History Contra Poetics in The Physician’s Tale

There is no introduction to “The Physician’s Tale.” We begin en media res. The tale cites its source as Titius Livius (“Livy”) the great Roman historian, though Chaucer likely borrowed sections from The Romance of the Rose, a poem which Chaucer partially translated from French into Middle English. Unlike other tales, “The Physician’s Tale” is not about unrequited love or the foibles of marriage. Instead we are offered an allegorical tale about lust and chastity.

We are introduced to a powerful and honorable knight named Virginius who has one beautiful daughter named Virginia. She is formed in ‘excellence’ in accord with ‘Nature’ in such a way that none (not even Pygmalion as recounted in Ovid) might create a forgery. Her age is ‘twelve years and two,’ and she is the flower of virtue, moderation, and honor. As in “The Knight’s Tale” we are dealing explicitly with high-born themes of chastity but the “The Physician’s Tale” is somewhat superficial and unbelievable, like a morality play, despite the Physician’s explicit claim that his tale is a perfectly true “history,” not a morality story nor a “fable.”

One day Virginia comes to the city and passes by the judge and governor of the region (the location is unnamed though we are led to believe it is a region in ancient Rome). This judge, named Apius, decides he will win over her body by means of trickery in a lawful way (i.e. not by force). He calls upon a churl named Claudius from the village (a man of evil-doing). Claudius brings a false claim against Virginius before the court – that Virginius stole one of Claudius’s young servants long ago and raised her as his daughter. Apius quickly convicts Virginius, and he orders that Virginia be turned over to Apius as part of the plot.

Distraught, Virginius returns home. He offers his daughter two choices: the live a life of lechery with Apius, or else face death immediately. She takes some time, just as Jephtha’s father offered his daughter time to reflect, as recounted in the Biblical Book of Judges, Chapter 11 (the Biblical story is about a judge named Jephtha who leads the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites and after a victory celebration he vows to sacrifice the first person to walk through his door which, lamentably, turns out to be his own daughter). At any rate, Virginia chooses the latter (death) at the recommendation of her father and so Virginius executes his own daughter by beheading. He presents her severed head to Apius who then condemns Virginius to death by hanging, however Virginius is rescued by ‘thousands’ of people who come to his defense and banish the lecherous Apius.

The Physician closes his story with a lesson – his tale is intended to show that sin always yields evil. Various schemes to gain a lover, as recounted in the other tales, are flatly rejected by the Physician. Untruth is always evil to him. He has nothing to say about love or marriage, only bodily instincts. He sees licentiousness as a malady that is in need of correction, not in accord with ‘Nature.’ “The Physician’s Tale” is appropriate for a medical doctor – he sees an ill that needs curing, and so he offers a lesson to the group, contra the desires of someone like the Wife of Bath. His tale offers a moral but it is not the most amusing of tales, and therefore it falls short of the criterion to be the winner.

In the “General Prologue” the Physician is described as someone “who knew the cause of everich maladye,” and a moderate eater, drinker, and spender of money. We are not given his name because it is not important. He represents a certain type of character, one who diagnoses problems. Although he is little studied in the Bible compared to his vast knowledge of astronomy, he has, ironically, read enough to reference the somewhat obscure tale of Jephtha in his tale. With his story, the Physician instructs people to protect the innocence of young maidenhood. However he explicitly states that the tale is not a “fable,” but it is intended to be a true history. Thus, he wishes to make the leap from a story that might have happened, to a story that did, in fact, occur (per the classical Aristotelian model, as discussed the Poetics). However, “The Physician’s Tale” reads more like a Christian allegory, or a tragic fable, and perhaps, in some ways, there is a certain degree of moral allegory latent in all historical writing. In claiming to present an authentic history, “The Physician’s Tale,” therefore, does not fall into the category of classical poetics, and can be discarded from the competition, as Chaucer has subtly indicated.


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale: Autobiography and Arthurian Parody

The Wife of Bath is the most famous albeit the most troubling character in Chaucerian literature. As with other storytellers in The Canterbury Tales, we are initially given only her title: the “Wife of Bath.” Later we learn her name is Alysoun, and that she sometimes goes by the name “Aly” (recall that she shares a name with the carpenter’s wife from the “Miller’s Tale”). The “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is brief, but her autobiographical prologue is substantial (more than twice as long as the tale, itself). In her prologue, she expounds on her desire for authority in marriage –for political supremacy over men– a desire which is born from her many worldly experiences and having been married five separate times beginning at the age of twelve (‘not including company in her youth’).

