Compare and contrast Wealtheow (Beowulf), Lady Bertilak (Sir Gawain) and The Wife of Bath (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale”). In what ways are these women reflected in modern/contemporary views on femininity?

In most modern day societies, women are allowed more choice in determining their paths in life. While the societies of Wealthow, Lady Bertilak, and the Wife of Bath restrict women to conform to harsh gender roles, the three characters vary in how much freedom and individuality they have apart from their relationships to men, especially in the case of the Wife of Bath.

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Modern views on women are generally more progressive than in the past. While some societies still enforce harshly defined gender roles on men and especially women, in a great deal of modern societies women are freer to choose how they wish to live their own lives. All three of the characters mentioned in this prompt—Queen Wealthow, Lady Bertilak, and the Wife of Bath—hail from older societies in which women were limited to specific roles: homemaker, wife, and mother. However, the degree to which they are socially ideal in these roles differs, particularly in the case of the Wife of Bath, who enjoys a more flexible position.

Wealthow and Lady Bertilak share a few qualities in common. Wealthow largely plays hostess to the warriors who serve her husband, while Lady Bertilak largely does the same, though she is not a queen. These two characters are locked into such roles, though in terms of characterization, they are quite different in how they play their parts.

Wealthow is a traditionally obedient and nurturing feminine presence. Beyond serving her lord and his men as a gracious hostess, she is given no additional characterization in Beowulf. In contrast, Lady Bertilak is a more ambiguous figure. She plays the hostess, but she is also seductive, tempting Gawain as he lays vulnerable in bed. She would appear to be acting outside of male authority; however, it is later revealed both she and her husband, who turns out to be the Green Knight, were collaborating in testing Gawain's chivalric morality. This means she is in a sense still under masculine authority, though unlike Wealthow, she appears more as a co-conspirator and is allowed greater characterization in her mischievousness, sensuality, and intelligence.

The Wife of Bath's situation is much closer to modern women in that she is allowed a life beyond the home. She is a successful cloth merchant and has been married five times. She argues with church doctrine, choosing to adapt social rules to her desires and values as she sees fit (for example, she argues that virginity should not be considered any more holy than sexual knowledge, since virgins cannot be born if people do not have sex after all). Though referred to largely by her position as a wife, she emerges as a fully realized individual independent of a relationship with a man. As a result, the Wife of Bath is likely the most "modern" of these three characters in terms of relation to present-day women.

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