BA English Literature and American Studies

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Telling Tales: Verse and Narrative from Chaucer to Shakespeare

Course unit fact file
Unit code ENGL34042
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course examines narrative traditions in English from the career of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century to that of Shakespeare. Chaucer and his pioneering Canterbury Tales cast a long shadow, which extended down to Jacobean drama. At the same time, the verse narratives of Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower were equally influential in the C15 and 16, and were also refashioned by early modern dramatists. In this course we look at how medieval attitudes – to, for instance, power, sovereignty, sexuality, gender, selfhood – were refashioned by writers who self-consciously thought of themselves as living in a renascent culture which repudiated some aspects of medieval culture while slyly appropriating others. We will pair up texts: for example, Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale can be read against Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen; Gower’s Apollonius of Tyre against Shakespeare and Wilkins’ Pericles. 


 The aims of this course are:
- to introduce students to key texts and issues from the late Middle Ages and early Tudor periods;
- to introduce students to the analysis of the different forms and genres of the period (dream vision; epic; fabliau; romance);
- to consider the formal and thematic innovations made by writers in the period immediately befor and after the advent of the printing press in England;
- to analyse the ways in which texts of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance interact with their cultural and historical contexts;
- to analyse the development of narrative and the depiction of selfhood in the period;
- to consider issues like gender, sexuality, and race as they affect the literature and culture of this period;
- to engage with selected critical writings on Chaucer and his poetic successors;
- to develop skills of critical thought, speech, and writing in relation to poetic narrative in the period;
- to develop teamwork skills through group presentations;


Indicative reading:

Precise reading will vary from year to year but in any given year will be drawn from:
Chaucer, selections from Canterbury Tales;
Gower, selections from Confessio Amantis;
Elizabethan/Jacobean drama (such as, Shakespeare and Wilkins, Pericles; Shakespeare and Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen); 
Selections from writings of Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, Robert Henryson, Edmund Spenser.

Teaching and learning methods

This class will have a 1 hour lecture and a 2 hour seminar with occasional film screening and the potential for either an art gallery visit or a visit to see early books at the John Rylands Library.

Materials including lecture slides, bibliographies, study questions, exercises, and presentation topics will be posted on Blackboard each week. 

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course, students should be able to:
- demonstrate a thorough familiarity with a range of representative texts from the late fourteenth century through to the sixteenth, along with a knowledge of their contexts;
- demonstrate a critical understanding of how narrative in English developed in the course of the fifteenth century;
- demonstrate an understanding of key authors (Chaucer, Gower, Shakespeare) from the period;
- demonstrate a overall understanding of the development of English poetic narrative in the period.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course, students should be able to:
- think critically and make critical judgments about early poetry;
- analyse course texts in a comprehensive and critical manner;
- identify and outline key problems and issues in the study of fifteenth-century texts and the literary history of the period;
- synthesize and analyse information about late medieval textuality;
- reflect critically on late medieval literary history;
- develop and articulate a reasoned argument for a particular point of view a given text;
- evaluate critical arguments advanced by major critics.

Practical skills

- plan and execute independent research on late medieval narrative poetry;
- make good use of library, electronic, and online resources pertaining to the course;
- speak and write clearly about late medieval literature;
- comment on the performance of a peer, identifying strengths and making constructive suggestions for improvement where appropriate;
- interpret or summarize the language of [[period/area]] texts ;
- read and translate texts written in Middle English;
- report to the class on an aspect of late medieval literary history;

Transferable skills and personal qualities

- retrieve, sift, organise, synthesise and critically evaluate material from a range of different sources, including library, electronic, and online resources;
- deliver oral presentations in front of a seminar group;
- produce written work using appropriate language for an academic audience;
- demonstrate good teamwork skills by acknowledging the views of others and working constructively with others;
- display basic negotiating skills in understanding and working with others;
- manage time effectively by scheduling tasks in order of importance;

Employability skills


Assessment methods

Text, translation and commentary exercise; 1500 words (25%)
Essay; 4000 words (75%)

Recommended reading

Meyer-Lee, Robert. Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Minnis, Alistair. Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity (Cambridge: Brewer, 1982)

Nolan, Barbara. Chaucer and the Tradition of the Roman Antique. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Simpson, James. The Oxford English Literary History Vol. 2: Reform and Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Strohm, Paul. Politique: Languages of Statecraft between Chaucer and Shakespeare. University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
David Matthews Unit coordinator

Additional notes


Lecture: Wed 9am-10am

Seminar: Wed 11am-1pm

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