In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, is the "Wife of Bath's Tale" consistent with her personality?

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Geoffrey Chaucer's medieval poem The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket. On their way to the shrine the pilgrims pass the time by telling each other tales. These tales not only entertain, but also reflect on the character's own personalities.

The Wife of Bath is a remarkable character. We don't expect to see such a boldly outspoken female character in Middle Ages' literature, but the Wife has been married five times and she knows more than a thing or two about how to handle a man and get what she wants out of a relationship. In the lengthy prologue to her tale she bluntly discusses how she manipulates men to get her way, and how she insists on having the power in her relationships:

I'll have a husband—I'm not quitting yet--

And he will be my debtor and my slave,

And in the flesh his troubles will be grave

As long as I continue as his wife.

Her favorite husband, the fifth, put up quite a struggle for power, and the couple actually came to blows at one point, but eventually the Wife won out:

But in the end, for all we suffered through,

We finally reached accord between us two.

The bridle he put wholly in my hand

To have complete control of house and land

The Wife of Bath's tale is concerned with the same topic. In this tale a knight rapes a girl and is sentenced to die unless he can, within one year, find out what it is that women want the most. He searches the land but is unable to find out, until he meets an old hag who tells him that what women desire most is power over men. As a reward for her information, the knight must marry the old hag. They fight for control of the relationship, but the knight finally acquiesces:

The knight gave it some thought, then gave a sigh,

And finally answered as you are to hear:

"My lady and my love and wife so dear,

I leave to your wise governance the measure;

You choose which one would give the fullest pleasure

And honor to you, and to me as well.

I don't care which you do, you best can tell.

What you desire is good enough for me."

"You've given me," she said, "the mastery?

The choice is mine and all's at my behest?"

"Yes, surely, wife," said he, "I think it best."

Like the Wife, the old woman gains what she wants the most and wins control of the man. In this way, the woman in the tale reflects the personality of the Wife—they both want power and know how to gain it.

 

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