Prior to her personal prologue, in Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” we learn that the Wife of Bath is a “good” wife, though ‘somewhat deaf’ (in her prologue we learn her deafness is the result of a violent fight with one of her “bad” husbands). She is also skilled in ‘cloth-making,’ surpassing even the cloth-makers of ‘Ypres and Ghent’ (both Flemish cities known for their textiles in Medieval Belgium). She is described as a charitable person, often first in line at the Offering but angry if another woman beats her to the Offering first (in other words she is a vain person). Her integrity is questionable: she values charity only when others notice. She carries a large collection of fine kerchiefs she wears on Sundays, Chaucer guesses her kerchiefs weigh about ten pounds. She also wears red stockings and new shoes. She is described as having a ‘bold face,’ because she is a cosmopolitan woman, having been three times to Jerusalem, across foreign seas to Rome and Boulogne, Cologne, as well as to Galicia for the Compostela (the pilgrimage through the Pyrenees to St. James Cathedral in Spain), and she knows a great deal about “wandrynge by the weye” (467). She wears a large medieval head covering, and she sits on an ambling gait horse (trotting slightly above a walk), She has wide set teeth and large hips. She knows about “remedies of love” as she is well familiar with that “old daunce” (476), or playful romance.

At any rate, in her prologue, the Wife of Bath defends her many marriages by citing the biblical injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ as well as Solomon’s, Abraham’s, and David’s numerous wives (contra Jesus and Paul’s preferences for chastity, virginity, and womanly maidenhood). The Wife of Bath’s idea of perfection is diverse, global, and multi-faceted. A perfect scholar is educated in many schools of thought, and a perfect craftsman knows many different styles of his art, in the same way the Wife of Bath has been schooled in five different men -and she is now looking for a sixth! Naturally, contemporary academia has found kinship with the Wife of Bath, a so-called “medieval feminist.” She portrays her desire as follows:

“I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
I will bestow the flower of all my age
In the actes and in fruyt of mariage.
In the acts and in fruit of marriage” (113-114)

The Wife of Bath offers a scandalous thesis as to why men owe their wives a debt of sexual gratification in marriage. She views marriage as an economic transaction rather than a just and happy union. Instead, her lust is for authority. She justifies force and dominance over her husband, a man whom she views as both a debtor and a slave. Her true desire is for “power” in marriage.

At this point, the Pardoner jumps in and expresses concern for his pending nuptials. He is set to be married soon, and he wonders why should he get married only to become a slave, “By God and Saint John” The Pardoner is no slave! The Wife of Bath responds that soon he will be drinking from a different barrel, so to speak, when he hears her tale. ‘Please do not be annoyed,’ she says to him, because her only intent is to “amuse” (however in saying this the Wife of Bath has disqualified herself from winning the prized meal at the Tabard Inn. Recall, that the Host initially called upon the travelers to both “amuse” as well as “inform” the group with their chosen tales).

The Wife of Bath proceeds with her lengthy autobiography. Three of her husbands were good (she skips over these three, because she is not interested in sharing the good qualities in men. Goodness is not worth mentioning). Two of her husbands were bad –what is a bad husband according to the Wife of Bath? The three good husbands were old and rich, but they could not satisfy her sexual appetite. She discusses various verbal tricks she played on these old men and the reasons why she never cared about their love. The Wife of Bath describes her soul as follows:

“In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.
In feeling, and my heart is influenced by Mars.
Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
Venus me gave my lust, my amorousness,
And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;
And Mars gave me my sturdy boldness” (610-612)

The most blessed of men are not controlling whatsoever, but rather the best of men free her to do as she pleases. She yearns for personal freedom yet complete subservience from her husband. ‘One of us two must bow, doubtless’ (440).

“I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun,
I never loved in moderation,
But evere folwede myn appetit,
But always followed my appetite” (622-623)

The Wife of Bath is honest and open to the world, presenting her deepest, most taboo desires in the most direct form -an autobiography (recall that Plato’s Republic and Apology might be called Socrates’s autobiography, as well).

