The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Tools of Characterization
The first part of "The Reeve's Tale" is dedicated to telling us everything it thinks we need to know about the characters involved. We learn from this introduction that Symkyn is "as any pecok proud and gay," not to mention a sly thief; that his wife is proud, and "ful of hoker and bisemare" (disdain and sneering); and of Aleyn and John that "testif they were, and lusty for to pleye" (headstrong and looking for a good time) (72, 111, 150). This introduction, in which most of the major players in the tale are directly characterized by the narrator, serves as our guide to the action that occurs in the rest of the tale, allowing us to "match up" the characters' actions with the various character traits we know them to possess.
Characters' actions in "The Reeve's Tale" serve to confirm what we already know about them through direct characterization. We learn that the miller is a dishonest son-of-a-gun, and sure enough, his first action in the tale is to cheat Soler Hall "outrageously" when he learns that its manciple, or buyer, is sick. The narrator describes the two clerks as "testif" (headstrong) and "lusty for to pleye" (looking for a good time) (150). The next thing you know, they're begging to be allowed to travel to the mill and bragging to everyone that they will prevent the miller from cheating them. This shows that the narrator is pretty right on with the way he describes their character. The two clerks long to make the trip for no reason but "for hire mirthe and revelrye," and because they think they can succeed where older, wiser people have failed (151).
In medieval physiognomy, the "science" of drawing conclusions about someone's character based on their physical features, the physical appearance of a character was naturally very important. According to medieval physiognomy, Symkyn's round face and "camus," or broad, nose, mark him as intensely physical. This character trait is confirmed by Symkyn's love of violent confrontation. His daughter possesses the same facial features, but her portrait includes mention of her "buttokes brode and brestes rounde and hye," or her big butt and high round breasts (121). These details seem to suggest a highly sexually nature.