Magazine article NATE Classroom

Lifting the Wife of Bath off the Page

Magazine article NATE Classroom

Lifting the Wife of Bath off the Page

Article excerpt


There are two major problems for A Level students when faced with the study of a Canterbury Tale: the language, of course, but also the scale of the text, a poem that feels, at least to begin with, like a novel. There is perhaps a third problem too: having a teacher like me who insists it is a funny, clever and sophisticated work of art when you don't really get what all the fuss is about.

The point of this article is to suggest a strategy which may help students negotiate both the scale and the language of The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. They will still have to work hard at this demanding text, as they would any other. But the strategy may be a helpful alternative or complement, particularly in the early stages, to the line by line, 'text-bashing' approach of classroom tradition. The suggested strategy involves what might loosely be called drama activities, and comprises six of them. They are intended to help students navigate the text and also comment on aspects of Chaucer's language when being assessed; attention to form, structure and effects of language often marks out better answers in the examination room.

1. Declaration of independence--talkshow

Her prologue starts with a magnificent passage of 160+ lines which is calculated to offend patriarchal orthodoxy. She is sexually provocative, for example she tell us that she has been married five times and welcomes number six whenever he might appear, that she has an 'instrument' and feels she ought to use it, she would like to be 'refresshed' as often as possible, and she is interested in men's lower purses.

This passage lends itself to adaptation as a television talkshow: a student as the Wife makes the provocative remarks from the front; you the teacher (as e.g. Jeremy Kyle) from time to time take your microphone into the audience for reactions; the audience is divided into two camps, I the Wife's supporters and traditional reactionary I males. I suggest that the provocative remarks as I far as possible include quotations from the poem, I as I have done above. Students will then become I more familiar and comfortable with the text, and I begin to appreciate not only what she says but I the way she says it, which in this case includes her use of suggestive euphemism.

The student playing the Wife could also learn some provocative couplets, such as:

   And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
   Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe?'


   'Now wherwith sholde he make his
   If he ne used his sely instrument?

This may encourage them to appreciate an important poetic effect, which is the way in which rhyming couplets add a sense of self-confidence to what she is saying. (These two couplets are rhetorical questions, too.)

This activity is not intended as a substitute for close study, but it does give students an overview of this opening section

2. The Pardoner interrupts--rehearsed g dialogue

Then there is the sudden interruption of the Pardoner, and her emphatic put-down of him. This time the task is to 'translate' and perform--audio recording would work well. When evaluating performances, students can pick out powerful moments in the performance and, most importantly, what there is in Chaucer's text that has inspired them.

The Pardoner is superficially civil, but sarcastic and sneering. Usual translations of what he says say something like:

   You are a noble preacher in this case.
   I was about to wed a wife; alas!
   Why should I pay for it so dearly on my

Students should be able to adapt this fairly m freely (prose is fine) to be politely needling, into something like:

   What an inspiring speaker on this subject
   you are! I was just about to get married,
   and now I am wondering whether it is
   a good idea to put myself through that
   physical trauma. … 
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