“Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.”
The tale the Wife of Bath tells about the transformation of an old hag into a beautiful maid was quite well known in folk legend and poetry. One of Chaucer’s contemporaries, the poet John Gower, wrote a version of the same tale that was very popular in Chaucer’s time. But whereas the moral of the folk tale of the loathsome hag is that true beauty lies within, the Wife of Bath arrives at such a conclusion only incidentally. Her message is that, ugly or fair, women should be obeyed in all things by their husbands.
The old hag might be intended to represent the Wife of Bath herself, at least as she would like others to see her. Though the hag has aged, she is capable of displaying all of the vigor and inner beauty of her youth if the right man comes along, just as the Wife did with her fifth and favorite husband, the youthful Jankyn. Although the old hag becomes a beautiful young woman in response to the young knight’s well-timed response, it is unclear whether he truly had enough respect for the old woman that he allowed her to choose for herself, or whether he had simply learned how to supply her with the correct answer.
If we agree with the former, we may see the Wife as an idealistic character who believes that bad men can change. If we choose the latter, the Wife becomes a much more cynical character, inclined to mistrust all men. In the second interpretation, both transformations—the knight’s shallow change in behavior (but not in soul) and the hag’s transformation into the physical object of desires—are only skin deep. Perhaps she is giving him exactly what he deserves: superficiality.
The Wife begins her tale by depicting the golden age of King Arthur as one that was both more perilous and more full of opportunity for women. Every time a woman traveled alone, the Wife suggests, she was in danger of encountering an incubus, or an evil spirit who would seduce women (880). But the society is also highly matriarchal. After the knight commits a rape, the king hands him over to Arthur’s queen, who decides to send him on an educational quest. His education comes through women, and the queen’s challenge puts him in a situation where what is traditionally thought of as a shortcoming—a woman’s inability to keep a secret—is the only thing that can save him. The Wife’s digression about King Midas may also be slightly subversive. Instead of finishing the story, she directs the reader to Ovid. In Ovid’s version of the story, the only person who knows about Midas’s ass’s ears is not his wife but his barber. The wife could, therefore, be slyly trying to point out that men, too, are gossips.