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In what ways does the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale explore issues of power and authority?

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Introduction

2) In what ways does the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale explore issues of power and authority? The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale is a section from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which he began writing in about 1387 but never completed. The wife of Bath's tale is the first of a group of seven known to many critics (such as G.L. Kittredge states in his essay 'Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage') as the 'Marriage Group'. The other characters included in this group include the Wife, the Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire and the Franklin. Like the Wife's tale, all deal with the subject of authority, but the Wife deals directly with where the authority lies and more importantly to her how it is exercised in married life. The Wife of Bath's section of the tales deviates from the structure of the others; the prologue is much larger than that of the actual tale. Like many of the other characters, the Wife's prologue and tale parallel each other in themes and ideas raised. In this case the relationship between the prologue and the tale is exposed through the theme of power and authority. The Wife of Bath as a character is a strong minded, forceful vivacious and worldly. She also at times she can be vulgar, for example when describing the use of genitalia she says 'That they were maked for purgation/ Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale'. ...read more.

Middle

The Wife of Bath goes on to say that she even has divine authority over marriage, despite her claim that experience is her sole authority. She gives a speech involving her citing of scholarly texts such as Ptolemy's Almagest (lines 321 - 327 'Of alle men yblessed moot he be,/ The wise astrologien, Daun Ptholome,/ That seith this proverbe in his Almageste:/ "Of alle men his wysdom is the hyeste/ That rekketh nevere who hath the world in honde.") and she also refers to the old testament of the bible, explaining how figures such as Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon, enjoyed multiple wives in lines 56 - 61. She says 'I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,/And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;/And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,/And many another holy man also./Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,/That hye God defended mariage/By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.' Again she is insisting upon her devine authority upon mariage, by explaining that 'God defended mariage'. The Wife of Bath apparently feels the need to establish her authority in a more Christianised way. She says in lines 28 - 34 'God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;/ That gentil text kan I wel understonde./ Eek we I woot, he seyde myn housbonde/ Sholde lete fader and mooder and take to me./ But of no nombre mencion made he,/ Of bigamye, or of octogamye;/ Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?'. ...read more.

Conclusion

The shift between male and female authority occurs in the court of King Arthur when the Knight is brought to justice. Lines 894 - 898 state 'But that the queene and other ladyes mo/ So longe preyeden the kyng of grace/ Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place,/ And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,/ To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille.' The fact that the king gives the choice of whether or not to 'save or spille' the Knight to the queen is reflective of the overall moral of the tale ; that women most desire to have the authority to make their own choices. When the Knight is revealed this information from the old woman which in turn saves his life, another instance occurs of a woman having the power over the man's life. By the end of the tale is appears that the Knight has learned his lesson when he allows the old woman to decide or herself, perhaps something that the Wife herself has strived for. I find the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath interesting in the fact that a medieval piece of literature with such a feministic message was written by a man in the misogynistic era that Chaucer lived in. Some feminist critics, such as Susan Crane and Catherine S. Cox, view her as destined to fail in her search for equality, partly because she is trying to gain 'acceptance by emulating men instead of embracing her femininity, but mainly because she is a fictional character, written by a man'. ...read more.

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