Tell Her Tale: On the Many Lives of Chaucer’s Leading Lady

FEB 10, 2023

by Anna Wilson

Troy Glasgow in a white T-shirt and thin chain dances with Clare Perkins in a red dress.

At the beginning of Zadie Smith’s new play, based on a six-hundred-year-old poem, a character warns the audience that what they are about to hear may shock them: it’s always shocking when women say what is usually said by men. Alisoun, The Wife of Bath—Chaucer’s most popular character, reworked by Smith into Alvita, the Wife of Willesden—has been shocking and delighting her readers continuously since the fourteenth century. She stars in an anonymous seventeenth-century ballad, several plays, an opera, and numerous other adaptations and rewritings of Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece. She is one of the most enduring characters in English literature, comparable with Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Perhaps authors keep returning to her because, like Falstaff, she is herself a brilliant storyteller; Alisoun/Alvita offers a space for thinking about the meaning of authorship, about who gets to tell stories, about whose stories get told.

In The Canterbury Tales, Alisoun is one of a group of pilgrims, strangers to each other, who agree in a pub on the then-outskirts of South London to a pact: during the three-day pilgrimage on foot to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, they will tell each other stories, and the best one will get a free meal on their return. One of only two women pilgrims who speak in the Tales, Alisoun bursts off the page. Sexy, witty, charismatic, she scandalizes her fellow pilgrims with her idiosyncratic take on what the Bible teaches about sex, her account of her tumultuous six (six!) marriages, and her blistering critique of men who condemn in women behavior that they condone for themselves.

When she finally gets around to it, she tells a story set in the time of King Arthur (already the mythic past in Chaucer’s medieval England) of a knight who rapes a young woman and is condemned by the queen to wander the land for a year asking what women want. If he comes back with the wrong answer, he faces execution. The tale is not original to Chaucer; Chaucer, like Smith, was retelling a very old story. The eventual resolution to Alisoun’s tale of rape and restorative justice is a happy one—or is it? Her discomfiting fairy story leaves modern audiences, like the original pilgrims, divided. The knight learns to listen to women and submit to them, and his reward is a happy marriage with the mysterious, possibly supernatural woman who teaches him this lesson. Smith’s version glosses the ending with the language of restorative justice, but, like Chaucer’s, does not relate what becomes of the unfortunate woman.

In Chaucer, Alisoun is an ambiguous figure: she captures the imagination partly because she can be read two ways. It is possible to see her as an attempt to positively represent a pro-woman perspective, and to critique the popular misogynist texts that circulated in the Middle Ages with titles like “The Evils of Women.” Chaucer could have been influenced by medieval feminist thinkers, such as the fourteenth century intellectual and critic Christine de Pizan. But some critics have argued that Alisoun is in fact a character intended to be laughed at, her frank confession of her own bad behavior (including adultery) intended to undermine her self-serving arguments. Whichever of these interpretations of Chaucer’s intention we believe, the Wife has since taken on a life of her own, and her literary career across the centuries attests to the appeal of her bad behavior. In a ballad known as “The Wanton Wife of Bath” first recorded in 1600, after her death Alisoun’s soul descends to hell in consequence of her sinful life, only for the devil to shoo her away as too hot to handle. He calls her “the mistress of flyting” (“flyting” was a kind of poetic contest of invective, popular in the middle ages, not dissimilar to modern “battle rap”). Proving his point, she then works her way up through a hierarchy of Biblical heroes of the Old and New Testaments, upbraiding each for their hypocrisy and treatment of women, before at last, through persistent, quick wit, and faith, she argues her way into heaven.

While out-arguing God is probably the biggest achievement of all the literary Wives of Bath, she’s not lacking in other escapades to her name. In The Canterbury Pilgrims by Harvard alumnus Percy MacKaye, first performed on campus in 1903, she sets her cap at Chaucer himself as her next husband, kidnaps another pilgrim, and attempts to seduce the Prioress (while disguised as, confusingly, the Prioress’ brother).

Smith’s take on Alisoun, Alvita, reclaims Alisoun’s passionate defense of women’s right to sexual pleasure, her critique of double standards, and her attack on violence against women both real and literary. At the same time, by turning Alisoun’s medieval invective against modern politicians and misogynist thinkers, Smith shows how depressingly little has changed. When Smith sets Alvita’s tale of rape and redemption among the Jamaican Maroons under the revolutionary leader Queen Nanny, Smith expands a traditional understanding of the British past from Arthurian legend to include a proud heritage of resistance against white British colonizing slavers. The playwright figure in the play, described in the casting notes as “a Brown woman in a headwrap,” follows Chaucer’s own self-deprecating appearance in The Canterbury Tales. While paradoxically apologizing for her own work in the play’s “Retraction,” Smith makes a claim on the weighty crown of the “Father of English Literature” by stepping into Chaucer’s shoes.

It is perhaps Alisoun’s critique of “auctorité”—the male-dominated literary canon exported throughout the British Empire—which has made her so attractive to modern authors whose own adaptations of The Canterbury Tales celebrate the history of English literature while transforming its present and future. Gloria Naylor’s 1992 novel Bailey’s Café, Jean “Binta” Breeze’s “The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market,” Patience Agbabi’s 2015 poetry collection Telling Tales, and the activist storytelling project Refugee Tales have all reimagined Alisoun’s liberatory vision of what it means to be a woman through transnational, queer, postcolonial, and Black feminist lenses. The Wife of Willesden joins a long literary lineage of celebrations of communal storytelling, of the places that bring people together, and of women who can talk their way out of hell and into heaven. Alisoun would be proud.

Anna Wilson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English, Harvard University. 

Covers of: The Black Middle Ages by Matthew X. Vernon; The Wife of Bath by Marion Turner; and American Chaucers by Candace Barrington.

Further Reading

Check out these titles to learn more about Chaucer and the Wife of Bath:

Troy Glasgow (“Darren/Young Maroon”) and Clare Perkins (“Alvita”) in The Wife of Willesden: Marc Brenner.
Book covers courtesy of Palgrave MacMillan, Princeton University Press.


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