Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Chaucer, The Shipman’s Tale

This is another fabliau, originally intended for the Wife of Bath almost certainly (see 11-19). It’s about “the possibility of exploiting physical charms for financial gain” (Donaldson 1094) and involves an uneasy “reduction of all human values to commercial ones” (Donaldson 1095), emphasized by the rhyme franks / flanks, and the wordplay on tally / taille.

Aside from the joke it makes–which is, of course, more than sufficient on one level of reading–the story demonstrates that the vision of life as a purely mercantile arrangement sterilizes those who hold it so that all human values disappear, including that of human awareness. Within the tale neither the cheating nor the cheated perceive any significance in their actions beyond the immediate financial loss or gain that is incurred…. With characteristic Chaucerian irony, this point is reinforced by the insensitivity of the narrator, who sees nothing in the story beyond a clever trick and a smart evasion. (Donaldson 1095-1096)

Juxtaposed with the Prioress’ Tale means that we get “solace” in the Shipman’s conscious immorality and “sentence” with the Prioress’ unconscious immorality — her banal evil. The “solace” of Thopas is interrupted, but not the “sentence” of Melibee; but the “sentence” of the Monk’s Tale is then interrupted.