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201 Study Questions for Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale

Vocabulary: Breton lai, court of love, satire, fairy-tale, court of love, rash boon, incubus


Lecture or Handouts: Who were the Bretons? What is a lay or lai? How is the Wife of Bath's Tale a story of psychological wish fulfillment? What is an incubus?

Identify the following characters:

  • The maiden walking through the corn
  • The Lusty Bachelor Knight
  • King Arthur
  • Queen Gwenevere
  • The 24 Dancing Maidens
  • The Old Hag

Reading Questions:

  • When is this tale set? (i.e., during the mythic reign of what king?)
  • According to the Wife of Bath, why can't people see elves any more? What has driven them out of their natural habitat?
  • What does the Wife of Bath mean when she states, "There is no other incubus than he [the friar]"?
  • What happens to the maid riding alone through the corn?
  • What crime does the lusty bachelor commit? What is "maidenhead"? [Hint: This does not mean he decapitated the girl, as some students have mistakenly declared.]
  • What is the initial punishment King Arthur orders for the knight? Who intervenes and requests a special trial?
  • Who is in charge of this special trial for the rapist knight?
  • What must the knight do to save his head (i.e., what mission does the court give him)?
  • How long does the Knight have to fulfill this mission? How is this similar or different than the time alloted to Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
  • What problem does the Knight find when he starts asking women what the want?
  • Which of the following items listed is NOT a response given by women when he asks them the question?
    • Riches,
    • Fame,
    • Prettiness,
    • Rich Array (fine clothes),
    • Lust Abed (pleasure in bed),
    • Widowhood,
    • Re-marriage,
    • Flattery,
    • Attentions (attentiveness),
    • Leisure from work,
    • Being free to do what they want,
    • Being held constant and trustworthy
  • What strange sight does the knight see while riding through the forest on his return journey?
  • What do the twenty-four women do or what happens to them as the knight approaches?
  • What does the Old Hag say she wants in return for providing the answer to the knight's riddle? (Hint: She doesn't tell the knight she wants to marry him.)
  • What is the Queen and the court's reaction to the knight's answer?
  • What are the wedding celebrations like when the knight marries the hag? (trick question!)
  • What does the hag teach the young knight about nobility in her lecture? What makes a person "noble" or "gentle" according to her?
  • What defense does the hag provide for her poverty and her ugliness? Why are these advantages, according to her?
  • What two options does the hag present to the knight?
  • Which of these two options does the knight pick (trick question!)
  • How does the hag's appearance change at the end of the story?

Food for thought: How does the Tale of the Wife of Bath connect to her message in her prologue? How does the Tale connect to the portrait of the Wife in the General Prologue? How might her story be a type of wish-fulfillment for the aging? How does the Hag's transformation externally match or mirror an internal transformation of the rapist knight who earlier gave no respect to women's wishes?

Passages for identification:

A. By course of law, [he] should have lost his head,
Peradventure, such being the statute then;
But that the other ladies and the queen
So long prayed of the king to show him grace,
He granted life, at last, in the law's place,
And gave him to the queen, as she should will,
Whether she'd save him, or his blood should spill.

B. "I'll grant you life if you can tell to me
What thing it is that women most desire.
Be wise, and keep your neck from iron dire!"

C. "And there he saw, a-dancing him before,
Full four and twenty ladies, maybe more;
Toward which dance eagerly did he turn
In hope that there some wisdom he should learn.
But truly ere he came upon them there,
The dancers vanished all, he knew not where."

D. "O my dear husband, ben'cite!
Fares every knight with wife as you with me?
Is this the custom in King Arthur's house?
Are knights of his all so fastidious?
I am your own true love, and more, your wife;
And I am she who saved your very life."

E. "Choose, now," said she, "one of these two things, aye,
To have me foul and old until I die,
And be to you a true and humble wife,
And never anger you in all my life;
Or else to have me young and very fair
And take your chance with those who will repair
Unto your house, and all because of me."

F. "My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
I put myself in your wise governing;
Do you choose which may be the more pleasing,
And bring most honour to you, and me also.
I care not which it be of these things two;
For if you like it, that suffices me."


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