In the Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, various women, such as the Queen and the old hag, stake their claim to authority over men. Yet, they do so in a very covert manner. The knight has clearly abused his male power. He is a rapist. With the help of women, however, he is rehabilitated and seems to achieve the ultimate happiness. When these women support the feminist viewpoint that women should have mastery over their husbands, they are also echoing the sentiments the Wife of Bath presents in her prologue. Yet, these women abandon mastery the moment they attain it. The old hag relinquishes mastery back to her husband immediately after he grants it to her, from that point on she obeys his every command. This ending could be a type of female servitude or it could be a mutually beneficial, blissful marriage and partnership. For this reason, the Wife of Bath’s Tale sends a mixed message about feminism.
The tale begins with a violent act of male aggression and dominance. The knight rapes a young virgin. This rape is about more than his being a “lusty bacheler” (Chaucer l. 889). It is about power. “He sawgh a maide walking him biforn; / Of which maide anoon, maugree hir heed, / By verray force he rafte hir maidenheed” (Chaucer l. 892). The knight is not merely carried away by his sexual instincts. He sees a woman he covets and takes her by force because he has the power and she does not. This violent rape demonstrates the knight’s initial attitude towards women and his need for rehabilitation.
Queen takes over the knight’s punishment for raping the young girl. Instead of death she provides the potential for rehabilitatio...
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...re for the most part consistent with her tale. All this suggests a feminist interpretation of the tale. And yet there is the matter of the ending. In every sense of the word the hag submits. She feels she has gained her mastery and then she relinquish it. Does she do so in favor of a mutually blissful marriage or to conform to patriarchal ideals? Perhaps Chaucer and the Wife of Bath are suggesting that male rehabilitation and female dominance are only necessary up to a point. Once the knight and the hag achieve a shared understanding they are able to coexist. Or perhaps in the very end both Chaucer and the Wife of Bath acknowledge that this kind of understanding is sheer fantasy and the Wife cruses the couple for good luck and protection. With both these valid possibilities, the tale presents a mixed message about the place of feminism and female authority.
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