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Analysis of lines 125 – 300 of The Merchant’s Tale

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1813
  • Category: Poetry

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The themes explored in the extract, lines 125 – 300, are that of love, deception and honour; both in general, and involving friends and women, religion in order to support and undermine marriage, and the overall purpose of marriage.

The extract shows the fabliau nature of ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and the positive images of love contradict everything the Merchant has written about until this point. The fact that he commends the conveniences of marriage from another man’s point of view, Januarie, initially displays a change in heart from the Merchant about the whole idea of marriage. It is really the start of a heavily ironic piece of poetry.

A comical picture of the complete obedience of women in lines 130 to 134 ‘She kepeth his good … She seith nat ones ‘nay” recaptures the fact that Patient Grisilde’s story mentioned a few lines previously in the poem, ‘Bitwix Grisildis grete pacience’, is likely to be very unrealistic. The Merchant seems to dramatise the section and a sense of ridicule is felt by the way he is describing the level of obedience shown by women. We know the Merchant does not trust women and so the few lines are clearly sarcastic.

The Merchant’s ability to write about women in a positive light in lines 145 – 149 and the implication that men should follow their ‘wyves reed’, their wives advise as they are wise possibly shows the Merchant either understanding why a man would want to marry or it could be him again being very sarcastic.

Januarie the central character of the tale, calls his friends to him in line 187 onwards, in order to tell them that he has decided that, because he is ‘hoor and oold’, it is time for him to marry. He wants to find a girl who ‘shal nat passe twenty yeer’ and he wants her in order to fulfil his sexual desires.

Januarie’s use of animal imagery ‘a pyk that a pickerel … old boef is the tender veel’ in lines 206 – 208 is significant as a pike and a bull are both aggressive creatures and they are being used to describe and degrade. This contrasts to ‘hony-sweete’ serenity of lines 183 – 184 and the image of ‘young flesh’ gives a disturbing insight into Januaries fantasies. These animal images warn the reader that January has no genuine concern about his disturbing thoughts, such as the need to find a young woman to satisfy him, and proves his manly desire to be animal like in marriage, i.e. wanting the unison of him and his new wife to be purely about sex.

Chaucer’s imagery in the poem helps the reader to understand characters such as the Merchant as he refers to older women as ‘Bene-straw’ and ‘greet forage’. These words are used to compare older woman to left over food, therefore implying they are no good. The Merchant himself never seems to consider the fact that he is old and grey and not the most appealing of husbands.

Chaucer gives a sense of verisimilitude to the tale by referencing other tales or tellers. The mentioning of ‘thise olde widwes’ who are so crafty and skilful at disturbing their husband’s peace seems to be a direct reference to the Wife of Bath in line 211. Januarie’s use of a proverb ‘For sondry scoles maken sotile clerkis’ shows his implication that women who have experienced marriage are too clever at managing their husbands, thus the reason why he wants to find a young woman like ‘warm wex’ so that he can shape and mould her how he wants her to be. However, in lines 163 – 164 ‘Ther nys no thing in gree superlatyf, as seith Senek, above a humble wyf’ the Merchant’s belief that there is no pleasure as great as that from a wife, is an incorrect quote. The Merchant’s inability to quote correctly, the line being said by Albertano not Seneca shows just as he quotes incorrectly, he may think of marriage incorrectly.

The theme of marriage in this section contrasts as the Merchant suggests marriage as a good thing, due to a woman’s resourcefulness whereas Januarie suggests it as a good thing as there will be a certain amount of sexual fulfilment involved. Lines 211 – 234 shows Januarie’s expression of why he thinks older women are too tricky and implies in line 223 that if he had an older wife he would get ‘no plesaunce’ and would be forced to commit adultery; ‘lede my lyf in avoutrye’. Here he justifies why he’d commit adultery if his wife was too old, yet he himself is again forgetting he is not in his prime years. The hypocrisy of this is that if a woman committed adultery, it would be a sign of her dishonesty and cunningness and a reason for a man to disown her, yet with men its acceptable.

This verse creates force and pressure from the sharpness, determination and strength of the ironies embedded in it. The language is violent ‘go straight to the devel, whan I die’ when referring to Januaries preference of commit adultery and go to hell for it rather than live a sexless life on Earth. Both the Merchant and Januarie seem to come alive, and the feeling of the narrator gives pressure to the poetry.

