The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Geoffrey Chaucer’s romantic narrative “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is one of The Canterbury Tales told by the pilgrims during their journey to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his cathedral in 1170. After the “General Prologue,” in which the Wife of Bath mentions that she has been married five times and would welcome a sixth husband, and that she spends her married life pursuing power over her husbands, she tells a tale about a knight who must marry; dominance in a romantic relationship becomes an important theme in the poem as it does in the Wife’s prologue and in her personal life.

The plot begins when a knight encounters a maiden and rapes her. Initially, King Arthur decides that his punishment should be death. The queen, however, intervenes on the knight’s behalf, asking the king to spare the man’s life. Arthur decides to leave the knight’s fate in her hands. The queen decides to send the knight on a quest; he must search throughout the land to determine what women most desire. The knight reluctantly embarks on his quest and asks countless women what they want most, only to receive as many different responses as possible. Distraught, the knight encounters some women dancing in the woods; as he approaches, they disappear, leaving him only with a hideously ugly old woman who seems to know about his quest. She promises to tell him the correct answer provided that he subsequently...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a medieval romance in the chivalric tradition. Chaucer’s tale, a poetic narrative, is typical of medieval romances in that it contains a knight on a quest, mercy, honor, and the royal court. The supernatural and magic also play a major role in the tale, as in most medieval romances. The supernatural manifests itself when the knight is lured to the dancing women who magically disappear, leaving him alone with the old hag; she demonstrates her magical abilities when she transforms herself into a young and beautiful woman.

In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as in “The Miller’s Tale,” the pilgrim undercuts the majestic and noble action of “The Knight’s Tale.” In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the narrator portrays the knight as an arrogant and class-conscious rapist, quite different from the noble knights who appear in “The Knight’s Tale.” This tale is told by the feisty, aggressive, and lustful Wife of Bath immediately after she concludes her prologue. The reader should note that the tale is not only told by the Wife of Bath, but also told from her feminist point of view.

It is essential that readers understand the correlation between her prologue and her tale. Both concern marriage and the desire for the wife to acquire dominance in relationships. The tale is told in heroic couplets, a form that Chaucer inaugurated into English poetry. Heroic couplets are lines that contain ten syllables, with the stress being on every even-numbered syllable. The rhyme scheme is aabbccddand so on; in other words, the second line rhymes with the first and the fourth with the third. The fact that he employed heroic couplets rather than the majestic seven-line rime royal (ababbcc) suggests that he did not consider the characters and the actions to be noble and grand.