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...

(The entire section is 482 words.)