4 March 2012
Historical Criticism of the Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale
“The Wife of Bath’s tale” begins as she describes a lustful knight who serves on King Arthur’s round table. This knight is riding along the country side on a eventless and peaceful day when he spies a young maiden through the foliage. This sight causes him to fill up with lust and lose control. He suddenly has no choice but to pounce, and he proceeds to rape the young maiden. This brings a scandalous overtone to Arthur’s kingdom and for this crime; the knight is sentenced to be beheaded. The Queen proposes that the King allows the knight a chance to redeem himself by answering a question. The King, in a sublet use of foreshadowing, agrees and allows his wife to ask the question. The queen’s inquiry for the knight who was nearly executed is this; ‘What is it that women desire most?’
As the knight spends a year searching for the answer to the question, the author builds up to his meeting with an old woman who promises him safety in telling him the answer. When she does, he agrees to give her anything she asks for, assuming she is correct. In the end she is, and the answer (women desire to be in charge of themselves and their lovers) sets the precedent for the Wife of Bath’s message. By the end of this tale, the knight allows the old woman to decide their fate, and because of this, they live happily ever after.
Many scholars debate the value of this tale’s feminist undertone. On one side, some believe that the story is speaking in favor of the woman’s place in decision making and society. They believe the story is Chaucer’s way of writing a female character (The Wife of Bath) who is striving for equality and a higher place in what was largely a man’s world. Other’s however believe that the story is more of a satirical view point on the notion and is actually describing naïve female character who strives for equality but...