In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," (in The Canterbury Tales), how does Chaucer satirize men and women in their behavior and relationships?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales, there are several ways men and women are satirized.

In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.

In this case, it would seem that Chaucer is poking fun at the behavior of men and knights in particular, and of women, especially wives.

The Knight who is at the center of the tale, is supposed to be noble, honorable, and protective of the helpless and weak—including women and children. This man comes across a woman alone in the countryside and rapes her—this may be Chaucer's way of ridiculing the medieval idea of the chivalric knight...that knights were the ideal, but not necessarily the norm. The Knight is forced to answer a question put to him by Queen Guenevere in order that his life be spared. (There may be some satire here, too, in that Guenevere is able to convince her husband to give her her way regarding the punishment of the Knight: Arthur rather than being presented as a King may be portrayed as a hen-pecked husband.)

The Knight must answer the question, "What does every woman want?" He has a year to find the answer, and on the last day before he faces execution, he meets an old crone who promises to help, if he will grant her a wish. The Knight agrees, she gives him the answer, and he is pardoned. The crone's wish is that the Knight marry her. He must do so, but hates it because she is so ugly. (This seems a stereotype, another strike against Chaucer's not-so-chivalrous Knight.) However, when he witnesses her magical change into a stunning woman, he starts to see things "differently" (—also the stereotype: beauty is everything to a shallow man). When the Knight gives his new wife everything she wants, he is rewarded. (Here is another hen-pecked husband it seems.)

This leads us into the satire of the women. Guenevere and all her woman are in an uproar regarding the Knight's treatment of the woman who has been raped. Guenevere knows her way around King Arthur and she gets what she wants: to impose judgment on the Knight. Here may be the satirical view of women pushing to get their way, even in facing down a King (or a husband, who "outranks the wife??). The answer to the riddle, "What is it that every woman wants?" is basically, her way in all things, or control over her husband. This would seem to poke fun as well; we can almost hear Chaucer saying, "Of course that is what every woman wants. Duh." (It is possible, too, that he is making fun of the Knight again, in that it takes him a year to find the answer.) This may also be satirical regarding women: the Knight spends a year asking every woman he meets what every woman wants, and no one can give him the answer. Is the author, then, saying that women have no idea, in general, what they want?

Finally, the "crone" rewards her husband when he gives her his way. Chaucer may be indicating that the only way a man can ever be happy is to give his wife her own way. He may also be poking fun that a woman may seem to be one way before she marries and something else after the wedding, though in this case, it is to the Knight's advantage.

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