My student is writing about Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” (part of The Canterbury Tales). I’ve written before about the Prologue to the Tale and what my students think of the Wife herself; the Tale itself presents one of the Arthurian legends and gives us an understanding of the Wife’s definition of “what women want.”
According to the story, a young knight more full of self than courtesy encounters a young woman in the woods and decides to have his way with her (droit de seigneur). She accuses him of rape, and he is taken before King Arthur for judgment and sentencing. The King would kill him; but Queen Guinevere and her ladies, perhaps taken by his youth or good looks (shame on them!), persuade Arthur to set him a quest instead, and so he is given a year to find the answer to the question “What do women want?” If he succeeds, he will be free to go; if he fails, he will be executed. A year of wandering and questioning everyone he comes across gives him too many answers, none definitive; the deadline looms on the day that lo and behold! he sees a ring of lovely maidens dancing in a clearing in the woods, but when he approaches them they vanish, leaving nothing but an old (and of course ugly) hag. With a sigh and a shrug he asks her the Question, and she agrees to give him The Answer on condition that on his successful appearance before the Queen he will grant her a request. At court he offers the hag’s answer: Women want maisterye. This term has been translated variously but seems to mean power over their own lives (and perhaps power over their spouses as well). Guinevere and the ladies pronounce his answer correct, and he is freed. His joy is short-lived, however: the hag’s request is that he marry her. His consent shows that he is in fact a man of some honor. But once they are married, he refuses to perform in the marriage bed; she is simply too repulsive for a handsome young man such as himself. Finally she offers him a choice: she will be faithful and a good wife in every way but as ugly as he sees her now, or she will be young and beautiful but definitely not faithful to him. We see that he has taken her wisdom to heart when he answers: “You choose.” And so of course, happily-ever-after, she makes her choice: she will be faithful and young, beautiful and skilled in the homemaking department. That, after all, is what she wants.
You, dear reader, have been so patient, awaiting the completion of my student’s statement, so here it is:
“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found to be the heroic jester in this story.”
Was it the Days of Yore and kingly setting that suggested a jester, or was it my student’s ignorance of the word “gesture”? Heroism aside, yes, what he has done can be called a “gesture,” in the sense of “geste,” behavior, action, or comportment. The word “gesture” can apply to physical motions that convey thoughts or emotions, or actions intended as formal indications of courtesy in order to impress or persuade, and clearly “gesture,” perhaps in both these senses, is the word he meant. I hold onto the hope that he was being sincere, though, not merely making a gesture—heroic or otherwise.
I certainly hope the knight didn’t intend it as a joke, a bit of merriment, a royal entertainment, the stock-in-trade of jesters.
And I hope my student will someday learn the difference between an heroic action and a comic ploy. Otherwise, I fear his own relationships in the romance department are doomed.