Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Wife of Bath: Wife speaks about marriage

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About the scene and clip:
The Wife of Bath begins her prologue, talking about her extensive experience of marriage—she has been married five times—which makes her an authority on the topic.

About the work:
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, dating from around the last decade of the 14th century, tells how a group of pilgrims journey to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury and agree to tell stories on the way there and back, to pass the time. The two dozen or so pilgrims represent various classes and stations of men and women, both lay and religious. There are tales of many different types, including a fabliau (“The Miller’s Tale”) and a miracle story (“The Prioress’s Tale”). Tales are told in a wide range of styles, from the high, noble, and serious, to the low and the bawdy. Most of the tales are in verse, generally in rhymed couplets; a few are in prose. The Canterbury Tales exists in many manuscripts but is fragmentary: as we have the work, the pilgrims do not actually get to Canterbury, or back, and scholars disagree as to the order in which the tales should go. But this collection of great stories, often told by highly memorable characters, is one of the masterpieces of medieval literature.

The Wife of Bath is among the most forceful and memorable figures in The Canterbury Tales. In the lengthy prologue to her tale, she talks about marriage (virginity was not for her!), and about her five husbands, most of whom she bullied and dominated. The story the Wife of Bath tells comes from Arthurian tradition: a bold knight of King Arthur’s court is sentenced to death as a punishment for rape, but the Queen intervenes on his behalf and arranges for him to be pardoned—but only if he can find the answer to the question: what do women want most? After a long and fruitless search, an old crone gives him the answer, but she makes him promise that in return he will grant whatever she asks of him. She demands his hand in marriage. He reluctantly assents and marries her—but, to his delight, she turns into a beautiful young woman.

Another clip on this website–“Wedding of Gawain: What do women want?”–is from a work that tells essentially the same story as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale”—only there, the knight is Sir Gawain.

About the genre:
This story belongs to the tale tradition. The tale, like the epic, is an ancient genre and one found everywhere in the world. Many tales are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are recited or told by amateur and professional storytellers and performers. Other tales are the work of literarily sophisticated authors and are often intended to be read aloud or silently from written texts. Some tales circulate separately, while others are part of collections, which may be set in complex frames (as in the case of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There are many sub-groups of tales with specific characteristics; see for example the “lai” and the “fabliau.”

About the edition/translation:
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, trans. David Wright, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 219ff. There are many editions of The Canterbury Tales.

About the performer/ensemble:
Mary Lane Haskell is a Drama student in the CAP 21 Studio at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2010).

About the production:
This performance was created for “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught at New York University by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz, in spring 2010. Sam Erenberger was the videographer.