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451 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 cours of lawe, and sholde han lolst his heed--
Paraventure swich was the statu tho--
But that the queene and other ladyes mo
SO longe preyeden the kyng of grace
Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place,
And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,
To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille.

B. "I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me
What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren.
Be war, and keep thy nekke-boon from iren!

C. And in his wey it happed hym to ryde,
In al this care, under a forest syde,
Wher as he saught upon a daunce go
Of ladyes foure and twenty, and yet mo;
Toward the whiche daunce he drow ful yerne,
In hope that som wysdom sholde he lerne.
But certeinly, er he cam fully there,
Vanyssed was this daunce, he nyste 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. "Chese now," quod she, "oon of thise thynges tweye:
To han me foul and old til that I deye,
And be to yow a trewe, humble wyf,
And nevere yow displese in al my lyf,
Or elles ye han me yong and faire,
And take youre aventure of the repair
That shal be to youre hous by cause of me."

F. "My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governance:
Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance
ANd moost honour to yow and me also.
I do no fors the wheither of the two,
For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me."

G. "Kys me," quod she, "we be no lenger wrothe,"
For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe--
This is seyne, ye, bothe fair and good."

H. "And Jhesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke,yonge, and fressh abedde,
And grace t'overbyde hem that we wedde:
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves."


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