My son and I recently went to see a modern adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta. This classic work of British literature sparkles with wit as it offers keen insight into the ageless nature of mankind.
After all, while just a commoner, the “father of English poetry” served two kings as a diplomat. As such, he became well versed in the art of discerning the true intent of the human heart.
From what we understand of him, Chaucer was never beguiled by pleasant words or high station. In fact, he used his pen to point out some of the absurdities of his own time, couching scathing criticism for both church and state within his fiction.
Understanding this, I watched with extra interest the retelling of those stories we all read in high school that were staged in a twenty-first century context: the Wife of Bath with a Gucci purse, the Miller coming across as a loud-mouthed football fan, and the Pardoner in his salesman’s suit.
Though it lost some of the nuance found in the original stories--some of the complexity of the ideas explored as well as the intricacies of the prose text--the production did something for me that it surely would have done for Chaucer’s audience in the Middle Ages. It made me think immediately of politics.
For example, naughty but smart, the Wife of Bath is portrayed as using her best assets to assert dominion over her own fate in a time when women had little power and garnered less respect from society.
The recent comments by Hillary Rosen that caused such a broo-ha-ha about the role of women raising children today—their right to voice their opinions on broader issues than child rearing—made me wonder how far the fairer sex has really moved towards not being judged for personal choices… towards having real sovereignty over their own existence.
The Miller with his coarse behavior and lewd story is the blue-collar worker who enjoys a beer on a weekend and laughs at the rest of the world with hearty approbation.
Yet the Miller is too loud for the Reeve who wishes to tear him down with a tale bent on destroying the very thought of him, just as political correctness scorns those men who inhabit the heartland as ignorant and uncultured: a group of people only to be tolerated for inhabiting a sizable voting block as members of labor unions.
Then there is the Pardoner.
In The Canterbury Tales, this is the character most reviled by Chaucer. While his tale is, perhaps, the most polished, the one with the best moral, the parable that one remembers as well as any lauded populist’s stump speech, he is shown in the frame tale as the master manipulator that he is, the snake-oil salesman who pretends to ply his wares in the interest of others while only concerned about himself. He says that greed is bad, which it is, but then he uses guilt and fear for his own profit.
Can we guess which slick talking politician of today who focuses on class warfare, the peddling of ineffective policies, and the power of demagoguery for political points that the Pardoner called directly to my mind?
Well, let me give you a clue. It wasn’t Mitt Romney.
Yes, The Canterbury Tales is a valuable work of art with universal themes that remain timeless and worthy of exploration.
It is good to take lessons from literature.