The Structure of Comedy in The Nun's Priest's Tale
by David Cope
A comedie hath in his gynnyng,
At prime facie, a manner compleynyng,
And afterward endeth in gladnes;
And it (th)e dedis only doth expres
Of swich as been in povert plounged lowe.
—Thomas Lydgate, Troy Book II. 847-51
As a comic rhetorical structure, the "The Nun's Priest's Tale" develops an immense number of comments on issues raised by other tales, gently poking fun at their authors as well. The priest follows the host's injunction to "telle us swich thyng as may oure hertes glade" (2811) almost to the letter, ensconcing the sentence in a tale merrily parodying everything from scholastic discussion to the Prioress herself. As a narrator, the priest shows himself as high-spirited and yet humble before masters such as St. Augustine, Boethius or Bishop Bradwardine, fascinated with aggressive sexual behavior, perhaps inwardly rebellious and yet fearful of his superior, the Prioress. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the tale for this reader has been the variety of rhetorical structures the priest employs to develop this comic vision; accordingly, I shall first explore the levels of intellectual parody and specific targets beyond those, then relate that to the plot as it is develops, charting rhetorical structures as they are utilized and considering how that use of structure intersects with its subject matter to subvert fixed meanings while at the same time subtly confirming its announced sentence, balancing the vision explored by the priest.1
One may first note the many levels of parody in the tale: its satire of scholastic discussion and of rhetoric itself, the parody of courtly romance and its ideal, gentillesse, its comments on the debate over dreams, and on anti-feminism, its structural parody of the tragedy of fortune, its parody of character. Each of these parodies has a further target; scholastic discussion and rhetoric are the hallmarks of Chaucer's own Tale of Melibee, while the knight and the courtly characters of his tale find themselves parodied as chickens in a courtly barnyard. Chauntecleer and Pertelote's debate over dreams, punctuated by her prescription of laxatives and terminating in the cock's rhetorical and sexual dominance over her, parodies the pretentiousness of the sentence in tales as various the the Knight's, The Wife of Bath's, The Monk's, and Chaucer's Melibee, the last of which is all sentence and no solaas. The abortive anti-feminist comments briefly skewer the Wife of Bath and perhaps the Prioress—the priest's superior—and then slyly retreat from their claim that "Wommannes conseil broght us first to wo" (3257). The parody of the tragedy of fortune, as seen in the fox's attempt to kill Chauntecleer, comments on the Monk's Tale, which consists of seventeen laboriously told tragic falls from fortune and grace. Finally, as a parody of character, the tale develops a "Prioress-like" Pertelote who lords it over a stable of hens and one rooster (Kendrick 37-38), a view of the tale that may give us keys to the priest's own character as one living in such a cell, dominated by a woman with a delicate fascination for romance and for counterfeiting "cheere of court."
Observing such a plethora of ironies, parody, the decentering of language—and specifically of the notion of an unproblematized sentence—one naturally wonders how Chaucer was able to perform this tour de force in such a short tale. First, as with all comedies, Chaucer's priest observes the negative definition of comedy as responding to departures from a serious norm that is already defined and understood by its audience (Fry 4-5); these departures necessarily make "game of 'serious' life" (Sypher 38). Thus, the priest is counting on his audience to be familiar with earlier tales in the Chaucerian catalogue—and especially those heavy with serious sentence. Secondly, as Robert Jordan points out, in deploying the various rhetorical strategies as the tale progresses, the priest practices a kind of "rhetorical overkill" based on "an ongoing, irregular displacement of presentational voice" (139). These displacements, combined with play developed out of the background texture of other tales, combine to generate the effects the tale delivers.
