Jeffery Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale revolves around the issue of feminine desire. A knight of King Arthur’s court rapes a maiden, which in the story is an offence punishable by death, but the queen grants him mercy. If in a year he could return to the court with the correct answer for her and her ladies to the question ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren’ (Chaucer, l. 905) he could keep his head. This is not a straightforward question to answer yet the knight succeeds, stating that women most desire mastery over their husbands, bringing in the theme of female power. The concept is laid out plainly enough; however, the delivery in action is somewhat confusing. The actions described, performed by women themselves, seem contradictory to this desire, casting this ultimate desire into a shadow of doubt, forcing the reader to scrutinise the text to make sense out of the contradictions and try and pinpoint Chaucer’s message on feminine desire and power. By chronologically analysing The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with reference to her accompanying prologue, it is possible to draw out a comprehensive understanding of the articulation of feminine desire in the text.
Hansen criticises this integrated perception of marriage and power stating that the Wife of Bath is “ironically trapped in the misogynist culture she explicitly names as the enemy and is blind to the ways in which her tactics further embed her in the assumptions she tries in vein to defy” (1996 p.274). This statement insults Alisoun’s character as it oversimplifies her understanding of her situation and neglects to take into account the social context of the text. She is not a victim as she has knowingly embraced an institution associated with female confinement and oppression. By willingly playing the game she manipulates marriage in her favour and uses it as a tool to help her achieve the power and autonomy she strives for, “What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese, / But it were for my profit and myn ese?” (Chaucer, l.213-214). This was not commonplace in medieval literature as in medieval marriage the woman was a legal non-entity. This further shows Alisoun’s cunning. However, only knowing how to achieve this goal through manipulating her husbands the Wife of Bath must continuously be married.
To possibly portray this female control in a traditionally suppressing environment, the Wife of Bath writes herself into a masculine role, whilst still employing a feminine one. Her character is choosing to portray herself in a certain light. This gives Alisoun an amount of power on its own. Through her use of and reference to texts, she takes on the male role of a clerk while she also claims her authority on marriage comes from her experience, which is a female association (Dinshaw 1989, 114)). This can also be seen in her tale. However, it is the knight’s position, which is being inverted to a more female role, as he must learn about female desire through the experience of his quest. This puts the women of the court and the queen in the more powerful position.
The reader becomes aware that the initial rape scene is the link between the fictive world and reality. The Wife of Bath is using this story to criticise her own society, showing what it could and should be like instead. The crime the knight committed is punishable by execution. This shows the reader that men are not all powerful after all, but they are subject to justice. The queen postpones the execution and will completely deny it on the grounds that the knight has a year and a day in which to figure out a satisfactory answer to the queen’s question. It can be read that this shows the folly of women. One could carry this argument throughout the rest of the text, pointing out that the women, such as the “wyf”, give up their gained mastery as soon as it is granted them. Showing the foolishness of women could make room for an argument that women do not...
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