AuthorWilliam Shakespeare
TimeBetween 1599 and 1601
LanguageEarly Modern English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or quite simply, Hamlet, is William Shakespeare’s longest play and one of his most famous tragedies, written between 1599 and 1601. Set in Denmark just as the medieval world began to transition to the Renaissance period, the play spans five acts, comprising seven soliloquies and 4000 over lines that cleverly place thematic extremes –  for instance, madness and sanity, love and hate, life and death – on both sides of the same coin. Such deliberation over the human condition at once provides insights into the circumstances of its time and imbues the play with a timeless quality, generously allowing for continued retelling and recontextualization. 


Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4), engraved by Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli’s conception, stipple engraving, first published 1796. From The Met Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hamlet, distilled down to the mere unfolding of its plot, tells of Prince Hamlet’s revenge against King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, after learning from the ghost of Old King Hamlet that Claudius had murdered the Old King Hamlet in pursuit of “[his] crown, [his] own ambition, and [his] queen” (Act 3 Scene 3, line 55). Duty bound by the ghost’s demand to be avenged, the shaken Prince seeks to verify the ghost’s words, and thereby the presence of a supernatural being, as part of his plan for revenge by putting on an “antic disposition” (Act 1 Scene 5, line 179). Though Hamlet’s subsequent act of madness and erratic behavior – as observed by Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, and later reported to her father, Polonius – is initially thought of as a result of distress and grief over his father’s death, Claudius soon becomes suspicious, and observes as Hamlet wittingly deflects Polonius, Ophelia, and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Upon learning of the acting troupe brought in by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago, The Mousetrap’ that reveals, to both Hamlet and the audience, Claudius’s guilty conscience. 

Gertrude, the Queen, summons Hamlet to her chambers for an explanation as to Hamlet’s offending of Claudius. On the way to her chambers, Hamlet stumbles upon Claudius and, seeing Claudius praying, chooses to withhold his murderous intent for fear that killing Claudius then would send him to Heaven whilst Old King Hamlet stays in Purgatory. In Gertrude’s chambers, Hamlet confronts his mother with her incestuous deed and the truth of Old King Hamlet’s death. The spying Polonius behind the curtains, thinking Hamlet will kill his mother, calls for help, and is promptly stabbed by Hamlet, who believes Claudius to be in the chambers and who proceeds to audaciously insult Gertrude for her ignorance of Claudius’s depravity. The ghost then appears only to Hamlet to berate him for his inaction and his harsh words while Gertrude, only witnessing Hamlet’s fear, believes her son to be mad. 

The Death of Hamlet, by Eugène Delacroix and Villain, lithograph, 1843. From The Met Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The simultaneous occurrence of Polonius’s death and Hamlet’s slipping control over his sanity brings about a series of deaths in the remaining half of the play. Ophelia, upon learning of her father’s death, becomes mad with grief and drowns (accidental, or otherwise), causing Laertes much grief. His thirst for vengeance leads him to go along with Claudius’s suggestion to engage in a fencing match with Hamlet using a poison-tipped foil and, if Hamlet wins, to offer a glass of poisoned wine as congratulations. The plan goes terribly awry – Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine as a toast to Hamlet’s initial wins, and though Laertes manages to injure Hamlet as planned, Hamlet wounds Laertes too with the poisoned foil. As Laertes lies dying, he exposes Claudius’s plan, prompting Hamlet to kill Claudius. The play ends with Hamlet begging Horatio not to commit suicide and to tell his story as Fortinbras marches through, taking the crown for himself and ordering a military funeral in honour of Hamlet.


Reading Hamlet’s whirlwind of a trajectory as the above summary has done so leaves one bewildered by the many inconsistencies and discontinuities that would appear, at times, irrational if not for Hamlet’s soliloquies. Each of the seven soliloquy expresses Hamlet’s inner psyche at various stages of the play’s development, as Hamlet mourns for and struggles to comprehend the loss of his father that has been complicated and made ambiguous by the ghost, whose presence, claim of murder, and dwelling in purgatory entirely destablize Hamlet’s Protestant beliefs and understanding of reality. Finding himself caught in an aporia, he exclaims to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,//Than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (Act 1 Scene 5, lines 174 – 75, emphasize mine). While mourning is a transitive process when loss is definitive and comprehensible, Hamlet’s enigmatic loss causes him to remain in an intransitive state of mourning,1 which he describes to be like a “heartache, and the thousand natural shocks//That flesh is heir to”—for, as he confesses to Horatio, “in [his] heart there was a kind of fighting//That would not let [him] sleep” (Act 5 Scene II, line 4). Hamlet’s bodily description of his conscious faculty – the repeated motif of his “heart,” reference to the “flesh” and his insomnia – presents his intransitive state of mourning to be that of a melancholic2 disposition that infects his soliloquies3. In his fourth soliloquy4, he laments: 

To be or not to be, that is the question: 
… To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wished: to die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub; 
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause
(Act 3 Scene I, lines 57-65, emphasis mine)

Hamlet’s repetition of the words “die (death)”, “sleep” and “dream” in a fervent attempt to draw connections between these notions expresses his struggle to comprehend the mortal condition. Upon suggesting that death is a kind of “sleep” that would forebode unknown “dreams,” Hamlet concludes that it is the feared possibility of “dreams,” of the afterlife that causes a “pause,” an inability (or refusal) to make peace with death. The conclusion of this fear, as hinted by his metaphorical reference to the afterlife as an “undiscovered country” later in this soliloquy (Act 3 Scene I, line 80), is very much born out of his attempt at registering the presence of the ghost that reveals the political corruption in Denmark. Hamlet’s lengthy soliloquizing, then, as both a result of and a cause of his melancholia, not only pushes the physical and temporal boundaries of the stage and provides insights into his psychological state, but also shows how Renaissance thought is motivated by the age that precedes it. 

Hamlet’s pause caused by his struggle to comprehend death and the afterlife also effectively prepares the audience for the chain of unnatural deaths that will occur later in Act 5, seemingly perpetuated by an unknown force. As the play develops, Hamlet’s mulling over of divine justice and retribution almost writes itself, with deaths happening spontaneously in a reversal of fortune, as my classmates and I had (mirthfully) concluded below: 

Missing above is Hamlet’s causing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths, as well as the soldiers’ deaths at the battlefield that went unaccounted for.

