The Poem

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Forms and Devices

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 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...

(The entire section is 525 words.)