Role of Women in Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer serves as a moral
manual for the 1300's and years after. Through the faults of both men
and woman, he shows in each persons story what is right and wrong and
how one should live. Under the surface, however, lies a jaded look
and woman and how they cause for the downfall of men.
"The Knight's Tale" is one of chivalry and upstanding moral
behavior. However, beneath the surface lies the theme of the evil
nature of women. Emily plays the part of the beautiful woman who
captivates the hearts of two unsuspecting men. Those two men are
cousins Arcite and Palamon, both knights who duel for Emily's hand in
marriage. The two start out as the best of friends and then roommates
in a jail cell that is to be shared for eternity. But with one look
at Emily, the two start bickering instinctively and almost come to
blows over something they will never be able to have, or so it seems.
Chaucer's knack for irony revels itself as Arcite is released from his
life sentence but disallowed from ever coming back to Athens. He
would be killed ever caught within the city again by King Theseus.
Because Arcite is doomed to never again see Emily, his broken heart
causes him sickness as he's weakened by love. It is only after he
comes up with the plan of returning to Athens under an assumed name
that he starts to get better. Meanwhile, Palamon remains back in
captivity, rendered helpless due to his lifelong punishment in prison.
He knows that he will never be able to talk to Emily and certainly
not marry her because of his plight. All he can do is watch her from
a distance and admire her beauty. Arcite believes that this is a
better punishment than his, though, as he says:
"O dere cosin Palamon, quod he,
Thyn is the victorie of this aventure
Ful blisfully in prison maistow dure;
In prison? Certes nay, but in paradys!
Wel hath fortuen y-turned thee the dys,
That hast the sighte of hir, and I th'adsence.
But I, that am exyled and bareyne
Of alle grace, and in so greet despeir,
That ther nis erthe, water, fyr, ne eir,
Ne creature, that of hem maked is,
That may me helpe or doon confort in this:
Wel oughte I sterve in wanhope and distresse;
Farwel my lyf, my lust, and my gladnesse!" (58 and 60)
Emily has caused him such distress that he cries all the time and
contemplates killing himself so he won't have to feel this every day
pain that appears to have no end. All of this because of a woman.
Emily is a sweet, innocent woman of her times. In a strange
twist for a woman of The Canterbury Tales, she is perfectly happy
alone and doesn't ever want to be married. Yet, Palamon and Arcite
duel twice for Emily's love and Arcite ends up losing his life all
because of her. Palamon, winning her by default, serves Emily
faithfully for several years before she agrees to marry him, still not
loving him, though. No one wins in "The Knight's Tale," but it is the
two men who fight over the woman who lose the most.
The "Nun's Priest's Tale" is perhaps the best representation
of men's downfall due to the influence of women. The story revolves
around a rooster, Chauntercleer, the most beautiful cock in all of
England with the sweetest voice an any ear has heard. He has seven
wives but his favorite was Pertelote, an elegant hen in her own right.
It is this woman, this female, that causes Chauntercleer great
One night Chauntercleer wakes suddenly from a bad dream.
Seemingly seeking comfort in her, he tells Pertelot about the dream
which involves a wild, rampant dog with beady eyes coming after
Chauntercleer. But instead of consoling her "husband", she
challenges his manhood and says that no man hers should be scared of a
dream. This causes Chauntercleer to go off on a tangent about the
many, many times in history dreams have predicted the future and how
non-believers suffered the consciences of not taking the proper
precautions. After he done, however, he says that Pertelot is
probably right and goes off about his day not giving it another
thought. This causes the narrator to take an aside from the
story to tell us his own opinion on women but says that it is the
belief of many men and not his own in an attempt to perhaps cover
himself. In this he says:
"Wommennes counseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes counseil broughte us first to wo,
And made Adam fro paradys to go,
Theras he was ful mery, and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it mighte displese
If I counseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, wher they trete of swich matere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may here.
Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne;
I can noon harm of no womman divyne." (404)
Chauntecleer later is indeed attacked by a wolf and carried
away to the woods to his certain doom before slipping away, proving
the point that women are the downfall of men. If he had listened to
himself and his dreams instead of Pertelote, Chauntecleer would have
been more cautious of not of had the near-death encounter he did.
Finally, the prologue to the "Wife Of Bath's Tale" shows the
reader another type of woman of the time, this time in the effect of
the story teller. The Wife Of Bath is a tough woman with a mind of
her own and she's not afraid to speak it. She intimidates men and
woman alike due to the strength she possesses. But instead of showing
this as a good characteristic, Chaucer makes her toothless and
ugly. She has also had five different husbands and countless affairs,
thus breaking innocent men's hearts.
In one part of the prologue, the Wife Of Bath speaks of
marriage and women from a man's point of view:
"Thou lykenest wommanes love to helle,
To bareyne lond, ther water may not dwelle.
Thou lyknest is also to wilde fyr:
The more it brenneth, the more it hath desyr
To consume every thing that brent wol be.
Thous seyst right as wormes shende a tree,
Right so a wyf destroyeth hir housebonde;
This knowe they that been to wyves bonde." (198)
The Wife Of Bath brings up many a valid point throughout the prologue
but Chaucer voids her opinion because of her social class and looks,
when in truth she is very wise. It is as if her intelligence is
overshadowed by the fact that has had five husbands and considered
something of a whore.
It is not only in three narration's that women are thought of
as having an evil-like quality, that they always tempt and take from
men, but in almost every one of the stories. They are depicted of
untrustworthy, selfish and very vain throughout the collection of
tales. Chaucer obviously has very opinionated views of the marriage
and the opposite sex and expresses it very strongly in The
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