The references to the Old Testament are both numerous and dramatic in The Merchant’s Tale, a fact which illustrates the narrators understanding of the religious teaching of a Church he followed at the time. The Merchant incorporates this religious understanding by mentioning several women from the bible, who were resourceful and successful, but that also have the theme of deception in common. [Lines 150 – 162].

The passage is composed of four examples from the Old Testament where women helped men. Rebecca, the first of the mentioned women gave advice to her son Jacob and he ended up receiving blessings from his father. Judith saved her people by deceiving and slaying Holofernes, while Abigail saved her husband by making a marriage contract with David. Finally Ester also helped many Israelites. These references to women at first seem positive but it is known that these four women also led to the downfall of man. This passage was possibly included by the Merchant to subtle attack women while appearing to praise them.

The imagery of nature in the tale such as the references to gardens and Januarie’s comparison of himself to a tree ‘I fare dooth a tree, that blosmeth er that fruyt ywoxen bee’ [249] entails he thinks of himself as strong and sturdy like a tree. His description of his green limbs, ‘lymes been as grene’, implies he believes he is full of youth and displays his self-delusion and vanity. The sentence foreshadows the reality of what is going to happen to when he will be unable to see May instructing Damyan to go up the tree.

‘I fare as dooth a tree’ also shows nature being described as powerful and is a subtle biblical reference to the tree that held the fruit of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. This Eden, ‘paradis’ which is mentioned several times in the poem encourages the reader to remember the serpent that tempted Eve, and how women led to a men’s downfall; this being a comparison to Januarie who is tempting May into marriage, little does he know she will lead to his downfall.

I line 172 ‘love wel thy wyf, as Christ loved his chirche’, the relationship between marriage in the middle ages and how it was viewed as a human image of Christ’s devotion to his Church is displayed. Such reflections gain a cruel ironic emphasis in the tale and the biblical allusions lift the narration intentionally above the reality that soon grows unpleasant. This whole section is highly ironic as the Merchant is talking about religion and marriage but subtly is insulting it and telling us why it is not all its cracked up to be. The theme of religion therefore is an important topic in this section of the play and is used for and against marriage.

‘May the sike man biwaille and wepe’ [169] shows reference to the weeping mentioned in the prologue. Chaucer reminds us what an emotional poem this is, especially as the male characters suffer a great deal due to women. This suggests the emotion and the bitterness of the Chaucer towards women and his desire to project his feelings onto his readers.

The Merchant shows women as primarily for sexual pleasure as he writes about the Januarie wanting to find a young wife, no older than twenty. He also writes [234] about how husband and wife should live as brother and sister, apart from the necessary sexual intercourse that is needed in the relationship to satisfy the man and for the reproduction of children ‘by cause of leveful procreacioun of children’. The language in this passage draws upon words such as ‘leccherye’ and ‘paramour’ which implies Januarie simply wants pleasure from his wife when married, and that he thinks marriage is going to be quite simple.

Januarie goes on to say that he feels fit and strong enough for marriage, and he asks his friends what they think of his plan. Some of his friends agree with him and some disagree. His brother Placebo begins flattering him and saying that he is wise enough, and does not need help from others when deciding about marriage.

Line 263 shows the introduction of Placebo, which means ‘I shall please’, and Justinus who in the poem, conveys a sense of hard well thought-out reasons why Januarie should not marry. The two act as good and evil and allegorise the two opinions passing through Januarie’s own mind. Placebo says that like any good adviser, he would never presume to contradict a lord’s opinion. He claims he has worked with ‘lordes of ful heigh estaat’ and he has never argued or gone against any of them. This shows Placebo’s loyalty to Januarie and contrasts with a woman’s desire to deceive her husband. Placebo compliments Januarie saying ‘for youre heighe prudence, to weyven fro the world of Salomon’ [270] which shows Placebo advising Januarie to ignore the advise of Solomon, a King from the Old Testament who had a reputation for his wisdom. This is yet another biblical reference and also shows Placebo as Januarie’s subconscious forcing him to see marriage as a good thing and justifying marriage to such a young girl.

In conclusion, this passage voices opinions of Chaucer, the Merchant and Januarie and explores various themes that show diversity in the views of marriage from these men. It shows also that status influences the way these men view marriage.

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