Russian dolls

The merchant’s tale, is a tale about marriage, and it is told using different authoritative voices. Like a set of Russian dolls, it comes across in layers that give different aspects to the main story. In the Merchant’s tale, opinions and behaviour vary, creating a debate about marriage, and also giving a satirical view on love and marriage in that era. In the tale there is Chaucer, who is the omniscient narrator; the merchant who narrates this tale, a clever and perhaps unethical man who is unhappily married, and then there are Januarie’s views.

Januarie, the main character of the tale has decided he wants to get married. He is portrayed as a foolish old man with very idealistic ideas about marriage. He feels that a marriage to a very young bride will be his salvation, and a wonderful thing. He wants to get married for all the wrong reasons. He has been exalting the benefits of a marriage and what he feels it represents. He has asked his friends to find him a wife. After his discourse, his two brothers give him advice.

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Placebo and Justinus give two completely different points of view, and Chaucer has named Januarie’s brothers aptly, giving a humorous touch to the tale; Justinus means wisdom, balance, and Placebo whose name means in Latin to placate, or to please. Placebo seems delighted by his brother’s plans, and agrees completely with Januarie praising his wisdom ‘Ful litel nede hadde ye, my lord so deere, conseil to axe of any that is heere’ He quotes biblical king Solomon;’Wirk alle thing by conseil’,’and thanne shaltow repente thee’ to strengthen his argument, and then adding that Januarie does not really need any advice as he is so wise himself.

He is obsequious and a sycophant. His advice is so good that it cannot be taken seriously, and only a fool would. There are no words of wisdom in his speech. There is an irony when he explains how he has earned his status as a highly regarded adviser to ‘lordes of ful heigh estaat’: ‘Yet I never with noon of hem debaat I nevere hem contraried, trewely;’ It is seen that Placebo never contradicts his lords, nor does he try to be seen as cleverer than them, he always agrees with their ideas and opinions. This makes his advice doubtful and questions his motivations and his real intentions towards his brother.

Justinus on the other hand tries to give Januarie more logical advice, he in turn quotes Seneca, ‘ ‘Seith that a man oghte him right wel avise To whom he yeveth his lond or his catel. ‘ If a man needs good advice before he gives his land and his cattle, shouldn’t he be also before giving himself away to a wife? He tells Januarie that he should make enquiries, as he could easily end up with a drunk, a shrew, a waster or a wife who is man mad. His advice is sound, but when he talks about his own marriage, which is an unhappy one, it can be seen that he is very influenced by his own experiences.

‘Ye shul nat plesen hire fully yeres thre,-‘ Justinus also implies that Januarie may be incapable of satisfying a young wife sexually, Januarie does not like this and replies: ‘Straw for thy Senek, and for thy proverbes’. Januarie has already made up his mind and will only listen to what he wants to hear. Justinus’s views on marriage seem to echo the views of the merchant narrating the tale, both unhappily married, and both wary of women, this also takes away his credibility as a good advisor, because the tale is being told by the merchant, and seen from his point of view.

The advice of Januarie’s brothers is so contrasting, that the brothers come across as the ‘good angel’ and the ‘bad angel’ when presenting their facts. The presence of Januarie’s brothers in this tale, their names, and their views help to put the tale in different frames, giving it different layers, and also keeping ongoing the debate on marriage, though not for Januarie’s benefit.

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