The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
A knight deprives a maiden of power over her own body; his punishment, as decided by the women of the court, is that he must find out what women most desire, which turns out to be power. "The Wife of Bath's Tale" makes a point of how the knight's punishment fits his crime inasmuch as he must yield power over his body, first to the queen and her court, and finally to the hag he must marry. And indeed, after the disturbing opening, power in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" rests solely in the hands of women, who mete out punishment, administer justice, and force the knight to fulfill his promise to the hag. At the end of the tale, however, the locus of power seems to have shifted when the knight's wife gives mastery back to her husband. Even the Wife of Bath's concluding prayer requesting easy-to-dominate husbands can't quite contain our feeling that, by the end of the tale, power has again reverted to the hands of men, the place where it was abused at the tale's beginning.
Questions About Power
- Who wields power in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"? In your opinion, do those who wield power do so fairly?
- How is power related to the body in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?
- How and when does power in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" reside in the hands of men? Women?
Chew on This
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" begins and ends with power in the hands of men, suggesting that a world in which women wield power is only possible in the fantastical land of 'fayerye.'
The loathly-lady-turned-beautiful-wife's relinquishment of power to her husband after he has proven his willingness to grant it to her suggests that what women really desire the most is not power, but love.