Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568
The Host reminds the company that the day is nearly one quarter over and they must hurry on with the telling of tales. He calls on the Man of Law to begin his story quickly. The worthy gentleman consents. He rambles along for a while, commenting that he cannot hope to imitate the well-known poet Chaucer in the quality of his speech, yet he will tell one in prose even though he be plainspoken. The teller then rambles on some more in an apparent sermon against poverty. It seems that his tale will somehow deal with this subject, but it certainly does not.
Part One: The Christian Emperor of Rome has a beautiful and extremely virtuous daughter named Constance whose reputation comes to the attention of the Sultan of Syria. Without even laying eyes on the lady, the Sultan falls madly in love with her and determines she must be his bride. He begins to negotiate for her hand, even promising to become Christian. The arrangements are finally concluded and Constance and the Sultan are married. In the meantime, the mother of the Sultan, horrified that her son is so willing to renounce his Muslim faith, has plotted against the alliance.
Part Two: Shortly after the marriage, the Sultan's mother gives a banquet to honor the newlyweds. Once all the guests are seated, her henchmen assassinate all who assisted in the marriage and embraced the Christain faith, including her own son, the Sultan.
Only Constance is spared, but is placed on a rudderless ship to float aimlessly over all the seas until she eventually suffers some terrible death. The Mother of Christ intervenes in behalf of Constance and spares her life. The ship lands in Britain.
Constance is befriended by the King's warden and his wife. Both come to love her virtuous and sweet nature. Hermengild, the warden's wife, is so impressed by Constance's piety that she becomes a secret Christian.
A young knight in the area falls in love with Constance. When his efforts to seduce her fail, he seeks revenge by framing Constance for the murder of Hermingild which he has actually committed. While the warden was away, Hermengild and Constance slept in the same bed. The wicked young knight sneaked into the bedchamber, slit Hermengild's throat, covered Constance with the blood, and placed the bloody weapon in Constance's hand.
When the warden returns and comes upon the scene, he can only conclude that Constance is the murderer. However, the cruelty of the act is so out of character for Constance the warden takes her to King Aella to be judged. All those who testify speak of her virtue and hold her to be incapable of the crime, except for the knight, who finally swears on the Bible that Constance is guilty. The Lord knocks him down as he gives this false witness and the voice of God is heard declaring Constance innocent. This miracle brings about the conversion of all present. King Aella has the evil knight executed and Constance is pardoned.
Naturally, Aella also soon falls in love with Constance and marries her. She becomes pregnant, but just as she is about to deliver, Aella is called away to fight the Scots. Constance is safely delivered of a beautiful boy and immediately sends a messenger to King Aella with the good news.
Unfortunately, the messenger stops first at the palace of the king's mother who hates Constance. She gets the messenger drunk and substitutes a false letter that says Constance has given birth to a monster and accuses Constance of being a witch. When Aella receives this letter he is terribly sad, but sends a reply stating that he accepts the will of God and hopes for a more normal child the next time.
On the return trip, the messenger stops again at the palace of the king's mother. Again he falls into a drunken slumber, and again, the wicked mother-in-law substitutes a false letter for the real one. The counterfeit letter orders the warden to put Constance and the baby in the same ship in which Constance had arrived and to put that ship again out to sea.
When the letter arrives, the brokenhearted warden has no choice but to obey his king. Amid great and terrible sorrow, Constance and the baby leave Britain on the rudderless ship.
Part Three: When King Aella returns home, he is dumbfounded at the state of affairs he finds. Under torture, the messenger reveals the plot. Both he and the king's mother are executed, but the king mourns perpetually for his lost wife and child.
After five years and one false landing, Constance is intercepted by a Roman senator who, coincidentally, is just returning to Rome after punishing the Syrians for their treachery to her. Constance remains anonymous, but does take up lodging with the senator and his wife. Like nearly everyone else who has known her, this couple, their household, and their friends come to love the wonderful guest and to admire her greatly.
In the meantime, King Aella feels compelled to go to Rome to repent for killing his mother. While in Rome, he becomes acquainted with the Senator. The senator is invited to a banquet given by King Aella and takes Contance's son, Maurice, with him. When Aella perceives the resemblance of Maurice to Constance and hears the story of the boy's mother, he begins to wonder if he has found his lost wife and child.
Within a few days, Aella goes to the senator's home where he and Constance are finally reunited. When all is finally understood, they embrace madly and kiss hundreds of times.
Aella then invites Constance's father, who is also ignorant of her identity, to dine with them. The Emperor, her father, is overjoyed to see Constance again. He is also pleased to meet her husband and son. After this episode, Aella, Constance, and Maurice return to England to a happy, peaceful life, but after a year, Aella dies. Constance and Maurice return to Rome. When the Emperor dies, Maurice is named Emperor of Rome, and Constance continues in virtue and piety all the rest of her days.
Discussion and Analysis
In the prologue to this tale, there is a reference to stories Chaucer has already published in The Legend of Good Women. This leads to commentary about the nature of a story as something told rather than as something that happened. It also presents the medieval notion that stories are something like a commodity which can be used up. In other words, there is a limited number of plots and most of the good stories have already been told. Actually, Chaucer will contradict this notion in The Canterbury Tales by rearranging incidents and characters to create vigorously new stories.
Because several elements of this prologue do not seem to fit what follows, many critics believe that the Man of Law was originally intended to be the first of the travellers to tell his story. This would account for the very literary nature of the prologue. That Chaucer changed his mind sometime after writing the prologue accounts for the incongruity between the introduction and the story that follows.
The extreme wordiness and the rambling nature of the Man of Law's introduction certainly do fit the character who is described in the General Prologue as a very pompous and successful lawyer. It would be natural for such a man to use elaborate language and to talk in circles.
By this time, the reader has noticed that many of The Canterbury Tales relate to themes examining the nature of love and the nature of marriage. This story of Constance continues in that vein, extolling the virtues of the good wife through extreme tribulation. Unlike the women in the fabliau tales, all of whom are sexually "easy," Constance is chaste and pure. The men who try to steal her virtue are all killed.
The religious overtones with the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary and of God Himself in Constance's behalf give the story elements of the popular saints' lives widely told in Chaucer's day. The tale also has features of romance, folktale, and tragedy. Like many Greek myths, The Man of Law's Tale uses the motifs of sea travel, loss, and recognition scenes. There are also numerous Latin references drawn from the Bible and other classical sources. That all of these elements are united successfully to produce an excellent story is evidence both of Chaucer's enormous personal scholarship and of his skill as a storyteller.
The structure of The Man of Law's Tale is worth noting. First, the author employs a good deal of repetition: voyages, treachery, evil mothers-in-law, banquets, and supernatural interventions are all repeated in Constance's life story. Secondly, the constant divine interest in the character and the frequency of His intervention exploit the theological notion that persistence in faith is ultimately rewarded with joy. This same theme is actually an underlying structure of the tale. Constance moves several times through unbearable suffering to peace and joy. Yet each time she arrives at a state of happiness, that state is quickly destroyed by evil until the very end when Constance is reunited with her father, a parallel to the reunion of Man with God at the end of life. The strong theological theme is characteristic of the time when narratives were often used to drive home a moral lesson.
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