Chaucer FYI - 6 The Man of Law's Tale

The Man of Law's tale is in some ways an example of Chaucer showing off to his audience. After he has the Man of Law to mock Chaucer as an author in the prologue, saying that he (the Man of Law) is out of stories to tell because Chaucer has told them all crudely in 'such English as he can' and begging forgiveness of his audience for his 'plain speech,' the Man of Law (who is, of course, only an extension of Chaucer the author) goes on to tell a tale of high sentence in the most complicated poetic form yet evident in the Canterbury Tales. So Chaucer manages to snark at his critics by drawing a comparison between them and the Man of Law, show off his ability as a poet in the course of the tale, and best of all he gives us our first example of an untrustworthy character - the Man of Law lies to his audience; he's actually one of the few characters who lies provably to his audience in the collection.

What the characters choose lie about matters. The Man of Law lies about his intent to speak plainly - he says that he is going to be a simple tale-teller, then proves that he is not while he's telling the story of Custance, who acts as Lady Poverty - a counter to Lady Fortuna who influenced the Knight's Tale, as well as to all the revelry of the previous three stories. The Man of Law's lie about his language lends a pompous, pretentious air to what is supposed to be a story that extols the virtues of humility and faith. When the Man of Law stops his storytelling, as he occasionally does, to have what sounds like a legal discussion with a presentation of evidence he is detracting from the audience's natural reaction to Custance. He takes the time over and over again to remind his strongly Catholic audience (which includes at least three priests, two friars and a nun, as well as non-clergy members of Vatican-sanctioned professions) of frequently re-told Bible stories in an attempt to prove over and over the virtues of chastity, faith, and humility that Custance has to her name. The problem is that the audience knows all of this - he's preaching to the choir and not only that, he's preaching in such a pompous, self-righteous way that he undermines the values that he's attempting to capitalize on.

Overall what happens here is that the audience reacts well to Custance and the content of the tale, but reacts poorly to the Man of Law who comes off as a sleaze because of his style and the fact that he has proven himself untrustworthy.

So, that's the Man of Law and his tale; what about his epilogue? The Shipman is the main voice of the epilogue and claims that he's about to tell a happy tale that will cheer up the group. He then disappears for a long time; the Wife of Bath's Tale, not the Shipman's tale, follows The Man of Law. There are a couple of possible reasons for this: first, Chaucer may have originally intended to use the Shipman's tale as the Wife of Bath's tale - there are a few pronoun and context errors in the actual Shipman's tale that suggest this, so what might have happened is Chaucer might have gone "hey this is good - but oh crap, it works better if I change the order" then changed the order and forgot to move the pro/epilogue. Chaucer also might have originally written both stories for the Wife of Bath, then decided to change the latter to the Shipman's tale, or vice-versa; but one way or another we end up with a misleading introduction to a tale that doesn't follow for a few dozen pages. I do not think this done purposefully by Chaucer to confuse us, I think it was a mistake made in a manuscript that had several re-writes over several years, but it is an interesting point in the question of how much the audience can trust Chaucer the author when he has gone so far out of his way to prove that his characters aren't always trustworthy.

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