Wednesday, September 26, 2018

"Chees now": some thoughts on the Wife of Bath's Tale

Wife of Bath's Tale in Brit Lit I today, which seemed very apposite. I didn't bring up current events -- I almost never do in class -- and neither did the students, but I've been thinking about the tale all day.

When I first encountered the Wife of Bath's Tale, at the age of twenty, I fell in love with it at once; it seemed like an awesome badass fable of female power. I've noticed a shift in the last few years, with this newer, woker, generation of students. They want more from it. They want the rapist to be punished more harshly, and his victim not to simply disappear. One of them, last year, wondered whether Chaucer had ever actually met a woman. I can't really fault them for wanting these things, but I still love the tale as it is.

The Canterbury Tales -- along with most of Shakespeare's plays and Joyce's "The Dead" -- is one of those rare works I can teach year after year and still notice something new every time. This time, what I noticed most was the verb chese: choose, or chose -- Middle English spelling makes no very consistent distinction between the present and the past. It's all over this tale; the Wife of Bath uses it at least nine times in 400 or so lines. So many choices. Most of them are from a limited palette of options: either / or, and sometimes neither choice is very good. Our rapist-protagonist -- who is very young, very privileged, and very entitled -- suddenly discovers, when his crimes land him at the mercy of a jury of women, that "he may not doon al as him liketh." He has to choose whether to be executed then and there, or go on a twelve-month quest to find the answer to a riddle that may or may not have one. Conversely, some of the choices in this tale are radically free: Jesus, who could do anything, "In wilful poverte chees to live his life," and we're given to understand that Jesus wouldn't choose anything shameful. (There's a lot about social class in this tale, and a lot of play with words that were originally class descriptors but come to have moral connotations: gentilesse, vilainye, cherl. Our protagonist's elderly and undesired wife tells him that "men may wel often finde / A lordes sone do shame and vilainye," which has got to sting, and goes on to argue that such a man has no claim to gentility.)

And, in the end, the word becomes a present-tense imperative: chees now. The "now" matters a lot, I think: we are always making fresh choices, even when we're also constrained by our previous choices. And in the end, whatever he may have done in the past our protagonist chooses rightly (a third option, not one of the "thinges twaye" that he was originally presented with): Cheseth youreself.

It occurs to me that all three of the Norton Anthology standards that I teach regularly -- the Miller's Tale, Wife of Bath's Tale, and Pardoner's Tale -- are about justice on some level, and this is the only one that offers a vision of justice that is redemptive and not retributive, where people can be educated into choosing better. I think that may be why I like it so much.

I feel like we are being governed, at this particular moment, by people who are making choices again and again, and still and still choosing worse. I like to hope that there is still time to choose better. Even now.