The Canterbury Tales contains dozens of characters whose tales are told from several points of view. We are introduced to many of the main characters in the General Prologue, in which the narrator describes his impression of these characters upon meeting them and offers a brief description of their backgrounds. Later in the poem, many of these characters tell their own stories in much greater detail. By depicting these characters from multiple points of view, Chaucer is able to create much more complex portraits of these pilgrims, demonstrating that their conceptions of themselves will most likely differ from the ways others perceive the characters. Passages that the reader might at first interpret literally take on metaphorical meaning once we can observe these characters from multiple viewpoints. In the General Prologue, you read the narrator’s description of the Wife of Bath. Let us reread it. There was a housewife come from Bath, or near, Who- sad to say- was deaf in either ear. At making cloth she had so great a bent She bettered those of Ypres and even of Ghent. In all the parish there was no goodwife Should offering make before her, on my life; And if one did, indeed, so wroth was she It put her out of all her charity. Her kerchiefs were of finest weave and ground; I dare swear that they weighed a full ten pound Which, of a Sunday, she wore on her head. Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red, Close gartered, and her shoes were soft and new. Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue. She’d been respectable throughout her life, With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife, Not counting other company in youth; But thereof there’s no need to speak, in truth. Three times she’d journeyed to Jerusalem; And many a foreign stream she’d had to stem; At Rome she’d been, and she’d been in Boulogne, In Spain at Santiago, and at Cologne. She could tell much of wandering by the way: Gap-toothed was she, it is no lie to say. Upon an ambler easily she sat, Well wimpled, aye, and over all a hat As broad as is a buckler or a targe; A rug was tucked around her buttocks large, And on her feet a pair of sharpened spurs. In company well could she laugh her slurs. The remedies of love she knew, perchance, For of that art she’d learned the old, old dance. What opinion does the narrator appear to have of the Wife of Bath? Is his opinion of her consistent with the way he views the other characters in the General Prologue? On page 219 of The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath begins telling her own tale. Pay attention to the way that her tone and perspective differ from those of the narrator in the General Prologue, even when describing the same facts or events. Experience, though no authority Were in this world, were good enough for me, To speak of woe that is in all marriage; For, masters, since I was twelve years of age, Thanks be to God Who is for aye alive, Of husbands at church door have I had five; For men so many times have wedded me; And all were worthy men in their degree. But someone told me not so long ago That since Our Lord, save once, would never go To wedding (that at Cana in Galilee), Thus, by this same example, showed He me I never should have married more than once. Lo and behold! What sharp words, for the nonce, Beside a well Lord Jesus, God and man, Spoke in reproving the Samaritan: ‘For thou hast had five husbands,’ thus said He, ‘And he whom thou hast now to be with thee Is not thine husband.’ Thus He said that day, But what He meant thereby I cannot say; And I would ask now why that same fifth man Was not husband to the Samaritan? How many might she have, then, in marriage? For I have never heard, in all my age, Clear exposition of this number shown, Though men may guess and argue up and down. But well I know and say, and do not lie, God bade us to increase and multiply; That worthy text can I well understand. Consider the ways this section from the Wife of Bath’s tale deepens our understanding of her, and how her characterization in the General Prologue now seems incomplete. In the project below, you will explore how to create and explore characters from multiple perspectives, as Chaucer has done here. Before You Begin When we analyze an author’s portrayal of a character, it often helps to compare the character with the ways other figures in the narrative are depicted. For instance, in the General Prologue, Chaucer’s intended meaning in his descriptions of the friar or the monk become much clearer when contrasted with his portrayal of the parson. Graphic organizers and charts can help one keep track of important information about a character or to compare and contrast multiple characters. In your reading of the literature, you may have analyzed the ways that Chaucer represented the three estates in the characters of the knight, the parson, and the ploughman. Consider selecting one of these characters and completing a Venn Diagram, comparing and contrasting the selected character with the Wife of Bath. On the left side of the diagram, provide at least three character traits unique to the Wife of Bath. On the right side, provide three character traits unique to the pilgrim you have chosen to analyze (the knight, parson, or ploughman). In the center of the diagram, where the two circles overlap, provide at least three character traits or attributes that these two characters share. This process will help you think through the character analysis, and prepare to write your response. Check with your teacher to see if you are required to submit your prewriting graphic organizer along with your final written response. Directions Having completed a character analysis of the Wife of Bath and another of Chaucer’s pilgrims, you will now use this information to develop your own narrative featuring these characters. You will be writing your narrative in the form of a script for a play or film. You may choose to place these characters in a new setting or context, but you will need to retain the fundamental truths about these characters that you have identified above. For instance, you may choose to transform the period of the stories told in The Canterbury Tales and place your stories in a modern setting. (How would the character traits you have identified manifest themselves in a contemporary context?) You could also retain the medieval setting of the original, but develop a new narrative in which you place these characters. As Chaucer does in The Canterbury Tales, begin with a prologue in which a narrator establishes the context and introduces these two characters. The Wife of Bath and the other pilgrim that you have selected should then relate their own tales, told from a first-person perspective. Through the course of your story, be sure to establish at least three (3) of the character traits that you identified earlier for each of your two main characters. As you write, consider how you can keep these characters consistent and recognizable while changing one or more of the story’s basic elements. Your tales can be written either in verse form, similar to the version of Chaucer’s poem that you have read, or in more straightforward prose. Click here for the full text of The Canterbury Tales
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