Chaucer & a Trump-Enabling GOP

1787 etching of Chaucer, Merchant’s Tale


On Tuesday I talked about GOP denial in the face of Donald Trump’s extortion/bribery attempts in the Ukraine, along with their willingness to accept any explanation from their dear leader. How is the president able to exert such power? According to Chaucer’s Merchant, the power comes from the gods–which is to say, there’s something otherworldly about it.

The tale demonstrates the power of pure effrontery. If you summon up enough confidence to brazen something out, it’s amazing what you can get away with.

Perhaps unsettled by the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, the Merchant launches into a misogynist attack on wives. The old knight January marries the fresh young maid May, who then predictably falls in love with one of January’s youthful retainers (Damian). When he is struck blind, January becomes convinced his wife will cuckold him.  Sure enough, May finds a way to Damian, even when her husband thinks he has her alone in a locked garden.

She has provided her lover with a duplicate garden key, and he awaits her in a pear tree. May persuades January to hoist her into the tree, and Chaucer’s merchant apologizes for what he must next report:

Ladies, I pray you that you be not
I cannot use circumlocutions, I am an unlearned man --                   
And suddenly at once this Damian                   
Pulled up the smock, and in he thrust.

It so happens that two supernatural beings from fairyland have been witnessing the drama. Pluto, feeling sorry for the husband, is prepared to grant him his sight again. His wife Proserpine, taking May’s side, grants May a counteracting power, which I’ll mention in a moment. First Pluto:

See you not this honorable knight, 
Because, alas, that he is blind and old,                   
His own man shall make him cuckold.                   
Lo, where he sits, the lecher, in the tree!                   
Now will I grant, of my majesty,                   
Unto this old, blind, worthy knight                   
That he shall have again his eyes' sight,                   
When his wife would do him villainy.
Then shall he know all her harlotry,                   
In reproof of both her and many others."

Prosperpine, however, grants May a gift that seems particularly Trumpian, at least when it comes to the GOP. Whatever the husband sees, the wife will be able to explain away:

"You shall?" said
Proserpine, "will you so?             
Now by my mother's father's soul I swear                   
That I shall give her sufficient answer,                   
And all women afterwards, for her sake,                   
That, though they be in any guilt taken,                   
With bold face they shall themselves excuse,                   
And bear them down who would them accuse.                   
For lack of answer none of them shall die.                   
Although a man had seen a thing with both his eyes,                   
Yet shall we women face it out boldly,                   
And weep, and swear, and chide deceitfully,                   
So that you men shall be as ignorant as geese.

And so it pans out. The no-longer visually impaired January, looking up into the tree, is as horrified as the Democrats are (and as the Republicans should be) when looking at the Ukraine facts:

Up to the tree he cast his eyes
And saw that Damian had treated his wife                   
In such a manner it cannot be expressed,                   
Unless I would speak crudely;                   
And up he gave a roaring and a cry,                   
As does the mother when the child shall die:                   
"Out! Help! Alas! Help!" he began to cry,            
"O brazen crude lady, what dost thou?"

How many times over the past three years have we learned of scandals that would sink any other presidency. In Trump’s Ukraine bribery scandal, we even have Trump releasing a telephone transcript where he is recorded as attempting to bribe the Ukrainian president for dirt on Joe Biden. May, benefitting from Proserpine’s divine aid, makes an escape worthy of Trump. While her first excuse doesn’t work, her second does:

Excuse #1 is that, in order to restore her husband’s sight, she needed to struggle with a man in a tree. January, however, observes that he saw something other than a struggle:

"Struggle?" said he,
"Yea, indeed in it went!             
God give you both a shameful death to die!                   
He swived thee; I saw it with my eyes,                   
And else may I be hanged by the neck!"

Excuse #2 is that someone who has just had his eyesight restore is bewildered and shouldn’t think that what he sees is what he’s actually seeing. (As Chico Marx famously puts it in Duck Soup, “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”) May proceeds to upbraid January for his criticism after she has kindly restored his sight:

"You are dazed, dazed, good
sir," said she;               
"This thanks have I because I have made you see.                   
Alas," said she, "that ever I was so kind!"

When he insists that he has seen her with Damian, she replies,

“Yea, sir,” said she, “you may think as you please.                   
But, sir, a man that wakes out of his sleep,                   
He cannot suddenly well take heed                   
Of a thing, nor see it perfectly,                   
Until he be fully awakened.                   
Right so a man that long has blind been,                   
Cannot suddenly so well see,                   
First when his sight is newly come again,                   
As he that has a day or two been able to see.                   
Until your sight be settled a while                   
There may full many a sight deceive you.                   
Beware, I pray you, for by heaven’s king,                   
Full many a man supposes to see a thing,                   
And it is entirely different than it seems.                   
He that misunderstands, he misjudges.”

For those who saw an extortion attempt in Trump’s telephone call to Zelensky (“I’d like to ask for a favor, though”), well, “Full many a man supposes to see a thing, and it is entirely different than it seems.” What did we think we saw when Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney admited to a quid pro quo. And when Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani frankly admitted on television that he was searching for dirt on Biden (and still is, according to recent reports. Our own May would say that we are misunderstanding and therefore misjudging. Or as he puts it more succinctly, “Fake news.”

The Democrats certainly don’t like what they see, and we’ll see how many members of the American electorate do. The GOP, however, appears as pleased with the explanation they’re getting as January is:

This January, who is glad but he? 
He kisses her and embraces her full often,                   
And on her womb he strokes her full softly,                   
And to his palace he has her led home.

If you are anxious to be deceived, even smoking guns won’t change your mind.

This entry was posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey), Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!