The Physician's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

'The Physician's Tale' is about a young, virtuous girl who must choose between death and dishonor when an evil judge demands that she be handed over to him, where she would be forced to sin. This is a fairly standard moral allegory, where the onus of maintaining the family honor is entirely on the woman, and she ultimately chooses death rather than shame.

Moral Allegory

'The Physician's Tale' is in the genre of moral allegory, a story in which the main characters typically represent moral extremes. In this case, Virginia, daughter of the knight Virginius, is described as being pure, kind, and chaste. Appius, on the other hand, a powerful judge in her community, cares only about satisfying his own desires, whatever the cost to those around him.

Plot Summary

Virginia is the only child of the knight Virginius. The reader is told that she is known far and wide for being beautiful and virtuous. Appius, the judge, decides that he wants Virginia for himself. He devises a plan in which Claudius, a clerk in the town who has a sleazy reputation, accuses Virginius of stealing Virginia, whom Claudius claims is a former slave of his. Then, when Virginia is brought to the court, Appius will take Virginia from Virginius and keep her for himself. Virginia and her father decide that death would be preferable, so Virginius cuts off her head and takes it to Appius, who then condemns Virginius to death for the murder. The crowd, however, rises up to defend Virginius, and Appius is imprisoned. The narrator explains that the moral of the story is that sin leads to death.

Weak Moral of Story

Unlike many other tales in The Canterbury Tales, the moral of this story does not relate closely to the climax of the tale. Although Appius's evil plans lead to his imprisonment, the most noteworthy suffering in the story -- Virginia's death -- is the result of no wrongdoing on her part.

Themes

Choice Between Shame and Death

Typical to these moral tales is the choice between death and shame, a decision which almost always falls on a young woman. Perhaps the most famous of these tales is found in Livy; this story is called 'The Rape of Lucretia', which features another young woman (Lucretia) who kills herself after being raped, because she will not allow her family to suffer the shame of her modesty being stolen. There are several echoes in 'The Physician's Tale' of 'The Rape of Lucretia': namely, that the young girl is well known for being beautiful and moral, and is ultimately put in the position of choosing whether to give herself in body to an evil man, or die. This choice is spelled out clearly in 'The Physician's Tale' by Virginius: 'Daughter, quoth he, Virginia by name, There be two wayes, either death or shame, That thou must suffer, -- alas that I was bore (born)!'

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