Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the most experimental, generically diverse poem in the whole history of English literature. At a time when the English language had unmatched plasticity and expressive force, Chaucer chose to write in many genres: classical romance, bedroom farce, Ovidian metamorphosis, saint's life, anti-feminist fable, feminist fairytale, advice to princes, poetic manifesto and prose treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins. By dressing contemporary characters in ancient garb, as Thebans, Greeks, Trojans, Athenians, or Bretons, Chaucer was able to address vital and controversial issues of honor, belief, and afterlife that might not otherwise be broached in his London; this, like much else in Chaucer, inspired Shakespeare.
Chaucer wrote a poetry designed to be read aloud and appreciated in group settings. This class will devote considerable time to reading Chaucer aloud, mindful that each new reading is an act of interpretation. On the first class day we will read The Physician's Tale, a short and shocking tale that arouses strong feelings in both Chaucer's imagined audience (the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales)and in us. The ways in which powers of rhetoric and performance work upon human bodies (including our own) will be considered throughout the course. Representations of medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam will be compared; and we may occasionally consider aspects of adaptation by Pier Paolo Pasolini (and other filmmakers), African-American poet Marilyn Nelson, Chaucer rapper Baba Brinkman, and poet and performer Caroline Bergvall. We'll likely read Troilus and Criseyde, plus the nasty coda written to this poem by Scotsman Robert Henryson in medieval Scots that sets the tone for Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
This course is designed to accommodate both medievalists and folks with little or no prior knowledge of Chaucer or Middle English, but with interests in poetics, rhetoric, and performance. Secondary reading will be assigned according to the interests of the class that eventually forms. This might include readings from other medieval writers, such as Dante and Boccaccio, or from more contemporary material.
Required text: The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L.D. Benson.
Suggested reading: Paul Strohm, Middle English, Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature-- a sharp guide to what's going on in the field, with essays mostly by younger scholars.