The star football player was about to be forced off the team because of poor academic grades. In desperation, the coach approached the Dean of the college and swore on his honor that he would give the lad a final exam in one of his subjects, and if the boy didn’t pass he would take him from the team immediately.
The night before the big game the coach met with the boy to test him.
“What,” asked the coach, “is the name of the first recorded piece of British Literature?”
“Coach,” replied the boy, “I don’t have the slightest idea.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed the coach, “You don’t! Okay, you’re in the starting line-up tomorrow!”
This could be my story. I play sports-any sport-all sports-football, basketball, baseball you name it. The thought of my enjoying British Literature seems hard for even me to believe.
When faced with this assignment, I found myself in a slight panic. However, much to my surprise, it wasn’t all that bad.
In going over the choices, I knew I had to choose to write about women, and their roles in these tales. The fact that they were involved in sex, deceit, and adultery had nothing to do with my decision. And as Oscar Wilde said, “The world is packed with good and evil women. To know them is a middle class education.” I’m certainly a believer in that philosophy! After all, that’s why I’m in school.
In beginning to compare and contrast the role of women the The Wife of Bath’s Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Shepherd’s Play, by Wakefield Master, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Sir Gawain, one needs to look closely at the stories.
The Wife of Bath’s , tale is a brief Arthurian romance incorporating the widespread theme of the “loathly lady.” It is the story of a woman magically transformed into an ugly shape who can be restored to her former state only be some specific action.
It also embodies some surprising traces of the courtly tradition, along with The Second Shepherd’s Play, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All three tales seem to illustrate the transforming power of love for their men. Although they were are different they all showed the effect of their love. That the true lover cannot be corrupted by avarice; love makes an ugly and rude person shine with all beauty. They know how to endow with nobility even one of humble birth. They can even lend humility to the proud. Oh, what a marvelous thing love is which makes a man shine with so many virtues and which teaches everyone to abound in good customs.
You see briefly in the story The Wife of Bath’s Tale that it deals with a lusty bachelor of the king’s court who raped a young maiden. He was taken and condemned to die (such was the custom then) but the king, in deference to Queen Guenevere’s pleas, allowed the ladies to judge him. They tell him he can save his life only if a year and a day later he can tell them what it is that women most desire. He wanders long without finding the answer; he is about to return disconsolate when he comes upon an old and remarkably ugly woman. She says that if he swore to do whatever she will next ask him, she will tell him the answer. He agrees and returns with answer: women most desire to have sovereignty over their husbands. Guenevere and her ladies are amazed; they grant him his life. The old woman than makes her demand: that he marry her. She will accept no less. On they’re wedding night; he turns away from her. She asks him what is the matter. He answers that she is old and ugly and lowborn. The old woman demonstrated to him that none of these matterespecially noble birth, since true gentilesse depends on deeds rather than birth. She offers him the choice: he can have her old and ugly and faithful or young, beautiful, and possibly unchaste. He tells her to choose; he grants her the sovereignty. When he does so she turns into a beautiful maiden, and they live thereafter in perfect joy.
That she so fair was and so yong therto,
For joye he hente hire in his arms two;
His herte bathed in a bath of blisse;
A thousand time arewe he gan hire kisse(Chaucer 356)Even under the rule of King Arthur and his chivalrous knights, women were at the mercy of men by having the knight rape a young maid. Immediately though, the women begin to weave in their philosophy. One in particular achieves all she wants through her shrewish behavior. She shows the queen that she can get the king to leave the knight’s life in her hands. Further, the task given the knight by the queen, to find out “What thing it is that women most desiren?”
And if that she be foul, thou saist that she
Coveiteth every man that she may see;
For as a spaniel she wol on him lepe,
Til that she finde som man hire to chepe(Chaucer 336)In conceding this point of choice and giving the womanpower, the wife shows how the knight gains both choices and both become happy together.
“For by my trouthe, I wol be to you bothe
This is to sayn, ye bothe fair and good”
And she obeyed him in every thing(Chaucer 356)
In The Second Shepherds’ Play, the story begins with three shepherds (Coll, Gib, and Daw) in a field complaining about the cold, taxes, and the high-handed treatment they got from the gentry. These are evils that are close to home for the shepherds on the Yorkshire moors. Eventually the main character, Mak, comes along claiming to be a higher-class citizen than he really is. The shepherds know Mak though. He has a reputation as a common thief. The shepherds are tired and lie down to sleep but are wary of Mak and ask that he sleep between them so that he could not be up to anything. Soon they fall asleep and Mak (inserting some pagan elements) casts a magic spell over the sleeping shepherds that they may not wake up for some time. He then gets up and steals a ram from their flocks and takes it home to his wife Gill.
Good wife, open the hek! Sees thou not what I bring?
I may thole the dray the snek. Ah, come in, my sweeting!
Yea, thou that not rek of my long standing
By the naked neck art thou like for to hing.
I am worthy my meat(Wakefield 470)
They are poor and intend to eat it. Gill chides him though and warns him that this sin will get him killed. She decides a plan to keep the sheep covered in a cradle so that when the shepherds come accusing Mak and looking for their sheep they will not find it. Gill will pretend to be recovering from childbirth and will feign that the covered lamb is re4ally their newborn child. Mak likes this idea and returns to the sleeping shepherds to lie back between them as though nothing has happened. When they arrived, Mak wakes to tell them that he has dreamt that his wife Gill has given birth to a child. He complains how poor they are and that his wife is always pregnant with another child. He leaves them to go and assist his wife. The shepherds split up but arrange to meet again later that afternoon. When they do meet they realize a sheep has been stolen and they suspect Mak. In the meantime, Gill and Mak are preparing their scheme. Soon the shepherds arrive at the house. Gill is moaning and Mak is pretending to sing a lullaby to the “baby.” The shepherds search the house finding no lamb and believing that the baby under cover is really a baby, they wish the family well and go to leave.
