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The Shipman'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 Shipman's Tale' is a story about a merchant, his beautiful wife, and their friend, a young monk. The merchant does not give his wife as much money as she would like, so she gets a loan from the monk in exchange for sex. This lesson explores various types of power in relationships, including social power, monetary power, and sexual power.

Plot Summary

A wealthy merchant has a wife who is well-known for enjoying fine clothes and an expensive social life. The merchant and wife have a close friend, named Sir John, who is a monk, and spends a great deal of time with them -- so much so that he tells them he considers them to be family. The merchant's wife confesses to Sir John that she is depressed because her husband will not give her money to buy nice things. When the merchant leaves town for a business trip, Sir John offers to loan the money to the merchant's wife, and she invites him to her bed. When the merchant returns, he visits Sir John, who tells him that he has repaid the loan to the merchant's wife. The merchant returns to his home and tells his wife that he's annoyed with her for not telling him that the loan was repaid, and she replies that she will keep the money but pay him back in bed. ('As be not wroth, but let us laugh and play. Ye shall my jolly body have to wed (in pledge), By God, I will not pay you but in bed.')

Fabliau

'The Shipman's Tale' is written in the genre of fabliau. This is a short story written in poetry rather than prose, which offers a comedic take on a lewd topic. In this tale, the lewd subject-matter is the merchant's wife's sexual encounter with Sir John, followed by her similar offer of sex to her husband in exchange for the money that she now owes him.

Use of Wits

The crux of this story, and what gives it entertainment value, is Sir John's use of his wits. When the merchant's wife approaches him for a loan, and it becomes clear that there will be some sexual dimension to their understanding, the reader assumes that the loan will be made from Sir John's funds. Chaucer turns this on its head, however, when Sir John uses the merchant's own money to seduce the merchant's wife. Not only that, but he tells the merchant that he has repaid the loan to his wife, which places the burden of explanation for the money on the merchant's wife.

Who's the Winner?

While it is clear that the merchant is the figure who loses the most in this tale -- he loses both his money as well as his wife's fidelity -- it is less clear whether the character of the merchant's wife or Sir John comes out on top. On the one hand, Sir John is the mastermind behind the trick of the story, and ends up sleeping with the merchant's wife and being none the poorer for it. On the other, the wife gets the money she wanted, takes a lover, and does not pay any price.

The Wife's Lack of Autonomy

The difference between Sir John's situation and the wife's, however, is that the wife is only in this situation in the first place because she must rely on her husband or Sir John for funds, which would appear to make Sir John the ultimate winner in the story. This question comes down to the story's portrayal of types of power, discussed next.

Power Dynamics

The central theme in this tale is the various ways to use power within relationships. The merchant has the most monetary power, Sir John uses his social power, and the merchant's wife wields sexual power.

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