When a beloved marquis’s people come to him and request that he marry in order to secure his line, he agrees with only one condition: he will choose his wife himself. Unbeknownst to anyone, he has been eyeing the virtuous maiden Griselda. She is poor, but she is also the most virtuous woman in the land. After their seemingly fairytale wedding, however, the marquis becomes increasingly demanding and increasingly skeptical of his wife’s love. She obeys him literally in everything, but will it ever be enough for him?
“The Clerk’s Tale” is undoubtedly one of the more puzzling, and the more troubling, stories Chaucer offers in The Canterbury Tales. Up to this point in the pilgrimage, readers have seen portrayals of numerous marriages and numerous wives—but none are quite like this. Griselda is wifely obedience incarnate; she declares her husband’s will is her will, and that she would kill herself at his command if she must. So what are readers to make of this?
The two options the audience has seem to be 1) taking the story at face value and assuming that Griselda is supposed to be the model of the perfect wife or 2) looking for indications that this entire charade is absurd and searching for evidence that Griselda’s apparent obedience is actually a sneaky way of undermining her husband’s authority. Matters are not helped by the fact that the narrator alternately indicates that both approaches are valid. One moment he extols Griselda’s unmatched patience; the next he tells women they really should not let their husbands treat them like doormats in the way Griselda does.
The tendency as a reader is to pick a side and stick with it. It is easy to say, “Well, medieval people were misogynist so Griselda must actually be meant as a role model.” It is equally easy to say, “This is ridiculous. There is no way this story is serious. The point must be that the marquis demands too much.” Both approaches, I think, are reductive. Torn between two portrayals of a woman that are completely opposite, I was unsatisfied with “The Clerk’s Tale” until I read Laura Ashe’s “Reading Like a Clerk in the ‘The Clerk’s Tale.’”
In a nutshell, Ashe argues that the matter of interpretation is at the heart of “The Clerk’s Tale” (perhaps more so than obedience?). Griselda herself interprets her husband’s increasingly terrible requests as well-intentioned. She acts on them as if they are so—and thus somehow makes them so. The clerk, then, is highlighting the fact that nothing, stories in particular, stands on its own. Tales need to be interpreted. And he challenges his audience by offering a story that somehow has two valid interpretations.
Suddenly, the clerk seems like an immensely clever fellow, instead of someone who fails to tell a story that makes any sense. The joke becomes even better when readers remember that the Host had specifically asked the clerk to tell a light, entertaining tale instead of something too dry and scholarly for the rest of the pilgrims. The Host thinks the clerk has indeed told a fun tale; he takes the story at face value and comments he really wishes someone would tell his wife about this character who is a paragon of obedience. And the clerk can sit back and snicker that had actually told a complicated tale, and the Host completely missed the point.