As a whole, the tale is divisible into nineteen rhetorical sections (see appendix) displaying a dazzling array of techniques mostly found in the discourse of Geoffrey of Vinsauf, who is given his due in a backhanded compliment comparing the priest's complaint and eulogy for Chauntecleer to Geoffrey's own lament for the death of King Richard I (3347-54). The priest begins with a sincere description of the "povre widwe" and her two daughters, their "narwe cotage" and barnyard; the setting of the story is thus in keeping with Lydgate's definition of comedy as being about those who have "been in povert plounged lowe" (851). Even as we accommodate ourselves to this vision, however, we are immediately surprised by a change in presentational voice, signalled by the movement from realistic description to a twofold amplificatio—the blasons,2 bravura descriptions of Chauntecleer and Pertelote, Lord and Lady of the barnyard court. The priest asks us to accept hyperbolic similes describing the cock's voice as "murier than the murie orgon on messedays" and more precise in keeping time than "a clokke or an abbey orloge" (2851-54). Chauntecleer is indeed a jewel of a cock, with a comb "redder than the fyn coral," a shining black bill and azure legs and toes, golden in color and with nails "whitter than the lylye flour" (2859, 2863).
At this point, the priest has forced us to shift emotional registers by bringing two incongruous ideas together: the barnyard rooster as an epitome of nobility. Yet he is not finished; not only is this a noble cock, but he has seven wives "for to doon al his plesaunce" (2866), the greatest of which is the "faire damoysele Pertelote" (2870). True to the code of proper behavior for a woman of the court, Pertelote is "curteys . . . discreet, and debonaire" (2871), and moreover has since her earliest youth kept her husband's heart in tow. After this amplification, the narrative appears to begin with the description of dawn and the waking chickens, yet it quickly stalls in digression, a rhetorical strategy in which one amplifies "the treatise . . . more fully" by going "outside the bounds of the subject and withdrawing from it a little" (Vinsauf 35).
Once again the priest has shifted the presentational voice, this time from the courtly description to a scholastic discussion as to whether Chauntecleer's dream of being carried off by a houndlike beast is prophetic or merely a result of his choleric or melancholy humor. A multiple variety of comic registers backgrounds this digression. First, as a parody of scholastic discussion—which inflates several other tales—this debate, replete with appeals to auctoritee and exempla to illustrate basic claims, is defined and undercut by an argument over whether Chauntecleer should take his laxatives. Secondly, the noble cock becomes a hen-pecked husband whose manhood is in question, yet he recovers to present a scholarly retort worthy of Melibee's Prudence, presenting Pertelote with two exempla of the fates of those who ignore their dreams and a third exemplum of how Cenwulf's son foresaw his father's death in a dream,3 reeling off a list of auctoritees (Macrobius, Daniel, Joseph, Cresus, and Andromache) who all were made wiser by their dreams. Thirdly, Chauntecleer's retort is punctuated by the first of several covert jabs at women, in which he misquotes a Latin antifeminist statement as saying "womman is mannes joye and al his blis" (3166), complaining that he and Pertelote cannot have sex on their narrow perch. His complaint is followed by a comic inflation in which the cock recovers his masculine vanity and feathers Pertelote "twenty tyme and trad hire eke as ofte" (3177-78). Kendrick asserts that the tale is "a fiction of power, chiefly over females" and connects Chauntecleer's aggressive behavior to the priest's "considerable sexual frustration" because "his service to a group of nuns is restricted to the spiritual domain" (37), and perhaps in the sense that the expression of such sexuality precludes further debate over dreams, as well as in the fact that the priest embeds other anti-feminist comments in the story, she may be correct. The courtly motif is also reinforced even as it is deflated: the vain and aggressive cock becomes regal— "real" (3176)—and "roial as a prince in his halle" (3184) even as he exhibits the crudest kind of sexual behavior
Thus, this digression not only deflates the previous scholastic discussion, but also serves to again shift the presentational voice: we are reminded that the courtly scholiast is a rooster, deflating the amplifications we had previously accepted while at the same time presenting the priest's initial jabs at women, skewering courtly ideals and scholastic discussion in general, and returning us to the narrative in a deft transition that accommodates Geoffrey of Vinsauf's injunction regarding such digressions: one should not digress "so widely that it will be difficult to find the way back," for this "technique demands a talent marked by restraint" (Vinsauf 35).
