Is "The Wife of Bath's Tale" about women asserting dominance over men or about women accepting their traditional subservient role in a relationship?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would think that even the most cursory of readings of this brilliant tale would indicate that this story is above all about women asserting dominance over men rather than women meekly accepting their traditional subservient role in a relationship. If you have any doubts about this, let us first of all consider the character of the Wife of Bath herself. An important thing to remember when studying The Canterbury Tales is the relationship between the teller and their tale, and you would do well to pay attention to this. The Wife of Bath is certainly a larger than life character, who, by her own admission, has had five husbands and has helped hasten the demise of each with her sexual exploits. She is on the search for a sixth, and specialises in marrying old rich men so that she can sexually exhaust them and inherit their wealth. She is therefore not the kind of character who is going to be advising women to meekly accept a position of subservience in marriage.

Secondly, consider the tale she tells and how the knight only receives perfect happiness when he learns the truth himself of the answer to the queen's riddle he is ordered to solve. Having told the queen that what women desire most is mastery or dominance in a marriage, he realises the truth of these words himself when he is told he must choose between having a young and beautiful but unfaithful wife or an old and ugly but faithful wife. Note his response:

My lady and my love, my dear wife too,

I place myself in your wise governance;

Choose for yourself whichever's the most pleasant,

Most honourable to you, and me also.

All's one to me; choose either of the two;

What pleases you is good enough for me.

The knight has to give his wife dominance and mastery over him, and because of this, gains both a beautiful and a faithful wife who is able to more than satisfy him in every department. This tale therefore represents a strident call for women asserting dominance over men, which is shown to be better for both men and women, rather than meekly accepting their fate as a member of the "weaker sex."

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