Chaucer's Wife of Bath

Perhaps the best-known pilgrim in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is Alisoun, the Wife of Bath. The Wife's fame derives from Chaucer's deft characterization of her as a brassy, bawdy woman—the very antithesis of virtuous womanhood—who challenges the prevailing antifeminism of the times. Yet Chaucer never fully lets on whether she is the object of satire, the instrument of its delivery, or perhaps a combination of both.

This lesson helps students understand the complexities of the Wife of Bath's character and the rhetoric of her argument by exploring the various ways in which Chaucer crafts a persona for her. Students begin by familiarizing themselves with the framing narrative of The Canterbury Tales and the language in which the Tales were written: Middle English. Next, students read Chaucer's description of the Wife in the "General Prologue" to consider how he represents her, both in his role as the poet of The Canterbury Tales and as a character in his own poem. Next, students read the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," where Chaucer has the Wife speak for herself, to gain additional perspective on her character. Students then examine several primary source documents written about women and marriage in order to understand the context in which the Wife presents her argument. Finally, students read the "Wife of Bath's Tale" and explore the alternative readings of the tale in relation to the character of the Wife of Bath.

Guiding Questions

What attitude toward women and marriage does Chaucer convey through the character of the Wife of Bath?

How does this view compare to attitudes toward women and marriage that prevailed in medieval society?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to: Analyze Chaucer's characterization of the Wife of Bath

Identify attitudes toward women and marriage in 14th-Century England

Read an excerpt of Chaucer in Middle English

Explain how the tale told by the Wife of Bath reflects on both her character and on Chaucer's view of marriage and women