The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis


    The Host invites the Parson to tell his story next. When the Parson admonishes the Host for his drunkenness, the Host jokingly accuses the Parson of being a prude, and maybe even a heretic. Their interchange is rudely interrupted by the Shipman who says he will tell a jolly tale with no hint of preaching in it. 

     His tale begins with a very successful merchant who lived at St. Denis with his very beautiful wife, a woman excessively fond of entertaining and dressing herself to be admired. To accommodate her, the merchant kept a very fine house which was always filled with visitors. Frequently among them was a monk called Don John, a handsome man of 30. He and the merchant had become such close friends that they referred to themselves as cousins.

       On the occasion being described, the monk comes to visit just as the merchant is preparing to leave on a buying trip. The merchant takes an inventory of his assets while the monk recites his prayer walking in the garden. The beautiful wife approaches the monk and unburdens herself of all her marital troubles. She claims that her husband is miserly and that she needs 100 pounds to purchase a new dress. Don John agrees to lend her the money. He kisses and caresses her. It is understood that repayment will be made in sexual favors. When the merchant emerges from his counting house, Don John borrows from him the 100 pounds, gladly loaned him by his "cousin." The monk promises to repay quickly and admonishes the merchant to behave sensibly while away. The following Sunday, with the merchant safely out of town, the monk gives the money to the wife. They agree that a night in bed together will be ample repayment of the loan and make merry all that night in the absence of the husband. When the merchant returns, his wife joyfully welcomes him home. However, the merchant has to leave for Paris right away as he has acquired some debt making his purchases and needs to borrow some money. In Paris, the merchant calls on Don John for the sake of their friendship. The monk gives a banquet in his honor and inquires about the business trip. The merchant admits his debt and Don John remarks that he is glad to have already repaid the loan. He claims to have left the 100 pounds on a bench with the merchant's wife, who had given him a verbal receipt for the gold.

     Once the merchant borrows all he needs, he returns home in high good humor. He and his wife delightedly make love all night. However, on the morning, the merchant asks her about the gold left by the monk. Thinking quickly, the wife says she has spent the money on clothes and that her husband must be content with her repaying him day by day as people admire her beauty. That admiration will do him credit which will constitute repayment. She further assures him that her continued enthusiasm for their lovemaking will recompense him for the gold. The merchant sees immediately that he is beaten. Ruefully, he tells his adorable wife not to be so careless with his money in the future. There the story ends.

Discussion and Analysis

    The Shipman is clearly bored with morality. He wants nothing of a sermonizing nature in his tale; its only purpose is to entertain. His tale is another example of fabliau, with its emphasis on trickery and sex. Like many of the other tales, this one centers on a theme of marriage. The beautiful wife in this story manages both her husband and Don John by bestowing her sexual favors with enthusiasm to achieve her own ends.

    Because so much of this story is presented from a female perspective, and because the Wife of Bath was said to be so skilled in all the arts of love, many critics believe that Chaucer originally intended for this tale to be told by the earthy Wife of Bath. However, The Shipman is a very worldly and a very nonreligious man, thus having him tell the story is not out of keeping with his character as it is described in the General Prologue.

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