Sovereinetee in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

The paper looks at the relation between the Wife’s Prologue and her Tale, in the story Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.

By analyzing the story The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, this paper examines the Wife’s views on the topic of sovereinitee (or dominance) in marriage as revealed in her Prologue, and analyzes how her opinions on the subject influence her Tale. It analyzes the Wife’s identification with the old woman in her Tale, or rather, how the wife projects her own opinions and concerns on the character of the old woman and includes close readings of passages from the Tale. It also discusses how the Wife’s construction of the old woman reveals the importance she places on female sexuality as a form of agency, as the main tool for gaining power, or sovereinitee, in marriage. Through the character of the old woman, the Wife reveals her fear of growing old and losing her most powerful weapon.
“In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale focus on the power relations between husbands and wives, and on which party should have “sovereinetee,” or dominion, over the other. The wife herself believes, not in equality between husbands and wives, but in a wife’s control over her husband. She and Janekin struggle for this sovereinetee during their fight at the end of the Prologue. She justifies her belief by insisting that both husband and wife may only coexist in contentment and satisfaction if the wife achieves domination. Once the Wife wins complete control, she no longer needs to manipulate Janekin to gain power; her weapons of manipulation, primarily her sexuality, become pointless and she can give him whatever pleasure he desires. Her Tale is strongly biased by her own, often uninformed, opinions, and mirrors her views on the subject of marriage and sovereinetee. The knight’s wedding night with the old woman, in particular, mirrors the Wife’s power struggle with Janekin, for the old woman in the Wife’s Tale seems to represent an idealized version of the Wife herself. The old woman’s ability to become young again serves as a scenario of wish-fulfillment on the part of the Wife, who has concerns about getting old since her sexuality comprises her main form of agency, serving as weapon for her to gain power in marriage. Without her looks, she is scared of losing power in the struggle for domination. She fully reveals this fear and the desire to remain young in her description of the old woman, who initially has no power over her husband since she cannot control him sexually, but also has the ability to return to youth and thus regain her power.”