Chaucer: The Physician’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE PHYSICIAN’S TALE
Fragment VI is a floater with no discernible connection to other tales even thematically. Why this one is linked with the Pardoner’s is another mystery. Perhaps the sententious moralizing, while the General Prologue reveals the Physician’s avarice, means this guy is a hypocrite like the Pardoner. Or maybe it’s just that both their ideals are badly askew. We cut right into his tale with no introduction or prologue.
It’s Sweeney Todd without the barber shop.
This is another classical legend (like The Man of Law’s Tale), and an embarrassment. Some speculate that the sober tone indicates early composition on Chaucer’s part and slapdash partial incorporation here. It’s moral, but in couplets, not rhyme royal. Was LGW an influence or intention? Note “allas, that I was bore!” (215).
The original story in Livy’s context serves to show the decline of Rome, but the tale is depoliticized by the Physician with the knight and governor equal in status, the fiance dropped, and the population disappearing. Here, a knight named Virginius has a virtuous daughter that the narrator raves about for a page. Then a chiding harangue to “ye maistresses … / That lordes doghtres han in governaunce” (72-73) makes no sense on the pilgrimage, nor really to “Ye fadres and ye moodres eek also” (93). A false and lecherous judge, Apius, conspires with a churl, Claudius, to take away the daughter by insisting in court that she is a runaway servant and not Virginius’ daughter. The judge adopts her as a ward, and Virginius must break the bad news at home: she must die, and he’ll chop her head off. She requests a bit of time in which to complain (239), citing the case of Jephtha. She swoons, gets back up, and asks that he decapitate her softly. The slaying takes place remarkably antiseptically. The townspeople always suspected that judge was crooked. They throw him in prison, where he kills himself; and they almost hang the churl but Virginius prays for mercy on his behalf. They instead hang others involved in the plot (whom we didn’t know about). The Physician ends with a too pat non-sequitur warning: “Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake” (286).
The problems with the tale include the false values and the improbable circumstances. The moralism is misguided, and praising virtue in a morally revolting tale is simply nuts. The real center of the tale is the murder and sadistic sensationalism is behind that. (It has a false “moralitee” like The Prioress’ Tale.) So is this tale a terse parody of the LGW aesthetic imperatives? Maybe it’s an impersonation of a lack of artistry, but it’s pretty chilling.
E. Talbot Donaldson offers a convincing perspective on the tale in his edition of Chaucer’s Poetry:
The Physician’s Tale, like the Man of Law’s Tale, is a pious story assigned to a person of no real piety whose respect for propriety rather than sincere moral earnestness seems to lead him to speak as he does. Since Chaucer portrays such materialistic pilgrims telling such tales, it seems likely that members of Chaucer’s audience no different from the tellers enjoyed hearing them told–or at least preferred them to merely entertaining stories: people self-importantly dedicated to business (and to busy-ness) may feel that while entertainment is pure waste, moral doctrine, no matter how little they apply it to themselves, may be written off as a kind of deduction from the tax on their time that they consider all non-profitable activity to be. The Physician’s Tale has little coherent interest: Nature’s monologue is agreeable, the portrait of Virginia amiable if priggish, the advice to governesses and parents good, the gory story far more absurd than in Livy’s Latin version, and the concluding warning about the power of conscience a total non-sequitur. But there is nothing in the fabric to prove that the intent is not wholly serious: even the fact that Virginia, after comparing herself with Jephtha’s daughter, rejoices that she will die a virgin, while Jephtha’s daughter bewails her virginity before being put to death by her father, may be a pure accident, though a wry one. In any case, it seems a fact that stories of damsels in dreadful distress appeal to people who generally consider literature a poor substitute for the reality of everyday life. (Donaldson 1090-1091)
Delany, Sheila. “Politics and the Paralysis of Poetic Imagination in The Physician’s Tale.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer (1981): 47-60.
Kempton, Daniel. “The Physician’s Tale: The Doctor of Physic’s Diplomatic ‘Cure.'” Chaucer Review 19.1 (1984): 24-38. This author was my college Chaucer teacher.