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451 Study Questions for Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale"

Vocabulary: fabliau, marriage group, senex amans, fairy tale, dramatic irony, situational irony, subplot

Identify the following characters:
Prologue: The Host (Harry Bailey), the Merchant
Tale Itself: Januarie, May, Placebo, Justinus, Damian, Pluto, Proserpine

Useful Middle English terms: w

Review the Merchant's Portrait in the General Prologue:

  • What sort of hat does the Merchant wear? How does he wear his beard?
  • What sort of subject does the Merchant always talk about?
  • Why does it make sense that the Merchant is particularly worried about the sea being kept free from pirates?
  • What does the narrator say the Merchant's name is? (Trick question!)

Lecture: Explain how the names of characters in this tale indicate a symbolic function in "The Merchant's Tale"

Reading Questions:

(From "The Merchant's Prologue, " lines 1213-44): Note how "The Merchant's Tale" begins in the middle of a conversation, without transitional material. What might be the cause of this abrupt outbrust?

  • When the Merchant speaks his opening lines, what does he declare he knows enough about? How does this outburst connect with earlier stories like "The Clerk's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Prologue"?
  • What is the Merchant's attitude toward his own wife?
  • What does the Merchant say would happen if his wife were "ycoupled" (having sex with) the devil?
  • How does he say his wife would compare to Grisilda in the Clerk's Tale?
  • How long has the Merchant been married, according to lines 1233-34?
  • How does the Host react to the Merchant's bitterness? (How might his reaction connect with his earlier discussion in lines 1212a-1212g of "The Clerk's Tale"?)
  • When the Host tells the Merchant to tell the next tale, of what subject does the Merchant say he will "telle namoore"?

(From "The Merchant's Tale" itself):

  • What region of Italy is the setting of "The Merchant's Tale?
  • How old is the Pavian knight (Januarie)? What is his marital status?
  • Note line 1251, "as doon thise fooles that been seculeer." Why do some scholars see this line as evidence that Chaucer originally assigned this tale to the Friar, The Parson, The Nun's Priest, or some other clerical pilgrim? Do you buy this theory?
  • What is January's attitude toward marriage according to lines 1263-65?
  • Why does January want a young wife in particular?
  • With what argument of Theophrastus's does January disagree?
  • What biblical basis does January point to to indicate that being married to a woman is a blessing? How does his reference to "paradys terrestre" (i.e., the Garden of Eden) seem to contradict his own thinking?
  • Note the list of women Januarie holds up as examples of holy and good wives--Rebecca, Judith, Abigail, and Esther. Although these women are heroes of the Old Testament, what do all of them end up doing to their husbands? How is this foreshadowing for later parts of "The Merchant's Tale?"
  • Why won't Januarie take a "womman thritty yeer of age" as a spouse? What is he afraid will happen if he marries someone old or ugly in lines 1433-40? What analogy does he make to indicate the quality of a woman's flesh in lines 1419-21?
  • When Januarie says, "for sondry scoles maken sotile clerkis," he is quoting or paraphrasing a line that was used by another Canterbury pilgrim earlier in the tales. Who is he quoting here?
  • When Januarie says, "that am nat I" in line 1456--what is he talking about?
  • How do the diverse advisors advise Januarie about his proposition of marrying late in life? What specifically is Placebo's advice? What specifically is Justinus's advice?
  • What does Placebo's name mean in Latin? Explain how this connects with modern medical practices.
  • Summarize Placebo's theories for giving counsel to others in lines 1501-09.
  • What does Justinus think a husband should investigate before picking a wife in lines 1532-1543?
  • What is Justinus's own marriage like, according to lines 1544-45.
  • What is Januarie's reaction to Justinus's quotations of Seneca? (Note also his pronoun usage and the -ow ending of the verb hastowe. What does this diction suggest about his tone?)
  • Why does Januarie set up a mirror in the market-place? What does he hope to watch covertly through the reflected images? How might the mirror be symbolic?
  • Note line 1598. How is the reference to love being blind an example of foreshadowing?
  • In lines 1636-52, Januarie suggests there are spiritual benefits to marriage. What are these benefits in the next life?
  • What does Justinus suggest in contrast to Januarie's imagery of a wife being "heaven-on-earth"?
  • In line 1685, who does Justinus quote as an authority in marriage knowledge?
  • What's odd about Justinus quoting her as an authority, given that the story takes place in the ancient past?
  • Note how the Merchant also blurs reality in line 1736. Why is the discussion of "thy penne" a reference that destroys verisimilitude?
  • What happens to Januarie each time he looks at May's face during the wedding ceremony?
  • Note lines 1757-64. What "bragging" does Januarie engage in by expressing sympathy and fear for the "danger" she will face on her wedding night? Why does he wish "al this peple were ago."
  • What is Damian's job and his position in Januarie's court? What reaction does he have to May's presence.
  • What does Januarie drink before his wedding night?
  • When Januarie kisses May, what do his beard hairs do?
  • When Januarie prepares to have sex with May, he compares himself to a workman. What two things does he say a workman cannot do simultaneously? What does this reveal about the nature of his love-making?
  • When Januarie sings a love-song to May, what does the skin hanging from his wrinkled neck do?
  • What is May's impression of his "pleyyng"? What two actions might the "pleyyng" refer to?
  • What does Januarie do immediately (and stereotypically) after his "romantic" interlude?
  • What problem does Damyan have?
  • When May goes with "alle hir wommen" unto Damyan to comfort him while he is ill, what does Damyan give her "in secree wise"?
  • What does May do to "get rid of the evidence" after she had read Damyan's love-letter? How is this uncourtly?
  • In line 1986, we read, "Lo, pitee renneth soone in gentil herte!" This line is a verbal echo of a similar statement in what earlier Canterbury Tale?
  • What does Januarie build, walled in with stones, as a little love-nest for himself and for May?
  • What two supernatural beings enjoy visiting this location?
  • Explain the Freudian symbolism of the silver "clyket."
  • What sudden physical handicap afflicts Januarie? How is this handicap symbolic?
  • After Januarie suffers from this ailment, how does his treatment of May change?
  • Explain the allusion to Argus in line 2111.
  • How does May circumvent Januarie's "security precautions" for the garden gate?
  • Explain the biblical allusion in lines 2138-48.
  • What does May ask Januarie to do to her if she is ever false or cheats on him?
  • Where does May indicate through sign language that Damyan should go?
  • Explain the connection between Pluto and Proserpyna's marriage and Januarie and May's marriage.
  • As Pluto watches May's deception, he creates an inductive argument about women. What does he argue about all women from May's example?
  • At the end of Pluto's diatribe, he vows what?
  • When Proserpine hears Pluto's vows, she makes her own vow. What does she say will happen even if Januarie does catch May cheating?
  • What does May say she wants Januarie to fetch her from the tree?
  • Why does Januarie initially say he is unable to get one for her?
  • What solution does the couple come up with to allow May to gain access to the tree?
  • What does Pluto do when he sees May and Damyan having sex?
  • What outrageous explanation does May create after being caught in flagrante delicto?
  • When Januarie argues that May wasn't just "wrastling" in the tree, but actually having sex, what is May's response?
  • Explain the cruel pun in line 2410, "He that mysconceyveth, he mysdemeth."
  • What do you make of the Merchant's statement, "goode men, I pray yow to be glad"? How should we read this wish?

