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Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are indeed a great example of humor not only for his time period (14th century), but also for audiences today because each tale brings a sense of truth to society. In Chaucer's day, poetry was thought to only be understood by the rich or elite because it was only written in Latin or Italian. But, by writing these tales in English, Chaucer opened the door for all classifications of life to be able to read poetry and enjoy it. "The book...gives a rich, intricate tapestry of medieval social life, combining elements of all classes, from nobles to workers, from priests and nuns to drunkards and thieves" (enotes Canterbury intro). Capturing the various human temperament of the time holds a great interest to audiences still today. And, because Chaucer wrote the tales to entertain, his use of satire and irony make many of the tales comical.
As the pilgrims embark on their journey to Canterbury, Chaucer provides his characters with individual tales focusing on Christianity. This provides humor because it allows for the faults to be seen in both formalized religion as well as the people who follow it. Chaucer contrasts many of the characters and their views such as the Knight and the Franklin telling a tale of love and forgiveness to the Wife of Bath who twist the Bible verses to suit her promiscuous behavior to the Miller's tale with the using flatulence as a weapon of revenge. Much of what is found in the tales could be found in comedies today.
Chaucer is a great humorist; he reveals the scope of humanity by revealing each character by his humour, by the personality that emerges as Nature's elements act on bodily liquids. For instance, vapours from the air affect the blood and gives rise to the sanguine personality--forgetful, needy, and naive; those from fire act on yellow bile (urine), producing the choleric type; impatient, domineering, intolerant; water affects phlegm, giving the phlegmatic: lazy, indecisive, and selfish; vapours of the earth influence black bile (#2), for the melancholic: depressed, antagonistic, paranoid. But each humour also has positive traits: the sanguine inspires, loves, and forgives; the choleric decides, leads, and motivates; the phlegmatic listens, sympathizes, and calms; and the melancholic sacrifices, solves, and commits. As Chaucer unites these individual unbalanced personalities into a work of art, he show the overall beauty and balance of all humanity from a higher POV. Chaucer's art reveals a perfected order mankind cannot see, humanity made in the image of God. Thus, Chaucer reveals himself the great humorist--by each character's humor, he ties each to Nature, to the creative force that opens the poem, and thus to Creation itself--in doing so, perfects man imperfections with the Divine--and no less significantly, with the artistic expression of the Divine--the poem.
The Canterbury Tales is a great example of the kind of work that is best enjoyed by listening to it instead of reading it. First, it's poetry, and for most of its existence poetry was meant to be read aloud. Second, it's riddled with archaic spelling and vocabulary that can be difficult to understand when you are looking at words on a page, but (for me at least) is much easier to understand when you're listening to it. Third, it's full of humor. Sometimes if I'm reading something the humor in it sails right past me. Listening to the various readers in this LibriVox recording (free!) bring the humor and irony of the Tales to life is really a joy.
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