The Wife of Bath
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1. Although a widow, the Wife of Bath by her very name clearly represents the “feminine Estate” of “Wife.” To what extent is her Prologue (and even her Tale) a response to clerical attitudes toward marriage and virginity? 2. Trace the steps in her arguments for the rightness of marriage (and, specifically, of her own five marriages). How does she use written authorities to support her own actions and world view? 3. Based upon her own accounts and Chaucer’s portrait of her in the General Prologue, what precisely is the Wife of Bath’s “experience”? Given that there was a medieval tradition of extremely misogynistic writings (such as those contained in her fifth husband Janekin’s Book of Wikked Wives) how can we understand the Wife of Bath as a defender of her sex? 4. Why would women be particularly concerned with having experience recognized as carrying its own weight and “auctoritee”? 5. In her prologue, Alison describes three “good” husbands and two “bad” ones. Are these descriptions to be taken seriously? Of which of her past husbands does she seem fondest? What is the balance of power between husband and wife in each case? Does it change? When and why?
Pay particular attention to the stories of husbands four and five. Her fourth husband is unfaithful to her. How does the Wife of Bath respond? Does she commit adultery in turn? What does she mean when she says she “fried him in his own grease”? 6. Alison explains that she met (and presumably fell in love with) her fifth husband, Janekin, while married to husband number four. What was her initial interest in him? What is their respective social, financial and personal status when they first meet? How do they spend their time together? How well do they get along?
Are they well-matched socially? physically? intellectually? in formal education? in energy and appetite? What changes after their marriage? 7. Janekin is a “clerk at Oxenforde”, a cleric trained in the scholarly traditions of (written, scriptural) “authority,” including the misogynistic writings contained in the “Book of Wikkid Wives”. Pay careful attention to the events surrounding this book. What does the Wife of Bath initially do to the book, and what are the symbolic implications of that action? (Consider in the light of the opposition between experience and authority elsewhere in the Prologue.) What does she make Janekin ultimately do to the book? What are the symbolic implications of that act? (Note that she does not burn the book. . . he does.)
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
1. In the light of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, consider Alice’s tale of the rapist knight condemned to determine “what thing it is that wommen most desiren”? What is the answer to this question? What is meant, in this context, by maistrye? 2. Given the nature of the knight’s initial crime, why is it especially fitting that he learn this particular lesson? How does what happens to the knight after his wedding fit into this theme? What does the old woman teach him about gentilesse, and how does it fit in with the theme of maistrye? To what extent is the old woman similar to Alice? 3. Alice’s tale, set “in th’olde dayes of King Arthour” is clearly a romance – so its source must be a piece of vernacular rather than Latin (and church-oriented) literature. Do you see a possible relationship between Alice’s choice of tale and her previous insistence on the value of experience as a rival to scriptural (Latin-language) auctoritee?