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The Merchants Tale

Categories Art, Book Review, Books And Reading, Feminism, Literature, Love And Relationship

Essay, Pages 4 (998 words)



Essay, Pages 4 (998 words)

The genre of courtly love

Courtly love was a contradictory experience between erotic desire and spiritual achievement, “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and self-disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”. At first, Damian seems to possess these qualities and at the wedding of Januarie and May, his desire for adultery is made clear, “So sorre hath Venus hurt him with hire brond”. The principles of courtly love are satirised through the characterisation of the characters. Januarie is lecherous, May is greedy and Damian is lustful.

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These virtues add humour to the narrative, as none of them are worthy heroes. At the end of his wedding, Januarie rushes his guests to leave “as best mighte, savinge his honour” so that he can be with his new wife May. The idea of an “oold and hoor” knight rushing around excitedly and at the same time trying to be polite makes the audience laugh.

The genre of courtly love is further satirised through the imagery of May and Damian having sex in a pear tree, “in he throng”, whilst the blind Januarie clings to the trunk underneath.

A sense of dramatic irony is achieved here at Januarie’s expense, as he, at first, has no knowledge of what is happening whereas the audience, although shocked by the nature of this act, are not particularly surprised by its occurrence.

The adulterous lover and their partner

In a story about courtly love, there is usually a reason why the adulterous lover and their partner are not suited for one another.

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Usually, this reason is age. In the Merchant’s Tale, the “fresshe” lady May, “fulfild of alle beautee and pleasaunce”, is contrasted to the “oold and hoore” Januarie. This contrast between them is so extreme that it satirises the courtly love situation beyond its required proportions. Chaucer further emphasises this ‘physical diversity’ by repeating the word ‘beautee’ three times. The repulsive phrase ‘the slake skin aboute his nekke shaketh’ further shows how unsuited the couple are. The emphasis on this repulsiveness also creates amusement from the audience’s point of view.

Another aspect of courtly love is the ‘Religion of Love’ which basically means that the courtly lover must accomplish his lust in order to be cured. The Merchant shows his dislike of the idea and mocks May’s decision to save Damian from dying of lust by granting him ‘hire grace’. This has humorous undertones, as the audience all knows what is meant by this subtle language, the hint of adultery. In Chaucer’s time, the main view was that if someone committed adultery, then they were breaking one of the Ten Commandments, i.e. you must not commit adultery. They believed that people who committed these sins must go to hell. Here, courtly love is satirised through the mocking of May’s moral vice, as the narrator sarcastically declares ‘Lo, pitee renneth soone in gentil herte’ and that any ‘tyrant’ that would not try to do so has a ‘herte as hard as any stoon’.

Religion can also said to be satirised

Religion can also said to be satirised for comic effect in The Merchants Tale, as the ‘auctorities’ are frequently misused throughout the tale. For example Pluto uses the words of Solomon, ‘Fulfild of sapience and of worldly gloerie/…To every wight that wit and reson kan’, to express how terrible women are. However Proserpine later reveals that Solomon was a fool as he had over 300 wives and 1000 concubines, and worshiped false idols, which is again breaking one of the Ten Commandments.

Januarie also uses religious figures incorrectly when he reasons that a wife is a supportive, obedient figure who will always further her husband’s greatness and to do so he uses Rebekke, Judith, Abigail and Ester as examples. By doing this, Januarie weakens his argument as these women deceived their husbands in different ways. This makes the audience laugh at Januarie’s naivety and stupidity as we realise how much of a fool he is. “Januarie’s bending of religious authority to his own selfish purposes leaves religion untouched but adds to our sense of his delusion and error.”3 It also satirises the way in which religion can be used to justify one’s desires.

The use of ‘Lo’ implies that Januarie thinks he is communicating divine religious wisdom when actually he is abusing it. It also leads to structural irony as Januarie is demanding everyone to ‘look’ when he himself cannot even see the errors he is making. Such irony is carried through to the wedding blessing, when the Priest begs May to ‘be lyk Sarra and Rebekke’. This ignorant request seems to show an element of fate, humorous in nature, on the rest of the tale, and satirizes the church for its own misuse of religion. No one present at the wedding seems to be fooled; everyone is laughing, but not necessarily for the right reasons, ‘Ther is swich mirthe-that it may nat be written’. Even the goddess Venus sees the amusement in such a match: ‘For Januarie was bicome hir knight’, who is far from being young, courageous and noble.


In conclusion, The Merchants Tale does satirise both the genre of courtly love and religion to an extent within the narrative, and this frequently creates humour. The conventions of courtly love are satirised through characterisation and exaggerated to such an extent by imagery and tone that the silliness of the events are emphasised and mocked. In particular the ‘religion of love’ falls prey to the narrator’s sarcasm, which serves to enhance our comical appreciation of the witty narrative and its ridiculous characters. Religion is not satirised as much, however the use of misquoting biblical authorities and figures, alongside the blessing of such an ill-fitting couple, does seem to ridicule the church. Although other elements of the narrative, such as the choice of language combined with rhythm and pace, also contribute towards creating humour, it is the over-all conclusion of all these factors which makes The Merchant’s Tale a truly successful comedy.

Cite this essay

The Merchants Tale. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-merchants-tale-3201-new-essay

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