The Merchant’s Tale Essay
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“The merchant’s tale presents a thoroughly cynical view of women and marriage” How far do you agree off such a statement as an accurate general description of the Merchant’s Tale. It is true to say that the merchant presents a thoroughly cynical view of women and marriage but it is not an accurate general description of the tale. The cynicism is apparent at the very beginning in the Merchant’s Prologue. The outburst by the merchant even before the tale opens sets the scene for what is to come: a parody of women and marriage.
“I have a wyf, the worste that may be;
For thogh he feend to hire ycoupled were, She wolde him overmacche, I dar wel swere” Although the Merchant prepares his audience for a story about a shrewd wife, he begins the Tale with an extended debate about the pros and cons of marriage. The beginning of the tale serves as a warning against marriage.
Justinus prophetically warns January that “Or wheither hire thoughte it paradis or helle”. There is also a mounting criticism towards women that is inherent in the way Justinus argues his point that a wife, especially a young wife will be his purgatory:
“Where she be wys, or sobre, or dronkelewe, Or proud, or elles ootherweyes a shrewe, a childestere, or wastour of thy good, or riche, or poore, or elles mannish wood”. This promotes an overall negative view of women even before May comes into the tale. However it is not only the merchant and January that present a cynical view of women and marriage but also Justinus; the supposedly ‘just’ voice of the tale. Justinus tells January ‘Ne take no wyf’ and to take a servant instead because ‘a trewe servant dooth moore diligence’.
The merchant himself intervenes to say that scholars, including the well-known classical misogynist Theofraste, recommend a reliable servant as being more use than a wife, who is `only after thy good’. Justinus concludes gloomily that ‘`nis no so greet felicitee in marriage’. However despite Justinus’ warnings about women and marriage, January ignores his advice and instead listens to the voice of the sycophant, Placebo. We are also reminded later by Pluto of the ‘tresons whiche that women doon to man’. The merchant is not only cynical towards May but also cynical of women in general.
The merchant is cynical of women in the Bible as well as the Greek goddess Proserpine and Griselda in the initial outburst of the merchant. Pluto tells his wife of her ‘untrouthe and brotilnesse’. The tale concentrates on women who have been unfaithful to their husbands such like Rebekka and Sarra to promote the deception of May and women in general. It is also ironic when Justinus requests for May to be ‘lyk Sarra and Rebekka’. The merchant is also skeptical towards Proserpine who gives May the gift of persuasion. Pluto further disparages women: “Amongst a thousand men yet foond I oon, But of women alle foond I noon”.