Most of the characters’ deaths are unwittingly a result of their misdoings, suggesting the capricious Rota Fortunae5, the Fortune’s Wheel which the goddess Fortuna spins at random, changing the position of those on the Wheel. The medieval and Renaissance period saw the use of the wheel in the “Mirrors for Princes,” a popular genre of writing that sets out advice for the ruling classes on the wielding of power, shifting the Wheel from the Goddess to the hands of humans. For Prince Hamlet, figures of philosophy like Fortune are not personified as divine guides, but rather figuratively addressed: 

A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards 
Hath ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those 
Whose blood and judgement are so well commingled 
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger 
To sound what she please. (Act 3 Scene II, lines 62 – 66) 

Here, Hamlet likens Fortune’s control over humans’ “buffets and rewards” to that of a musician playing a pipe, and suggests that humans’ ability to reason and judge frees us from becoming Fortune’s fool. As Hamlet later exclaims, “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me” (Act 3 Scene II, lines 353 – 354), seeing Fortune as the mere making of human manipulation, and perceiving himself to be above that. Yet Hamlet himself is also manipulated, as his effort to serve divine retribution (his revenge that results in Ophelia’s undeserving death) in turn provokes Laertes’ desire for revenge against Hamlet: 

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well 
When our dear plots do pall; and that should teach us 
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, 
Rough-hew them how we will – (Act 5 Scene II, lines 8 – 10) 

Print depicting the Wheel of Fortune, engraved by Martin Rota, 1572.

Whether it is the inevitable submission to the whims of Fortune6 (whereby death is the divine retribution for having sinned, prior to repercussions in the afterlife) or undeserving deaths as a result of human folly (Ophelia’s death, as well as that of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the soldiers involved in the war between Denmark and Norway), Hamlet addresses the limitations of letting “your own discretion be your tutor,” wherein our moments of irrationality, although beyond our control, are also part of what “shapes our ends”. Through Hamlet’s consciousness, then, Hamlet goes beyond the singular focus of a revenge tragedy plot to consider the vicious cycle of revenge that interweaves the characters’ (including the barely mentioned soldiers) fate, exposing human reasoning as limited by the human condition which, in effect, presents the dichotomies7 of Renaissance thought. 

Indeed, Hamlet’s focus on the individual’s mourning and their positioning in a complex web of human relations allows us to better comprehend the occurrence of mass deaths that often ironically evade our empathy and ability to fully register the gravity of our loss. Hamlet’s continued use of the collective pronoun “we” and “us” in his soliloquies (and his addressing of Horatio) includes the audience, extending the ‘pause’ beyond himself which makes room for “commentary and reflection instead of narration” (Genette Gerard, Narrative Discourse 36). Through the experience of mourning, insights on death very much inform life, for the play, “despite its concerns with death, is bursting with life” (General Introduction 29). With Hamlet’s eventual acceptance – “since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” (Act 5 Scene II, lines 169-170), one is prompted to accept the dramatic portrayal of sentiments – excessive fear, anger, love and hate, mourning and mirth – and failings that are only human, as a form of peace-making with death. 


1 Mourning as a response to loss can be transitive and intransitive (“mourn, v.1”). 

2 According to Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholia (1883), melancholia is a disposition as much as it is a ‘habit’; in other words, melancholia is an affect that is “an act of Mortality” that manifests as a treatable physical “settled humour” of black bile (93). Hamlet is also described as cloaked in black (Act 1 Scene II, line 77) and he confesses to have already “lost all of [his] mirth, forgone all custom of exercise” (Act 2 Scene II, line 294), both of which are also symptoms of melancholia.

3 Here I refer to his soliloquies that come after his meeting with the ghost. 

4 For the purpose of this essay, I focused largely on the fourth soliloquy, for it is in Act 3 where Hamlet is most unsettled, having confirmed the presence of the ghost. 

5 The Rota Rotunae was greatly popularized for the Middle Ages by its extended treatment in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and was widely used as an allegory in medieval literature and art to aid religious instruction.

6 Charles M. Radding states in his article ‘Fortune and her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol’:“If the popularity of Fortune in the central Middle Ages does not reflect a new social reality, then it is likely that it was meant to suggest [that] the operation of a force distinct from necessity and also (one might add) from divine justice… the meaning of the Wheel of Fortune is thus quite general: that everyone in human society is subject to the whims of Fortune, that not all of the world’s gifts or the world’s tragedies are deserved” (133). 

7 That is, the extremes of reasoning and faith. The opposing ends of Renaissance thought presents either an entire lack of faith in the divine (as proposed by the philosopher Edward Herbert of Cherbury) or, according to Blaise Pascal, total disbelief in the human ability to understand the world with certainty (Fieser). 


Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Claxton & Co. 1883. Internet Archive, urn:oclc:record:1039522579

Fieser, James. “Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy.”  The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey, 2020, https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/110/6-renaissance.htm 

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cornell UP, 1980 

Radding, Charles M. “Fortune and Her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol.” Mediaevistik, vol. 5, Peter Lang AG, 1992, pp. 127–38, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42584434.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Bloomsbury Arden, 2016. 

“mourn, v.1.” OED Online, Oxford UP, March 2021, www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/11125. Accessed 5 March 2022. 


The following creative projects, produced for the course on Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature, offer further perspectives and insights on Hamlet and its thematic concerns:


[Featured Image & Fig. 1] http://www.strangehistory.net/2014/11/17/daily-history-picture-playing-medieval-chess/

[Fig. 2] https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/chaucer/works.html

[Fig. 3] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1873-0809-801


Piers Plowman (/A Brechtian Reinterpretation)

GenreAllegory, Alliterative Verse, Dream Vision
AuthorWilliam Langland
TimeLate 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured InDeath, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Piers Plowman is the highly acclaimed Middle English allegorical poem by William Langland, written after the Black Death. The alliterative poem is divided into multiple sections or visions (termed “passus”). The narrator encounters various allegorical characters ranging from “Reason”, “Fortune”, “Wrath”, to rather unapologetically named ones such as  “Do-Just-So-Or-Your-Dame-Will-Beat-You” and “Suffer-Your-Sovereigns-To-Have-Their-Will-Condemn-Them-Not-For-If-You-Do-You’ll-Pay-A-Dear-Price-Let-God-Have-His-Way-With-All-Things-For-So-His-Word-Teaches”, all in effort to learn and understand how to live life as a good Christian.


As a theological and social allegory, Piers Plowman pushes its literary form to the limit, with its endless search for authority and meaning in a post-plague era of death and social upheaval. During the medieval period, it was widely read and proved to be an influential text, even being used as inspiration during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Given Piers Plowman’s social relevancy and popularity, my project hopes to re-imagine the text in a modern context while keeping its resonances as boundary-pushing social commentary. Moreover, just as Langland pushed against the didactic form of the allegory, my creative intervention attempts to move the theatrical form to the limits of realism, to comment on the crisis of society after a period of uncertainty, a reality we are still grappling with today.


