The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
Geoffrey Chaucer 's "Wife of Bath's Tale," found in The Canterbury Tales, is sometimes identified as a Breton lai, a genre of romance that originated in the region of Brittany in northwestern France. These lais were short narrative poems involving knights, ladies, and supernatural creatures and events.
The events in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" are inspired by the Celtic folklore motif of the "loathly lady," in which a young knight must kiss or marry an ugly old woman, upon which she transforms into a more desirable form. Sometimes the point of the loathly lady story is to emphasize the importance of inner, rather than outer, beauty. "The Wife of Bath's Tale" nods to this in the loathly lady's long speech about the origin of gentility being within oneself rather than a result of one's lineage. But the main point of the Wife's Tale, in keeping with one of the concerns of her Prologue, is that women desire and should be granted sovereignty over their own bodies and minds.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is one of the few Canterbury Tales entirely populated and concerned with women; the male character's job is merely to serve as a sounding board for the women's desires and concerns. Although the land in which the tale is set is ostensibly ruled over by King Arthur, the king immediately yields control over a criminal knight's fate to his queen and her ladies. These women drive the plot of the tale by determining and enforcing the knight's punishment, and by insisting that he make good on his promise to grant the loathly lady anything she desires.
At this point, the loathly lady takes over the action. In the long speech she gives about poverty, age, and the origins of gentility, she resembles the Wife of Bath, if not in the sentiments she expresses, at least in the authority with which she chastens her much younger husband.
In fact, the loathly lady is probably meant as an alter-ego of the Wife of Bath. Like the Wife's relationship with her young husband Jankyn, the loath lady is an older woman who supposedly becomes delightful once her husband has yielded power to her. If the conclusion of the Wife's confrontation with Jankyn seemed somewhat fantastical, the ending of this marriage is even more so, for the loathly lady becomes beautiful and young, and obedient to her husband in all things. Perhaps with this ending the Wife is granting a husband what her character prevents her from yielding in 'real' life. And indeed, almost immediately, we get the Wife's re-assertion of that character in her curse upon all husbands who refuse to yield to their wives. Only in fairy tales, it seems, can the Wife give up sovereignty!
Why Should I Care?
What is the goal of justice? Should people be punished for their crimes in a manner proportional with their gravity, and as a way of discouraging others from committing the same crimes? Or should justice's goal be to re-educate and re-integrate the criminal back into society? Our society generally seems to agree that justice should include some element of both, but what we don't agree on is the correct proportions. Concerning "rehabilitative" justice (the re-educate, re-integrate kind), people ask to what extent criminals can be re-educated. Are we just beating our heads against a brick wall trying to convince criminals to follow the rules of society?
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is the story of a knight who is spared from the completely punitive justice represented by the king, only to face the queen's rehabilitative justice. Just as our society is divided on the proper form of criminal justice, readers of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" disagree about how effective the queen's justice actually is. Thus, despite being set in the land of 'fayerye,' "The Wife of Bath's Tale" explores issues we are still debating to this day.