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Canterbury Tales: Wifes Tale

Powerful Essays
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

In the magical days when England was ruled by King Arthur, a young Knight was riding home when he saw a beautiful young maiden walking all alone in the woods and raped her.

T his outrageous act created a great stir and King Arthur was petitioned for justice. The Knight was condemned to death according to the law and would have been beheaded if the queen had not mediated on his behalf. After many pleas for mercy King Arthur finally told the queen to decide the Knight’s fate. The queen then told the Knight to answer the question what women desire the most in order to save his life. She also gave him a time period of one year to find an answer and appear before her. Seeing no other solution the Knight decided to go in search of the answer. He visited every house and every spot in the country but couldn’t find any two people who agreed on the subject. Some women loved riches and wealth while others loved fine clothes. There were yet others who claimed that they best loved flattery and attentiveness. There were still others who took great delight at being considered as dependable and discreet. In short everybody held a different opinion. The one-year granted to the Knight eventually drew to an end but he had still not found an answer. He rode back home with a heavy heart. On his way he happened to catch a glimpse of twenty-four ladies dancing but they miraculously disappeared when he reached the spot. There was nobody in sight except for an extremely ugly old woman. She asked the Knight, what he was looking for, as she might be able to help him since old women know plenty of things. The Knight explained his predicament. The old woman said that if he would pledge to do the first thing that she required of him then she would give him the correct answer before the night. The Knight promised to grant her a wish and they rode for the Court. The Knight proclaimed that he had found the answer and told the entire court that women most desire to have mastery over their husbands and their lovers. None of the women assembled in the court could contradict the Knight and the queen spared his life. Thereupon the old woman sprang up and told the queen that she had taught the answer to the Knight in exchange for a wish. She now demands, that the Knight marry her and fulfill her wish. The Knight pleads with her to ask for ...

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...hange in behavior (but not in soul) and the hag's transformation into the physical object of desires—are only skin deep. Perhaps she is giving him exactly what he deserves: superficiality.
The Wife begins her tale by depicting the golden age of King Arthur as one that was both more perilous and more full of opportunity for women. Every time a woman traveled alone, the Wife suggests, she was in danger of encountering an incubus, or an evil spirit who would seduce women (880). But the society is also highly matriarchal. After the knight commits a rape, the king hands him over to Arthur's queen, who decides to send him on an educational quest. His education comes through women, and the queen's challenge puts him in a situation where what is traditionally thought of as a shortcoming—a woman's inability to keep a secret—is the only thing that can save him. The Wife's digression about King Midas may also be slightly subversive. Instead of finishing the story, she directs the reader to Ovid. In Ovid's version of the story, the only person who knows about Midas's ass's ears is not his wife but his barber. The wife could, therefore, be slyly trying to point out that men, too, are gossips.
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