Mixed Feminine Message in Wife of Bath's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
In the Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, various women, such as the Queen and the old hag, stake their claim to authority over men. Yet, they do so in a very covert manner. The knight has clearly abused his male power. He is a rapist. With the help of women, however, he is rehabilitated and seems to achieve the ultimate happiness. When these women support the feminist viewpoint that women should have mastery over their husbands, they are also echoing the sentiments the Wife of Bath presents in her prologue. Yet, these women abandon mastery the moment they attain it. The old hag relinquishes mastery back to her husband immediately after he grants it to her, from that point on she obeys his every command. This ending could be a type of female servitude or it could be a mutually beneficial, blissful marriage and partnership. For this reason, the Wife of Bath’s Tale sends a mixed message about feminism.
The tale begins with a violent act of male aggression and dominance. The knight rapes a young virgin. This rape is about more than his being a “lusty bacheler” (Chaucer l. 889). It is about power. “He sawgh a maide walking him biforn; / Of which maide anoon, maugree hir heed, / By verray force he rafte hir maidenheed” (Chaucer l. 892). The knight is not merely carried away by his sexual instincts. He sees a woman he covets and takes her by force because he has the power and she does not. This violent rape demonstrates the knight’s initial attitude towards women and his need for rehabilitation.
Queen takes over the knight’s punishment for raping the young girl. Instead of death she provides the potential for rehabilitation. Is this opportunity antifeminist or a kind of covert mastery? The Queen goes about this rehabilitation in a peculiar manner. She does not tell the knight what to think about women, but instead wants him to learn for himself what women most desire. She gives him, “A twelfmonth and a day to seeche and lere / An answere suffisant in this matere” (Chaucer l. 915). The knight must interview countless women to find the answer to this question. He is forced to listen, and learn from their desires, instead of following his own and raping them. The Queen allows the knight to live, but forces him to consider and value women’s opinions. Perhaps she allows him to live because all men at times aggressively assert their domination over women and the better option is to rehabilitate them, rather than killing every aggressive man.
While the knight is searching for what women most desire he comes across an interesting response. “For to be free, and do right as us lest, / And that no man repreve us of our vice” (Chaucer l. 942). The woman is asserting her right to freedom. Just as the knight, she longs to do just as she pleases and is unconcerned with male opinion. This is a very liberated statement, which...