In what ways does the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale explore issues of power and authority? The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is a section from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which he began writing in about 1387 but never completed. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is the first of a group of seven known to many critics (such as G.L. Kittredge states in his essay ‘Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage’) as the ‘Marriage Group.’ The other characters in this group include the Wife, the Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire and the Franklin. Like the Wife’s tale, all deal with the subject of authority, but the Wife deals directly with where the authority lies and, more importantly, how it is exercised in married life.
The Wife of Bath’s section of the tales deviates from the structure of the others; the prologue is much larger than that of the actual tale. Like many other characters, the Wife’s prologue and tale parallel each other in themes and ideas raised. In this case, the relationship between the prologue and the tale is exposed through the theme of power and authority. The Wife of Bath as a character is strong-minded, forceful vivacious and worldly. She also, at times she can be vulgar; for example, when describing the use of genitalia, she says, ‘That they were made for purgation/ Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale.’ As I will explore later, the wife uses some rhetorical methods to explain her authority points in what she is saying.
Therefore, she seems predominantly sincere, with her revelations of gaining power over her first three husbands through emotional blackmail, sex, and the provocation of their guilt. This said, her account reveals a discrepancy between what we suspect to truth and what she says to her audience to base their opinion of her. Although she does characterize herself more fully than any other pilgrim, one could argue that her sometimes confused nature and lack of coherence make her self-portrait less plausible. This leads us to two different readings of the attitude of the Wife of Bath towards marriage. In one reading, we can see (as critic Beverly Kennedy states) ‘clerical asceticism, misogyny and misogamy’ and the other by a more popular and positive attitude towards sex, women and the institution of marriage.
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We can see many examples of misogamy with the language the Wife uses. For example, in lines 172 -174, she states, ‘And when that I have told thee forth my tale/ Of tribulation in marriage,/ Of which I am expert in al myn age.’ By describing marriage as a ‘tribulacion,’ we can see her negative attitude towards it. However, we can also see the positive comments made by the Wife to the institution of marriage. She sees marriage as a type of economic exchange between sex and materialism, and as cold-hearted and scheming as she may seem towards her earlier husbands, she has indeed been in and felt love as we see in lines 513 – 514; ‘I trowe I loved hym best, for that he/ Was of his love daungerous to me.’
The theme of authority manifests itself in several ways throughout the prologue and tale. One theme of authority is explored within the very opening of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. Her authority is to explain the ‘wo that is in mariage’ due to her extensive personal experience. She says, ‘Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, is right enough for me/ To speak of wo that is in marriage. We can see from these opening lines her thoughts of marriage are negative (‘who that is in marriage). However, she enforces her claim that experience gives her the authority to explain these woes by forms of persuasive argument, a rhetorical device she feels she needs to use to persuade her audience she is the authority she claims to be.
For example, within lines 4 – 6, she says, ‘For, lordynges, sith I twelve year was of age,/ Thanked be God that is eternal on living,/ Housbondes at chirche dore I have had five.’ By stating that her first marriage was at the age of twelve and that she has been married five times so early within her prologue, she justifies self-proclaimed experience, hitherto her authority. This said, the ‘experience’ she claims to have could be argued against. Twice in her Prologue, the Wife calls attention to her habit of lying. She says ‘and al was false” (lines 382 and 582). These statements highlight the reader’s awareness 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 says 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 all men yblessed moot he be,/ The wise astrologer, Daun Ptholome,/ That seith this proverb in his Almagest:/ “Of all men his wisdom is the hyeste/ That rekketh never 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 wot well Abraham was a hooly man,/And Jacob eek, as far forth as I kan;/And each of hem hadde wyves mo than two,/And many another holy man also./Wher can ye see, in any manere age,/That hye God defended marriage/By express word? I pray yow, telleth me.’
Again she is insisting upon her divine authority upon marriage 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 multiple;/ 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 number mention made he,/ Of bigamy, or autogamy;/ Why should men than speke of it vileynye?’. The Wife uses reproduction as an excuse for having five marriages (‘God bad us for to wexe and multiply). By using the bible and scholarly references to gain more authority and power on 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. However, 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 be 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 multiply, a point that the Wife has taken advantage of to demonstrate her sexual power and manipulative skills with her first three husbands. In lines147 – 150, she states, ‘In switch estate as God hath cleped us/ I wol persevere; I am not precious./ In wifehood I will use my instrument/ As freely 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 interruption reveals in lines 163 – 168 ‘Up start the Pardoner, and that anon;/’Now, dame,’ quod he, ‘by God and by Saint John!/Ye been a noble preacher in this case./ I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas!/ What should I bye it on my flesh 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 King Arthur’s mystical time and kingdom. 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 Chaucer would have seen in his contemporaneous society: men 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 saw a maybe walking him before,/ Of which made anon, maugre hir heed,/ By verray force, he rafte hires maidenhead;/ For which oppression was switch 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 ladies mo/ So longe preyed the kyng of grace/ Til his lyf hym granted in the place,/ And yaf him to the queene, al at hir will,/ To cease whether she wolde him save or spill.’ The fact that the king gives the choice of whether or not to ‘save or spilled the Knight to the queen is reflective of the overall morale 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 older 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, it appears that the Knight has learned his lesson when he allows the older woman to decide for herself, perhaps something that the Wife herself has strived for.
I find the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath interesting because a medieval piece of literature with such a feministic message was written by a man in the misogynistic era that Chaucer lived in. However, 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.’
- ‘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