The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is a section from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which he began writing in about 1387 but never completed. The wife of Bath’s tale is the first of a group of seven known to many critics (such as G. L. Kittredge states in his essay ‘Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage’) as the ‘Marriage Group’. The other characters included in this group include the Wife, the Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire and the Franklin.
Like the Wife’s tale, all deal with the subject of authority, but the Wife deals directly with where the authority lies and more importantly to her how it is exercised in married life. The Wife of Bath’s section of the tales deviates from the structure of the others; the prologue is much larger than that of the actual tale. Like many of the other characters, the Wife’s prologue and tale parallel each other in themes and ideas raised.
In this case the relationship between the prologue and the tale is exposed through the theme of power and authority. The Wife of Bath as a character is a strong minded, forceful vivacious and worldly. She also at times she can be vulgar, for example when describing the use of genitalia she says ‘That they were maked for purgation/ Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale’. As I will explore later the wife uses some rhetorical methods to explain her points of authority in what she is saying,.
Therefore she seems predominantly to be a very honest person, with her revelations of gaining power over her first three husbands through emotional blackmail, sex, and the provocation of their guilt. This said, her account reveals a discrepancy between what we suspect to truth and what she says to her audience so that they can base their opinion of her, and although she does characterise herself more fully than any other pilgrim, one could argue that her sometimes confused nature and lack of coherence makes her self-portrait less plausible.
This leads us to two different readings of the attitude of the Wife of Bath towards marriage. In one reading we can see (as critic Beverly Kennedy states) ‘clerical asceticism, misogyny and misogamy’ and the other by a more popular and positive attitude towards sex, women and the institution of marriage. We can see many examples of misogamy with the language the Wife uses. For example, in lines 172 -174 she states ‘And whan that I have toold thee forth my tale/ Of tribulacion in mariage,/ Of which I am expert in al myn age’.
By describing marriage as a ‘tribulacion’ we can see her negative attitude towards it. We can also see the positive comments made by the Wife to the institution of marriage. She see’s marriage as a type of economical exchange between sex and materialism and as cold-hearted and scheming as she may seem towards her earlier husbands she has indeed been in and felt love as we see in lines 513 – 514; ‘I trowe I loved hym best, for that he/ Was of his love daungerous to me. ‘
The theme of authority manifests itself in several ways throughout the prologue and tale. One theme of authority is explored within the very opening of the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and that is her authority to explain the ‘wo that is in mariage’ due to her extensive personal experience. She says ‘Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, is right ynogh for me/ To speke of wo that is in mariage’. We can see from these opening lines her thoughts of marriage are negative (‘wo that is in mariage’).
She enforces her claim that experience gives her the authority to explain these woes by forms of persuasive argument, a rhetorical device she feels she needs to use in order to persuade her audience she is the authority she claims to be. For example, within lines 4 – 6 she says ‘For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,/ Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,/ Housbondes at chirche dore I have had five’. By stating that her first marriage was at the age of twelve and that she has been married five times so early within her prologue she is justifying self-proclaimed experience, hitherto her authority.