A. "Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,"
. . . "and so doon other
That wedded been. I trowe that it be so,
For wel I woot it fareth so with me.
I have a wyf, the worste that may be:
For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were,
She wolde hym overmacche, I dar wel swere."

B. Whilom ther was dwellynge in Lumbardye
A worthy knyght, that born was of Pavye,
In which he lyved in greet properitee;
And sixty yeer a wyflees man was hee,

C. . . . I in hire [an old wife] koude han no plesaunce,
Thanne sholde I lede my lyf in avoutrye
And go streight to the devel whan I dye.
Ne children sholde I none upon hire geten:

D: This hastif Januarie / Wolde go to bedde; he wolde no lenger tarye
He drynketh ypocras, clarree, and vernage
Of spices hoote t'encreessen his corage;
And many a letuarie hath he ful fyn,
Swiche as the cursed monk, daun Constanyn,
Hath writen in his book De Coitu.

E. He lulleth hire; he kisseth hire ful ofte;
With thikke brustles of his berd unsofte,
Lyk to the skyn of houndfyssh, sharp as brere--
For he was shave al newe in his manere--
He rubbeth hire aboute hir tendre face.

F. She fyned hire as that she moste gon
Ther as ye woot that every wight moot neede;
And whan she of this bille hath taken heede,
She rente it al to cloutes atte laste,
And in the pryvee softely it caste.

G. He wol no wight suffren bere the keye
Save he hymself; for of the smale wyket
He baar alwey of silver a clyket,
With which, whan that hym leste, he it unshette.
And whan he wolde paye his wyf hir dette
In somer seson, thider wolde he go,
And May his wyf, and no wight but they two.

H. "But sith I swoor myn ooth
That I wolde graunten hymhis sighte ageyn,
My word shal stonde, I warne yow certeyn.
I am a kyng; it sit me noght to lye."
"And I, quod she, "a queene of Fayerye!
Hir answere shal she have, I undertake."

I. "Sire, what eyleth yow?
Have pacience and resoun in youre mynde.
I have yow holpe on bothe youre eyen blynde.
Up persil of my soule, I shal nat lyen,
As me was taught, to heele with youre eyen,
Was no thyng bet, to make yow to see,
Than strugle with a man upon a tree.
God woot, I did it in ful good entente."

J. This Januarie, who is glad but he?
He kisseth hire and clippeth hire ful ofte,
And on hire wombe he stroketh hire ful softe,
And to his palays hoom he hath hire lad.
Now, goode men, I pray yow to be glad.
Thus endeth heere my tale of Januarie.


Concluding Thoughts:





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