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Comparison Of Language, Form And Structure In 'The Miller's Tale', 'The Taming Of The Shrew' And 'The Scarlett Letter'

Chaucer, Shakespeare and Hawthorne are all iconic literary figures of their ages, writing during the 14th, 16th and 19th centuries. Each writer is primarily renowned for adopting a particular form (poetry, drama and prose respectively), and each possesses a highly distinctive writing style, leaving behind a legacy where later writers (including each other) reference their works and borrow from each other's plots and techniques. The Miller's Tale was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century as a single poem belonging to a collection of tales, The Canterbury Tales, told in poetic form. The play, The Taming of the Shrew, was written over two hundred years later by William Shakespeare. Both are written predominantly in iambic pentameter: Chaucer composes each line in rhyming or heroic couplets, while Shakespeare's verse in generally unrhymed, known as blank verse. When characters of low birth converse or when the subject matter is base, Shakespeare frequently converts to prose, the dominant form of novels, as seen in The Scarlett Letter. In terms of genre, The Scarlett Letter is an historical semi-allegorical novel, embracing symbolism in favour of realism, with a strong anti-moralistic tone pervading the novel. The Miller's Tale draws on (and mocks) ideas of courtly love and fabliau - elements that can be attributed to Shakespeare's Lucentio/Bianca and Petruchio/Katherina's couplings respectively. All three texts centre on ideas of love and romance although The Miller's Tale and The Taming of the Shrew are essentially comedies which contrast starkly with the bleaker tone of The Scarlett Letter. The Miller's Tale exists in an interesting narrative frame, which characterizes The Canterbury Tales as a whole, involving many pilgrims, constantly changing the narrative perspective. Starting primarily with The Portrait of the Miller from The General Prologue, narrated by an anonymous, naive member of the pilgrimage, who is not described. The listener is encouraged to understand the miller and his characteristics to give a background to the tale. The General prologue\s narrated by an omniscient character, (just as Hawthorne uses an unnamed omniscient character to narrate The Scarlett Letter) used by Chaucer to establish the setting of the tales, pilgrim narrators and plots. Here, the audience is exposed to the fact the Miller is low on the social hierarchy amidst a group of much higher class acquaintances. The Miller's Tale itself is told after The Knight's Tale, spoken first to align with the Knight's highest social standing, narrated by the new characters introduced within it. The tale is structured simply as one poem in contrast to being separated into stanzas or chapters. Interestingly, The Miller's Tale would not normally have been introduced so early on considering his low ranking in comparison to those waiting to tell their own tales, such as the Reeve, Prioress and Monk. The drunken state of the Miller within the General Prologue means he rudely barges his way into the hierarchal order.

Whilst Chaucer uses the form of narrative poems and a chronological, simple structure, Shakespeare develops and evolves on the footprint of Chaucer, introducing his play The Taming of The Shrew, in the 16th century. Shakespeare creates a “play within a play”, essentially surrounding the first play around the main story to create a framing device. Both prose and blank verse are cleverly used to express social levels and convergence of the characters. For lower class characters such as Grumio, it is expected they speak in prose to infer a less educated and refined background which aligns with the lack of structure within prose, but certain lower class characters frequently change to speak in verse when around those of higher social standing, such a servants. Shakespeare is noted for his use of iambic pentameter, a trait that is linked to Chaucer as well as the use of rhyming couplets, a structural device which Shakespeare would use at the end of an act or scene to emphasise a point or quotation that is vital to the play. The Taming of The Shrew adopts a much more complex structure than Chaucer's poem, comprising five acts that are subdivided into scenes. The main play develops as it jumps from a main plot to a sub plot, consistently dividing itself between the two. This differs extremely from the linear order of structure in The Miller's Tale, which The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne also chooses not to follow.

Written as a controversial romance novel in the early 19th Century, The Scarlet Letter is in Modern English, following a non-chronological structure that focuses itself on the three climatic elements of the novel, each revolving itself around the scaffold in which Hester, the female protagonist, is first introduced with. The novel is narrated by a character who is looking back on the events years after they have happened and is unnamed, inferring to the reader that he is used purely as a narrative frame, albeit a sympathetic one. Opening with a chapter named “The Customs House”, which also takes place after the events in The Scarlett Letter, the novel constantly flips in time order as Hester receives flashbacks, giving a hectic structural frame in order to mirror her state of mind. Hawthorne gives the novel a refined edge, as the formal and complex use of vocabulary bestows an educated air. Metaphorically and biblically driven, Hawthorne constructs his sentences with a net of commas, creating long sentences that are the length of a paragraph. Linking to the novel's theme of sin in a small, religious, Puritan town, Hawthorne uses a vast amount of religious imagery and semantic fields to encourage the reader to understand the dominance of religious faith in the era. The most poignant of Hawthorne's language is the semantic fields used to describe Pearl, Hester's daughter- born out of adultery, linking her to a range of images such as “imp”, “pale as death”, “hellish”, “freakish”, “evil” and “elfish”, all contributing to a haunting and gothic portrait.

In contrast, Chaucer's Middle English writing style can be characterised as lexically simple to remain accessible to a broad audience, including the illiterate, and easy to digest aurally. The vernacular used creates informality but his writing is strongly laden with imagery and symbols, with a pervading presence of irony as he mocks courtly love and fabliau in his tales. Referring to Alisoun's portrait as being like “any wezele… gent and smail” and her eyebrows “blake as any sloo”, entirely full of nature imagery. This use of nature represents the medieval time: dirty and farm-yard like. Similarly, The Taming of The Shrew's title compares a female to an animal and immediately involves a metaphor, suggesting to the audience that the content itself is riddled with figurative language from the offset. Expressive and elaborate in style, Shakespeare's biblical referencing and lexical features are complex and metaphorical, (“Fiend of hell”, “Devil, I pray” ) a characteristic of his writing. It is clear that all three texts share key themes which explore the difficulty of attaining and maintaining married love and harmony; however the forms the three writers have employed convey these ideas in very different ways. The Scarlet Letter's omniscient perspective admits the reader into the minds and thoughts of characters who are described and developed at great length, whereas a play script only gives access to the expressed speech of the characters during a few hours' performance. The limitations on The Miller's Tale are even greater; it is only 800 lines in length and most of the characters are superficially delineated so it is rather lacking in realism and authenticity, but is highly entertaining and clearly rebukes these stock characters in a rather moralistic way - omitting the subtle ambiguities of the play and the novel. Hence all three texts serve very different purposes and are received in completely different ways by their audiences. Between them, there is something for every literary taste.

Literature


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