At any rate, regarding the Wife of Bath’s two “bad” husbands: her fourth husband had a mistress, but she still remembers her romance fondly with this young man. She catches herself in a moment of nostalgia, and then recalls her many infidelities, but her fourth husband died while she was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her fifth husband (named “Jankyn”) was a poor scholar. He was the only one of her husbands she wed out of love, however he was a violent man and in fact he may have killed her fourth husband (the question is left unanswered). Once married, Alysoun and Jankyn tormented one another. He read aloud stories of troublesome women (Eve, Delilah, Clytemnestra) to badger his wife. Stories can be weaponized to affect people. The couple fought violently with one another, until finding ultimately finding a political truce –the truce is that Jankyn shares his estate with his wife, and the Wife of Bath treats him kindly. Thus, the Wife of Bath concludes her personal history before telling a tale.

There is a brief interlude in which the Friar and the Summoner argue with one another just prior to the start of her tale (mediated by the Innkeeper), until the Wife of Bath asks for permission to tell her tale. She proceeds to tell a story that makes a mockery of friars: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a parody of an Arthurian romance. The story takes place ‘many hundreds of years ago’ when magical creatures, like elves, roamed the English isle. Today, she tells us, those creatures have been replaced by begging and licentious friars.

A ‘lusty bachelor’ in King Arthur’s court comes home after a day of “hawking” when he suddenly rapes a maiden (recall the Knight’s son in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” is also called a ‘lusty bachelor’). King Arthur, a “just” king, sentences the man to death, but when the women protest, King Arthur allows the Queen to decide his fate. The Queen says she will spare his life if this man can name what women desire most of all. He is given one year to respond (recall the premise in “The Green Knight”).

During the year, he searches high and low, but no one can provide a satisfactory answer (though the Wife of Bath admits that women are certainly more susceptible to flattery). The Wife of Bath offers a brief interlude of a story from Ovid about King Midas’s wife who shares a secret about two asses ears which grow under his hair. Her digressions are important. The Wife of Bath suggests that women are susceptible to both vanity and gossip. She has a high opinion of herself but a low opinion of women.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath continues her tale: the man returns to King Arthur’s country, dismayed at not finding his answer, when suddenly he comes upon a group of twenty-four women dancing in the forest. As he approaches, they disappear and an old hag now sits in their stead. She offers to teach the man any skill if he will only swear an oath in return. So he asks her to teach him what women desire most of all, and, upon learning the secret, he returns to King Arthur’s castle. The thing women desire most of all is sovereignty and mastery over their husbands. When this answer meets approval the old hag demands the knight marry her as recompense. He is distraught because she is old and poor and lowborn, but he reluctantly marries her anyway. She offers him a choice to have her -old and haggard- but she will humbly support him all her life, or else have her as a young and attractive maiden but she will be unfaithful to him. The knight ultimately leaves the choice up to her, which pleases her so greatly that she gives him both: her youth and her fidelity. Thus they live in ‘perfect joy’ and the Wife of Bath closes by placing a curse on men who refuse to be governed by their wives.

The great irony of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is that she offers marital advice, though she clearly has failed to uphold her matrimonial oaths on numerous occasions. Another irony is that the hero of the story is a wicked man (a rapist), and that he only finds true happiness when he marries an old hag. The Wife of Bath is the polar opposite of the previous tale-teller, the Man of Law, an austere attorney who values fulfilled-oaths and honored obligations above all else.

Politically, the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” differs from the “Knight’s Tale” because it has no Theseus pulling the strings. King Arthur merely steps aside so his Queen may decide one man’s fate, and in the end a happy marriage results not from submission to a king, but rather submission to a wife. The Wife of Bath teaches that justice begins in the household.

In continuing with the recurring theme of marriage, unlike the Knight, the Wife of Bath does not want courtly love. She desires a certain type of marriage, but only one that she cannot truly have. An old woman cannot magically become young again, and a marriage cannot find true happiness if only one spouse relinquishes authority. Thus, the Pardoner’s defense at line 163 still stands. The Wife of Bath, in her Epicurean and cosmopolitan experiences, is something of a hedonist. She is well-traveled in more ways than than one, yet for all of her worldliness, she has never managed to discover true happiness in love. In marriage, she views herself as a debt-collector, and if she is unsatisfied sexually, she will simply find another husband. In fact, she defines ‘perfection’ as a diverse array of experiences. Good clerks (scholars) are well-read, and good craftsman are builders of many different styles. Therefore, the perfect scholar has read everything, and the perfect craftsman can build anything. But such experience is an impossibility because each person is ensouled with a perspective and is raised within a single culture. No single person can possess such a global and encyclopedic knowledge. Similarly, in marriage no person can achieve this standard for perfection. Perhaps she realizes this problem, so the Wife of Bath longs to be like the old hag in her story -a woman who forces a young man to marry her not out of love, but rather compulsion, or obligation. The Wife of Bath believes in self-gratification, rather than love. Like Thrasymachus’s denial of justice in Plato’s Republic, the Wife of Bath lacks belief in love. When people believe in neither love nor justice in life, compulsion and tyranny reign. Hence, why the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is merely a parody of an Arthurian legend, or another instance in which the Knight is shown to be a mere caricature. She has proven her own prophecy to be true: she longs for what she cannot truly have. After all, she tells the Pardoner, her only hope is to “amuse” with her story.


