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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Monk’s Tale: Prologue
The Host enjoyed Chaucer’s tale of Melibee and expresses the wish that his wife had Dame Prudence’s patience. It seems that the Host’s wife is always driving him to pick up needless fights in order to defend the imagined slight to her honor. He moans that one day his wife will surely provoke him into killing somebody.
The Host then changes the subject and expecting to hear a merry tale asks the Monk to tell a story in keeping with his character, perhaps about hunting. Instead the Monk relates a series of tragedies. He begs to be excused if his tales aren’t in the chronological order since he will relate them just as they happen to come to his mind. He told the others that some of his tales maybe familiar to them.
The Monk’s Tale
The Monk begins by narrating the story of Lucifer, the brightest angel, who fell from his high station to become Satan. He then recounts the unfortunate fall of Adam by his act of disobedience.
The Monk proceeds to tell the story of the mighty Samson who could tear a huge lion to pieces with his bare hands. His feats of extraordinary strength astonished everybody and he became the ruler of Israel. It was evident that was the chosen one but he came to a tragic end when he married his beloved Delilah and revealed that the source of his superhuman strength was in his hair. The treacherous exposed this secret to Samson’s enemies who shaved away his hair, took out his eyes, and imprisoned him in a cave forcing him to grind at a mill. had to endure humiliation and jeers at the hands of his enemies. One day his prepared a feast in a temple and commanded to display some feats. However strength had been restored and he pulled down the stone pillars supporting the temple killing himself along with all his . Three thousand people were killed that day. The Monk then moralizes that tragedy serves to warn all husbands not to confide life- endangering secrets to their wives.
The Monk then recites the tragic story of Hercules, the paragon of strength. Hercules conquered all the kingdoms and countries because nobody could oppose his strength. He slew numberless monsters and beasts. However Hercules fell in love with the ravishing Dejanira who sent him a fine shirt to wear. But the shirt had been steeped in poison and Hercules had barely worn it for half a day when his flesh was stripped off from the bone. Hercules preferred to throw himself on burning hot coals rather than die by poison. The Monk draws the moral that men should always beware of Fortune who loves to overthrow her victims in a manner that they least expect.
The Monk next relates the story of King Nebuchadnezzar who grew too proud and ordered all his subjects to pay reverence to a gold statue of himself or risk being thrown in a furnace. This arrogant king was transformed into an animal by God and remained in this state for many years. When God at last restored reason to him, he thanked God and never dared to commit a sinful act again. The monk also relates the tale of Balthasar who was extremely proud and dishonored God. Ultimately he was killed and his kingdom was divided among the Persians and the Medes. The Monk moralizes that power and authority do not insure one against fate.
The Monk continues with the story of the beautiful Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyria, whose strength and expertise in war was unsurpassed. She wasn’t afraid to roam the woods in search of wild beasts and could easily wrestle and subdue any man. She was married to Idenathus and bore him two sons. Together, the conquered a vast territory in the East as well as many cities of the Roman Empire. Idenathus eventually died but Zenobia continued her conquests and nobody dared to oppose her. Her sons were treated like kings. But Fortune decided to reverse Zenobia’s good luck. When Aurelius became the Roman emperor, he decided to subdue Zenobia and took her captive along with her sons. He took them through a victory procession in Rome where the mobs gaped at her humiliation.
The Monk then warns everybody to beware of treachery and narrates a few stories in support. The noble King Pedro of Spain was treacherously betrayed and killed by his own brother. His own companions killed the great King Peter of Cyprus in bed. Bernardo of Lombardy was imprisoned and then killed by his own nephew and son-in-law. Ugolino, the Count of Pisa was imprisoned along with his three children on a false accusation by the bishop and left to starve to death. His youngest son died for lack of food. The Count bit his arm in grief at his child’s death but the other children thought that he bit his arm out of hunger and offered him their flesh to eat. In a day or two even these two children died. Finally even the mighty Count starved to death. Thus Fortune hurls many people down from their high estate.
The Monk then relates the story of the vicious Nero who held a mighty empire under his sway. His every wish became a law. He burned down Rome just for the sake of fun, killed all the senators only to hear them weep and scream, killed his brother and slept with his own sister. He even killed his mother and slit open her womb to see the place of his conception. However power corrupted with cruelty does not last long. The people rebelled against him and he had to flee to escape their wrath. Nobody offered him shelter and even spurned his request to kill him. Finally he had to kill himself. Fortune thus overthrew Nero’s overweening pride.
Holofernes was made arrogant by his success and forced people to renounce their faith and worship Nebuchadnezzar as God. But one night when Holofernes lay drunk in his tent, a woman named Judith beheaded him.
The Monk next tells the story of the mighty king Antiochus who actually believed that he could reach the stars and even hold in check the ocean tides. He hated the Jews and planned to wreck havoc upon Jerusalem but God thwarted his plans by inflicting him with a painful and incurable wound that ate its way into his guts. When he persisted in his plan, God made him fall out of his chariot. As a result his limbs and skin were lacerated and he became a cripple. Finally his body began to rot and stink so horribly that nobody came near him. He died alone on a hill.
The story of Alexander is well known. He conquered the whole world but was poisoned by his own people.
Julius Caesar rose from humble origins to become the mighty emperor of Rome. He was blessed with fortune for a long time. But then came the moment when Brutus and Cassius grew envious of his success and plotted his assassination. They stabbed him to death in the Capitol. But Caesar retained his dignity even in death by covering his thigh with his cloak. Fortune who was Caesar’s friend suddenly became his foe.
Croesus, the king of Lydia, was taken captive and sentenced to be burnt to death. But a sudden heavy downpour put out the fire and let him escape. He became convinced that he could not be killed by anybody and once again started waging wars. One night he had a strange dream, which his daughter interpreted as a warning that he would be hanged to death. And the proud king indeed met his death by hanging.
Here the Knight interrupts the Monk because he can no longer bear the dismal stories.
The Monk relates a sequence of dismal tragedies and is interrupted by the Knight after 775 lines because he cannot bear to hear any other woeful story. Scholars have attributed the sources of the Biblical, Classical and contemporary figures to Boccaccio’s ‘De Casibus Virorum et Feminarum Illustrium’, ‘De Mulieribus Claris’, Le Roman de la Rose, the Bible, Boethius and Dante.
The Monk’s choice of his tale has been the subject of many a critical debate. It is believed that like Boccaccio, Chaucer aspired to write a book of tragedies. He thus wrote a series of stories but didn’t get around to completing it and used it in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ instead. However a more logical explanation exists. In the ‘General Prologue’ the Monk was described as an ‘outrider’ with extravagant tastes. The Monk’s choice of tale was probably made in reaction to the Host’s taunts and the Sea captain’s story about a lecherous Monk. The Monk now seizes the chance to repay these insults by telling a learned story. The Monk tells the tragedies in random order. This impulsiveness imparts spontaneity to his tale.
The Monk’s stories have obvious morals: Fortune overthrows the powerful. Samson, Hercules, and Holofernes come to their miserable and tragic ends because of women. Lucifer fell because of sin, Adam fell because of disobedience, Balthazar’s story shows that there is no security in power and friends desert one in times of misfortune. Antiochus’ tragedy is the result of pride and Alexander’s overweening ambition proved to be his own undoing.