Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: The Monk's Tale (Selections)
  • Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Editor: Michael Best
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Monk's Tale (Selections)

    Chaucer's Canterbury Tales relate a series of stories told by the pilgrims in turn, to pass the time as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas a'Becket in Canterbury Cathedrao. When it comes to be the Monk's turn, the Host jokes that the Monk is likely to tell a cheerful, bawdy tale, like some that have been heard earlier. The Monk takes exception to this suggestion, and announces that he will narrate a series of tragedies to emphasize the tenuousness of human happiness. He explains that
    Tragedy is to say a certain story,
    As old books maken us memory,
    Of him that stood in greet prosperity
    And is y-fallen out of high degree
    Into misery, and endeth wretchedly.
    To the Monk, following a long tradition of medieval thinkers, the principal requirement of tragedy is that someone of high stature is brought low by the abrupt turning of Fortune's wheel. The Monk chooses some conventional tales (he begins with the falls of Lucifer and Adam), some more sensational. He tends to take particular interest in the gorier moments of the deaths of his subjects, and in many cases stresses the betrayal of others rather than the shortcomings of his famous subjects. This approach contrasts with Aristotle's view of tragedy.
    This brief selection includes two short tragedies, those of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar (a character of great interest to Shakespeare). In each the Monk emphasizes the capriciousness of Fortune; the fall of the great men is not of necessity the result of their own errors or excesses. I have modernized spelling and some vocabulary where this does not interfere with the rhythm or rhyme; many words were pronounced differently, and I have indicated some places where this will influence the rhythm of the lines.