The Nun's Priest's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does the serious dramatic quality of Pertelote’s complaint (lines 88–101) lend comedy to The Nun's Priest's Tale?

In The Nun's Priest's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Pertelote seriously and dramatically scolds her husband Chauntecleer for being afraid of a dream. Her complaint and advice, however, are hilarious because Pertelote is a chicken and Chauntecleer a rooster. Beast fables like this one often poke fun at human behavior by making animals and birds act and speak like human beings.

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The Nun's Priest's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a delightful, comedic romp that is all the more fun for the serious tone of some of its characters. As we enter the tale, we meet a widow who keeps a small farm. The action then zooms in upon the farmyard where Chauntecleer, a handsome rooster, is strutting about with his seven wives, the chief of which is Pertelote, a fine-looking hen.

The scene then shifts to night when Chauntecleer and his ladies are all sleeping on their perches. Chauntecleer awakens in fear from a dream, and he tells it to Pertelote. A horrible orange beast with glowing eyes wanted to kill him, the rooster relates.

Pertelote is not at all pleased. Is this the way for a fine rooster to behave? She thinks not, and she voices her complaint with serious drama, scolding Chauntecleer for his cowardice. “How dorst ye seyn, for shame, unto youre love / That any thyng myghte make you aferd?” she asks with scorn (lines 2918–19). She then proceeds to explain, quite earnestly, that Chauntecleer's problem must be an imbalance of humors. His “red colera” (line 2928), red choleric humor, is too active because that is what makes people dream about red beasts.

Pertelote continues by quoting the Roman Cato, who says, “Ne do no fors of dremes [Attach no importance to dreams]” (line 2941). Then, she returns to her diagnosis and says that he really must take a laxative first thing in the morning and that she will help him find just the right herbs to clean him out beneath and above.

Remember, Pertelote is completely serious throughout this whole speech. She means every word she says, from the scolding to the advice. Yet her speech is hilarious. Why? Pertelote is a chicken! She may talk like a human and think like a human, but she has feathers, and she is sitting on a perch. What's more, she is speaking to a rooster, scolding him (imagine the sound of that: cluck, cluck, cluck), speaking about humors (how would she know about those?), quoting Cato to him (as if she has read him; indeed, one wonders how she would get a copy of such a book and how she would hold it open with her wings), and advising him to take a laxative (hmmm...do roosters really need that?).

Beast fables like this one are designed to make animals seem like humans in order to poke fun at humans who behave just like the animals in the tale. Yet since these are still animals, or in this case birds, their behavior is even funnier than if the author had written about human beings, and of course, that is the whole point.

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