A Level English: Lady in Red- Chaucer’s Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath's portrait

Credit: Sir Peter Leley

The Wife of Bath seems to leap out of the page from the moment that she is introduced by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. This fine stocking wearing, five wedded wife is as conspicious as the shield-sized hat she wears. We are drawn to this striking figure, curious to know, among many other things, the stories of her five marriages. The question who is she?” soon becomes overrun by our anticipation at hearing what she might have to tell.

The portrait Chaucer gives us of the Wife of Bath serves as a sort of indication as to the kind of person we will soon hear more about. Certainly, we are probably right in being wary of the sharp spurs she wears on her feet…

The Wife of Bath's portrait

Immediately after Chaucer describes the Wife to us, we get the impression that she likely has a compelling story up her sleeves to tell. Whether you are eager at the possibility of hearing more about her adventures on pilgrimages, or interested in finding out if she will give us details about her several marriages, we are, ultimately, more than a little bit excited to hear her prologue and tale. The vividness of Chaucer’s description of the Wife prepares us for the unashamedly loquacious speaker we will soon meet. Later, we might not blame the other pilgrims for being at least a little bit afraid of her. As her prologue unfolds, the Wife’s promise that she will ”Welcome the sixte [husband], whan that evere he shall” sounds less like the words of a liberal lover, and more like a warning to the other male pilgrims.

The colourful and striking way the Wife of Bath is presented by Chaucer continues well into her prologue, until the very end of her tale. By the time she has finished speaking, love her or hate her, certainly, we cannot ignore her. She is a valuable contribution to what would become one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of English literature.

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