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Study Questions for Chaucer's Book of the Duchess

Vocabulary: anachronism, authorial voice, character, characterization, couplet, dream vision (visio), elegy, humility topos, occasional poem, octosyllabic, patron, persona, spirit guide, terminus ad quem, terminus a quo.

Introduction: Who was the duchess Blanche of Lancaster? Why is she important for understanding this poem's context? What does the name "Blanche" mean in medieval French?

Lecture or Handouts: For what patron was The Book of the Duchess written? What are the conventions of a dream vision? How does Chaucer have fun with these conventions? Explain the anagram in lines 1318-1319. How do we figure out the date The Book of the Duchess was written, and what are some problems with this technique?

Identify the following people and creatures:

The Black Knight, Lady Fair White, the Puppy, King Ceyx (Seys), Queen Alcion (Alcyone), Juno, Morpheus

Reading Questions:

  • In the opening lines, the dreamer or poetic speaker says he has been suffering from a medical problem that renders him unable to do something. What is it that the speaker cannot do?
  • What is the speaker's emotional state in the beginning of the poem?
  • According to line 37, how long has it been since the speaker last slept?
  • What does the speaker ask a servant to bring to him in order to help him rest?
  • What general subject-matter does the book deal with that the speaker reads? What story in particular does the speaker think "a wonder thing"?
  • What tragedy befalls King Seys? (i.e., how does he die?)
  • When Alcyon grows worried about her missing King, she prays to Juno for help. How does she ask Juno to send her a message concerning her husband's situation? (i.e., what form should the goddess's message take?)
  • What happens to Alcyon as soon as she finishes her prayer?
  • How is Alcyon dressed when she is put to bed by her servants? (trick question!)
  • Juno sends her son, a messenger, to carry her commands to another god. This third god will actually deliver the prophecy to the sleeping Alcyon. Who is this third god? Why is he appropriate? How is this god going to deliver the message, and what is he going to do with Seys' dead body, according to Juno's command?
  • Describe the valley where Morpheus lives. What's the vegetation and scenery like? Inside his cave, many people reside. What do they do all day in the cave? How are they dressed?
  • When the messenger first finds Morpheus, he has to spend several lines talking to him before he delivers the message. What condition is Morpheus in that prevents the messenger from simply giving him the message and moving on? Why is that funny or appropriate?
  • Where does Morpheus take Seys's body?
  • What message does Morpheus give Alcione?
  • Why is the dreamer so impressed with this story of Alcione and Seys?
  • After hearing the story, when the dreamer prays to be granted sleep, to what God does he pray? What offerings or bribes does he offer this god if the god will let him sleep?
  • What is the response to his prayer and how long does it take for the prayer to be answered?
  • The dreamer says his dream is so strange that two authorities on dreams would themselves be baffled by it. What authorities does he point to as being unable to interpret his dream? Why are they appropriate?
  • The dreamer dreams that it is May, but where is he initially in the dream?
  • How does is the dreamer dressed when he awakens? (trick question)
  • What sound "awakens" the dreamer in his dream? Why do these things seem a bit out of place in his bedroom chamber?
  • When the dreamer looks around his room, he sees the decor has changed. What is depicted in the glass of his windows? What two literary works do these images come from? What languages were they originally written in? How is this a commentary on Chaucer's own literary works?
  • What was the temperature like when the dreamer gets up and starts walking around?
  • The dreamer then hears a noise and encounters a hunting party. He takes a horse and follows them on the hunt. What makes this strange? What is he wearing when he rides out with the hunt (trick question)?
  • The dreamer encounters a dog-handler and asks him who is leading the hunt. Who is the host of this hunt, according to the dog-handler? Why is his answer rather odd, historically speaking? How does the emperor's name connect with the dreamer's earlier medical condition? How does this connect with medieval numerology?
  • When the dreamer gets separated from the hunt and becomes lost in the wood, what animal does he find to lead him onward? Why is this an amusing choice for a dream-vision?
  • At first, as the dreamer follows the puppy, he sees trees that are ten or twelve feet high. Eventually he comes to one that is "fourty or fifty fadme lengthe" (!) How tall is that? How long is a fathom? What sort of animals wander around this tree?
  • Who does Chaucer find under this huge tree as well as animals? How old is this person? What is this guy doing under the tree?
  • What is the implied audience the black knight addresses in his song or apostrophe? Why is he upset with this personified being? How has it wronged him?
  • What happens to the black knight as soon as he finishes singing?
  • How does the black knight first respond when the dreamer greets him? (trick question)
  • When the black knight speaks to the dreamer eventually, how would you characterize his behavior and attitude to this commoner who addresses him?
  • In lines 616-71, the black knight personifies Lady Fortune as playing a board game with him. What is this game? What piece did Lady Fortune take away from him?
  • After line 710, the dreamer responds to the Black Knight's suicidal thoughts. What does the dreamer remind the Black Knight about?
  • In lines 805 onward, the storyteller explains how he met his lady-love. How did he meet her? Describe the encounter. How did she respond to his romantic advances initially? How does this connect with medieval conventions concerning courtly love?
  • In lines 939 onward, the Black Knight describes the physical features of Lady White. What does she look like? How do these features contrast with modern ideas of beauty?
  • According to the poetry, Fair White is even smarter than what Biblical heroine?
  • The Black Knight claims that "Trouthe" lived in an unusual place. Where did Trouthe choose to dwell most of the time?
  • In lines 1051 onward, the poet makes allusions to a variety of mythological figures. What do these allusions imply about Fair White?
  • In lines 1139 onward, it becomes clear that the Dreamer is missing the point. What is it that he fails to understand about the Black Knight's reason for his depression and the status of Fair White?
  • What gift does Fair White give to the Black Knight?
  • How did Fair White typically react when the Black Knight would mess up ("Whan I had wrong and she the ryght")?
  • In line 1298, what does the dreamer's question reveal about his understanding (again)?
  • What potential pun might exist in the phrase "hert-huntyng" (line 1313)?

Passage Identifications:



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