During the reign of King Arthur, the Wife of Bath intimates that the Isle of Britain was manifested with elves and fairies. Today, the creatures have disappeared because their place has been taken by the friars and some mendicants who are obsessed with filling the cranny and nook of the isle. In the Wife of Bath, a young Knight riding through the forest spies on a beautiful maid. Overcome by sexual desires, the Knight rapes the maid, and that enrages the queen. The queen discards the idea of beheading the Knight and sends him to find the desire of a woman. The Knight comes back with an answer stating that women desire sovereignty. Throughout the tale, the “headships” and traditional values such as supremacy and leadership are overthrown, and women become the dominant gender.
The tale commences with a sexual assault on a woman in the forest. In this social setting, the Knight who rapes the maid is supposed to be beheaded. However, the queen denounces that rule and instead chooses to punish the Knight by giving him an assignment. The queen dictates to the Knight to find the desire of every woman if he desires to keep his life. The Knight moves out to the countryside and is confronted with many answers. Some women intimate that women desire to honor, joy, lust, and clothes. Finally, the Knight gets the answer that states women only desire sovereignty. The outcome provokes a reversal of gender roles to the extent that men submit to the will of the women.
The traditional values, as well as the ‘headships’ that characterize many societies, are reversed. Women take the dominant position as men submit to the rule and authority of the female gender. At the outset of the tale, King Arthur is forced to submit to the rule and leadership of Guinevere. Ideally, King Arthur abandons his leadership credentials as the head of the family and head of state. Traditionally, women play subordinate roles such as being the wife and taking care of the family. However, in this tale women play a significant role in ensuring that they take the positions of the men and use that in their favor.
Moreover, women serve as judges and deliver judgment on critical issues. For example, when the court is scandalized by a criminal act, the queen and the ladies intervene to save the Knight from the harshest penalty. The King is asked to give the Knight a chance to redeem himself. In a surprise turn of events, the King obediently agrees to the counsel of the wife and grants the request. She states, “But the queen, and other ladies too, Implored the King to exercise his grace. So ceaselessly, he gave the queen the case” (Chaucer 70). Instead of the men serving as justices, that position is taken up bythe women. The women redeem the Knight by ensuring that he is not beheaded. The women have taken up the role traditionally performed by men in authority.
The wife of Bath is motivated by what most women desire, and that is power over men. The wife of Bath is depicted as seeking power to use it for exploitation purposes against the men as she did to her fifth husband. The quote suggests that women desire to have power over their husbands and subordinates. The desire to have power and use it to her advantage depicts women as manipulative and power hungry to some extent. There are few occasions where the queen submits to the husband. In one instance, she says, “nevertheless, well knowing your delights, I shall fulfil your worldly delights” (390). The submissive nature of the queen in some instances diffuses the notion of feminist tendencies. The woman submits to the man, not for personal benefit, but to tantalize the man’s spirit. The wife of Bath understands that men derive immense joy through intimacy and desires to please the man by giving in to his physical desires.
The tale cuts a picture of a society that is characterized by feminist ideologies. For instance, women have taken complete authority over men and what happens in society. Men have lost their sense of leadership and authority and only serve at the mercy of women. However, there are contradictions in the sense that women are still submissive to the men in some cases. The partial submission of women in this society is defined by stereotypical tendencies that depict men as the dominant figures.
This tale would have won a contest in the eye of the host. Chaucer uses different themes and literary skills to advance the plot and expose the characters. The most dominant theme that would make the tale win is the place of women in this society. Women are not inferior but dominant and superior to men. They are the custodians of power in society. The success of this story indicates Chaucer’s precise attitude towards women’s struggle in the fourteenth century England. For example, Knight is unhappy with the woman he has married claiming that she is old, ugly and poor. Although women struggle to climb the social ladder, stereotypical tendencies that depict them as second-class citizens remain. Bath’s wife is not delighted at the idea of being called poor and laments, “and since it’s no offense, let me be plain; do not rebuke my poverty again” (380).
Throughout the tale, the “headships” and traditional values such as supremacy and leadership are overthrown, and women become the dominant gender. When Knight rapes a maid, the queen and the ladies become the people who spell out the judgment. Moreover, it is the women who play a role in redeeming Knight from being beheaded. The sovereignty of women in the tale is manifest everywhere. This tale could have won the contest because it defines the plot, characters and states the place of the women in the particular social setting.
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- Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath. Wordsworth Editions, 2002.