The Role of Women in Chaucerian and Shakespearean Literature

It is not difficult to gather the notion that the role of women in European society became increasingly limited as the Middle Ages progressed into the era of the Renaissance, and while there is an abundance of scholarship to support this concept, perhaps the more intriguing evidence for such a claim can be found in comparing the literature of the Middle Ages with that of the Renaissance. In doing so, a focus on the role of women represented by the various female characters of some major literary works of both time periods may provide a-though somewhat linear—deeper understanding of the complexities behind the gender relations in each era and, ultimately, a better look at the ways in which the representations of women in literature throughout history have either changed or remained the same. In this case, an exploration into the works of two major literary figures-that of Geoffrey  Chaucer and William  Shakespeare-will be provided  on the basis of comparing the roles of the female characters in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, resulting, as I hope to demonstrate in the paragraphs to follow, in an analysis which suggests that the role of women, in all of its variance throughout the progression of the Middle Ages into the era of the Renaissance, is central in its encompassment and inclusion of the struggle of women to overcome the imprisonment suffered by them under male control, in all its forms.

In her article “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,” Mary Carruthers provides an interesting analysis of the Wife of Bath, Alisoun, and suggests that it is ultimately the Wife’s extensive experience with marriage, which some may use to condemn her morality in their own analysis of Alisoun’s character, that provides her with the ground to represent the true reality of the institution of marriage in both her prologue and her tale. Carruthers points to Alisoun’s emphasis of the concepts of authority and experience in the first line of her prologue and  suggests that the Wife, because of her marital experience, has a highly developed understanding of the relationship between the concepts of authority and experience within the realms of marriage and gender relations , allowing her to be successful in the sense that she is not only able to acquire a new husband each time her status as a widow is renewed but that she is also completely capable of running the business that is her own life (209-11). In this, Carruthers is referring specifically to the Wife of Bath’s status as a cloth maker in the west of England, meaning, as Carruthers puts it, that “she was engaged in the most lucrative trade possible” (209). Moreover, it is also Carruthers acknowledgement of the notion that being a woman in the time period of the Wife of Bath is a business in itself. She writes that Alisoun’s reference 1 to withholding sex from her husband until he had given her his ransom “may strike us as cynical, vulgar, and immoral, but we must remember that by the standards common to her class Alisoun’s behavior is simply shrewd business” (211). Carruthers continues by suggesting that the readers of the Wife of Bath can safely “assume from her account that she was far too good a business woman to marry a man whose property was encumbered with children or other undesirable  heirs” and that “she has amassed a great deal of land and fee by the time we encounter her on the road to Canterbury” (211). All of these things, of course, point in consensus to the notion that Alisoun has acquired the skills necessary in order to fulfill her role as a woman and achieve what can be called the traditional female success of the Middle Ages and of a majority of time periods throughout history: functioning and profitable marriages.

Carruthers writes that the “traditional medieval” role of women involves the idea “that wives should be humble, obedient, and submissive to their husbands in all things,” but she also makes it clear, as can be seen in the Wife’s prologue and tale, that while women are expected to defer to the authority of their husbands in the Middle Ages, they are only able “to create finally a mutually nourished marital bond truer than any envisioned by the traditionalists” if they are also able to obtain, as Alisoun is, sovereignty within their marriages and authority of their own (209). Evidence for such a position can easily be found throughout the Wife’s prologue and tale, an example of which can be found in these lines:

An housebonde I wol have-I wol nat lette­

Which shal be bothe my detour and my thral,

And hace his tribulacion withal

Upon his flessh, whil that I am his wyf.

I have the power durynge al my lyf

Upon his propre body, and noght he. (154-9)

Here, the Wife of Bath states that she will only have a husband who is willing to do for her as women are expected to do for their husbands during the Middle Ages and beyond: be a servant, more or less. She tells her listeners that she, as a wife, has power over her husband’s body, even more so than he has over it himself, and this is an opinion which is not only radical in terms of Renaissance-era definitions of acceptable roles for women in society, which are generally considered to be more strict than those of the Middle Ages2, but also even in terms of Middle- Age definitions of them. This is evident in the immediate reaction of the Pardoner to the Wife of Bath’s statement, in which the man’s authority seems clearly to be threatened by such a bold statement of power coming from a woman:

I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas!

What sholde I bye it on my flessh so deere?

Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere! (166-8)

After hearing Alisoun’s position, it is clear in these lines that the general consensus of the Pardoner is that it is better to remained unmarried than to suffer the expected fate of all women in the traditional realm of marriage, which is that they must submit their bodies as the property of their husbands under whom they remain in control and in lack of autonomy. Of course, in consideration of the fact that he, as a man, has been socialized to presume that he will obtain the expectedly superior authority that is automatically granted to men upon marrying, it is no surprise that he is somewhat startled by the Wife’s claims.

Allow me to digress for a moment in order to address the fact that Carruthers also writes that “Alisoun’s most amusing darts are not necessarily her most important , for her primary attack in both the prologue and the tale is directed at a body of marital lore held commonly by her own class and articulated most fully in the deportment books written to foster ‘gentilesse'” (211). With this, Carruthers is referring to the notion that the Wife of Bath’s most important statements are the ones specifically attacking the traditional gender roles associated with marriage-“a body of marital lore held commonly”-but, if I may say so lightheartedly , I feel it is necessary to clarify that Alisoun’ s “primary attack” is made up of primarily  those more humorous statements which Carruthers claims are not necessarily Alisoun’s most important but which, ultimately, seem to hold the greater significance. Indeed, the Wife of Bath repeatedly makes somewhat sarcastic and certainly humorous statements about her authority as a wife throughout her prologue, and I would argue that these statements are the ones in which she provides the best examples of the exchange of power required in order for her to achieve the kind of “mutually nourished marital bond truer than any envisioned by the traditionalists” that Carruthers claims she is able to (209). This excerpt provides an example of the humor in the Wife’s speech to which I refer:

I governed hem so wel, after my lawe,

That ech of hem ful blissful was and fawe

To brynge me gaye thynges fro the fayre.

They were ful glad when I spak to hem faire,

For, God it woot, I chidde hem spitously. (219-23)

Not only does the humor of these lines draw attention to Alisoun’s words, but it also adds a sense of irony to her statements in the sense that she is essentially aligning her position with that of a traditionally male perspective in marriage, one which seems in complete control and amused by the servitude of the governed partner, in order to draw attention to both her need for authority within a marital relationship and to the traditionally imbalanced placement of power in the favor of men. This is addressed further in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”

As far as the tale of the Wife of Bath is concerned, a return to the more specific focus of this discussion is required, which is the issue of the role of women as represented by the female characters of the literary works under examination. Much like the prologue, the Wife’s tale suggests the notion that the thing which women both desire and love the most is “to have sovereynetee I As wel over hir housbond as hir love, I And for to been in maistrie hym above” (lines 1038-40). This is most clearly represented in the scene of the tale in which the old woman asks the rapist knight if he would rather have an unattractive and faithful wife or a beautiful and adulterous one, to which he responds by allowing his wife to decide for him, giving her the authority in the marriage and resulting in a happy ending for them both supposedly because they have exchanged power in their relationship and the woman has gained authority over her husband. What the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale say, then, about the role of women is that, although they are always expected to fulfill their traditional expectation of becoming an obedient wife, they are only able to obtain true happiness in their role if they are able to achieve in one form or another an amount of sovereignty in their marriages and authority over their husbands.


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