Mastery in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Mastery in The Wife of Bath's Prologue

There are a number of ways in which the struggle for dominance is fought through the Wife's many marriages. The struggle for mastery is important in:

  • Control of money and property (see Synopses and commentary > Part seven for lines 308 - 310
  • Control of the body (see Synopses and commentary > Part three for lines 154- 159
  • Issues concerning restraint and licence (see Synopses and commentary > Part seven for lines 314 - 322
  • The use of deception (see Synopses and commentary > Part eight for lines 380 - 394
  • Dispute and resolution (see Synopses and commentary > Part sixteen for lines 787 – the end. 

It is a struggle between the sexes, in which males exercise more control indoors but have less power outside. 

Mastery in The Wife of Bath's Tale

The issue of mastery in The Wife of Bath's Tale is key to resolving the plot:

  • The Knight's quest is to discover what women most desire
  • The Knight has to give up his freedom for a year and a day under the judgement of the Queen to discover the answer
  • The Old Woman gives him the answer he needs, but he has to submit to her terms to obtain it
  • He will be obliged to fulfil her first request of him. Unfortunately for him, she wants him - and she wants all of him
  • She presents him with a choice of having her foul, old but faithful until the end of her life, or beautiful, young and fair with the possibility that she will dishonour him.

The Knight, after much thought, concedes mastery to the Old Woman by offering her the choice. She has the sovereignty that women most desire, but she acts in the marriage to please him and obey him in everything which will bring him pleasure. Having gained mastery, she seems to return it to Knight again. Interpretation is difficult here – are we looking at a return to male dominance or a recognition of the need for mutual agreements within marriage?

Investigating mastery and sovereignty in the Wife's Prologue and Tale

  • The Wife's victory at the end of The Prologue is to achieve mastery of the household and control of her husband's speech and reading. In return, she claims that she acts kindly towards him
    • Think about her emphasis on ‘maistrye' and ‘soverayntee' in lines 811-18
    • Write these words down on a slip of paper and make connections with their appearance in her tale.
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