analysis of character and adds touches of dress afterwards.

Chaucer has shown his characters by presenting them as foils to each other. The Summoner and the Friar, the Miller and the Reeve, the Prioress and the Wife of Bath, the Cook and the Manciple, the conscientious Parson and the unscrupulous Pardoner are foils. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in either inclinations, but also in their appearances and persons. Even the grave and the serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity; their discourses are such as belong to their age; their calling and their breeding such as are becoming of them and of them only.

In the Prologue various characters comprise all sorts and conditions of men, some of them are so real that they can be easily the sketches devised to provide a representation of the chief classes of English society under the higher nobility. Moreover, the sketches not only give typical traits of temperament, appearance and manners, but incorporate the essentials of medicine, law, scholarship, religion, the theory of knighthood and also a satire on faults in social life; they summarize the noblest ideals of the time and the basest practices. The result, therefore, is a conspectus of medieval English society; it would be possible to use the Prologue as the basis for a survey of fourteenth century English life.

Chaucer's characters are both individuals and types. The Knight is a chivalrous character of all ages. He is a great warrior and a conqueror who in every age stands as the guardian of man against the oppressor. But the Knight has been individualized by his horse, dress and gentle and meek behavior. The young Squire stands for the type of warriors who are not always lost in the dreams of warfare, but are also interested in singing and playing upon a flute. But he has been individualized by his curly locks, embroidered clothes, and his short coat with long wide sleeves. The Yeoman is the type of expert archers, but he has been individualized by his cropped head and his brown visage. The Prioress is the type of a woman who tries to imitate courtly manners, but she has been individualized by her nasal tone, tenderness of heart, and her physical features

The monk is a type of the monks who had deserted their religious duties and passed their, time in riding and keeping greyhounds for hunting. But Chaucer's Monk is an individual with a bald head and rolling eyes glowing like fire under a cauldron. Chaucer's Friar is a type of those friars who were wanton and jolly, interested in gay and flattering talk. But Chaucer's Friar is individualized by his melodious voice, his skill in singing songs and by his knowledge of taverns and barmaids. In Chaucer's time The Clerk of Oxford represented studious scholars who devoted their time in the acquisition of knowledge, but he is also an individual person with his volumes of Aristotle, his hollow cheeks, grave looks and threadbare clock. The Man of Law is a typical figure. The Doctor of Physik with his love of gold and his little knowledge of the Bible is a typical doctor. But the Man of Law and the Doctor of Physik have also been individualized by their physical traits and features. There are many other characters who represent their class, their profession, but they are also individual figures with notions, idiosyncrasies, arguments and particular physical features. Thus Chaucer has maintained a balance between the typical and the individual features of a character.

The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales presents a social group of persons, larger and more diversified. Chaucer's group of pilgrims is not schematically representative of English society, but covers well enough the main social elements. The nobility and the lowest class of laborers are excluded as it was unlikely for them to travel in the fashion of this group.

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 Herry Bailly most probably pictures an actual fourteenth century Southwark innkeeper called Henery 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.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Chaucer's Art of Characterization in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales." BachelorandMaster, 16 Mar. 2018,