The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
What’s Up With the Ending?
The Wife of Bath's Prologue concludes with the Friar breaking in to express his enjoyment of the Wife's speech, but also his observation that it is "a long preamble of a tale" (831). His interruption prompts the Summoner to accuse the Friar of butting in where he's not wanted, proving himself to be like all friars, who "wol falle in every dish and eek matere" (836) (i.e., will try to get involved in every situation). Angered by the Summoner's insult, the Friar promises to tell a few insulting tales about summoners before the game is up. The Summoner promises the same, leading the Host to cry "Pees!" and to give back the soapbox to the Wife, who agrees to begin her tale.
The little tiff between the Friar and the Summoner is a taste of things soon to come: immediately after the "Wife of Bath's Tale," both men make good on their promises to diss one another through tale-telling. This interruption is also a way to draw our attention to the absurd length of the Wife's Prologue (with the Friar's comment about it being a "long preamble") and to register some audience reactions to the Wife's speech. Despite their dislike of one another, the Friar and the Summoner are united in their appreciation of what they've just heard: the Friar "lough whan he hadde herd al this," and the Summoner accuses the Friar of preventing the pilgrims' enjoyment of the Wife's words, implying, of course, that they are enjoying them.
As educated men, moreover, the Friar and the Summoner are representatives of the profession of clerks of which the Wife speaks so often (and so derogatorily) in her Prologue. The words of praise from the mouths of two men who are likely to be the Wife's harshest critics could imply that the Wife has won over the people she takes pains to discredit in her Prologue. On the other hand, the Friar and Summoner's praise amounts to nothing more than an appreciation of the humor in the wife's words – their funny bones have been tickled. Could it be that they have failed to hear the other part of the Wife's speech? Have they failed to acknowledge the serious consideration of misogyny that's part and parcel of the Wife's outrageous posturing?