Piers Plowman: A Brechtian Reinterpretation
Literary Art / Performing Art (Stage Play and Artistic Direction)
An Interpretation of Piers Plowman
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Artist’s Remarks

My creative project will approach Piers Plowman from two directions – first as the writer of the Brechtian re-imagination of the text and secondly, as the artistic director commenting on the script with staging ideas. In this fictious production, I imagine that the play is put up by a very small team with aims to use art to generate some kind of social change, hence, the creative process between artistic collaborators is more transparent. As the writer, my re-interpretation of Piers Plowman focuses on picking out key moments in Passus V and VI and creating a montage-like sequence, one of the characteristics of Brechtian-inspired work. Moreover, as the script writer, I used the source text as the main inspiration, quoting the translation and the middle English to respect the socio-cultural world of the play, an important aspect of Brechtian work. Conversely, as the artistic director, I explain more fully what the staging could look like, while also removing more suspension of disbelief so the ‘audience’ (ie the reader of the script) can see behind the veil of the play’s staging, another Brechtian characteristic. This feature should also figure into the staging of the play as the set changes and costume changes happen in front of the audience. Overall, I want to construct a play, set during the time of Piers Plowman, that makes the audience confront the intellectual experiences of thinking about social issues rather than the feelings that heart-wrenching realism may invoke.

Compared to other medieval texts such as Dante’s Inferno or Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, Langland does not invoke as many intertextual references to the literary canon, but rather, is interested in depicting social reality as a means to grapple with it. In a similar way, Brecht believed that “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”1, with his work often being tied to specific social contexts. Thus, I see a striking similarity between Brechtian theatre and Langland’s poem as both attempt to use art and culture to reflect deeply on society in a way that requires several layers of interpretation and understanding. Piers Plowman is not obviously didactic; however, it forces the reader to confront absurd scenarios that astound and confuse, much like how Brechtian theatre is staged. In my re-imagination of Piers Plowman, I have utilized many Brechtian techniques to reflect my initial process of encountering Piers Plowman for the first time. Some key Brechtian theories I have chosen to employ include Verfremdung (V-effect)a devising process that aims to make the familiar strange as a means for the audience to reach a deeper level of understanding by being forced to resolve surface contradictions and Gestus, a type of physicality that hopes to represent a character rather than embody it. Just as Langland’s poems alienate the modern reader, I hope to do the same in my theatrical re-interpretation. In the process of reconstituting Lamgland’s poem into a play, I looked into medieval morality plays such as Everyman to understand how medieval theatre incorporated allegory. I noticed that the practice of stating the didactic purpose of the morality play at the beginning fits in nicely with Brecht’s V-effect as this sort of declarative statement in modern day would serve to alienate, allowing for an interesting cross-pollination of medieval and modern theatrical practice.

Additionally, in my theatrical re-interpretation, I wanted to highlight the feelings of anxiety after the plague, which had pushed the world to the brink of disaster. Seen through Piers Plowman and the narrative itself, the text constantly grasps for meaning as the characters clamour to find ‘Truth’, a religious symbol of redemption. Thus, Piers Plowman becomes a vehicle to embark on this spiritual quest as he becomes a pseudo-Christ-like figure, who in the process of leading them to salvation, re-affirms strict social hierarchies where “wives and widows [should] spin wool and flax” (Langland 6.13) and the knight should “uphold [his] obligation” to “take care” (Langland 6.33) of the people. However, this spiritual quest underpins larger societal issues as individuals such as the “pickpocket”, “ape-trainer” and “cake-seller” (Langland 5.630 – 634), believe that they have “no kin” with Truth, speaking to the larger issue that only communities of aristocrats believed that they have access to spiritual redemption. Compounded by the historical context of peasants being forced to work under the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349, I wanted to explore this social commentary through my use of placards which have often been used to comment on the unseen in Brechtian plays. Another way that Langland has created boundary-pushing social commentary is through his allegory of Hunger, which is also tied to the labour crisis. The violence with which Hunger is used to control the Waster is striking, as Hunger “gripped [the Waster] so that his eyes gushed water” (Langland 6.175). While exhibiting cruel violence, Hunger is simultaneously shown to restore social order. I wanted to figure this duality of Hunger into my montage sequence, choosing to construct Hunger as a modern-day rock star – a symbol of both vice and virtue. To do this, I conceived of unique staging elements such as costuming and lighting to create a jarring quality, alienating the audience.

To me, this project is a creative exercise in relating modern theatrical practice to Langland’s unique use of form. It is interesting to see many resonances with how literature and art tends to move after a catastrophic event such as the plague, or the pandemic, as there is clearly a pattern of art moving towards more absurd, post-modern directions. Other artistic movements such as Dadaism or the rise of Zoom theatre reflects this human desire to construct meaning in chaos by pushing the limits of the known. Piers Plowman represents this human impulse to explain the inexpressible, in a constant struggle to find meaning in a world surrounded by death, and it is my hope that my Brechtian reimagination of the text pay homage to its enduring relevance in the 21st century.


1 The source of this quote has been disputed greatly so it is difficult to find where it was originally quoted from. However, this quote is one of the most commonly-attributed quote to Brecht. 


[Featured Image] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Plowman



FormEpic Poetry
AuthorDante Alighieri
TimeEarly 14th Century
LanguageTuscan / Florentine Vernacular (Italian)
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Inferno is an epic poem by Dante Alighieri, and is the first part of Dante’s Divina Commedia, of The Divine Comedy. The poem follows the pilgrim Dante’s descent into hell, guided by ancient Roman poet Virgil, whose epic poem Aeneid also explores the afterlife / underworld at some point.


The text of Inferno had evoked very different responses across the class. A good half of the class eventually produced creative projects inspired by the Cantos that they personally found particularly striking and memorable:


Love that Sends You To Hell, by VIVIEN SIM (’24). Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta seem to be light upon the wind.

In Canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno, the lustful are punished in a vortex of conflicting winds. This particular canto stood out to me because Dante is ambiguous in his treatment of the sinners who reside in this section of hell. He neither condemns them totally, nor does he absolve them of fault for giving in to their own desires. In this sense, Canto 5 demonstrates an obvious conflation between the figures of Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, as well as a true human weakness towards how we might come to negotiate our approach and position on types of love.

