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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Shakespeare and Chaucer


616 years ago, on 17 April 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer read his Canterbury Tales aloud for the first time.

He read his new work to King Richard II.

I find this interesting, because I think Shakespeare modeled much of his writing and his life after Chaucer’s.

I have already written about the influence that the great Roman poet Ovid had on Shakespeare.

But Chaucer would have a greater and more immediate meaning for Shakespeare.


Geoffrey Chaucer

Of course, Chaucer was English. He was born in London, which made him English through and through. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. It has been said that Stratford is exactly in the heart of England, which makes Shakespeare English through and through.

Chaucer was one of the first poets to use a five-line stress that is directly related to Shakespeare and his iambic pentameter. 

His contribution to the English language is so important, Chaucer is considered the Father of English Literature. 

Shakespeare’s contribution to English literature and the language is so immense, we might consider him Chaucer’s Son.

Chaucer’s stories -- especially the Canterbury Tales, with their use of language, humor (often bawdy) and plot twists involving colorfully written common people -- have all the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s plays.


from The Canterbury Tales


Shakespeare must have found inspiration not only from Chaucer’s writing but also his life.

King Edward III rewarded Chaucer for his poetry, and gave him a place in his court. As such, Chaucer was the precursor to the later poets laureate -- government appointed poets.

King James made Shakespeare a King’s Man in 1603, the official company of players to the king, with Shakespeare as their head play-poet.

I think Shakespeare would have thought that he was following in Chaucer’s footsteps.

It begs a question: to what degree were King James and Shakespeare aware of the precedent set by Edward III and Chaucer?

When Shakespeare was writing plays during the reign of King James, surely he must have felt what it was like for Chaucer to write the Canterbury Tales during the reign of King Richard II.


Richard II


Chaucer’s father and grandfather were vintners. However, it is clear that his family name Chaucer, which derives from the French “chausseur” meaning shoe-maker, would indicate that his family were from humble beginnings.

I think this would have appealed to Shakespeare, whose father was a glove-maker. 

It must have amused him, since Shakespeare’s frenemy Christopher Marlowe was born to a shoe-maker.

In any event, Chaucer’s humble beginnings would have been a source of inspiration to a humble and young William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon, who had dreams to walk in Chaucer’s footsteps. Pun intended.

Chaucer served King Edward III and Richard II, and during his life he saw great political change, and popular unrest -- like the Peasants’ Revolt.

The same could be said for Shakespeare, who entertained Queen Elizabeth and King James, saw great political change, and popular unrest -- like the Essex Rebellion against Elizabeth and the Gunpowder Plot against James.

Chaucer died in 1400 and in 1556 his remains were moved and put in a tomb in Westminster Abbey, in what became known as Poets’ Corner.


Chaucer's Tomb

Shakespeare was born not long after in 1564. I would think that Shakespeare would have made a pilgrimage to his tomb as soon as he arrived in London. I like to imagine that he would visit it often over the years, in good and bad times.

I also like to think that Shakespeare dreamed of being buried near Chaucer, as another of one England’s most celebrated writers.

But I think Shakespeare wanted to be buried in Stratford even more -- with and near the people that meant the most to him, his family, friends, and neighbors who were arguably the source and models for all of his literary greatness.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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