Chaucer's use of humour

The fluidity of humour

Comedy and humour in texts are interesting areas for debate and interpretation. Use of humour can function as: 

  • A social corrective, e.g. satire which targets unacceptable or reviled types or behaviour
  • A form of social cohesion, bringing together a group with shared values to enjoy a form of play or a joke
  • An opportunity for subversion, providing an attack on - or an interrogation of - social norms or authoritative figures, e.g. through satire or irony
  • A safety valve for the release of feelings of hostility, powerlessness, or sexuality, which become harmlessly diffused in a joke. 

The interpretation of humour is not fixed but generated by different groups of readers and listeners depending on their beliefs, values, and social and historical contexts. For example, misogynist readers of The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale will have different views of the humour in the text compared to feminist readers. 

The ‘farcical' scene at the end of the Wife's Prologue (from l.787)

One view of this scene would be that it is a splendid example of situation comedy. It has a fast cartoon-like pace of action and quick response:

  • The wife tears the pages out of Jankin's book of wicked wives that he has just been assailing her with and strikes him so hard on the cheek that he falls over
  • He jumps up like a mad lion, strikes her on the head and deafens her
  • She lies on the floor feigning death which makes him so fearful that he is about to flee the scene
  • Just in time she rouses from her swoon to accuse him of murdering her for her land
  • He kneels down to beg her forgiveness and she takes the opportunity to hit him again to get her revenge. 

Does this piece act like a safety valve for the recognition and release of hostile feelings in the characters and in the audience? Or do we take the deafening of the Wife as a serious rather than a comic matter?


Chaucer reveals his wit in his ironic handling of the Wife as narrator. As her Prologue proceeds, we see the irony of her intention to discuss the ‘wo that is in mariage' (l.3), when we discover that she has herself inflicted much of this woe (e.g. from l.193) on the old husbands. Chaucer has already allowed her to be unwittingly ironic in l. 173 where she claims to have been an expert all her life in the tribulation of marriage! From this point of view, the text can be seen as a caricature of a type – a dominating, gossiping older woman. 

More on Chaucer's ironic handling of the Wife: In this aspect Chaucer's handling of the Wife has been paralleled with his satirical handling of the Pardoner. But it is worth thinking about the differences between these two fictional narrators:
  • The Pardoner is a target of satire because of his association with the corruption and abuses of the late medieval church
  • The Wife is anti-clerical in outlook, and has what most modern readers would see as a valid case to make about the restrictions of life as a married woman.

The Wife's intention certainly becomes ironic, but from another point of view we might question whether or not her Prologue is doubly ironic in that the Wife really does reveal the ‘wo that is in mariage', where the partners are unequal and the woman has to struggle to gain recognition for her needs through deception (l.180), violence (l.792), and using sex as a bargain (l.408) so that she has ‘maistrie' (mastery). The gendered word is in itself revealing. 

Here the wit can be seen as subversive. This double irony would be perceived by readers who take a view of the text as being subversive, as presenting a challenge to conventional assumptions about women's roles.

Ironies of circumstance 

One of the delights of the The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale text is to recognise the ironies of situation. For example: 

  • A woman who makes a career of enriching herself through marriage, tells a tale in which a man has to agree with an Old Woman's argument for the moral benefits of poverty
  • The Wife's use of the word ‘wo' in l.3 resonates ironically in The Tale with her account of the Knight's response to the Old Woman in his marriage bed (l.1083).

The Wife herself explores ironic incongruity in l.69 -76 when she takes on the ideal of virginity and reduces it to absurdity.

Chaucer's comic rhyming couplets 

Chaucer is adept at handling the couplet and often uses rhyme to comic effect by linking incongruous words through their sound pattern. For example:

  • The potential magic of the word ‘fayeryes' is deflated by the mundane ‘dayeryes' (l.872-3)
  • In l.905-6 ‘desyren' is paired with ‘yren', thus linking the task of finding out what women most desire, with the prospect of execution by an iron axe for failure
  • Linking l.1-2 ‘auctoritee' and ‘me' sets up the opposition between the Wife and text which is to be so significant in her Prologue. The short word ‘me' looks insignificant compared to the longer word that it's paired with but the full force of that ‘me' is to become apparent!

This verbal wit would probably appeal to an audience who were experienced listeners / readers.

The Wife's playful entertainment (l.193) 

The gusto with which she narrates, and her awareness of her audience, indicate that the Wife offers a view of the text as play, a device for entertainment. In this way, both Chaucer and the Wife sidestep serious issues in the text about violence and gender. 

If we accept the Wife's view of her own performance, the text becomes less of a caricature, and perhaps more of a ‘game' with the idea of caricature. If her text is play, the pilgrims can enjoy the experience of listening whilst remaining disinterested. 

Chaucer, however, seems to want to show that some of the fictional pilgrims have not taken her Prologue in that light – from l.1265 the Friar in his Prologue thinks that she has gone beyond entertainment and spoken of serious subjects which should be left to learned clerics. However, it could be argued that Chaucer would show the Friar as wanting to guard texts from secular discussion, particularly by women! There is no simple solution as to how seriously we should take the Wife's ‘play'.

More on interpreting the text: This guide will inevitably offer you a view, an interpretation of the text, but be prepared to challenge it from your own reading of the text and from your wider reading. Critical essays should be a great help because they present sustained arguments for different approaches to the text.
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