Irony in The Canterbury Tales: Verbal & Dramatic

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine examples of verbal and dramatic irony from Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales,' which is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Background Information

What is the best story you have ever been told? Chances are, it was embellished with some figurative language to make it more interesting. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a collection of stories told by people from all walks of life who meet while spending the night at the Tabard Inn while on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to be blessed by St. Thomas à Becket. Since they are all going to the same place, the inn's host, Harry Bailey, suggests that they travel together, each telling two stories on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back to pass the time. The best story wins a free dinner that the others pay for. As each of the pilgrims attempts to outdo the next, irony is interjected into the stories. Many of the characters themselves also prove to be ironic. Let's examine some examples of verbal and dramatic irony from this book.

Verbal Irony

Comedian Fred Allen once said, 'I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.' Allen's play on words is verbal irony. Verbal irony is when a character means one thing but says the opposite. An example of verbal irony from The Canterbury Tales occurs several times in 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue.' The Wife of Bath has been married five times and feels justified in her many marriages, based on her own twisted interpretations of the Bible. When describing her marriages, she says, 'I governed them so well, by my own law, That each of them was happy as a daw, And fain to bring me fine things from the fair. And they were right glad when I spoke them fair; For God knows that I nagged them mercilessly.' The Wife of Bath took the upper hand in each one of her marriages. Verbal irony is saying they were happy following her rules and being nagged.

Dramatic Irony

Another form of irony that is used is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the audience is aware of something that the character is not. The character's lack of understanding results in saying or doing something that is the opposite of what they would say or do if they knew the entire story. A great example of dramatic irony occurs during 'The Nun's Priest's Tale.' Chanticleer is a rooster who has had a premonition about being chased by something like a dog. He is unaware that the fox that killed his parents has been watching him for years. Chanticleer's wife chides him for being afraid of a dream.

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