At this point, the priest has developed the character of Chauntecleer well enough to begin his lesson, though he quickly complicates it with more humor. Chauntecleer's trouble over his dream leads to a display of male dominance via discourse and the feathering of Pertelote; all the comic structures developed to this point display the vanity of the cock, which will be deflated and redressed in the remainder of the tale—developing the apparent sentence warning men against being "recchless and necligent," and trusting "on flaterye" (3436-37). Further, once the priest begins to spin the tale towards its climax, he also turns up the heat in the comic registers, playing them off on each other in swift succession right to the narrative's climactic "Keystone cops chase scene" (Payne 134) where everyone from Collyn the dog to the bees swarming out of their hive comes to Chauntecleer's rescue.
To set up the tale's sentence, the priest first develops the cock's vanity; yet Chauntecleer's post-coital strutting is disturbed by his sudden reflectiveness that "evere the latter end of joye is wo" (3205). He has quickly shifted into a faux-tragic presentational voice, mimicing the formula underlying both Troilus and Criseyde ("fro wo to wele, and after out of joie") and The Monk's Tale:
Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.
—Prologue to MT 1973-77
The tragic voice barely registers before it is undercut by equivocation; the priest claims that if a rhetorician could write well, he would tell this notable story because it is as true "as is the book of Launcelot of the Lake, that wommen holde in ful greet reverence" (3212-13). Since the story of Lancelot is a fable, the tragedy cannot be true; further, the fact that women revere it implies that women have poor judgment in determining the truth. As with the priest's other retractions, the statement means exactly the opposite of what it says; he may deny its application simply by repeating it to the lettter.
The digression is short and the priest again takes up the tragic key, to present the villain of the tale and set up the "tragedie" of Chauntecleer; this "col-fox, ful of sly iniquitee" bursts through the hedges and hides in the cabbage bed, waiting to seize the cock in his jaws—the houndlike beast of the cock's dream is suddenly made real, and the dream that sent this tale spinning into satire resurfaces and connects the tale's beginning to its currently unfolding plot. The fox is not simply a villain, however. Just as much of Chauntecleer's humor resides in the omnipresent keys of chicken and human analogue, so too the villain of the tale is undercut in the fact that he is a fox. Further, even as the priest reifies the tragic, he undercuts it by presenting the paradigm of the great man's tragic fall as occurring on the poor widow's farm among her "hegges" and "wortes" (3218, 3221). Complicating and elevating the intensity of humor, the priest next turns to anaphoric invective against the fox, calling him a new Judas, the traitor Genylon, a false dissimulator and a "Greek Synon, that broghtest Troye al outrely to sorwe" (3227-29) in what is surely one of the most hilarious amplifications of the tale.
One expects that the narrative of Chauntecleer's fall will now begin in earnest, but the priest is not finished with playing with the presentational voices he has developed, first digressing into comments about divine providence, lampooning Boethian thought and thus the knight and his tale. Yet even as he undercuts this kind of sentence, he directs us to its real sources as those who can "bulte it to the bren" (3240): we are also presented with a brief salute to Augustine, Boethius and "Bradwardyn," an English Bishop who had died within the last fifty years, for mastery of the argument over free will. The priest also retreats from the argument as inappropriate to his tale, a point that no doubt has contributed to the belief that as a storyteller he is inept or uncomfortable. This position does not account for the fact that by apparently stumbling, the priest is able to simultaneously parody the knight and his presentation of Boethian thought while saluting the sources of that thought. Next, deflating this discussion and its presentational voice by pointing out that his tale is of "a cok . . . that tok conseil of his wyf" (3251-52), the priest shifts abruptly to an exposition of anti-feminist digs ("Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde; wommanes conseil broghte us first to wo") which he retracts almost immediately, as if his superior, the Prioresse, were taking note of his speech. As with his previous anti-feminist statements, the priest equivocates, taking a position and then swiftly retracting it.
