The Notorious Wife Of Bath Essay, Research Paper
The Notorious Wife of Bath
Upon a first reading of the Wife of Bath?s Prologue, it?s hard not to feel the need to pat her on the shoulder and say ?Go-girl!? There?s no denying the impact that Feminism has had on our Millennium-revved society, and the Wife of Bath?s character would certainly have contradicted the oppressive customs of Chaucer?s time. But on closer inspection, it would seem that the Prologue could be considered a medium for an anti-feminist message, under the semblance of a seemingly feminist exterior. She confesses her treatment of her husbands and her tendency to ?swere and lyen,? and this self-incrimination invokes a feeling that the Wife is an extraordinarily attractive character by sharing her feminine faults with us, good-humouredly. At the same time, her robust energy and her arguments against anti-feminists; her comments about clerks being unable to do ?Venus werkes? and taking it out on ?sely wyf(s)? in print, are carried further in the Tale, where the ending arguably serves as a climax, summarising many of the Wife?s themes.
In her Prologue, her arguments in favour of marriage show a hearty common sense, but they are suspect ? while it is true that marriage peoples the earth and replenishes existing stocks of ?virginitee,? her own marriages do not seem to have produced any offspring, and while it may be ?bet [?] to be wedded than to brinne,? her marriages, despite her claim that ?in wyfhood I wol use myn instrument,? do not seem to have prevented her from ?goon a-caterwaw[ing]? and by decision engaging in fornication (?I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun/But evere folwede myn appetit,/Al were he short, or long, or blak, or whit?), which is after all what marriage was, according to her, supposed to prevent.
From the account she gives of her marriages, it becomes increasingly obvious that marriage for her is not quite so beneficial as one might think ? the only benefit the husbands get, in exchange for their ?purgatorie,? is that of her ?bele chose? (which, it must be pointed out, they ? with the possible exception of Jankin, who satisfied her better than ?bacon? ? have to share with other ?good felawes?), but it is worth observing that she never speaks of the sexual act as giving the male partner pleasure (except with regard to ?daun Salomon? ? but she identifies with him rather than his wives: ?As wolde God it were leveful unto me/ To be refresshed half so ofte as he!?) ? on the contrary, she speaks of the husband?s ?dette? to his wife, of ?How pitously a-night I made hem swinke!? and of ?his tribulacion withal/ Upon his flessh.? Also, while she claims Biblical support for her views on marriage, the support that she cites is conveniently edited to suit her purposes (for example, Solomon did have 700 wives and 300 concubines ? but his appetites led to his turning away from God; and the marital relationship specified in the Bible is a reciprocal one rather than the one-sided one she speaks of, tilted in favour of the wife ? she conveniently ignores that while ?Apostel [?]/[?] bad oure housbondes for to love us weel,? he also exhorts women to love their husbands), and she elsewhere ignores the Bible when it proves difficult to ?glose? in her favour (as in her dismissal of its order to dress ?in habit maad with chastitee and shame?). Moreover, her behaviour is a demonstration of all the anti-feminist accusations that she (falsely) claims her husband/s of levelling at her (the ultimate irony, since she is proving the truth of these very accusations at the very time when she is making them up). She does dress gaily (cf. Her stockings ?of fyn scarlet reed?) ? and probably for the same reasons that she goes ?walkinge out by night?, it is doubtful that she ?abides? in ?chastitee,? she is devious and deceitful (making up the accusations in order to pre-empt any on the part of the husband/s), she is self-willed (?we wol ben at oure large?) and she is arguably like ?bareyne lond? and ?wilde fyr? (she has no children, and has ?consumed? five husbands).
To see the Wife of Bath?s Prologue as being merely an anti-feminist vehicle would be to ignore the frequent ambiguity that is displayed in the Prologue as the Wife charms her way through her shameless and yet strangely winning confession (it should be noted that she is earlier described as having been ?a worthy womman al hir live? in the General Prologue, despite her five ?housbondes? and the knowledge that the narrator has of her ?oother compaignye in youth,? though he refrains from elaborating in his good-natured discretion); and it would have to be done at the cost of ignoring the extraordinary vigour that Chaucer endows the Wife of Bath with.
