The Wife of Bath Tale written by Geoffrey Chaucer is based in medieval times, when husbands have complete control over their wives, and so women struggled for power. The Wife of Bath tells a story describing a knight who goes on a journey to learn about a woman’s greatest desire after he rapes a young maiden. By the end of one year he must have the answer and understand women to avoid being beheaded. In the tale the author explores the idea of women being unable to keep power and thus giving men dominance and authority over them. When first reading The Wife of Bath’s Tale it is easy to assume that it is a medieval piece about feminism. For example, when the king condemns the knight to lose his head after his act of violence, the queen and other ladies ‘Implored the king to exercise his grace. So ceaselessly, he gave the queen the case’ (lines 71-72). This kind of behaviour was very uncommon back in those times as men were shown to be the more dominant sex and had the say on matters. Thus, this act could be perceived as giving women power over a matter and that their opinions are respected and worth something.
However, some readers may argue that this highlights the power dynamics between men and women in the tale. This is because the queen has to ask permission to be allowed to change the punishment given. In addition, the interaction shows the reader the inequality in authority between the king and queen. Not only does she have to request this, but the queen has to show her gratitude ‘the queen returned him thanks with all her might’ (line 75). This suggests that the queen feels as though she has to show the king how thankful she is, which tells the reader she is inferior to him. In addition, the queen is given the opportunity to come up with her own punishment for the knight she ultimately gives the knight a much lighter sentence than the crime deserves. This is a prime example of a woman being given power but losing it and giving the men the upper hand. Consequently, the knight is given a generous year to find an answer to a question. The reader doesn’t see this as being a punishment, but a reward as he has the opportunity to escape his beheading. Therefore, the queen is giving the man much generosity, especially for a woman who would be offended by his crime. This signifies the struggle that the queen faces when directly given power and authority. From the beginning of The Wife of Bath’s Tale we learn that it is set in a mythological place ‘a land brim-full of fairy folk’ (line 33). The readers first reaction to this is that it’s fictional and has come from someone’s wide imagination. Therefore, straight away it suggests that women with power cannot exist in reality.
The writer continues his description of the fictional land describing mystical creatures ‘The Elf-Queen and her courtiers joined and broke their elfin dance on many a green mead’ (line 34-35). This repeats the idea of a mythological setting which makes us question whether this non-existent land is too good to be true and so a women’s portrayal of power is not legitimate in the story. Towards the end of the tale, the old woman is given the power to decide what kind of wife she would like to be ‘to have me old and ugly till I die, but still a loyal, true and humble wife that will displease you all her life, or would you rather I were young and pretty’ (lines 396-7,8,9). Even though the woman explains why staying old and ugly will give the knight a ‘loyal, true and humble wife’ (line 397), she decides to give the power back to him and satisfy her husband. In doing so she becomes ‘both fair and faithful as a wife’ (line 417), which signals her turn into a beautiful, young woman. Doing so satisfies and pleases her husband, which is another example of women doing what their husbands prefer and gifting them the power and authority. Furthermore, the young maiden who was raped at the start of the tale by the knight was forgotten entirely through the piece. If Chaucer was writing a feminist perspective, typically the girl would be one of the main presences and would be portrayed as being strong and resilient. Instead, the knight who committed ‘This act of violence’ (line 65), was made the main character and became a somewhat hero. He was never properly punished for his crimes and at the end of the tale he is rewarded with a young, beautiful wife. This highlights the power that men have, because he was able to get away with a crime without any justifiable punishment.
In The Wife of Bath Tale women are unable to keep or maintain power. Chacuer highlights to the reader that men have supremacy, by women constantly losing power and giving it back to them. The period of the tale reiterates common beliefs and opinions of how women were seen as weak objects and accustomed to being dominated and told what to do by their husbands.