Having completed these equivocal digressions, the priest turns back to the tragic: the fox beguiles the cock by appealing to his vanity in lines loaded with oil, while at the same time evoking the scholarly voice in its reference to Boethius's treatise on music and the courtly voice in speaking of the cock's parents' "gentillesse":
Ye han in musyk more feelynge
Than hadde Boece, or any
My lord youre fader—God his soule blesse!—
And eek youre mooder, of hire gentillesse,
Han in myn house yben to my greet ese.
Further, the fox's greeting develops the metaphor of his stomach as his house; when Chauntecleer's parents came into his house, they gave daun Russell, the fox, great ease. The cock is of course "ravysshed with his flaterie" (3324), but before Russell can take him by the throat and head for the woods, the priest bursts back into the middle of the narrative with a sententious apostrophe to the nobility, warning them against flatterers and recommending that they read "Eccliaste of flaterye" (3329). Just as earlier he had saluted the true masters of the argument for free will, so now the priest presents a sincere note when speaking of the biblical text.
This sincerity is quickly subsumed when the fox grabs the cock and makes for the woods, the chicken's body draped across his back. Again the priest intervenes, this time with a triple anaphoric apostrophe to destiny (divine foreknowing), Venus—the goddess whose "servant was this Chauntecleer" (3343), and Geoffrey of Vinsauf, the rhetor whose lament for King Richard has made the priest feel inadequate because he won't be able to match it if he has to lament for Chauntecleer. His appeals to Destiny and Venus are comic amplifications suitable to a tragic crisis, but serve here to undercut the seriousness of their own language, placing the chicken squarely in the tragic register. This hyperbole is amplified even further in the call to the author of Poetria Nova, reminding us of the conscious artifice of the tale and at once saluting a rhetorical lament for a fallen king and bringing Chauntecleer into the discourse register of that presentational voice.
The priest next turns his attention to the hue and cry raised by the taking of the cock, continuing to evoke the courtly key by comparing the cries of Chauntecleer's wives to the lamentations of the ladies of Troy when the city fell and Pyrrhus slaughtered Priam, citing the Aeneid (Eneydos) as his source as though he were writing in Dante's high style. We further learn that Pertelote shrieks like King Hasudrubal's wife when the Romans murdered him during the sacking of Carthage, and that the other hens cry like the Roman senators' wives after Nero killed their husbands and burned their city. These regal amplifications bring the widow and daughter out of their farmhouse, undercutting the rhetorical puffery and initiating the comic climax of the tale, in which widow, daughters, men, Colle the dog, Talbot, Gerland and Malkyn, cow and calf and hogs race after the fox and cock, yelling "as feendes doon in helle" (3389) and followed by ducks and geese and even the bees swarming out of their hive. The wild comedy of this scene is played against one of Chaucer's rare topical references, to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, led by "Jakke Strawe" (3394; n.941). Robinson notes that this kind of chase scene was a stock device in poetry involving peasants (n.755), and in comparing the 1381 rebellion to such a scene, Chaucer betrays an upper-class bias in his humor while at the same time evoking the image of real peasants.
At the height of this frenzy, the priest bursts into the narrative with a brief apostrophe to "goode men" (3402), deflating the entire tragic enterprise he had earlier introduced by inverting the formula, pointing out that "Fortune turneth sodeynly the hope and pryde of hir enemy" (3402-03) and recasting the tragic key so that the cock, apparently destroyed by hubris, might emerge as a comic hero. As the narrative resumes, Chauntecleer talks his way out of the fox's mouth with a clever ploy aimed at the fox's hunger and apparent safety in the wood. Once he has escaped, daun Russell tries to beguile him a second time, and failing, departs with a sententious proverb:
God yeve him meschaunce,
That is so undiscreet of governaunce
That jangleth when he sholde holde his pees.
