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Geoffrey Chaucer’s presentation of marriage throughout The Canterbury Tales is, indeed, varied, abstract and supplemented by dispute over the sincerity of specific works. This literary inconsistency is strongly evident in The Merchant’s Tale, making it essential to address the disparity of its message on the topic of marriage.
It could initially be assumed that the poem is not solely a cynical attack on marriage; Chaucer offers a somewhat objective overview of the issue, purveyed by the obvious difference in opinion of its characters, for example; the merchant in the prologue – ‘we wedded men live in sorwe and care’1 – and Januarie’s opinion – ‘in this world it [marriage] is a paradis’2 – or the differing judgements of both Justinus – ‘it is no childes pley’3 – and Placebo – ‘Dooth now in this matiere right as yow leste’4 – after Januarie’s consultation with them.
By addressing the fact that the message fluctuates it could be argued that Chaucer offers multiple compatible interpretations. Should we interpret the opinion of Placebo in the same way as we should Justinus, or do the subsequent events of the Tale prove to us that we should primarily concern ourselves with the view of the more reasoned, objective character – the name ‘Justinus’ implies a judicial figure? Concerning an answer to the question, it is also important to address the relationship between Januarie and May, and the following ‘cuckolding’.
Is it more a cynical attack on adultery than that of marriage? The fundamental basis for investigating the status of marriage in The Merchant’s Tale is to address the initial opinion of the merchant in the Prologue, and the subsequent irony at the beginning of the Tale. Chaucer directs the poem through the narration of the merchant, who has a clear cynical attitude towards his wife (in reaction to The Clerk’s Tale and patient Griselda), though not overly marriage in general: ‘Thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were, She would him overmacche’5
Here, he specifically links his wife with the devil, that she would defeat him if they were they coupled. He goes as far as demonising his wife and presenting her in an evil, even heretic manner. This is in stark contrast to his later comment, ‘for who kan be so buxom as a wyf? ‘6, which emphasises the inconsistency of thought throughout the poem. The idea of a woman having dominance over a potent figure can be related to May’s apparent supremacy over Januarie and the Tale as a whole: ‘And every signe that she koude make, Wel bet than Januarie, hir owene make’7
She manipulates Januarie in the garden in a similar manner to the serpent (the devil) in Genesis, suggesting that May has crafty, cunning and stealthy attributes relative to a snake. Januarie is blind to her cunning – in both a literal sense and a moral sense – as Adam is initially to the serpent’s influence. Januarie is manipulated by his wife as Adam is by his. Chaucer also refers to the realisation of sin, as with Adam, Januarie becomes aware of nakedness with the literal return of his sight, viewing his wife, May, actively engaging in a ‘sinful’ act of adultery with Damyan, further linking ‘wyf’s’ with the devil.
These religious connotations and the vivid sensitive view of ‘cuckolding’ (and adultery) suggest the Tale is providing a cynical attack on marriage for a clerical purpose. When this is related to Januarie’s ambiguous, yet seemingly devout, reasons for taking a wife it can still be believed that Chaucer is addressing a particularly religious theme, albeit this should be addressed with caution when consulting the merchant’s narration: