In Geoffrey Chaucher’s The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath is character that argues the virtues of marriage and what it means to be a wife. It is very clear to see that the Wife of Bath is in constant struggle for Female Equality. We have to remember that in the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, the social structure was incredibly different than it is today. Women in that time lead lives of subservience and even oppression by their husbands. The job in life was simply to please their husbands and serve their husbands.
In the very beginning of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, we learn about her unique life. The first thing she tells us is that she is an authority on marriage. She state:
“Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, were right ynogh to me
To speke of wo that is in marriage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelf yeer was of age,
Thonked by God, that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had five(Chaucer 1-6 WOB).
These lines are important for two reasons. First she explains that she has been married since the age of twelve; which in today’s culture is unheard of and then she says she has been married five times. These are important because they give her creditability because we see that she has spent more than half of her life being married.
I think it is very important to the Wife of Bath to let her peers understand that she is not simply a woman who has been married and lacks intelligence. She wants them to know her as a person. She goes on to cite passages from the Bible, when she says;
“Lo, here the wise kyng, daun Salomon;
I triwe he hadde wyves mo than oon-
As, wolde God, it leveful were to me
Which yifte of God hadde he, for alle hise wyvys(Chaucer 35-39
This is an interesting passage because she is not only using her knowledge of the Bible to reassure her lifestyle but, she is using this knowledge to prove her point that is if Solomon can have numerous spouses’, why can’t she? She knows that many holy men have had numerous wives and again makes her point by saying:
“I wiit wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,
And eech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also.(Chaucer 61-64 WOB)
Not only is she looking at the fact that these men of the Bible had numerous wives, but she is bringing up the issue that it is only looked down upon her because she is a woman. She is speaking of the injustice she has to face because she has been married more than once. This brings up an important issue of the double standard that women in this time period had to live with. She talks about women are put into no-win situations when she says:
“To wedde a povre woman, for costage,
And if she be riche and of heigh parage,
Thanne seistow it is a tormentrie
To soffre hire prode and hir malencolie.
And if she be fair, thou verray knave,
Thou seyst that every holour wol hir have(Chaucer 255-260
She believes that all of her marriages had injustices and her job in these marriages was to try to make them fair. She describes how she uses her wifehood as an instrument to create equality. She goes on to say, “Upon his flesh whil that I am his wyf./I have the power durynge al my lyf/Upon his proper body, and noght hr(Chaucer 163-165 WOB).
It is very important the way The Wife of Bath describes her five marriages. She says that the first three husbands’s she has were old and rich and therefore were easy to tame and control. Mockingly almost she said;
“They had me yeven hir gold and hir tresoor;
Me neded nat do lenger diligence
To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence,
They loved me so wel, by God ablove,
That I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love.”(Chaucer 212-214WOB)
Here she showed that she had the upper hand because these first three husbands gave her their wealth and to show her independence or simply her power she would deny them her love just because she knew that was where she held the power. She said that these relationships were good but they did not entice her like her fourth and fifth husband did.
Wife of Bath wanted power so badly she would accuse her husbands of being unfaithful to her in order for them to bow down to her. She explains this; “Barr I stiffly myne olde housbondes on honed,/That thus they seyden in hir dronkenedde;/And al was fals, but that I took witnedde(Chaucer 386-398 WOB). By doing this her husbands would feel so guilty and try to please her, which made her feel like she was in control.
She explains that her fifth husband was different than the rest. He was almost half her age and more importantly she married him for love not money. He would read stories to her that expained the place of a wife was to be the chattel of the husband. One story that drove her angry so wild was when he read;
“Of latter date of wives hath he red
That some han slain hir housbonded in hir bed
And lete hir lechour dighte hire al the night
Whan that the cors lay in the floor upright;
And some han driven nails in hir brain
Whil that they sleepe, and thus they han hem slain;
Some han hem yiven poison in hit drinke(Chaucer 771-777 WOB).
This story brought such rage to the Wife of Bath that she started a physical fight where he husband almost kills her, but she does not let him win because she plays another game by pretending to be at the brink of death only to then slap him and regain her power.
Looking at the Wife’s character we see that she is very envious. She seems to always want something no matter what and that is why she is in a constant power struggle with her husbands. The Arthurian Tale she chooses to tell is unique because she wants the marriage the old hag finally gets in the end.
These two women are similar in many ways. They are both describes as being old and past their prime, which in turn makes them undesirable by the opposite sex and again makes them loose their power because who wants to marry an old woman? Besides their age, both women are described as being past their prime. The Wife describes herself as the following; “But age, allas, that al wole enveyme,/Hath me my beautee and my pith!(Chaucer 480-481 WOB). Her description of the old hag was really no more flattering when she said, No creature saugh he that bar lyf,/Save on the grene hesaugh sittynge a wyf-/Afouler wight there may no man devyse.”(Chaucer 1003-1005 WOBT). Because of the way the Wife of Bath describes herself and the old hag they could be looked at as the same person.
Not only are the physical descriptions of the two women similar but what they want out of marriage is parallel. We know that the Wife of Bath wants power but even less than that I think she wants a balance of power. She know that it is no fun to be the one in total control because then it is like you are not in a relationship at all, but she does not want to be subservient as well.
In her tale, once the knight is saved by the old woman he has a choice. The old hag gives him the choice of her staying ugly, but in staying ugly she will remain faithful and trustworthy or she could be beautiful, but in being beautiful he would always have to worry about her being unfaithful to him. The ending the Wife of Bath chooses here in very interesting because the knight tells the old hag that he is leaving the choice up to her. In giving the old hag her choice she is not being dominated. He says to her;
“My lady and my love, and whf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governamce.
Cheseth yourself, which may be moost pleasance
And most honour to you and me also.
I do no fors the wheither of the two,
For as you liketh it siffiseth me.”(Chaucer 1236-1241 WOBT)
By giving her the choice she has won. She is an equal in this relationship of marriage. He is not dominant nor is she, a balance is found and this is what the Wife of Bath wants in her own life.
By telling this tale of what women want is telling her tale of what she wants. She tries to come across very powerful and even overbearing, but she simply wants a relationship with respect. The tale is important because by giving woman the right to choose, both parties are happy. The knight says:
“And whan the knight saugh verraily al this,
That she so fair was, and so yong therto,
For joye he hente hire in hise armes two.
His herte bathed in a bath of clisse,
A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hir kisse,
And she obeyed him in every thing
That myghte doon hym pleasance or liking.
And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende(Chaucer 1256-1263 WOBT)
In the end the Wife of Bath is not a woman who hates men and wants to make their lives miserable. She is a woman who wants equality. We see underneath all of her trickery and cleverness and even vulgarity she longs for a happy equal marriage.