This wisdom is apparently directed at Chauntecleer, whose final retort is a kind of jangling, but also at his own foolishness in answering his prey and losing him. This sentence also directs our attention to the theme of illusion-making via rhetoric, reflexively asserting the falseness of rhetoric as leading to vanity and ultimately into the fox's jaws, while simultaneously affirming that skillful language used at the right time can get one out of those same jaws.
Having brought us to Chauntecleer's triumph, the priest concludes his tale with a homily against recklessness, negligence and flattery. In contrast to his earlier assertions that the tale has no human implications (e.g. "my tale is of a cok"), the priest now claims that his tale is not a "folye" and in fact has a "moralitee"; he insists that his audience "taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille" (3443). We are presented with his sentence which, while often embedded in the comic amplifications and deflations and in the numerous digressions and apostrophes, does follow from the basic narrative of Chauntecleer's vanity, fall and rise. Yet the story has, as so many commentators have pointed out, much more to offer than this simple lesson; it parodies the sentence in many other tales, but also subtly affirms that one should pay attention to one's prophetic dreams while not paying attention to women's advice which, according to the priest's anti-feminist bias, will lead one astray.
Thus the priest has told a tale that subverts many fixed meanings while reifying others; he provides a typical Chaucerian mirror with which to gaze at the other pilgrims while at the same time developing a shadowy narrator whose lack of description in the "General Prologue" does not prevent us from seeing him clearly here—and just as the priest deflates his fellow pilgrims, the host will subject him to a similar deflation in the tale's epilogue. Rich and elusive, the priest's tale develops its multi-voiced comedy by presenting rhetorical displacements of presentational voice, relying on the audience's knowledge of other pilgrims and their tales to develop comic effects in the change of voices. The tale has its sincere moments, not only in the homely affirmations of its sentence, but specifically in the priest's salute to the real masters of the argument over free will and God's foreknowing (even as he is deflating the pretensions of the knight); his refusal to attempt to expound a complicated argument in a beast fable is good sense, but more importantly gives us a measure of his humility. He also points to Ecclesiastes as an excellent source for those nobles who may need to recognize the difference between flatterers and honest men. Finally, rhetoric itself—the ability to use words elegantly and efficiently—is both pilloried and affirmed: it is a conduit of truth if the honest man or chicken connects it to his mother wit, but is also the means by which many are deceived. Chaucer has thus created an illusion which interrogates its own basis—the use of language and the purposes for which it is employed.
Appendix: Rhetorical Shifts in The Tale
1. Opening descriptio: the poor widow and her house.
2. Amplificatio: blasons of Chauntecleer and Pertelote.
3. Descriptio: dawn; Chauntecleer's concern over his dream.
4. Digressio: debate over dreams (scholastic parody via laxatives and sex; use of auctoritee).
5. Resumption of narrative: the feathering of Pertelote and Chauntecleer's display of vanity (intro the tragic key).
6. Digressio and equivocation: truth value of tale compared to Launcelot's story and the fact that women revere it.
7. Resumption of narrative: introduction of the villain (with several registers).
8. Amplificatio: anaphoric invective against the fox.
9. Digressio: divine providence and retreat (with salute to masters of the argument).
10. Digressio: anti-feminism and retreat.
11. Resumption of narrative: fox beguiles the cock ( with parody of scholarly and courtly voices).
12. Apostrophe to nobles, warning against flattery (with salute to Ecclesiastes).
13. Resumption of narrative: the taking of Chauntecleer.
14. Amplificatio: anaphoric apostrophe.
15. Resumption of narrative (hue and cry) with amplificatio (three similes—fall of Troy, destruction of Carthage, ruin of Rome)
16. Narrative climax: comic chase scene (with topical reference to Peasant's Revolt).
17. Apostrophe to good men: deflation of tragedy via inversion of formula.
18. Narrative resolution: cock's use of mother wit to escape; fox's foiled attempts to beguile him a second time, with fox's sentence.
