Prologue to the Monk's Tale
When Chaucer's tale of Melibee has finished, the Host says (for the second time) that he wishes his wife could hear the tale of Prudence and her patience and wise counsel: his wife, he goes on to extrapolate, is an ill-tempered shrew. Turning to address the Monk, he bids him be 'myrie of cheere', and asks whether his name is John, Thomas or Albon, asking which house he is of. Admiring the Monk's skin and stature, the Host jokes that he could be a good breeding fowl, if only he were allowed to breed! Religion, the Host goes on, has taken up all the best breeding people, and left just the puny creatures to populate the world.
The Monk takes all this joking well, and promises a tale (or two, or three) of the life of Edward the Confessor, but first, announces he will tell some tragedies, of which he has a hundred stored up. Tragedy, as the Monk defines it, is a story from an old book of someone who fell from high degree and great prosperity into misery, and ended wretchedly; tragedies are also usually presented in hexameters, he thinks.
The Monk's Tale
The Monk's tale is a collection of tragedies, designed to advise men not to trust in blind prosperity but be aware that Fortune is fickle and ever-changing.
Lucifer is the first tragedy told, who fell from an angelic heaven down to Hell. Adam is next, the one man not born of original sin, who was driven from Paradise.
Sampson's tale is told at greater length, explaining how he fell from grace when he admitted his secret to his wife, who betrayed it to his enemies and then took another lover. The story is that Samson slew one thousand men with an ass's jawbone, then prayed for God to quench his thirst. From the jawbone's tooth sprung a well. He would have conquered the world if he had not told Delilah that his strength came from his refusal to cut his hair. Without this strength his enemies cut out Samson's eyes and imprisoned him. In the temple where Samson was kept he knocked down two of the pillars, killing himself and everyone else in the temple.
Hercules' tragedy is next. Hercules' strength was unparalleled, but he was finally defeated when Deianera sent Hercules a poisoned shirt made by Nessus.
Nabugodonosor (also spelled Nebuchadnezzar), was the king of Babylon who had twice defeated Israel. The proud king constructed a large gold statue that he demanded his subjects pray to or else be cast into a pit of flames. Yet when Daniel disobeyed the king, Nebuchadnezzar lost all dignity, acting like a great beast until God relieved him of his insanity.
The next tragedy is about Balthasar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, who also worshipped false idols. He had a feast for a thousand lords in which they drank wine out of sacred vessels, but during his feast he saw an armless hand writing on a wall. Daniel warned Balthasar of his father's fate. Daniel warned him that his kingdom would be divided by Medes and the Persians. Balthasar, according to the Monk, exemplifies the way that Fortune makes friends with people before making enemies with them.
Cenobia (or Zenobia), who was beautiful and victorious in war, is the next tragic hero of the tale. The queen of Palmyra refused the duties of women and refused to marry, until she was forced to wed Odenathus. She permitted him to have sex with her only so that she could get pregnant, but no more. Yet the proud woman, once Odenathus was dead, was defeated by the Romans and paraded through Rome bound in chains.
King Pedro of Spain, subject of the next story, was cast from his kingdom by his brother. When attempting to regain his throne, Pedro was murdered by this brother.
Peter, King of Cyprus, is the next subject; he brought ruin on his kingdom and was thus murdered.
Other tragedies include Bernabo Visconti, who wrongly imprisoned his nephew. Ugolino of Pisa, a count, was imprisoned in a tower in Pisa with his three young children after Ruggieri, the bishop of Pisa, had led a rebellion against him. His youngest son died of starvation, and out of his misery Ugolini gnawed on his own arms. The two children that remained thought that Ugolini was chewing himself out of hunger, and offered themselves as meals for him. They all eventually starved. Nero did nothing but satisfy his own lusts and even cut open his own mother to see the womb from which he came. He had Seneca murdered for stating that an emperor should be virtuous. When it appeared that Nero would be assassinated for his cruelty, he killed himself. Holofernes ordered his subjects to renounce every law and worship Nebuchadnezzar. For this sin Judith cut off Holofernes' head as he was sleeping.
The Monk next tells of Antiochus Epiphanes, who was punished by God for attacks on the Jews. God made Antiochus infested with loathsome maggots. The Monk then admits that most have heard of Alexander the Great, poisoned by his very own offspring. He follows with the tale of Julius Caesar, who had Pompey murdered but was himself assassinated by Brutus. The final story is of Croesus, King of Lydia, the proud and wealthy king who was hanged.
All of these tales are simply re-tellings of the popularly known stories: all focus on the same theme of people of high degree falling into misery or death. Finally the Monk's Tale is interrupted.
The Monk provides one of the first-known definitions of tragedy in English literature, and, though his tale might have been fascinating to Chaucer's medieval audience, many of whom would not know the classical stories it largely details, it does not receive a huge amount of attention or adoration from modern readers and critics.
The Monk's tragedies are drawn from a variety of sources: Biblical, classical, historical and even some that, in Chaucer's time, would have been within reasonably recent folklore and memory. Yet the model of tragedy that the Monk offers is not, in fact, a classical model as such, but a Boethian one - a reminder of the mutability of life itself, and the tendency of fickle, feminine Fortune to spin her wheel and bring those at the top crashing down to the ground. It is, on one level, simply a series of car-crash narratives - an unrelenting dark, Boethian reminder that the high-status end miserably.
Some more recent studies have tried to locate the Monk's tale, with its emphasis on the stories told about the history, and its focus on the writers from whom the Monk has drawn the stories, as a response to Boccaccio's De casibus tragedies and a comment on the involvement of writing, poets and poetry in the support of tyrants and despots.
Yet neither of these readings of the Tale really explains what it is doing within its context. Louise Fradenburg argues very persuasively in her book that the Monk is a death's head at the feast - a sudden explosion of misery and death into the festive fun of the Canterbury project. The Monk's own solid physical reality, good for breeding (so the Host jokes - and breeding is the opposite of dying) is juxtaposed with his tales, precisely about the end of the body and its death, rather than life and strength.
Moreover, the numbers that the Monk quotes - he has a hundred tragedies in his cell, of which he manages to fit in seventeen before he is interrupted - suggest a painfully dismal repetition of the fall from fortune to misery, fortune to misery, fortune to misery. It is rather as if the Monk himself becomes a sort of anti-Canterbury Tales all of his own: each of his mini-tales progressively darkening the horizon.
It is no wonder then that the Knight sees fit to interrupt the Monk and halt his tale - particularly as the Monk tells tales largely about the demise of high-status characters (and the Knight, of course, is the pilgrimage's highest-ranking pilgrim). The Monk himself presents a threat to the fun of the tale: he is all 'ernest' and no 'game', as the Host points out to him, and - beginning a trend which arises more and more as these final tales progress - when he is interrupted, he refuses to speak any further. One of the tellers has his mouth firmly closed.