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

As You Like It, Act I

Scene 1

At the outset, we encounter Orlando, an English spelling of the French hero named Roland (of Chanson de Roland, or the “Song of Roland”, the great French heroic poem from the reign of Charlemagne) bemoaning his state of affairs to the family servant Adam in an orchard. The setting is far from the court in a country estate, and news of the court does not come well -the old Duke Ferdinand is banished by his younger brother and has taken up in the forest of Arden with a band of merry men like Robin Hood. The new Duke Frederick has claimed the lands of the Duke Ferdinand’s loyalists so he lets them wander. The time period is unknown, it is perhaps a-temporal, though through textual evidence we can conclude the setting takes place after Robin Hood during a time in which France and England live well together in a mythic context, devoid of Christian allegory but rife with allusions to classical antiquity.

As with other Shakespearean plays, Shakespeare steals much of the story from another playwright, in this case Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde. In Lodge’s play, the setting of the opening scene is explicitly in an apple orchard.

A good play to compare with As You Like It is King Lear. Consider that at the opening of King Lear we are concerned with the perpetuation of the perfect regime. King Lear has united the kingdoms and is attempting to divide his kingdom in a way that is fitting for the future, to ensure a lasting regime. His enemies are subdued and two of his daughters are set to be married to noblemen, and he decides to divide the kingdom unequally between his daughters, with preference given to his chosen daughter, Cordelia. However, the much-discussed “love-test” to which he subjects his daughters fails and Lear is left to the extremities of his kingdom, seeking out the nature of men and kings. However, in As You Like It, we find that the patriarch has already died -Rowland de Boys (or “of the woods”) and, according to the youngest son, Orlando, Oliver, the eldest brother, is giving all of the fruits of their father’s bequest to Jacques, the middle son, while Orlando receives no education. Curiously, Orlando identifies education with “profit” and “gain” -has Jacques “profited” from his education? To what extent might he be worse for his education? His character only appears in Act 5, scene 4. While King Lear is a tragedy about the retreat of a court into nature, As You Like It is a flattering pastoral comedy of the same kind.

However, Orlando desires his portion of the inheritance in order to become a “gentleman” and Oliver bitterly relents, giving Orlando “some part of [the] will” (1.1, 70-75), only after Orlando has physically grabbed Oliver by the throat. Orlando is not afraid to use force if necessary. He is not merely concerned with profit for its own sake, but Orlando is also more physically fit than his brother, capable of overtaking him rather than persuading him. Enter the wrestler Charles who informs Oliver that Orlando plans to come in disguise to challenge Charles, for he would not have been old enough to compete, and Oliver commands Charles take down Orlando in the wrestling match, because Orlando is a “villain”. In private confession, Oliver states that he hates nothing more than Orlando, though he doesn’t know why. We are exposed to Oliver’s resentment for his brother by acknowledging that he is “gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved…” (1.1, 155-160). Yet still he would like to kill his brother in his rage, and resents his natural talents and favorability. As Orlando’s name suggests, he is chivalric or gentlemanly by nature.

Shakespeare is a classical writer, devoted to holding up a mirror to nature rather than providing a kind of salvation for mankind to relive its “estate” or the burdens of life, unlike the project other moderns like Francis Bacon or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic followers. He exposes nobility, baseness, villainy, and heroism for the audience to consider, as pure contemplation is one of the highest Aristotelian virtues. One can make the argument that Shakespeare has a civilizing effect on his audience, as the goal of identifying a common virtue and a common vice is also the highest end of civilization.

