Wife Of Bath Characters 

Upon a first reading of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, it’s hard not to feel
the need to pat her on the shoulder and say “Go-girl!” There’s no denying
the impact that Feminism has had on our Millennium-revved society, and the Wife
of Bath’s character would certainly have contradicted the oppressive customs
of Chaucer’s time. But on closer inspection, it would seem that the Prologue
could be considered a medium for an anti-feminist message, under the semblance
of a seemingly feminist exterior. She confesses her treatment of her husbands
and her tendency to “swere and lyen,” and this self-incrimination invokes a
feeling that the Wife is an extraordinarily attractive character by sharing her
feminine faults with us, good-humouredly. At the same time, her robust energy
and her arguments against anti-feminists; her comments about clerks being unable
to do “Venus werkes” and taking it out on “sely wyf(s)” in print, are
carried further in the Tale, where the ending arguably serves as a climax,
summarising many of the Wife’s themes. In her Prologue, her arguments in
favour of marriage show a hearty common sense, but they are suspect – while it
is true that marriage peoples the earth and replenishes existing stocks of “virginitee,”
her own marriages do not seem to have produced any offspring, and while it may
be “bet […] to be wedded than to brinne,” her marriages, despite her claim
that “in wyfhood I wol use myn instrument,” do not seem to have prevented
her from “goon a-caterwaw[ing]” and by decision engaging in fornication
(“I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun/But evere folwede myn appetit,/Al were
he short, or long, or blak, or whit”), which is after all what marriage was,
according to her, supposed to prevent. From the account she gives of her
marriages, it becomes increasingly obvious that marriage for her is not quite so
beneficial as one might think – the only benefit the husbands get, in exchange
for their “purgatorie,” is that of her “bele chose” (which, it must be
pointed out, they – with the possible exception of Jankin, who satisfied her
better than “bacon” – have to share with other “good felawes”), but it
is worth observing that she never speaks of the sexual act as giving the male
partner pleasure (except with regard to “daun Salomon” – but she
identifies with him rather than his wives: “As wolde God it were leveful unto
me/ To be refresshed half so ofte as he!”) – on the contrary, she speaks of
the husband’s “dette” to his wife, of “How pitously a-night I made hem
swinke!” and of “his tribulacion withal/ Upon his flessh.” Also, while she
claims Biblical support for her views on marriage, the support that she cites is
conveniently edited to suit her purposes (for example, Solomon did have 700
wives and 300 concubines – but his appetites led to his turning away from God;
and the marital relationship specified in the Bible is a reciprocal one rather
than the one-sided one she speaks of, tilted in favour of the wife – she
conveniently ignores that while “Apostel […]/[…] bad oure housbondes for
to love us weel,” he also exhorts women to love their husbands), and she
elsewhere ignores the Bible when it proves difficult to “glose” in her
favour (as in her dismissal of its order to dress “in habit maad with
chastitee and shame”). Moreover, her behaviour is a demonstration of all the
anti-feminist accusations that she (falsely) claims her husband/s of levelling
at her (the ultimate irony, since she is proving the truth of these very
accusations at the very time when she is making them up). She does dress gaily
(cf. Her stockings “of fyn scarlet reed”) – and probably for the same
reasons that she goes “walkinge out by night”, it is doubtful that she
“abides” in “chastitee,” she is devious and deceitful (making up the
accusations in order to pre-empt any on the part of the husband/s), she is
self-willed (“we wol ben at oure large”) and she is arguably like “bareyne
lond” and “wilde fyr” (she has no children, and has “consumed” five
husbands). To see the Wife of Bath’s Prologue as being merely an anti-feminist
vehicle would be to ignore the frequent ambiguity that is displayed in the
Prologue as the Wife charms her way through her shameless and yet strangely
winning confession (it should be noted that she is earlier described as having
been “a worthy womman al hir live” in the General Prologue, despite her five
“housbondes” and the knowledge that