In this paper I will compare the approach to marriage in the works “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer and “The Flea” by John Donne; in both cases it is a means to an end: in the first the old woman wants to get “the thing that most of all Women desire” and in the second the lover seeks “How little which his lover (thou) deniest him (me)” and uses an allusion to marriage to achieve this.
In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” the old woman seems to ask the knight a naïve request; there is no hint that what she will ask of him is to marry her: “Swear me true that whatsoever I ask of you, you’ll do it if it lies whithin you might…”. After the knight returns to the queen, and the answer the old woman gave the knight is the one the queen looked for, the old woman’s intent becomes clear: “Before the court I ask you, then, sir knight, To take me, as you wife.”
The knight in shock tries to refuse, but as he has sworn “upon his (my) honor” he has no way out of the deal he closed; therefore, they get married. As married couples are due in the night of the wedding, the couple goes to bed to consummate the marriage. Here is when we learn what the old woman’s plan was.
As they lay in bed they old woman is waiting for the knight to act as a newlywed husband, but she then realizes that the knight’s intentions were not the ones she hoped for: “You are so loathsome and so old as well… …It is no wonder that I toss and turn.”
The wife tells her husband that he has two choices, and he is welcome to choose what he best prefers, for she will do as he bids and never complain. The knight thinks carefully, and weighs his options, and then realizes that this choice should not be his: “My love and lady, my dear wife. In your wise government I put my life… …I am content, whatever pleases you.”
Now the old woman’s motive is clear, and she got “the thing that most of all Women desire”...