Chaucer's the Wife of Bath

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Making a Couple of the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted

It is a commonplace when digging into the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale to stress the anachronism of calling Chaucer a feminist. Yet it is also a commonplace to find Chaucer attractive for his play with gender in his book, nowhere better demonstrated than in the reconstitution of various misogynist diatribes into the charismatic Wife of Bath who talks back defiantly to “auctoritee”. If Chaucer is not actually endorsing the strident voice he gives to the Wife, he is certainly making play with textuality, with subjectivity, and with the construction of ideas about sexuality. Despite the fact that the Catholic Chaucer presumably is not using the Wife of Bath to present his own views, he allows her to express radical ideas on gender theory and to tell a tale that demonstrates some of what she has theorized in her Prologue. The motif central to the Wife’s tale (that a shapeshifting hag becomes beautiful once she gets her own way) makes it more feasible that the Wife’s tale is centrally about liberation from gender role restriction. Scholars have made the connection between Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s hag and other loathly ladies. Including the Irish Sovranty Hag and Dame Ragnell. Specialists in early Irish literature (the earliest extant versions) note that the motif recurs with variations. Medievalists equipped with twentieth-century theory have discussed Chaucer’s hag in relation to the Wife of Bath, noting the similarities between the two and the suitability of the tale’s motif to the Wife as tale teller. Many scholars have explicated the personal politics of the Wife and her tale, but no one to date has centrally interrogated Chaucer’s exploitation of the motif’s mechanisms. Chaucer’s foregrounding of gender exploits the shapeshifting loathly lady motif as a vehicle for examining the sphere of heterosexual power contestation. The earliest appearance of the loathly lady motif comes in the figure of the Irish Sovranty Hag, an imbroglio of cultural ideas about political power contestation, in which gender roles are loosened, dissolved, and resolved. The loathly lady belongs in the configuration of goddesses who are transversers of stereotype, a group that includes Demeter, Hecate, and Diana. Like Diana, she is associated with water and with forests. Just as it is typical that Chaucer’s hag meets her knight “under a forest syde” (III 990), so too it is in keeping with the genre that he commits his act of hubris, the rape of a maiden, as he “cam ridynge fro ryver” (III 884). The wilderness backdrop is a reminder that tales of the loathly lady tend to offer a “hunter hunted” spin to gender destabilization. Evidence that the loathly lady is humbly related to a set of goddesses who expand the meaning of femininity is available in the settings in which she is found, in the hunting motif ubiquitous to her tales, and in her quasi-divine control. The royal court, seat of patriarchal power, counterbalances the wilderness setting. Like the forest, the court is an intrinsic context for the hag, but whereas the wilderness space functions consistently in the various tales, the court marks the particular agenda of the individual author. In this way, Chaucer’s external spaces signal the motif’s tradition, while his court shows his craft in giving the Wife subjectivity. Even as the comedy-closure coupling of the loathly lady and the hunter she hunts down is a satisfying climax typical of the genre, the tension of conflict between the forest and the court and what they mean explodes joyfully into a radically gendered union that has learned to accept ambivalence. In generic tales of the loathly lady, the court represents the seat of patriarchal government whereas the forest is an uncharted space where societal stricture falters. This dichotomy has a classically established discourse. Chaucer would have been aware of literary precedents such as Virgil’s Aeneid, an example used by...
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