The bedrock of my impression of this canto rested in one line that stood out to me. It is when Dante seems to grant to the reader as he writes that he “came into a place where all light is silent” (Alighieri, 5.28), which means that we have left the realm where expressions of human knowledge can be relied upon to convey what we see. As a result, I chose to steer my creative interpretation in the direction of expressionism. In expressionist fashion, I aimed to depict subjective emotions rather than objective reality, which was appropriate in the narrative of Canto 5 given that Dante himself acknowledges that the human understanding of reality seems to melt away. I chose to distort and exaggerate what this subjective experience might be through widely contrasting and vibrant colors to create a jarring effect. I hoped that my choice in depicting Canto 5 in an expressionist style would convey a hallucinatory lunacy that demands that we leave common sense behind as we approach Dante’s work.



No Path Marked, by ASHLEY SIM SHUYI (’22). Page from Dante’s Inferno, Black Colour Pencil, White Gel Pen and White Paint Marker, 29.7cm x 21cm.

Canto 13 begins with Dante and Virgil entering a poisoned forest, with Harpies perching on the branches. Dante hears lamentations of pain, but he cannot find the source of the sound until he discovers that the sinners have become the trees, punished to be fed on by harpies for all eternity. I chose to re-image this canto because I was intrigued by Dante’s description of the forest and the visceral image of the horrific punishment endured by those who commit suicide.

In the process of researching and re-imagining this Canto, I hoped to draw insight into how this Canto fit into the entire text, particularly with regards to immortalization and memory. This is one of the many instances where Dante tempts the sinner into sharing their story through the promise of glorious immortalization, where the sinner’s real ‘truth’ is revealed. With this in mind, I am interested in Dante’s text as a strategy of liberation – not only is the sinner liberated from being merely identified by his sin through Dante’s recording of his story, but his soul is also emancipated from its roots in the tree. On another level, Dante himself is liberated from the despair of hell by writing and recording this story. Due to these complex intersecting layers of memory, history and stories, I saw a need to combine multiple art and aesthetic forms for this creative re-interpretation.



In Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno, Brutus, Cassius, Judas, and Satan are imprisoned in the Ninth Circle of Hell for their treachery – Judas and Brutus for betraying Caesar and Rome, Judas for betraying Jesus, and Satan, the ultimate sinner, for opposing God.

Dante’s Satan – A Moving Image, by SIDHARTH PRVAEEN (’21).

I chose to create an animation that depicts Dante’s Satan as he is described in Canto 34. The piece features Satan with three heads, a pair of wings and a beating heart. The head in the middle chews Judas, the one on the left, Brutus, and the one on the right, Cassius. To accentuate the nature of their sins, I borrowed the contrapasso elements from the ninth bolgia and the violence-against-God subcircle and weaved them into my animation. I also wanted to expound on the idea that we had discussed in class about Dante’s Satan as punishment but also the punished. As for the background music, I reversed Sunn O)))’s song Báthory Erzsébet to get the unsettling, disturbing sounds that I added to my animation. The track has a dark yet powerful energy and it seemed apt to me that in a space that punishes and disempowers Satan, the song’s reverse would play in the background. 


The Inferno Postcard, by YAP JIA YI (’21).

My postcard evokes Dante’s completed imaginative vision of the afterlife. It can be viewed from both portrait (upright / inverted) and landscape perspectives. The postcard’s interpretative nature expresses the commedia in the Inferno as an immortalization the word of the divine (audaciously so through the words of Dante the poet) that is at once elusive in its reference to the source of evil and clear in the call for recognition and rejection of sin. The absurdity of the postcard compels its recipient to view the world through Dante’s critical humour, albeit in another time and space. 


The Anatomy of Lucifer and the Universe, by TOH HONG JIN (’23).

I have chosen to create a medieval manuscript page imitation, completed on paper using pencil and ink. It references the opening and closing Cantos (with direct quotations) to Dante’s Inferno, and draws inspiration from artworks on the mapping of Dante’s hell, fallen angels, and Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Aside from a broad overview of the pilgrim’s journey, this creative piece is most concerned with Lucifer, who was very much diminished and glossed over in the text. This manuscript imitation identifies Lucifer as the pivot that holds together Dante’s proposed structure of the universe according to his theological ideas. The piece can be flipped upside-down. By flipping it anticlockwise, the continuity in the quotes and the grandeur of the pilgrim’s journey can be more keenly felt. In the inverted perspective, the motion of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven and grace, enhanced by the superimposed drifting feathers, is immortalised. 


Virgil and Dante Meeting Satan in the Ninth Circle, by OSHEA REDDY (’24).

My decision to paint Dante’s and Virgil’s encounter with Satan in Canto 34 after their long and arduous journey through hell is rooted in my fascination with Satan’s unusual presentation. In the popular culture of the 21st century, Satan is portrayed in a seemingly glorified light and regarded as the ‘king of hell’: someone devious, scheming, and to be greatly feared. However, in Inferno, Dante brings to life an almost pitiable version of Satan in his work’s anti-climactic ending. The devil is regarded as “the emperor of the dolorous kingdom” (34.28), the most damned and pathetic sinner to be sentenced to eternal punishment in hell. I drew inspiration from Gustave Doré, one of the most widely known and celebrated illustrators of Inferno for my painting. Doré’s depiction of Satan in this sphere of suffering encapsulates the image that came to my mind upon reading this Canto: one of absolute isolation and sorrow. 


Go to Hell for Heaven’s Sake, by SIMONE TAM (’22). An in-depth visual exploration into Canto 34.

This project is an exploration of centring what is within the margins, and bringing new knowledge to light. It attempts to illustrate details and motifs that relate to Dante’s growing consciousness of sin, having reached the end of the journey in Inferno. This project also seeks to explore the relationship between Christ and Hell. As we come to discover, Hell is His design wherein His standards go forth.

The form of a portfolio intends to show the process of creative exploration, somewhat like Dante’s journey through the various layers. In attempting to visually map what I think Dante sees, I am also hoping to touch on questions of authorship. Much like the intertextual motifs in Inferno, our ideas are not wholly our own, and our recreations / imagined realities are not wholly novel. Where do we draw them from, and what do we hope to achieve? What and how do we see? 



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Translated by Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


[Featured Image] Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Robert Durling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). ISBN: 978-0195087444.


The Earth and Its Dead (/Possibly on Earth)

CategoryText (Part of The Dominion of the Dead)
AuthorRobert Pogue Harrison
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

The Earth and Its Dead” is the first chapter of Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead, a meditation on how ideas of death have shaped (and are still shaping) the interaction between the dead and the living world in Western civilisation.


