Chaucer creates humour by satirising values in religious and courtly love. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Chaucer was extremely successful at creating humour within his narratives, which is partly why his works were, and still are, so popular. Humour can be achieved through a variety of elements including plot, characterisation, language, pace, timing and circumstance. Chaucer used of all these, but largely drew upon the satirical portrayals of both the courtly love genre and religion within ‘The Merchant’s Tale’.
A courtly lover is a stock type for French literature, and usually shows the following four conditions; Humility, Courtesy, Adultery and the Religion of Love. Damyan initially shows humility, and courtesy is found in the closely observed etiquette of the marriage ceremony (with the priest blessing the bed and May staying in it ‘unto the for the day/As usage is of wive for the beste’). Damyan’s desire for adultery is made clear at the wedding (‘So sorre hath Venus hurt him with hire brond) and the ‘Religion of Love’ occupies much of the narrative from line 720 onwards. However despite the narrative complying with such conventions, the whole genre of courtly love is indirectly satirised through the characterisation of the courtly love players; Januarie is lecherous, May is greedy and Damyan is lustful. These undesirable qualities add humour to the narrative, as none of them are deserving heroes but ridiculous characters in a comical narrative. Despite courtesy being displayed through other elements of the play; such as the rich and conventional setting of ‘Lumbardye’ (complete with all the finery and enlightenment of the Renaissance influence) and those mentioned above, courtesy, and therefore one of the four-fold conditions of courtly love, is often undermined to humorous effect in the narrative. Januraie rushes his guests to leave ‘As best mighte, savinge his honour’ only so that he can ‘dooth all his labour’ with May; the idea of an ‘oold and hoor’ man dashing around excitedly full of aphrodisiac whilst struggling to be polite conjures many both disturbing and hilarious images. He harshly dismisses Justinus’ sound advice (‘straw for thy Senek , and for thy proverbs!’), which tickles the audience because thy can already see through Januarie’s naivety and know that these words will probably come back to haunt him. He also undermines the condition of courtesy through his empty promise to check on Damyan, whereby he fatally decides to send May in his place; this is humorous as we are well aware of Damyan’s intentions. The genre is further satirised through the ridiculous, and laughable, imagery of May and Damyan having sex in a pear tree (‘in he throng’) whilst the blind, old 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 rights are being violated whilst those listening to the Tale, although shocked by the nature of this act, are not particularly surprised by its occurrence. The act of May casting Damyan’s love letter of sorrow and wooing ‘softely’ down the toilet mocks and teases the poetically praised divinity of love and romance; although practical is not poetic. This situation prompts further chuckling, for the lofty concept of love is greeted by the crude humour of a 14th century toilet-hole.
Within a courtly love story there is usually some reason why the adulterous lover and his/her partner are ill-suited for each other. Often a matter of age, the contrast within this narrative is so extreme, unavoidable and full of such grotesque description that the genre is given a pronounced satirical edge. The ‘fresshe’, fairy-like, enchanting lady May (‘fulfild of alle beautee and pleasaunce’) is a dramatic contrast to the ‘oold and hoore’ croaking Januarie, which satirises this courtly love situation beyond its required proportions. Chaucer goes into great detail to subtly enhance such physical diversity, for example between lines 534-537 the word ‘beautee’ is repeated 3 times to reinforce our aesthetic appreciation of May, whilst the repulsive onomatopoeic ‘the slake skin aboute his nekke shaketh’ further draws out our disgust, and exaggerates just how unfit the two are for each other. This emphasis also heightens the humour and our comical appreciation of the situation. Another aspect of courtly love is the ‘Religion of Love’ which basically means that the courtly lover must consummate his lust in order to be cured. Lines 174-182 allow the Merchant’s sarcasm towards this idea penetrate the text, and he mocks ‘gentil’ May’s piteous decision to save Damyan 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 and the hinting of adultery, dressed up in honourable pretence and viewed in such a sarcastic light, make the audience squirm with delight. Although the Medieval World view maintains that any adulterer is a breaker of the ten commandments and must therefore go to hell, courtly love is indirectly satirised through the mocking of May’s moral vice, as the narrator sarcastically declares ‘Lo, pitee renneth soone in gentil herte’, women have a noble generosity which will save a dying man, and that any ‘tyrant’ that would not try to do so has a ‘herte as nhard as any stoon’ and rejoices in her ‘crueel pride’. The harsh and dramatic tone of this of this verse almost verges on rhetorical declamation, and enhances the ironic drama and sarcastic conviction behind such comments; the audience knows that this is not the narrator’s true beliefs. This undermines the enthusiastic praise which the Merchant narrator gives the merciful May, and thus satirises the ‘Religion of Love’, whilst prompting some smiles along the way.
Religion can also said to be satirised for comic effect in ‘the Merchants Tale’, as the ‘auctorities’ are frequently misquoted throughout the narrative. 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 and wicked womankind are. However Proserpine later reveals what a lecherous fool Solomon actually was, having over 300 wives and 1000 concubines, and worshiped false idols thus forsaking the true God. Now Pluto is the fool, as this revelation, if not already known by the Medieval audience, ridiculed his sincere beliefs. Similarly Januarie uses religious figures out of context in lines 151-163 when he reasons that a wife is a supportive, obedient figure who will always further her husband’s greatness. By drawing upon the examples of Rebekke, Judith, Abigail and Ester Januarie actually weakens his position as each of these women in turn deceived their husbands in a variety of manipulative ways, which ridicules not only his naivety but also, in a broader sense, satirises the way in which religion can be twisted and misused to justify one’s desires. This makes Januarie even more a fool, causing us to laugh harder at his ever-emerging incompetence and stupidity. The use of ‘Lo’ seems to imply that Januarie is taking on the language of a sermon, believing that he is communicating divine religious wisdom, when actually he is abusing it. It also puts a structural irony on Januarie as he is demanding everyone to ‘look’, when he himself cannot even spot the fundamental errors he is making. Such irony is carried through to the wedding blessing, when the Priest begs May to ‘be lyk Sarra and Rebekke’ (another example of a woman who deceived her husband in order to establish her own power) .This ignorant request seems to rest an element of fate, humorous in nature, on the rest of the tale, and satirizes the church for its own misuse of holy scripture. The church could also be seen as being satirized for sending May off almost to war, not a secure and holy future, as Januarie views “all relations between sexes as a kind of war” (Hussey), wanting to hold May ‘streyne/Harder than evere Paris did Eleyne’. The humour here being that Januarie is not a young and dashing Prince, driven by romance and love, but an old man driven by the direction of his desires; he is more of a Menelaus, if that. It could also be argued that the Church is subject to Juvenalian satire by allowing such an ill-matching couple to marry, as the immediacy of the engagement and diversity between both May and Januarie (‘tendre youthe’ and ‘stouping age’) forces one to question their motives. 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 hilarity in such a match: ‘For Januarie was bicome hir knight’, who is far from being young, gallant and noble. The mirth of the characters within the narrative is also enjoyed by the audience, as we laugh not only at the ludicrous situation itself but also the Merchant-narrators delicate treatment of such a bizarre ceremony (‘To small is bothe thy penne, and eek thy tongue/For to descriven of this marriage’).
‘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, or undermined, to such an extreme by imagery and tone that the absurdity 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, and indeed Hussey believed it was barely attacked at all, however the use of misquoting biblical authorities and figures, alongside the blessing of such an ill-fitting couple, does seem to lampoon the church at least a little. 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 culmination of all these factors which makes ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ a truly successful comedy.
By Louise Flower