Close Reading of the Prologue
To begin with, take your class through a close reading of the Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale. This activity will involve reading what the Wife of Bath is saying, in order to get a gauge on the expectations for women at that time.
Ask your students to point out contradictions in the Wife of Bath’s argument as the prologue wears on. Successful answers will include the acceptance of polygamy in the Old Testament, followed by the praise of virginity in the New Testament; the Wife of Bath’s self-claimed insatiable appetite when it comes to sex, in contrast with her assertion that she only has sex with men to get money.
Another contradiction could include the ideal of romantic love and marriage, in contrast with the abusive relationships the Wife of Bath had with her first three husbands. Since her first marriage happened at the age of twelve, one could consider that sexual abuse of her. However, if you notice how she would rail at her husbands and accuse them of whatever accusations wandered into her mind, so that they would give her what she wanted. There seems to be very little of bliss in what she describes of the wedded state.
Connecting the Wife of Bath to Modern Times
Have your students bring in articles from magazines and online sources with advice for women in their relationships with men. NOTE: You will want to give your students careful instructions as to which sources are appropriate (particularly online) before letting students begin the assignment — in fact, depending on your school’s policies, you may not want to offer the online option at all. It’s much better to err on the side of caution and keep your name out of the paper!
However, even in juvenile publications like Seventeen, advice articles exist that portray some of the same contradictions that appear in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Encourage your students to stay away from articles about the physical aspect of the relationship, focusing instead on what women should do to attract men.
Now, have your students do individual close readings of these articles, looking for similarities between the rhetorical argument of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and your articles. Your students will find articles telling women to appear assertive but to remain acquiescent; to act aggressive in getting male attention but then retreat and be the passive partner once the attention arrives. Your students will find articles with pictures showing women as an ideal model who are so skinny that their bones stick out in an unhealthy way.
Have your students do a Venn diagram, comparing and contrasting one of the articles that they brought in with the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. How has the view of women, then, changed in the past 1,000 years?
Another extension activity using these articles could be a class-wide debate. Topics could include the following:
- Do romantic advice columns give women advice that limits their individuality and autonomy?
- Do the visual representations of women in magazines like Seventeen and Vogue honor the important strengths of women?
- Have relationships between men and women changed fundamentally since the time of Chaucer?
Writing Prompts for Students
These written responses offer several options when putting together a Wife of Bath activity.
- Why do men both pursue and reject women with the relational history and/or perceived desire for physical contact similar to that of the Wife of Bath?
- When it comes to the ways that men and women interact, what is the difference between attention and respect? Which does the Wife of Bath seek?
- The Pardoner stops the Wife of Bath in the middle of her Prologue and tells her that he fears marriage because he does not want his wife to become like the Wife of Bath. What advice would you have given him? Why?