Scene 2

We meet Rosalind (“beautiful rose” or rosa linda in Spanish), daughter of the banished Duke Ferdinand, as she lugubriously laments her “estate” to her cousin Celia (meaning “heavenly”) who is the daughter of the usurping Duke Frederick. She tries to tell Rosalind that she must love Duke Frederick for he will include Rosalind in his estate. In order to reverse her melancholy state, Rosalind decides to “devise sports” such “falling in love”. Celia advises Rosalind not to love a man “in good earnest” (2.1, 50-60). Instead Celia advises that they mock the blind lady Fortune, who does not distribute fate equally, to which Rosalind disagrees and claims that she refers to Nature rather than Fortune. Fortune gives gifts of the world, while Nature is organic.

Touchstone enters (a smooth rock used to test whether a rock is of quality gold or silver), but they are distracted discussing the merits of fools until Le Beau,a courtier, tells them that they are missing much of the sport but can still catch the end. Le Beau points to three able bodies brothers who were killed or left with broken ribs at the hands of Charles. Touchstone says it is hardly a sport for ladies but Rosalind asks that they watch the violent and dangerous sport. When she first sees Orlando, she notices how he is too “young” but he also looks “successfully”. Upon speaking to the ladies, Orlando says he has no friends and nothing in the world, so his death would not be a loss in the match. Charles taunts Orlando, and Orlando throws Charles, knocking him out or possibly killing him, either way rendering him incapacitated. Astonished, Duke Frederick asks who Orlando is, to which he responds that he is the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys. Dismayed, Duke Frederick (the usurping Duke) notes that the “world esteemed thy father honorable” but Duke Frederick still found hime an “enemy” (1.2, 214-215).

Neither Duke Frederick nor Oliver recognize natural greatness, meritocratic values. Both resent those who are excellent and successful because of prejudices or past transgressions. Is Shakespeare showing us the character of the tyrant?

An argument can be made that the moment Rosalind and Orlando find love is when she places her necklace round his neck and he claims “my better parts are all thrown down, and that which here stands up is but a quintain (a dummy wooden post used in jousting), a mere lifeless block” -the first of many connections between wrestling and falling in love. At the same moment Rosalind claims that her ‘pride fell with her fortunes’ and that he has ‘overthrown more than his enemies’.

To make mention of the many homoerotic undertones of the play, the love between Rosalind and Celia (who is taller) are described as unique. For example, their loves are described by Le Beau, the courtier, as “dearer than the natural bonds of sisters”.

Le Beau warns Orlando of the usurping Duke Frederick’s intent to be rid him and also his jealous wrath towards Rosalind due to the people’s praise of her virtues and their pity for the loss of her father. Le Beau bids Orlando farewell: “hereafter in a better world than this I shall desire more love and knowledge of you” (1.2, 273-274).

Scene 3

The final scene of Act I opens with Celia trying to reason away Rosalind’s affection and Rosalind swooning madly over Orlando.

Suddenly, Duke Frederick enters in a fury and demands that Rosalind leave his court. If she is not gone in 10 days, she shall be put to death. Rosalind asks once what she has done, and the Duke responds that he does not trust her, she claims that mistrust alone is not a punishable offense, and the Duke responds that she is her father’s daughter and that is enough to banish her. Once again, Rosalind responds that “treason is not inherited”. Celia also tries to persuade her father stating that she and Rosalind have been like Juno’s swans and have slept together -doing everything together- therefore she must also be accused of treason. However Duke Frederick notes how the people value Rosalind’s “silence and patience” and he calls his daughter a “fool” for she will “seem” more virtuous to the people. Duke Frederick is always concerned with his image among the people, in desiring his daughter to appear more virtuous rather than behave virtuously in earnest. Celia states she cannot live without the company of Rosalind.

In grief Rosalind and Celia decide to retreat to the forest of Arden to find Duke Ferdinand. Celia will cover herself with dirt to look like a peasant and Rosalind, since she is tall, will dress like a man to be called “Jove’s own page”, Ganymede (who was a Trojan shepherd boy swept up by Jove disguised as an Eagle to serve as his cupbearer and attendant). While Celia will be called Aliena (meaning “stranger”). The purpose of their disguises are for protection -Rosalind becomes the homoerotic disguise of a boy called Ganymede and heavenly Celia becomes a stranger. Celia also notes that this will help as she will no doubt be trailed by members of the court. Lastly, Celia decides to “woo” Touchstone the “Clowne” into joining them: “Now we go in content to liberty and not to banishment” (1.3, 134-135). Why does Celia even suggest they bring the clown with them? Could it have some relationship to their discussion Fortune and Nature in Scene 2? Or could it be connected to the fact that her father called her a “fool” twice before banishing Rosalind. It should be noted that he never explicitly banishes Celia.