The thing that struck me the most within the chapter was Harrison’s descriptions of how differently we process death because signs of it are hidden from plain sight. For instance, Harrison writes that “Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter.”1 The quotation suggests that a person, when coming across a ruin, witnesses the decay of man-made meaning in the form of buildings into the seemingly neutral substance of dirt. An ancient building implies human intervention in the form of creation and art. Dirt and other natural elements such as plants do not do the same thing as easily. As such, a ruin represents the decay of human creation and by extension, human civilization itself. 

More terrifying than the earth, Harrison offers the even scarier option of the sea. He notes that “no doubt that is why the sea, in its hostility to architecturally or textually imprinted memory, often figures as the imaginary agent of ultimate obliteration.”2 When I read this, I got the image of a seaman faced with the vast expense of the sea. There is a distinct lack of landmarks within this image, which means that any instinctual navigational skills used on land are immediately rendered useless. As a result, the sea within this image seems timeless. There are no human marks of age in the same way that the earth preserves layers of buildings that one can peel back with some effort. One also cannot re-dig up evidence of the dead that were thrown in. This image of the sea is both terrifying and comforting to me, terrifying in that it feels disorienting because its nature rejects my understanding of it within the scope of the timeline of my life, and comforting in that within a post-industrial world that is changing at the speed of light, the apparent consistency of the sea appears to be a form of constant that one might rely on. 


As a result of these two images of the earth and the sea, I felt that I wanted to do a work that touches upon this image of death presented by this text, something that might present the same feelings of wonder I experienced when I read about how the earth and the sea hide the dead from us, and something that was disturbing and humorous at the same time.

Before this course, I had always rejected the reflection on death to cling on to the stagnant notion that it is something to be avoided. This opinion was convenient but also gave me a lot of fear due to an inability to reflect on the deaths surrounding me in my life. I took this course as an attempt to evoke some reflection and bring about some process of personal mourning. This text was a wonderful beginning for the course because it posed the notion of the perception of death being a product of environmental forces as much as them being a product of society in a way that I could still see around me. 

I took inspiration from a number of artworks that focus on the reexamination of rather severe situations through the bizarre. The first work I looked at was a short film called Possibly in Michigan3, Cecelia Condit’s 1983 short art musical that discusses the issue of sexual violence through the presentation of cannibalism. One of the things that stood out to me was its reversal of roles between the stalker and the victim. We expect, if anyone, for the man (stalker) to kill and eat the woman (presumed victim). Yet, the beauty ends up the beast as the woman and her friend kill and eat the man instead. The women’s thorough job at cleaning his bones and disposal and their discussion of their friend’s consumption of her own dog suggest a prevalence of women killing and eating creatures around them. I found this to be particularly relevant to the above presentation of death because I wanted to explore a situation where one might be able to regain some control over the loss of human creation through the decay of ruins.

The second work that I looked at was of a collage by Richard Hamilton titled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 

Fig 1. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (Richard Hamilton, 1956)4

What I love about the collage is the unexpected nature of it. At first glance, it appears to be a hastily pulled-together image of a modern home with the latest appliances. One might go a step further and say that the couple and the appliances represent the ideal American home. Yet any observer who lingers for a second longer might notice how the figures appear to almost be caricatures of the highly sexualized tropes of masculinity and femininity, which seem to be at odds with the conservative nature of the traditional household. As a result, the contrast seems to be an alluring yet unsettling update to the notion of a household. I wanted to create a collage that presented this image of a traveler moving through ruins from the work but with elements that did not seem to match the tone of the original work. I sought to create a strong feeling of unsettlement and confusion that forces the viewer to slow down and perceive the artwork.


Possibly On Earth
An Interpretation of “The Earth and Its Dead”
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Artist’s Remarks

For this collage, I wanted to make something that touches upon both the idea of death in the sea and on land. I decided to place the ruins of the buildings underwater to create the inversion of the notion that one cannot build anything within the sea. Within the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that humans are capable of locating some things within the ocean. I hope that the setting under the sea and delocalized buildings are disorienting to the viewer in a way not to suggest the destruction of a particular city, but to suggest that the destruction of places is universal. 

Within The Earth and its Dead, Harrison presents the image of a modern traveler coming across a ruin from a time before themselves. I loved this image of the disconnection between the cultural context that the traveler comes from and the guesswork involved in trying to incorporate this bit of human history into the traveler’s own cultural context. As a result, I tried to force the viewer to consider that through the usage of ruins of architecture from this century and the whimsical painting of a couple on a romantic boat trip from what appears to be the 1800s. The cheerful image of their trip stands in stark contrast to the ruins, but also inverts the timelines. This seems to present the travelers not as pilgrims, but as tourists to the location of destruction. Their ornate boat and clothing suggest a personal intent to have an enjoyable trip set in the context of past destruction. The grey and bland color palette of the ruins is a familiar image from movies of apocalypse, which gives the modern viewer a feeling of dread and grief as one can easily imagine the loss of lives. The cheerful couple seem almost sadistic in their ignorance of this destruction around them. This was done intentionally to encourage the viewer to consider how we view ruins of today. One tries to fit them into their own context or tries to be educated through the wide availability of sources today. Yet we cannot deny that we often visit sites of old ruins with an odd cheerful fascination, while a survivor from the time may only see the complete collapse of their meaning of civilization. 

The hand reaching in to pluck mushrooms was made with reference to the elements of absurdity in Possibly In Michigan. Harrison talks about the uncaring nature of the sea, which is not bound to human understanding of grief and loss. Amidst the terrible nature of the destruction and apparent casual cruelty of the couple, the giant hand and mushrooms suggest a world larger than this destruction. When we see the ruins, we see a loss of life as we know it. When the owner of the giant hand sees the ruins, they see a source of food. As a result, the viewer is forced to understand that the humans within this picture can hardly be considered the center of the picture. Other organisms continue with their lives against the backdrop of man’s attempts to grapple with and understand their own losses. 

Finally, I made a version that moves because I enjoyed how the elements flew into frame one by one. It gave this collage an additional layer of artificiality, which it should. I made an artificial portrayal of nature, designed to evoke emotions and present my take on Harrison’s writing. Harrison, too, has created a way of examining death that others attempt to peer into. I simply wanted to comment on the artificial nature of the eternal human struggle to understand the collective history of one’s people that made this course so enjoyable. 


Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

2 Ibid.

3 The story centers around a young woman who meets her friend at the mall. They shop around and discuss their friend, who killed and ate her own poodle. They are stalked by a man who is disguised by a number of human and animal masks. He stalks the woman home and assaults her. Before he can kill her, he is killed by her friend with a gun. The two women cut him up and eat him. The film ends with the woman dumping a garbage bag with what one may presume to be the remains of his body onto her driveway for the trash-collector. 

4 “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, May 13, 2021), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_what_is_it_that_makes_today%27s_homes_so_different,_so_appealing%3F.


“The Dominion of the Dead.” University of Chicago Press, May 1, 2005. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo3617929.html. 

“Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 13, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_what_is_it_that_makes_today%27s_homes_so_different,_so_appealing%3F. 


Earth Upon Earth (/Erthe)

TimeMid 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

The anonymous poem “Earth Upon Earth” (Middle English: “Erthe Upon Erthe”) is an ambiguous exploration of the circularity of human experience upon earth – one that sees humans come from and return to the earth in life and death.


“Erthe Upon Erthe” as seen in MS Harley 2253, fol. 59v, British Library.
Middle EnglishTranslation
Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh
erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh
erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh
þo heuede erþe of erþe erþe ynoh
Earth took of earth, earth with woe,
Earth other earth to the earth drew,
Earth laid earth in an earthen tomb,
Then had earth of earth, earth enough.


Since reading this poem in the very first week of this course, I have carried it with me in the back of my mind, contemplating the relationship between man and the earth and what it means to be alive. This concern eventually culminated into a creative project. 


An Interpretation of “Earth Upon Earth”
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Artist’s Remarks

In my creative interpretation, I chose to create a spherical model comprised of layers of torn pieces of paper and pressed rose petals. In trying to capture the poem’s idea of the earth being a vessel containing the human life cycle within it, I envisioned this sphere to be an embodiment of both the earth and the endless cycle of life to death that is contained within it. The poem is equivocal in how it conflates the past and the present, the beginning and the end, and puts forward contradictory ideas of comfort and claustrophobia. To capture this ambiguity, my sphere is made up of recycled materials in an attempt to extend their lifespans by giving them new purpose. For instance, the dried rose petals are of a dead rose; in using its petals in the model, I recognize that I have created an ambiguous moment in the rose’s lifespan, where it is neither entirely dead nor entirely alive.

The pieces of paper have been soaked in tea to obtain a sepia tint, and they have both the poem and the word “earth” printed on them in as many different languages as I could fit onto the model. This was in an attempt to exhaust the capacities of each individual language in trying to express death, mirroring the manner in which the poem pushes linguistic capabilities in its intense repetition of the word “earth”. In the single word “earth”, the poem captures the entirety of human existence by speaking of the condition of our mortality without once mentioning the word “death”.

Ultimately, my sphere – ‘ball’ – became a physical manifestation of my reading of the poem, allowing me the exhilarating opportunity to indulge in the magic of cyclical existence and the powers of the earth in creating and ending human existence.


[Fig. 1] https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Of-Earth-You-Were-Made%3A-Constructing-the-Bilingual-Harrington/97150b0cee93ca06ac6f99b1ef518a0c7cc4a041


The Book of the Duchess

GenreDream Vision
AuthorGeoffrey Chaucer
TimeMid 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Written in 1368, Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess commemorates the death of Blanche of Lancester from the plague and offers consolation to her widowed husband, John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. Though less metrically sophisticated than some of his later works, The Book of Duchess is  Chaucer’s earliest significant narrative poem, entrancing readers in its emotionally powerful and awe-inspiring meditation on the death of one’s beloved.


The poem begins with the poet lamenting his lack of sleep due to a siknesse which he leaves unaddressed. One night, seeing his suffering from another bout of insomnia, someone fetches him a book that tells of Alcyone’s mourning over the absence of her husband, Ceyx. Alcyone prays to the goddess Juno for a dream vision to ascertain Ceyx’s fate, and Juno, answering Alcyone’s prayers, sends a messenger to Morpheus to bring Ceyx’s body to Alcyone. After the deceased Ceyx instructs Alcyone to bury him and to cease her sorrow, Alcyone wakes up to find Ceyx gone. Breaking off from the tale, the poet interjects his wish for a god like Morpheus to grant him sleep, and – as if the gods did hear his plea – falls asleep and begins dreaming. 

He finds himself waking up in a chamber with stained glass depicting the tale of Troy and the walls scenes from The Romance of the Rose (a medieval French poem that takes the form of a long allegorical dream vision). He hears a hunt, and leaves the chamber to seek out the hunter(s), who is revealed to be the first Roman emperor, Octavian. While the hunt begins, the poet follows a small dog into the forest and stumbles upon a clearing where a knight, dressed in black, is composing a song for the death of his lady. Upon the poet’s inquiry, the black knight metaphorically explains that he lost his queen and was checkmated when playing a game of chess with Fortune. The poet takes the message literally, and begs the black knight to cease his sorrow over a game. Remaining oblivious to the poet’s misunderstanding, the knight goes on to explain that he met his Love after waiting his entire life, and praises his love – “goode  faire Whyte she hete” (good fair White she was called) – at length (line 948). Only when the poet asks for White’s whereabouts did the knight finally say that “she is deed” (line 1309). The poet, aghast at his misunderstanding and at the knight’s loss, wakes up with his book still in his hands. Upon reflection, he decides to set his dream in rhyme – the very one that he has just narrated. 


The Book of the Duchess is, as the condensed summary above may have suggested, an embedded prosimetrical work that is highly intertextual. In fact, the opening of Chaucer’s poem (that is, the poet’s melancholia and the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone) is a translation of Guillaume de Machaut’s Dit de la Fonteine Amoureuse, or, “Story of the Amorous Fountain” published in 1361, while the poem’s very form – the embedded philosophical dream vision – is informed by Guillaume de Machuat’s Fountain of Love and Boethius’s prosimetrical text The Consolation of Philosophy1. Other literary references include Guillaume de Mchaut’s Judgement of the King of Bohemia, Fortune’s Remedy and the Fountain of Love, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as references from other fields such as Aristotelian epistemology, medieval dream theory, and the rules of chess. Where the poet wakes up in his dream to the stained glass images of Troy and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, the poem’s philosophical dream vision form is literally recast and refracted through the canonical works of Latin past and the popular European works during the Middle Ages. 

