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It's amazing to think that someone writing over 600 years ago can still make a modern audience laugh - and yet we shouldn't be surprised. Human nature rarely changes. Chaucer was the medieval equivalent of "Have I Got News for You" or "Spitting Image", provocative and challenging in the issues he tackled, whilst making fun of the 'personalities' he came across. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" is a prime example of this talent.
Different to the other tales in that the prologue itself forms the bulk of what she has to say, the Wife's contribution is a 'one-off'. She scarcely draws breath in the act of delivering her 'sermon' on marriage - a neat mixture of autobiography and her own personal slant on the bible. She believes that men receive their rewards only when they hand over control or "maistrie" to their wives, but ends up suggesting, albeit unwittingly, that happiness comes through mutual acquiescence and "gentilesse". This is a theme that will be taken up by the Franklin later. Her tale connects with others in debating the roles of the sexes particularly in marriage. It would be worth your while reading the tales of the Clerk, Merchant, Franklin and Lawyer in translation.
The church taught that virginity was the highest state. Sex, provided that it was between married persons, for the procreation of children and at designated times was to be tolerated. The wife certainly doesn't hold with this view. Moreover, the lowly status of women is not something that sits easily on her shoulders. They were considered to be either like Eve - sinful and out to corrupt men, or the Virgin Mary - perfect, chaste and unattainable. (The inclusion of the Prioress and the Wife in the list of pilgrims demonstrates where women were able to have some influence at the time however - in trade or in the church.)
Chaucer uses her to satirise both male and female attitudes to marriage, sex and dominance. Her common sense comments carry us along with her. She stands above all for life. Love her or loathe her, you can't fail to notice her and, despite her faults our reaction is one of laughter rather than anger.
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