The mingling of serious and comic elements in “The Nuns Priest’s Tale”. 


The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is, on the whole, a humorous poem. The comic elements obviously preponderate in it. But the poem is not without its serious side. In fact, the whole comedy of the poem is motivated by a serious intention on the part of the author. The story as such is perfectly trivial, but we cannot dismiss it as something petty or meaningless because it has something weighty to convey. 

Serious elements of this poem: 

A poor widow’s possessions: 

The poem begins seriously enough The first twenty-five lines or so describe a poor widow’s modest possessions her meager income, her austere way of life, and her simple diet. Reading through these lines we get the feeling that we are going to be treated to a didactic tale of human distress, especially because of the reference to the widow having two daughters. But then follows a description of Chanticleer and Pertelote, which is quite amusing. Chanticleer is described in heroic terms, with his comb redder than fine coral and indented like a castle wall, and with his spurs whiter than the lily. Chanticleer commands seven hens to give him all his pleasure, with Pertelote s his favourite wife.  

Scene of Chanticleer’s dream: 

Chanticleer has seen a dream which troubles him. But, on learning the reason for his depression of spirits, Pertelote feels annoyed and scolds him for his cowardice, as any human wife might scold her husband in a similar situation. On the other hand, seen of the dream has taken high seriousness in the Chanticleer’s mind. 

Abominable picture of murder: 

From the first of these stories serious moral is also drawn The moral is that God always reveals a murder and that it is a daily experience the murder will out” Murder is so hateful and abominable in the eyes of God, Who is just and reasonable, that He will not suffer it to be concealed even though it may not come to light for one or two or three years. “Mordre wol out, this my conclusion” says Chanticleer’.Continuing his illustrations, Chanticleer refers to the dream which Kenelm saw shortly before he was murdered. 

Comic elements of this poem: 

Suggestion of Pertelote: 

While the herbal remedies suggested by Pertelote to relieve Chanticleer’s distress are applicable chiefly to fowls, her diagnosis of his ailment is perfectly valid for human beings in terms of the medical lore of the Middle Ages. Pertelote’s pointing out the excess of some “humour” or bile in the cock is very amusing, indeed. Pertelote amuses us also by citing the case of Cato who did not believe that dreams had any significance. 

Give back compliments: 

The comedy is now resumed. We are greatly amused to hear Chanticleer paying compliments to Madame Pertelote on the beauty of her face just as any knight might admire the beauty of his ladylove. Like any human lover Chanticleer says

: “Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss”.

The comparison of the cock with a “grim lion” is even more amusing because of its complete absurdity and incongruity. The mock-heroic note becomes pronounced when Chanticleer is described as putting on “regal” airs and looking like a prince in his hall”. From this point onwards, the poem is wholly comic, even though the note of gravity does not totally disappear.  

Flattery of the fox: 

The description of the manner in which the fox is able to catch hold of the cock is, again, a part of the comedy. The fox’s chief weapon is flattery which he employs in an abundant measure, praising not only Chanticleers voice but also the voice of Chanticleer’s late father:

“Save yow. I herde nevere man so synge

As dide youre fader in the morwenynge

(Except for you, I never heard anyone sing as your father did in the morning).

The cock susceptible to flattery as he is, falls an easy prey to the fox’s wiles. The outcry and the lamentation of the hens are compared to those of the Trojan ladies at the fall of Troy and the murder of King Priam and the grief of Hasdrubal’s wife.  


In fine it can be said that If The Nun’s Priest’s Tale were no more than a comic beast fable, or a delightful parody of heroic poetry, it would still stand with Chaucer’s best stories. Chaucer has been able to suggest much through what is apparently so little. The little encounter in the widow’s yard Sets off a whole train of reflections on pride, destiny, free will, and the efficacy of man’s knowledge, “Paradoxically. great comedy is always serious and we cannot laugh at the pretensions to scientific and philosophical understanding on the part of the cock and the hen without realizing that we are laughing at ourselves.” 

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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