Chaucer’s engagement with this double literary lens to construct his narrative is precisely what demonstrates an independent use of form and originality in thought. By introducing his poet’s psychological state with the translation of the “Story of the Amorous Fountain” (which includes the retelling of Ovid’s tale of Ceyx), Chaucer extracts from Machaut’s tale the classical theme of love-sickness, melancholy, and death. Following the medieval belief that the imagination makes use of images processed by the mind that it later translates to “phantasms” in dreams, the poet’s melancholic imagination that is “alway hoolly in [his] minde” (line 15) translates to his dream, in which his melancholia (his having “lost al lustihede” (line 27)) parallels the knight’s pale complexion (“the blood was fled, for pure drede”  (line 490)). While Boethius is consoled by personified philosophical guides in the discourse of natural philosophy, Chaucer instead has the melancholic knight narrate metaphorical references to Love and Fortune that are lost upon the likewise melancholic poet. In this sense, Chaucer’s poet’s somnium, an enigmatic dream considered to express a truth veiled in fiction, escapes Boethius’s humanist philosophical engagement with Nature – that is, death is unveiled as entirely inconsolable. 

Manuscript of The Book of Duchess, also known as The Dreame of Chaucer or The Deth of Blaunche. University of Glagow Library.

Chaucer’s sophisticated interweaving of references to tell of a dream, of another time and space, perhaps did fulfill the poet’s cryptic promise to address the cause for his sickness “eft” (that is, another time) (lines 41-43). By perceiving the dream as part of the poet’s furtive expression of loss on a narrative level, the plot’s metonymic movement from one deathly narrative to another  may be understood as the poet’s intentional prolonging of our understanding of his sickness to give him space to suggest the loss of his beloved as the cause of his illness. Just as the prolonged misunderstanding over the knight’s metaphorical reference allowed the knight time and space to reconstruct his beloved through words, both men can only resort to furtively expressing their loss in face of their beloved’s death. Moreover, the parallel between the poet’s cryptic “that wil nat be, mot nede be lefte;” (that is, “that which will never be must be left behind” (line 42)) and the accelerated collapse of words – “al was doon” (line 1312) – upon the confession of White’s death in the somnium abruptly silences any further consolations. The Book of the Duchess, then, seems to demonstrate mourning as a furtive expression of loss, which the mourners deflect when confronted by inexpressible grief, for death’s finality is such that “will never be [again and] must be left behind.” 

Indeed, despite his youth, Chaucer’s exploration of this difficult and ambitious topic provides insights that are not only humanist, but human. Through the poet’s dream-like fluidity in his narration, Chaucer is able to situate us in the literary space opened up by the protagonists’ furtive narration and thus, by extension, situate us in the experience of being unhinged by death. Where the poet’s deliberate circling back to the beginning at the end of the poem prompts re-readings, The Book of the Duchess compels us to be reminded and reflexive of our mortal condition.  


1 Chaucer provided the very first Middle English translation from the original Latin, and Boethius’s thought became foundational to many authors.


Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Book of Duchess.” Dream Visions and Other Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Weaver, Erica and A. Joseph McMullan. “Reading Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation of Philosophy from Alfred to Ashby.” The Legacy of Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation and its Afterlives, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.


[Featured Image & Fig. 1] http://www.strangehistory.net/2014/11/17/daily-history-picture-playing-medieval-chess/

[Fig. 2] https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/chaucer/works.html


The Pardoner’s Tale

CategoryText (Part of The Canterbury Tales)
AuthorGeoffrey Chaucer
TimeLate 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories told during a story-telling contest held by a group of pilgrims travelling together from London to Canterbury. In particular, “The Pardoner’s Tale,” coming after “The Physician’s Tale” and before “The Shipman’s Tale”, is an extended exemplum, prompted by the pilgrims’ appeal to the Pardoner for a moral tale to relieve them of their melancholia over the young maiden’s tragic death in the Physician’s tale.


Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, from the 15th-century Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

The main tale told by The Pardoner is set somewhere in Flanders at an unspecified time. Three young men – drinking, gambling and blaspheming in a tavern – find themselves interrupted by a bell signalling a burial and send their servant boy along to make sense of the situation. The servant boy duly reports that their friend had been drunk when he was suddenly killed the previous night by Death, the thief who had also taken the lives of many regardless of gender and social status. Angered, the three rioters go in search of Death to avenge their friend. Along the way, they meet an Old Man whom Death refuses to slay despite his old age, and the Old Man directs them to an oak tree where Death is supposedly waiting. Finding instead gold lying at the foot of the oak tree, the three young men decide to wait until nightfall before carrying the gold back with them to avoid being mistaken as thieves. They draw straws to decide who should fetch wine and food while the other two guard the gold. The youngest draws the shortest straw and departs. Desiring for a larger share of the gold, the other two men plot to stab the youngest when he returns. The youngest, sharing the same desire, brings back wine laced with rat poison. After stabbing the youngest as planned, the remaining two young men drink to their death. Following their deaths, the Pardoner’s tale seems to serve as a warning against avarice and tavern sins. 


Chaucer’s inclusion of a prologue, however, presents the Pardoner’s tale as one that provides critical insights into the English society’s socio-religious customs during his time. The Pardoner’s compulsive reiteration of his pardoning ritual and confession of his delight in profiting from his sermon attendees’ desire for absolution (possibly owing to the influence of alcohol) in the prologue effectively satirises his telling of a moral tale. The Pardoner’s attempt to profit from the pilgrims even after his proud confession of his, and by extension, the Church’s moral hypocrisy thus reasonably led to the Host’s violent threat to cut off the Pardoner’s genitals. 

Beyond presenting a critical commentary on moral hypocrisy, the Host’s response also reveals the psychological reality of those living through the Black Plague. The Black Plague, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, was unexplainable during Chaucer’s time. Those fearfully living amongst the dead had popularly thought the plague to be God’s punishment for man’s sins. Like the young mens’ futile chase after the “stealthy thief” Death who has “slain a thousand during his pestilence” in the tale (line 675, 78), people living during the Black Plague were desperately attempting to grasp at Death which was everywhere and within themselves, but whose meaning nevertheless remained elusive. As such, moral tales like the Pardoner’s telling of the three young men’s sins as the cause of their premature deaths explains the ongoing excess death as punishment for their sins. To the Host, the Pardoner’s attempt to profit off the pilgrims involves the pilgrims in his blasphemous transaction such that the Host, too, “will have Christ’s curse!” – that is, be punished by death – if he were to kiss the Pardoner’s relics and pay his dues (line 946). 

