The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

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.

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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 grants a request of hers. After he agrees out of desperation, she whispers the answer to him, and he then returns to court.

The knight tells the queen and her ladies that women most desire sovereignty over their men and that if the ladies at court do not approve of the answer, they can take his life. The women approve of his answer, thus saving his life. The old hag then appears and demands that her request be fulfilled—to marry him. Shocked, the knight refuses, offering the woman his money and everything else if only she will let him out of the bargain; she refuses, so he, with great reluctance, marries her.

The marriage begins poorly, with the knight refusing to consummate the marriage because he considers her extremely ugly and far beneath him socially. She then embarks on a long speech about gentilesse, which means nobility of spirit. The knight listens to her oration and starts to relent in his loathing of the woman. The hag then makes the knight an offer: She can be either beautiful but unfaithful to him or ugly and faithful. Instead of making this choice, the knight decides to allow her to choose which she would prefer. Delighted that her new husband has passed her test by permitting her the power to choose, she will be both beautiful and faithful to him.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

“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...

(The entire section contains 791 words.)

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Critical Essays