It is true that the Wife of Bath?s opinions about women are suspiciously similar to those of the anti-feminists. She claims that ?half so boldely kan ther no other man/ Swere and lyen, as a womman kan,? and that for women, ?Greet prees at market maketh deere ware,/ And to greet cheep is holde at litel prys?; her own behaviour also follows the exact pattern as predicted by ?Theofraste.? However, the difference is that she takes pride in her faults (eg. ?Deceite, weping, spinning God hathe yive/ To wommen kindely?; and wives who are able to deceive their husbands (?Bere him on honde that the cow is wood?) are, by her definition, ?wys wives?) and that her audacity is subversively attractive, not least because of her cheerful energy (?jolitee?) and conspirational tone (e.g. her addressing of them as ?Lordinges? and her frankness with regard to her sexuality) ? she cleverly presents herself in such a manner that her audience (pilgrims or readers) is manipulated into laughing with her, whether at her outwitting her husbands or at her skill in obtaining ?maistrie,? and thus less inclined to pass moral judgement; her admitting to these faults is in itself altready quite agreeable, not least in contrast to the hypocrisy of, for example, the Pardoner, who takes a high moral tone while attempting to fleece the pilgrims into buying bogus relics. Also, her appeal to common sense and to ?experience? as opposed to ?auctoritee? (reinforced by the homely imagery ? e.g. that of the ?breed of pure whete-seed? and ?barely-breed? and her comparison of herself to ?an hors? that ?koude bite and whinne? ? and her projected image as a simple (?sely?), practical, straightforward ?wyf?), while perhaps not always justifiable when one looks closer, is nevertheless extremely agreeable; and her claims are not all irrational ? as in her question as to the function of the ?thinges smale? in the world of the ?clerks? who advocate ?virginitee? ? a question to which ?auctoritee? has simply no answer. As such, the Wife of Bath?s Prologue is rather a brilliant character study of an individual rather than an obvious anti-feminist theme in disguise.
It is also difficult to deny that the Wife of Bath?s Prologue is robust. With its unstoppable vitality, strong language (?queynte? etc.) and homely, vigorous vocabulary (e.g. the references to ?barley-brede? and mice), it is the Wife?s personality ? certainly an extremely robust one ? that dominates. There is a certain bold energy to the whole of the Prologue, whether because of the forcefulness with which the Wife presents her arguments against the anti-feminists or because of her dramatic presentation of the methods with which she amply gave her husbands the ?wo that is in mariage.?
In contrast, the Tale (or the Wife as speaker of the Tale) is arguably lacking in this energy. Its very opening, with its Arthurian/fairy-tale references, sets the general tone ? quasi-courtly, learned, fantasy rather than the earthy reality presented in the Prologue with such rebellious attractiveness by the Wife (e.g. ?dronken as a mous?, ?goon a-caterwawed?). Elegant and learned ? even a little pedantic (?redeth eek Senek, and redeth eek Boece? as well as the references to Dante) ? there is, comparatively, a lack of the energy that animated her in the Prologue. Moreover, given what the reader has understood of the Wife in the Prologue, it would not be unreasonable to think of the Tale as an anticlimax. The Tale she tells, on first glance at least, is far from being similar with her personality (an interesting thing to note is that the original story assigned by Chaucer to the Wife was the Shipman?s Tale, a much racier, earthier fabliau). After the energy and attractiveness with which she has presented her ?immorality? (challenging/ignoring Biblical teaching ? as in her having five husbands, probable adultery (?al myn walkinge out at nighte? and her inability to refuse her ?chambre of Venus? to a ?good felawe?), dubious glossing of Biblical texts (as in her reference to Solomon), wearing fine clothes instead of ?habit maad with chastitee and shame?), the Loathly Lady?s learned discourse on ?gentillesse? (i.e. nobility of spirit) and virtue may seem as tediously moralistic as she made the support for ? virginitee? and ?continence? (i.e. married chastity) seem in her Prologue.
However on closer scrutiny, the Tale bears traces of the energy and even raciness that the Wife infuses her Prologue with. The Tale may begin, certainly, with the air of an Arthurian romance, but before long her anti-clerical tendencies and dislike of the Friar (who previously interrupted her) prompts a cheeky poke at the latter, with its references to the ?limitours? who act as ?incub[ii]? i.e. engaging in carnal relations. The Tale is also not without some homely touches ? cf. the curtain-lecture on the advantages of poverty and ?gentillesse,? show that the Wife is concerned with issues other than the flesh.
The story of Midas deals with the acknowledgement of anti-feminist accusations, the emphasis on women?s love of ?maistrie,? and the emphasis on the supremacy of women (the knight?s case is transferred to a jurisdiction presided over by ladies, and it is also a woman who tells him the answer). These themes are dealt by the Wife in the same way as in the Prologue. Above all, the fairy-tale ending is predictable and anti-climatic, but then there is a sudden jolt to the reality of the Wife?s wanting ?housbondes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde? and her energetically humorous blasphemies upon ?olde and angry nigardes of dispense? recalling her Prologue (?maugree thine yen,? for example).
While the Tale is a slight anticlimax after the Prologue, it nevertheless reinforces the Wife?s ideas of female ?maistrie,? and certainly this is obvious by the end. The ending arguably serves as its climax, summarising the Wife?s themes that women should have the ?maistrie,? that she wants a constant supply of young virile husbands and that marriage can be happy if a husband first resigns authority to his wife (cf. her ending the Prologue with the kindness she showed to Jankin and their ostensible happiness).
To conclude, the Wife of Bath is indeed portrayed to be a dynamic woman, who through her interesting conversation paints a picture of a strong-willed female who recognises her faults, but nevertheless is certain of what she desires.