The Wife of Bath’s Prologue by Geoffrey Chaucer
The prologue is a narration of the Wife of Bath’s vibrant marriagelife. The experiences she has had as a married woman gives herconsiderable power to speak about marriage challenges. Having beenmarried five times, she is incapable of comprehending Christ’sdismissal of the Samaritan woman. Similar to the Wife of Bath, theSamaritan has had five men. In her defense, she is quick to note thatthe Bible is unclear concerning how many times one may marry. Sheenhances her defense by quoting the marriage of holy men in the Biblethat have married more than once. The sentiments are expressed inlines 1-40 of the prologue. The essay is an analysis of the form andmeaning of lines 1-40 of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.
Form and Meaning
The prologue demonstrates a conflict between males and femalesconcerning marriage.1It also focuses on the role of religion. The main character is awoman, who has been married five times. As the prologue begins, thereader notes that her marriages raise questions as to whethermarrying more than once is are acceptable. This shapes the charactersnarration as to why she thinks her marriage is justified. There arereferences to the Bible, depicting the influence religion has in thedecisions The Wife makes. Although she feels that since individualslike Solomon have done the same, it is apparent that society refutessuch behavior. The prologue intends at depicting a society, which isguided by its religious beliefs. However, controversy arises becausethe beliefs seem to favor men and not women. Men are free to marry asmany women as they desire, yet when a woman marries more than oneman, her morality is questioned.
The prologue is a confessional genre. In ethical plays where severalgood qualities are embodied by characters given names like, Hope,Greed, Fortitude or Lust, the wicked characters could admit theirevils as a manner of alerting the audience about their sins. Theprologue borrows the confessional aspect, because on numerousinstances the wife admits to engaging in behavior that is ethicallyquestionable, such as lust. The prologue is also a sermon genre. Onnumerous instances, the wife defends her behavior by referring tobible verses, which support remarrying. For instance, she refers tothe wise king Solomon noting that he had many wives, which God seemsto have permitted during the Biblical period.
Chaucer utilizes rhyming iambic couplets. The habitual metre has thebenefit of being rather close to the normal speech rhythms, which issignificant because Chaucer targets viewers instead of the reader.The perceptions depicted in the lines are not essentially comprisedin the couplet, as frequent as the sense crosses over to thesubsequent line. In case a couplet is stopped through punctuation,the perception is renewed and expounded through conjunctions. Thisprovides flow to the prologue. Chaucer employs adjectival inflexion.This is apparent in phrases like “The firste nyght hadde” and“and that ilke man” where the adjective modifies a proper noun.2The ‘e’ is included where the adjective comes before a definitearticle.
There are diverse types of vocabulary in the prologue. Chaucerselects his words carefully with the intention of captivating theaudience. For instance, the initial word ‘experience’ isrelevant. The wife intends to disclose her experience, which is aperfect choice of word to begin the play. It introduces the viewer tothe themes in the play, which includes learning about the life of TheWife. The prologue also uses a vocabulary of mathematical terms. Forinstance when The Wife states that God commands us to increase andmultiply. Increase and multiply in this case referring to marrying asmany times as one desires and having children. Another illustrationis use of the phrases ‘bigamye’ and ‘octogamye’ to referfigures, or numbers of marriage partners.
In lines 1-40, Chaucer uses occupatio on one instance. The prologueintroduces the story of the Samaritan and Jesus’ declaration thatthe fifth husband does not belong to the Samaritan.3The Wife says that she cannot explain what Jesus meant. However, inthe subsequent lines she progresses to question how many husbands oneshould have in marriage. This means that she understands what Jesusmeant, and that the statement was made because the Samaritan was notmarried to the fifth man. She draws the audience’s attention bypretending not to understand when one is said to have a husband andlater explain that it happens after marriage.
Chaucer uses an emphatic and exuberant tone. The Wife adores life aswell as its pleasures, and her passion is apparent in the exuberanttome.4For instance, from line 35, she envisions Solomon’s wedding nights.She does not conceal her pleasure and progresses to relate hishappiness to hers. She notes that if it is the will of God, shedesires to be allowed the same refreshment as Solomon. The same toneis apparent at the beginning of the prologue when she outwardlythanks God for having had five men. It is apparent that the characterfinds pleasure in remembering her sexual exploits.5It may be difficult to buy in her morals, yet her enthusiasm isalmost convincing into believing that what she does is right.Emphasis is also apparent in the character’s tone. She adds wordsin her communication, which stress on what she is saying.Illustrations include phrases like ‘Herkne eek’ translated to ‘Loand behold’ to stress her shock on the suggestion that she shouldnot have married five men, but one. Another phrase is ‘God bade’,which she employs as her witness. Using a witness emphasizes thatwhat she says may be true or correct.
The prologue is in direct speech where the narrator communicates infirst person. The character narrates her personal experiences inmarriage. The Wife is outspoken and honest, outwardly admittingissues that an individual regarded as morally upright would be slowto disclose. She outwardly declares her interest is sex as often aspossible. She is directly communicating to her listeners, tellingthem what she thinks about marriage. By using her personal experienceall through the introductory lines of the prologue, it is obviousthat she is employing the first person. The prologue is in bothdirect authorial and narratorial addresses to its audience. Directauthorial addresses are apparent when the narrator asserts that oneshould be allowed to marry as many times as they desire. In line 25,she notes that God has permitted us to marry and multiply. Sheprogresses to note that men should not judge women based on marriagechoices, as there are no restrictive laws concerning the issue, tofollow. Direct narratorial addresses are apparent in the beginninglines where she narrates how many husbands have married her inchurch.
Beidler, Peter G., and Elizabeth M. Biebel. Chaucer`s Wife ofBath`s prologue and tale: an annotated bibliography, 1900 to 1995.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: CUPArchive, 1980.
Cook, Robert. Another Biblical Echo in the Wife of Bath`s Prologue?English Studies 59, no. 5 (October 1978): 390-394.
Horobin, Simon. The language of the Chaucer tradition.Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
1 Geoffrey, Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, (Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1980), 118.
2 Simon Horobin, The language of the Chaucer tradition (Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2003), 97-99.
3 Robert Cook, Another Biblical Echo in the Wife of Bath`s Prologue? English Studies 59, no. 5 (October 1978): 392.
4 Peter Beidler and Biebel Elizabeth, Chaucer`s Wife of Bath`s prologue and tale: an annotated bibliography, 1900 to 1995, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 39.
5 Peter Beidler and Biebel Elizabeth, Chaucer`s Wife of Bath`s prologue and tale: an annotated bibliography, 1900 to 1995, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 40.