19. Priest's homily and sentence.
1 I won't discuss the four allegorical interpretations noted by Robinson; each of these is incomplete, either because the supposed allegorical points of reference are inexact, or because there is not enough evidence to support the claims. J. L. Hotson's interpretation, for example, sees the col-fox as an anagram for Nicholas Colfax, a follower of Mowbray who was implicated as a participant in Mowbray's murder of Gloucester; Chauntecleer is associated with Bolingbroke because their colors are similar, and "the fox is ruined by talking, as Mowbray was ruined by his slander of the king" (Robinson 751). Simply on the surface, the fox cannot be both Colfax and Mowbray, as noted by Robinson—and successful allegory depends on exact cross references. Further, the similarity of colors is slim evidence to support any claim that Chauntecleer represents the king. A second allegorical interpretation, put forward by C. R. Dahlberg, sees the fox as representing friars, while the cock is associated with secular clergy in defense of mother church, the poor widow; further, on a higher level Chauntecleer becomes a representative of Christ, while Pertelote is the Church eternal. One wonders what the twenty-fold feathering of Pertelote must imply in such an allegory, and again, the evidence to support such representations simply is not in the tale. M. J. Donovan advances a third view, in which the widow is the Church, while the cock is an "alert Christian" and the fox is a "devil-heretic"; one might claim that the fox is assigned certain demonic qualities with his blackened tale and ears and his "glowynge eyen" (2905)—and yet these qualities or variations thereof might be given to the villain in any simple tale. They do not specifically point toward the devil. Further, Chauntecleer is anything but alert right up to the point where he uses his mother wit to escape, and one supposes that his possession of seven wives might compromise his Christianity. Finally, J. Speirs suggests the tale is an allegory of the fall of Adam, a theory that is manifestly strained when one attempts to locate all the specific cross references and account for details in the tale that simply do not add up.
2 Chaucer's blason is an early example of a French technique later promoted as a formal poetic device by Thomas Sebillet (1512-1589) in his Art poetique francoys; theoretician of the school of Clement Marot, Sebillet insisted "qu'il [poetry] trouvera mots dous et propres" (quoted in Patterson 254), preceding Ronsard and Du Bellay in the insistence that poetry be both intellectually and emotionally significant and elegantly constructed. The blasons that open Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander are the most famous examples in English literature.
3 Jordan notes the peculiar shifts of narrative voice typical of Chaucer in the first of these three exempla: the tale of the "two felawes" related by "oon of the gretteste auctor that men rede" (2984) is narrated by a cock, whose tale is narrated by a priest, whose tale is narrated, presumably, by the pilgrim Chaucer, behind whom is the actual author, Geoffrey Chaucer (n. 147). Thus, not only does the tale itself shift its presentational voices, but the authorial voice recedes through this succession of narrators, each of whom may be interrogated regarding narratorial stance and relationship to the milieu each narrator inhabits and the characters with whom he has relationships.
Geoffrey. "The Nun's Priest's
Fry, Christopher. "Comedy." Comedy: Meaning and Form. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. San Francisco: Chandler, 1965.
Jordan, Robert M. Chaucer's Poetics and the Modern Reader. Berkeley: U of Cal. P, 1987.
Laura. Chaucerian Play: Comedy and
Control in the Canterbury Tales.
Lydgate, Thomas. Quoted in Wickham, Glynne. "Medieval Comic Traditions and the Beginnings of English Comedy." Comic Drama. Ed. W. D. Howarth. New York: St. Martin's, 1979.
Patterson, Warner. French Poetic Theory. Parts 1-2. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1935.
Payne, Robert O. Geoffrey Chaucer, Second Edition. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Robinson, F. N. Explanatory Notes. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Second ed. Ed. F. N. Robinson. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1957.
Sypher, Wylie. "The Meanings of Comedy." Comedy: Meaning and Form. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. San Francisco: Chandler, 1965.
Vinsauf, Geoffrey of. Poetria Nova. Trans. Margaret F. Nims. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1967.