Chaucer's irony throughout the Canterbury Tales is contained in his sarcastic tone and satirical characters. Since the poems are written from the perspective of one of the travelers, relating what he say and heard, most of the irony is in the form of verbal irony. Throughout the Prologue, this irony is found in the descriptions of the characters themselves. Chaucer both physically satirizes the characters and exaggerates their personalities. For example, in reading the description of the Friar, we see that granted absolution in exchange for money, and that he "knew the taverns will in every town...better than beggars and lepers and their kind." The describes the Cook as greasy, dirty, and having oozing boils. Even the knight, who is not seen as a negative character, is describe as being as meek as a girl. These types of descriptions are found throughout the Prologue, and makes up the irony of the tales.
In satire, there is the use of irony, humor, and exaggeration to criticize the foibles and vices of people. Chaucer cleverly satirizes many of the pilgrims as he points to their hypocrisy.
In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer creates what is known as estate satire. In Medieval times, an estate was a division of society; there were three estates: the Clergy (those who prayed), the Nobility (those who fought) and the Peasantry (those who labored). The largest target of this satire is the Clergy because it is rife with hypocrisy.
Besides the Pardoner, who has previously been mentioned, the Prioress is another member of the estate of the Clergy whom Chaucer satirizes in his own inimitable way. The Prioress is a nun who ranks just below the abbess, and she serves as an example to the other nuns. However, the Prioress in Chaucer's Tales is anything but an example of humility and poverty. On the contrary, she is ironically affected as sings
...with a fine
intoning through her nose,....
And she spoke daintily in French, extremely,
...French in the Paris style she did not know.....
for courtliness she had a special zest
" a fine intoning" is verbal irony as Chaucer writes the opposite of what he means: she is affected in her manner.
Not only is the nun affected in her mannerisms, she is vain as Chaucer points to her wearing "a coral trinket on her arm," and a golden brooch of brightest sheen." These are certainly not the sort of things that a humble nun would own, so there is more irony.
The Monk, too, is also pilgrim whom Chaucer satirizes. Chaucer criticizes the monk's lack of humility with verbal irony:
...a monk out of his cloister
That was a text he held not worth an oyster;
And I agreed and said his views were sound.
The monk also ignores his vows of poverty and humility, and Chaucer is again ironic as he describes what a good hunter the Monk is. He owns Greyhounds and hunts, "sparing no expense." He also dresses luxuriously:
...he spared no expense.
I saw his sleeves were garnished at the hand
With fine gray fur, the finest in the land,
And on his hood, to fasten it at his chin
He had a wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin:
Into a lover's knot it seemed to pass.
Not only has he ignored his vows of poverty with his dogs and fine horse and his clothes trimmed in fur, and humility as he possesses eyes that Chaucer describes ironically, writing that they "glittered like flame." Apparently, the Monk has also violated his vow of chastity, as well, as he wears a lover's knot. In addition, the monk is guilty of the cardinal sin of gluttony as, ironically, Chaucer writes that he enjoys "a fat swan best."
Many of Chaucer’s characters in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales are presented with an ironic twist. Chaucer uses irony to expose the dishonesty and greed that he sees in people who have legal and religious authority and power. Considering the time in which it was written, the Middle Ages, it is a strikingly honest portrayal of man’s propensity for such evil.
The last character presented in the Prologue is the Pardoner. In the Middle Ages a pardoner was a church official who was supposed to administer pardons issued by the Pope to absolve sins. Pardoners were notoriously liable to accept bribes in the granting of such pardons and to cheat parishioners in other ways. Chaucer’s Pardoner did this and also carried with him a collection of fake religious relics that he used to make money (by charging people a fee to view them):
. . . he in one day got himself more money
than the parson got in two months.
And thus, with false flattery and tricks,
he made monkeys of the parson and the people.
The irony comes in how the Pardoner behaves in church. Although he is a cheat, he acts pious in church:
He could read a lesson or a history beautifully,
but best of all he sang an offertory;
The Pardoner puts on a good face, but as Chaucer warns us, that doesn’t mean he is above taking advantage of the less fortunate.