The Wife of Bath: Standup Comic
By Margaret Rogerson
Sydney Studies in English, Vol. 24 (1998)
Abstract: In this article I argue that the prologue to The Wife of Bath’s Tale is also an exercise in carnival, and that rather than being a true autobiography of Alisoun of Bath, it is a joke routine for a standup comic. My reading of both prologue and tale as a comedy act has been influenced by the scholarly work of feminist film and television critic, Kathleen Rowe, whose studies of unruly women in modern comedy help to explain the appeal of Chaucer’s Wife for medieval audiences and for those who observe her at the end of the twentieth century.
Following Rowe’s lead, I propose that the Wife of Bath is in some ways a Roseanne Barr of the Middle Ages, who exploits the comedy inherent in the figure of the unruly ‘woman on top’, who is ‘too fat, too mouthy, too old … too sexual … for the norms of conventional gender representation’. The compelling energy that Rowe has noted in Roseanne, a television sitcom star of the 1980s and 1990s, is similar to the attraction of the Wife of Bath.
Both ladies exude the excesses of the archetypal grotesque woman who can be a focus for comedy in any period. It is also important to observe that the creator and original live performer of the Wife of Bath was not a woman, but Chaucer, a member of the medieval male patriarchy.
As Peter Beidler has pointed out, Chaucerian scholars assume that the Wife’s prologue and tale were ‘designed initially to be presented orally by Chaucer himself, either in the royal court or at some other gathering—a bachelor party, for example, or a visit by a diplomat, or a trade guild festival’. The ‘Wife’ was, then, conceived of as a female role to be presented by a male reader, possibly for an all male audience, and I contend that ‘she’ can be interpreted as a foremother of Dame Edna Everage, Australia’s own ‘housewife-superstar’, as created and performed by Barry Humphries.
Introduction: When Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tells her tale to the Canterbury pilgrims, she boldly takes centre-stage and situates herself in the world of carnival, the world-turned-upside-down. Her narrative presents a series of carnivalesque reversals through which the traditions of male-centred Arthurian storytelling are refashioned. The knight in this tale is not a questing hero who returns in triumph from the mysterious outside world to the comforts of the court; rather, he is a rapist whose journey represents a form of judicial punishment meted out by his own aristocratic society.
He is not a slayer of giants or dragons and certainly not a protector of the fair sex and, since he disqualifies himself as the hero of this adventure, his role is taken over by the woman who rescues him from the sentence of death. The marriage that takes place at the end of tale is not celebrated with the rejoicing that customarily follows a successful knightly quest, but provokes universal gloom. The bridegroom does not win a beautiful lady of high rank and good fortune as a prize for his sufferings on the quest, but, to save his own life, must give his body as ransom to an ugly old peasant woman. This woman does not give her own body as a token of love to the knight, but appears to lust after his youthful masculinity.
The happily-everafter is achieved finally through the most improbable of all reversals when the ugly old woman turns into a lady who is both fair and young. This last reversal does not result from a release from enchantment, but appears to be an act of the old woman’s own volition, and, as such, it validates the power of the marginalised and the grotesque that is at the heart of carnival.