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The Wife of Bath opens her tale by telling of one of King Arthur’s knights, whom the Wife of Bath describes as a “lusty bacheler,” rapes a young girl: “By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed” (ll. 883, 888). According to the “cours of law,” King Arthur should punish the knight through beheading. However, the queen and her ladies beg Arthur to forgive the knight. Ultimately, Arthur lets the queen choose how to punish the knight.
Addressing the knight, the queen states, “I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me / What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren” (ll. 904-905). In other words, the queen states that the knight will live if he is able to tell her what thing women most desire. She gives the knight “A twelf-month and a day, to seche and leere / An answere suffisant in this mateere;” (ll. 909-910).
Near the end of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the knight, having hitherto failed to answer the question of “what womman love moost,” decides to return home and accept his fate (ll. 985). At his lowest emotional point, with a “sorweful” heart, the knight encounters a deformed, old hag: “on the green he saw sitting a woman -- / A fouler wight ther may no man devyse” (ll. 986, 998-999). The knight asks the foul, old woman to teach him “what thyng it is that womman moost desire” (ll. 1008). In exchange for this knowledge, the knight pledges to “quite [hir] hire” by doing the “nexte thyng that [she] requere[s]” (ll. 1008, 1010). The knight returns to court and proclaims that “Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee” (ll. 1038). With this, the old hag demands that the knight honor his pledge and marry her. They are married but the knight is overcome with woe because “his wyf looked so foule” (ll. 1082).
This is ironic because the knight was able to save his life by telling the queen that women want sovereignty above all else. However, the knight made a deal with the hag that cost him his own sovereignty.
However, the hag is determined to resolve the situation. Noting her husband’s sorrow, the wife/hag asserts that she can “amende al this” and offers two choices: she can stay ugly and old and remain his “trewe, humble wyf” or become young and fair but surrounded by lovers (ll. 1106, 1221-1226). The knight surrenders sovereignty to his wife: “Cheseth youreself which may be moost pleasance… / For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me” (ll. 1232, 1235). Having achieved mastery over her husband, the wife transforms into a beautiful, young maiden and promises to obey “hym in every thyng” (ll. 1255). Thus, the knight gives his wife the sovereignty to choose her own appearance. When he does this, the knight practices grants sovereignty to his wife (remember, it is the thing that women want most) and, lucky for the knight, this move allows him to regain his own sovereignty.
The irony in the Wife of Bath's tale is in the solution to the knight's predicament. He finds himself in trouble with the court after raping a maiden and robbing her of her virginity. In order to save himself from death, he must find what it is that all women most desire. When he learns that the answer is that all women desire sovereignty over their husbands, the irony is revealed. Had the knight considered what the maiden wanted and given her that sovereignty, he would not have forced himself on her.
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