Discuss the similarities and differences between significant female characters in The Canterbury Tales, Macbeth and The Tempest.
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In Shakespeare's plays, the significant female in Macbeth is Lady Macbeth, and in The Tempest, it is Miranda. In The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer, the most significant female is the Wife of Bath.
All three women in these literary works have important things to say, but they are all very different in personality, and how they relate to their audience.
Lady Macbeth is a very strong woman. Where she seems quite fond of her husband (Macbeth), she is manipulative and cruel. In order to get her husband to murder the King so he can ascend the throne, she belittles her his manhood, showing herself to be more bloodthirsty than her husband. There is no question that at that time, Lady Macbeth would have been perceived to be the evil force driving Macbeth to commit regicide, and in the end, ironically, she becomes the weaker one, loses her mind, and kills herself. Shakespeare "passes judgment" on her behavior in allowing her brutality to be her undoing.
Miranda, on the other hand, is very innocent. Whereas Lady Macbeth is a force to be reasoned with, Miranda's scope of self-assurance and assertion are greatly limited. Miranda has little experience with men other than with her father (Prospero) and his scurrilous slave Caliban. She is influential, however, in encouraging her father to be forgiving and compassionate, especially in terms of the fate of those shipwrecked on the island, especially those who robbed him of his rightful place as duke, and his home. Though Miranda may seem initially to be innocent, and therefore weak, Shakespeare allows her to have an inherent goodness at her core, which argues for goodwill toward others. Her "reward" is falling in love with Ferdinand, who loves her as well. It would seem that Shakespeare admires the woman's innocence and emotional connection to others; based on these qualities, she positively affects the lives of the men around her.
The Wife of Bath is a more comical figure than the other two characters, but she is worldly-wise: she has been married five times and on this pilgrimage, is hunting for husband number six. She knows a great deal about men: how to please them and how they think. The Wife of Bath's tale encourages the men (in the context of the story) to look beyond the appearance of a woman to find the lady's true worth. (This is the theme of her story, which will benefit her in finding a new man—she is 'wide' and 'gap-toothed.) Chaucer was known as a student of human nature. Through the Wife of Bath, the audience is aware that a man will want a beautiful and desirable wife; the women would have appreciated the sentiment Chaucer shares that women have much more to offer than may be merited by appearance only.
The three women have different strengths. Each has wisdom to share with the reader/audience. They are all keen observers; each one represents a very different kind of woman. Whereas the Wife of Bath is appreciated for her bawdy humor and wisdom, Miranda is appreciated because of her emotional connection with those around her, as well as her innocence.
It is only Lady Macbeth—whose power and evil destroy those around her—who cannot be esteemed for her knowledge of men and affairs of state. Those feminine virtues of Miranda and the Wife of Bath are missing here, and Lady Macbeth is destroyed instead by her "warlike" (manly) qualities.