This said, the ‘experience’ she claims to have can be argued against. Twice in her Prologue, the Wife calls attention to her habit of lying. She says ‘and al was fals,” (lines 382 and 582). These statements highlight the readers awareness of the fact that she is giving a performance, and may also put her entire life story in question. The reader is left wondering to what extent we should even believe the ‘experience’ of the Wife of Bath, and whether she is not, in fact, a mean-spirited satire on Chaucer’s part, meant to represent the fickleness of women.
The Wife of Bath goes on to say that she even has divine authority over marriage, despite her claim that experience is her sole authority. She gives a speech involving her citing of scholarly texts such as Ptolemy’s Almagest (lines 321 – 327 ‘Of alle men yblessed moot he be,/ The wise astrologien, Daun Ptholome,/ That seith this proverbe in his Almageste:/ “Of alle men his wysdom is the hyeste/ That rekketh nevere who hath the world in honde. “) and she also refers to the old testament of the bible, explaining how figures such as Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon, enjoyed multiple wives in lines 56 – 61.
She says ‘I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,/And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;/And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,/And many another holy man also. /Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,/That hye God defended mariage/By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me. ‘ Again she is insisting upon her devine authority upon mariage, by explaining that ‘God defended mariage’. The Wife of Bath apparently feels the need to establish her authority in a more Christianised way. She says in lines 28 – 34 ‘God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;/ That gentil text kan I wel understonde./
Eek we I woot, he seyde myn housbonde/ Sholde lete fader and mooder and take to me. / But of no nombre mencion made he,/ Of bigamye, or of octogamye;/ Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye? ‘. The Wife uses reproduction as an excuse for having five marriages (‘God bad us for to wexe and multiplye’). By using bible and scholarly references to gain more authority and power on the subject of marriage, some critics have read the prologue as a mock sermon concerning a woman’s place in marriage.
The Wife of bath is not ashamed to admit she exerted power and authority over her first three husbands She considers the first three as good men , who were wealthy but too old to satisfy the Wife’s voracious sexual appetite. She recalls with glee how hard she made them work to ‘Unnethe myghte they the statut holde/ In which that they were bounden unto me’ (their marital obligations). She explains using underhanded methods such as guilt and blackmail. The most important aspect I feel is the power of her sexuality.
Even though she did not have material wealth over her first three husbands, it is her beauty and youth that she can use to her advantage. The Wife feels that she has the right to granted sexual freedom, an idea that was frowned upon in the contemporaneous society she provides evidence to with references to the old testament, as I explored earlier. She refers that ‘God bad us for to wexe and multiplye’, a point that the Wife has takes advantage of in order to demonstrate her sexual power and manipulative skills with her first three husbands.
In lines147 – 150 she states ‘In swich estaat as God hath cleped us/ I wol persevere; I nam nat precius. / In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument/ As frely as my Makere hath it sent’. By referring to her sexuality as an ‘instrument’, she appears to be both sexually voracious, and at the same time someone who only has sex to get her own way. She is describing how she dominated her first three husbands, playing on a fear that was common to men to medieval men (as the Pardoner’s interuption reveals in lines 163 – 168 ‘Up stirte the Pardoner, and that anon;/’Now, dame,’ quod he, ‘by God and by Seint John!
/Ye been a noble prechour in this cas. / I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas! / What sholde I bye it on my flessh so deere? / Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere! ‘). The Wife of Bath knows very well that sex is a weapon, a bargaining tool, and she uses this as a means of power and authority. The Wife of Bath’s tale itself is an exemplum set within the mystical time and kingdom of King Arthur. It echoes the Wife of Bath’s prologue as it chronicles women’s desire to have authority over men.
The tale begins with the hierarchical order that the Chaucer would of seen in his contemporaneous society, that is man having authority and power over women. We see this represent through the Knight having and the maiden in the tale when he rapes her. We can see this in lines 886 – 889; ‘He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,/ Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,/ By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed;/ For which oppressioun was swich clamour.
‘ By using ‘heed’ and ‘force’ as an explanation for the Knights actions the tale clearly begins with a misogynistic view upon authority, with the Knight, who is seemingly a personification of male dominance, having physical power over the maiden. The shift between male and female authority occurs in the court of King Arthur when the Knight is brought to justice. Lines 894 – 898 state ‘But that the queene and other ladyes mo/ So longe preyeden the kyng of grace/ Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place,/ And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,/ To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille.
‘ The fact that the king gives the choice of whether or not to ‘save or spille’ the Knight to the queen is reflective of the overall moral of the tale ; that women most desire to have the authority to make their own choices. When the Knight is revealed this information from the old woman which in turn saves his life, another instance occurs of a woman having the power over the man’s life. By the end of the tale is appears that the Knight has learned his lesson when he allows the old woman to decide or herself, perhaps something that the Wife herself has strived for.
I find the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath interesting in the fact that a medieval piece of literature with such a feministic message was written by a man in the misogynistic era that Chaucer lived in. Some feminist critics, such as Susan Crane and Catherine S. Cox, view her as destined to fail in her search for equality, partly because she is trying to gain ‘acceptance by emulating men instead of embracing her femininity, but mainly because she is a fictional character, written by a man’. Bibliography – ‘Gender and Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’, Susan Crane, Princeton University Press 1994
– ‘Contradictory Responses to the Wife of Bath as evidenced by Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Variants’, Beverly Kennedy, www. canterburytalesproject. org/pubs/op2-kennedy. pdf – G. L. Kittredge essay ‘Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage’ found in ‘Grief and Gender’, 700-1700, Edited by Jennifer Vaught and Lynne Dickson, Palgrave Macmillan 2003 Show preview only The above preview is unformatted text This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our GCSE Geoffrey Chaucer section.