Wife of Bath
The ideas and theories which the Wife of Bath provides in her prologue demonstrate many of the same ideas and theories displayed in her tale. Although in her tale there are a few idealistic changes. In both the prologue and the tale, women start off as empowered beings. At the end of the prologue the Wife of Bath ends up being in a demeaning position yet the end of the tale may be interpreted in two ways. One of the first points brought up in both the prologue and tale is the idea that sex is meant for reproduction and is used as justification in situations which society frowns upon.
In the prologue, the Wife of Bath argues that having five husbands is not wrong because God wants men and women to reproduce. This justifies her being promiscuous, although there is never mention of her actually having children. Her tale begins explaining that in past times when incubi would rape a woman it was more acceptable because they would always get the woman pregnant. During King Arthur’s time however, when a friar would rape a woman it would just cause the woman dishonor and therefore is completely unacceptable.
This is why when the Knight, in the Wife of Bath’s tale, rapes a maiden, King Arthur is outraged and wants to decapitate him. Although the King wants to decapitate the Knight, the King’s wife wants to give the Knight a second chance which the King allows. This displays an idealistic view that the King is obedient to his wife showing that women in the tale are dominant in marriage. The Wife of Bath in her prologue also tries to depict women as being dominant through her explanations of her first three husbands. She claimed to have complete control of her husbands and gained this control through manipulation and sex.
Manipulating men to gain control in a relationship is also a strong theme in both the prologue and tale. The Wife of Bath, in her prologue, not only explains how she uses manipulation to gain control of her husbands but also brags about it. In her tale the Knight is given a year to find the answer to the question: what do women want most? Nearing the end of the year he has not found the answer but comes upon a ‘hag’ who has the answer. She agrees to share the answer with him but makes him promise to give himself to her as compensation.
The hag, in the tale, making the Knight give her something for a simple answer coincides with the idea in the prologue that everything has a price. In the prologue, the Wife of Bath believes strongly that everything has a price, including marriage. She feels as though she fully understands the economy of marriage and has used her assets to the full extent. She explains how she used her body to gain power and wealth. In the prologue she explains that she is aware that one day her looks will go and she will no longer be able to use her body for profit.
Although once this happens, she plans and hopes to use her mind to attract and manipulate men which is exactly what the hag in the tale accomplished. The hag succeeded in using her mind to trap the Knight into marriage even though once he got what he wanted from her he wanted to throw her away. Although throughout most of the tale the Wife of Bath is best compared to the hag, in the sense of dismissing someone once you have gotten what you want from them she is quite similar to the Knight.
In the tale, the Knight avoided having his head cut off by answering the King’s wife with ‘women want to be in charge of their husbands. ’ This is the answer which the old hag had given him. After being given his freedom, the Knight then begged the hag to accept something other than marriage as payment, but she refused and they were soon married. On the wedding night the Knight was quite unhappy about the situation so the hag gives him the choice of having her either be ugly and loyal or beautiful an unfaithful. The Knight replies by saying that he trusts her judgment and that the decision is up to her.
The hag decides to be beautiful, faithful, and obedient because the Knight had given her authority and control of him which is apparently what all women want the most. The major connection between the hag in the tale and the Wife of Bath from the prologue is that you are lead to believe that the Wife of Bath hopes to be the hag, in the sense that once she is old and her body has aged she will be able to attract, or manipulate men with her mind and that if the right man comes along she will be able to reveal her inner beauty and her body and looks will return to her.
The Wife of Bath’s prologue and her tale both begin with women being powerful and men being submissive and both continue to be quite similar in terms of desire and love although at the end of the prologue you find that the roles between men and woman have reversed you are not sure if this is the case or not by the end of the tale.
The ending to the tale can be interpreted that either the hag in fact changed the Knight from being the shallow person he was which opposed to the idea of the prologue, or you can believe that the Knight simply played the hag by pretending to give her what she wanted knowing that he would be able to get his way in the end. This idea would coincide with the prologue’s pessimistic ending.