On a narrative level, Chaucer seems to also appeal to readers’ (yes, you and I) strange lack of sorrow when confronted with the presentation of death in excess, as a result of excessive greed, and for the furthering of excess profits. While the pilgrims had been terribly saddened by the death of a single maiden in the Physician’s tale, the Host’s response effectively signals an end to (or, the death of) the remembrance of deaths upon being reminded of his mortality. Chaucer seems to suggest, then, a mortal inability to comprehend excess(ive deaths) when such deaths are implicatory of one’s mortality – a sobering insight the almost grotesque comedy provides into our emotional struggle to comprehend excess death.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Pardoner’s tale is narratively driven by excessive desire – that is, the three young men’s avarice, the Pardoner’s desire for profit, and the pilgrims’ desire for a moral tale. These desires, when viewed through Peter Brook’s narrative lens in Narrative Desire, “creates and sustains narrative movement through the forward march of [a mutual] desire” for a conclusive end (40-41). For Brooks, this desire for a conclusive end is termed as “narrative desire” which, when fulfilled, provides readers with the desired retrospect and mastery over the event narrated. Accordingly, when this desire remains unfulfilled, the experience of an abrupt conclusion drives readers to repeat the narrative plot until their desire is fulfilled. In the case of the Pardoner’s tale, the Pardoner’s and the pilgrims’ morally opposite desires drive the narrative to a conclusion that, though fulfilling their desire to be cured of their melancholia, poses a threat to the pilgrims’ morality and mortality. While the hasty, violent end to the tale compels the pilgrims to seek for tales based on the existing socio-religious customs governing their understanding of the world, we are prompted to reread and continue our life-long meditation on the ever elusive death. 

Chaucer worked on The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, and included many forms and styles to provide a detailed reflection of English society during his time. Written in a mix of prose and verse in Middle English, each line consists of 10 syllabus with alternating accents and end rhymes that would later form the basis of the heroic couplet’s syntax. The pilgrimage to Canterbury includes fictional characters from a wide range of classes and of different natures, offering insights into social relations, customs and practices of the time, including one as blasphemous and “anti-pilgrimaging” as The Pardoner (Lerer 262). Chaucer also used the pilgrimage setting to explore human relationships with the pleasures and vices of the physical world amidst spiritual inspirations. His intricate frame narrative allows for this expansive use of styles and forms to present strong individual character portraits without neglecting the pilgrims’ complex collective reality; in fact, many critics consider Chaucer’s unique frame narrative’s greatest achievement to be its ability to expertly present the relationship between pilgrims and their tales. The Canterbury Tales, however, remains arguably incomplete, and its complexity leaves more riddles yet to be solved. 


Augustyn, Adam. “The Canterbury Tales.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Canterbury-Tales. 

Beidler, Peter G. “The Plague and Chaucer’s Pardoner.” The Chaucer Review 16.3:1982, 257–269. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093795. 

Benson, David C. “The Canterbury Tales: personal drama or experiments in poetic variety?” The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, pp. 127-142, Cambridge UP, doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521815568.008 

Brooks, Peter. “Narrative Desire.” Style 18.3:1984, 312–327. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42946134.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lerer, Seth. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Yale Companion to Chaucer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 


[Featured Image & Fig. 1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Canterbury-Tales



GenreMedieval Allegory, Dream Vision
AuthorPearl Poet / Gawain Poet
TimeLate 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Like many medieval poems, Pearl takes place mostly within a dream, a literary convention that allows the poet to explore ideas and convey experiences that might otherwise be impossible to express in language—in the case of this poem, the loss of a child.


Pearl, miniature from Cotton Nero A.x. The Dreamer speaks to the Pearl-maiden on the other side of the stream.

The poem begins in a lush garden of herbs and flowers to which the narrator has returned to mourn his lost “pearl,” since it was here that the pearl first slipped from his grasp and into the ground. Overcome by grief, he swoons into unconsciousness and awakens in an exquisitely beautiful landscape, where crystal cliffs overlook a bright stream winding through a forest of burnished silver. Across the river, he catches sight of his own lost pearl—but now she is not simply a jewel but a young girl dressed in brilliant white robes covered in pearls. The dreamer gradually recognizes her but also sees that she has been radically transformed (though we learn that his daughter lived less than two years, here she appears as a mature being capable of thoughtful, articulate speech). In the conversation that follows, the pearl-maiden tries to convey something of the nature of eternity to the dreamer, who seems to flicker in and out of understanding. Toward the end of the poem, she reveals a dazzling vision of the heavenly city. Mesmerized, the dreamer plunges into the river to swim toward her, but is abruptly thrown out of his dream and awakens once more in the garden, where he meditates on this transcendent vision.


One of the most striking features of the poem is its remarkably intricate form: each of the 101 stanzas has an ababababbcbc rhyme scheme, with a high degree of alliteration. This creates an echoing effect that is intensified by the use of “concatenation,” or linking together through repetition (the word comes from the Latin catena, meaning “chain”). In each group of five stanzas, there is a single “concatenation word” that appears multiple times, each time with slightly different shades of meaning—as if the poet is holding up each word to the light and examining its different facets. This word appears again in the first line of the next stanza group, producing what poet and translator Simon Armitage calls a “poetic passing of the baton”; finally, the last line of the poem repeats the first almost exactly, evoking a “spherical endlessness reminiscent of the pearl itself” (Armitage 11).


In imitating the formal perfection of the pearl, the poem invites readers to reflect on the relationship between beauty and loss, or the role of the aesthetic in thinking about death. At the same time the poem calls attention to the limits of language in representing the infinite: in the end, its repetitions undo any sense of singular meaning and remind us that death will remain always beyond our understanding.


Pearl, miniature from Cotton Nero A.x. The dreamer falls asleep in the garden.

Almost nothing is known about the author of the poem. It survives in a single, unassuming manuscript that contains three other works almost certainly by the same author (Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The manuscript itself (known as Cotton Nero A.x.) was almost lost when a terrible fire broke out in the London library where it was being stored in the early 18th century. We can only speculate about the circumstances of the poem’s creation: on one level, it is a work of religious instruction, full of biblical allusions and drawing on the New Testament as inspiration for its central image of the pearl. But the poem also communicates an emotional anguish that suggests that it is drawn from actual experience, from the genuine grief of a father who has lost a daughter. 


Simon Armitage, Pearl: a new verse translation (London: Norton, 2016).


J.R.R Tolkein’s translation of the poem: https://allpoetry.com/poem/8499963-Pearl-by-J-R-R-Tolkien 

Pearl manuscript at the British Library: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/pearl# 

Dream visions: https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/dream-visions 

Illustrations to Pearl: https://medievalpearl.wordpress.com/illustrations/


[Featured Image, Fig. 1 & 2] https://medievalpearl.wordpress.com/illustrations/