Chaucer and the Medieval Drama

The Miller's Tale is an obvious point of connection between the Canterbury Tales and medieval drama. That tale features several references to well-known episodes and characters from the mystery cycles. One of those episodes, Noah's Flood, becomes a significant element in the adulterous scheming of Nicholas and Alisoun. The "hende" lodger, Nicholas, tells the soon-to-be cuckolded husband, John, that "'on Monday next, at quarter night,/Shal falle a rain'" greater than Noah's Flood, which will destroy the world "'in lasse than an hour. . .' " (Longman, p. 322, line 408ff). John, who takes pride in his pious life and likes the idea that God has chosen him to be saved, believes Nicholas. So when the lodger explains that Noah's strife with his wife ("The sorwe of Noee with his felaweshipe," p. 323, line 431) might be avoided by John and Alisoun if the carpenter will rig-up individual tubs for the three of them, John agrees. It is this persuasive argument that results in John lying in a tub some distance from Alisoun and facilitates the adulterous affair between her and Nicholas.

In presenting his plan to John, Nicholas implies that John would have heard about Noah's problems ("Hastou nat herd. . .?", p. 323, line 430), which seems a direct reference to the mystery-play versions of the flood story, such as Noah's Flood, the play we've read from the Chester cycle. The characters in The Miller's Tale obviously know something about the Middle English cycle plays. For example, Absolon acts like Herod, another notorious character from these plays. All of these references indicate that Chaucer, too, was familiar with the recalcitrant Mrs. Noah of the mystery plays and that he felt his audience would recognize the dramatic episodes and characters to whom he alludes.


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