The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” is one of twenty-two tales completed—two more exist as fragments—of The Canterbury Tales, begun about 1387 but not completed at the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400. Scholars later arranged the tales in what they considered to be the most plausible order; “The Clerk’s Tale” appears as the ninth tale, sandwiched between “The Summoner’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale.”

“The Clerk’s Tale” retells the story of Griselda, already made popular by two literary figures of the fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio and Petrarch. The original source was a folk tale. Coming from this oral tradition, the tale was disseminated in many different forms from those found in the works of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer, but the main characters, the major plot elements, and the narrative sequence of events retain basic similarities. The Griselda tale also embodies the Cinderella theme, in which the protagonist rises from a lowly rank to the highest rank by proving her worthiness through a number of tests, in this case, of her patience, obedience, and faithfulness to her husband.

In Chaucer’s tale, Walter, a noble king held in high esteem, has refused to marry. When some lords entreat him to do so, and even offer to find a suitable bride, Walter is so favorably impressed with their petition he agrees to marry, but he insists on finding his own bride. The day of the wedding comes, and Walter still has no bride. Shortly before the time of the ceremony, however, Walter asks Janicula, a poor old man, for the hand of his beautiful, virtuous daughter Griselda, whom Walter has seen frequently while traveling about the kingdom. Janicula grants permission to marry Griselda, and she consents. Walter places one condition on the arrangement, however: She must promise to always obey his will cheerfully and without question, even if it causes her great pain.

Fearful and conscious of her lowly state, Griselda agrees to Walter’s conditions, and they are married. All the subjects love and admire Griselda for her goodness, her wifely arts, and her wisdom. Soon, a daughter is born, pleasing everyone in the kingdom.

Soon after the birth of the child, however, Walter begins to impose a series of increasingly cruel ordeals to test Griselda. First, maintaining that his subjects wish it and pretending that he is only concerned with keeping peace among them, he commands her to give up the baby daughter. She asks only to kiss the baby farewell before she gives her up. Four years later, when a son is born, he has the child taken away as well. Finally, Walter tells Griselda that his subjects wish him to take another wife. Returning everything she has to him except for a smock to wear back to her humble home, Griselda leaves.

Walter now sends for their daughter, whom he has sent to Bologna, and says that she is to be his new wife. Through all of this Griselda never complains or fails to obey; Walter is finally moved to pity and reveals what he has done, assuring her that he is now convinced of her patience and steadfastness. She returns to him, and all is happy thereafter.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

In “The Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer uses a line containing five stresses or beats, in seven-line stanzas, a form that would later be called rime royal. In fact, Chaucer’s greatest contribution to the technique of English verse was the arrangement of this five-stress line in rhyming couplets. In general, his rhymes are carefully matched sounds. In some cases, he availed himself of alternative pronunciations...

(This entire section contains 525 words.)

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to achieve rhyme. For example, “again” could rhyme either with “main” or with “men.” This use of optional variants is one way in which Chaucer is flexible in his use of language.

Chaucer consciously uses language as technique in “The Clerk’s Tale” in the way he employs a simple style to parallel Griselda’s lowly station in life. Only after Griselda has proven her inner nobility of character even to her husband does she allow herself a sudden release of emotion, weeping and swooning with joy when she is reunited with her children, in contrast to the utter self-control that she has maintained throughout the period of her testing.

The Canterbury Tales is often used as an example of the “frame tale,” in that the larger story sets up a situation, or “frame,” inside which various characters tell their own stories. The clerk is one of those characters who tells, in this case, his story of Griselda and her patient forbearance. In like manner, Chaucer has the clerk in “The Clerk’s Tale” tell his traveling companions that he is telling a story that has been told to him by another learned clerk, a poet laureate (one skilled in Latin grammar and versification) of Italy named Frances Petrarch, further enforcing the idea of the story within a story.

The technical aspect of point of view, the vantage point from which the author presents the actions of the story, is of interest in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the larger tale, the frame tale, Chaucer tells the story in the third-person omniscient point of view; however, he has various characters within the story present their stories as they understand them, restricting information to what a given character sees, hears, feels, and thinks. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” the clerk, who claims to be telling a story told to him, controls who knows what: The reader, for example, knows that Griselda’s children are not killed, though she does not. Likewise, Griselda is patient and is obedient to the harshest of tests, losing her children and even being cast aside by her husband, but she does not know, as readers do, that these demands are to test her.

Symbolically, clothing is important in this tale. Walter has a new wardrobe made for Griselda when he takes her from her humble house and her poor, subservient father. When he chooses a woman of low estate and elevates her to the highest social rank, her old clothing must be left behind with her old life. Likewise, when he puts her aside, she must leave behind all of her finery; if it were not for her request to at least cover the womb that has borne his children, she would have returned home naked.