.When we had long napped, me thought with a gyn
A fat sheep he trapped, but he made no din.
Thy dream makes thee woode:
It is but phantom, by the roode,
Now God, turn all to good,
If it be his will (Wakefield 471)
Daw returns to give the baby a kiss and when he lifts the cover he discovers the truth. Gill tries to continue the lie by claiming that the child was sabotaged by fairies and turned into a lamb. Mak insists it is his heir. Finally caught in the act and told he should be hung and Gill burned, Mak begs for like and promises never to trespass again. He says if he does so, then they can behead him. The shepherds end up just tossing him in a blanket. They soon forget about Mak when an angel appears to them that night, telling them of the birth of Christ. They visit Christ, and leave, sing songs of praise. That is filled with His grace and have a new joy and hope in life.
In The Second Shepherds’ Play, the beginning is very bleak, but is balanced out by the optimistic ending. The author’s opening has the shepherds addressing the dismal climate, their poverty and their oppressive treatment by the gentry. The obvious intention is to teach the story of Christ’s birth, and give out a clear message of hope. He draws the regular medieval layman in by addressing obvious contemporary problems. He then introduces a stock comic figure (Mak) to bring comic relief. By parodying the Christian story of the Nativity with the ridiculous scheme of the stolen lamb in the cradle, the author is able to slide in a Christian message that the everyday person could understand.
The parallel of the stolen sheep (disguised as Mak’s latest heir) lying in a cradle and the real Lamb of God born in a stable among beasts is obvious. In a sense, the fact that the author reenacts the Nativity in the farcical scheme with a common thief and his alcoholic wife suggests the Christian notion that Christianity is for everybodyespecially the lowly. One of the main points, however, is the charity twice shown by the shepherds: first, to the supposed son of Mak, and second, to Mak and Gill when they decide to let them off with only the mildest of punishments. Their acts of charity and forgiveness are awarded when they are invited to visit the Christ child, the embodiment of charity.
Hail, sovereign saviour, for thou has us sought!
Hail, freely food and flour, that all things was wrought!
Hail, full of favour, that made all of nought!
Hail! I kneel and I cower. A bird have I brought
To my barn
Hail, little tyne mop!(Wakefield 480)
In contrast, the women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight position the Virgin Mary (representing spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life) against Morgan and Bertilak’s wife (who represent disobedience, lust and death).
Bertilak’s wife is operating unassisted against Gawain in the bedroom as the hunter and aggressor. Morgan is the instigator of the plot which begins the story, and she is strong enough to move into Bertilak’s castle, turn him green and order him to walk and talk with a severed hear. Lady Bertilak is seen in the Biblical role of temptress as “Eve.”
Gawain derives his prowess and courage from his special relationship with Mary.
And at that holy tide
He prays with all his might
That Mary may be his guide
Till a dwelling comes in sight(Gawain 203)
As long as Gawain is facing the dangers which grow out of his bargain with the Green Knight, which does not test his contradicting loyalties in love, his spiritual faith is clear and unshaken and his prowess and courage hold. On his journey to look for the Green Knight he is beset by a number of hardships and is finally at the point of despair. As he lies freezing in the forest he prays to Mary to find him shelter and a place to say mass on Christmas Eve. She answers his prayers and leads him to Bertilak’s castle. When Gawain comes to Bertilak’s court he is thrown into a totally different world.
And therefore sighing he said, “I beseech of Thee, Lord,
And Mary, thou mildest mother so sear,
Some harborage where haply I might hear mass
And thy matins tomorrow-meekly I ask it,
And thereto proffer and pray my pater and ave and creed
(Gawain 203 204)
Gawain is a knight that begins a journey toward death with deep faith. Gawain is “a man all alone” traveling to almost certain death. This journey is solely Gawain’s; no one can comfort him but God, where he finds his strength. His main concern is to reach “some harborage where haply (he) might hear mass. The time is close to Christmas; Gawain’s need for a proper place to pray to display his faith, is great because of his situation. He “meekly” asks this of Christ and Mary. Gawain’s praying is closer to begging than anything else. He implores God to guide him to shelter. He also prays to Mary, the “mildest mother,” in hopes of finding a place to stay over Christmas. When he ways “mildest,” he most likely means the obsolete definition of the word, kind or gracious. Calling Mary this is a bit of wishful thinking on Gawain’s part. He hopes that through God’s will and Mary’s generosity, he won’t be praying at a makeshift altar in the snow on Christmas. Gawain “meekly” asks for “harborage.” He is far from a meek knight, but he humbles himself so extremely before God, Mary, and Christ, hoping they take notice of his humility and answer his prayers. He needs reassurance that God knows he believes and is deserving of redemption. By praying in a proper location, Gawain could show God his devotion. His wishful thinking is not misplaced. Despite all he has endured thus far, Gawain remains a humble servant of the Lard. Instantaneously, his prayers are answered.
In comparing and contrasting the women in these stories we can see the attitudes and philosophies which were emerging and shaping the roles specific to people’s lives. Among there were ideas and customs, which had dictated extremely subservient lives for women. One of the characters in The Wife of Bath contradicts many of these oppressive customs and asserts her own assessment of the roles of women in society and in relationships. However, while attempting to assert female dominance over men, the effect the wife desires is to bring men and women to a more balanced level of power.
It is the wives’ intention to show that submission to the desires and needs of women does not result in the male being dominated. Actually, the end result is two people who are happy and secure in their love for one another and respectful of each others power.
The end result in the tales is that the couples become happy. They fight no more and live in peace. They understand the value of balancing the power in relationships.
If we look behind the lives of men, we find “history” is often “herstory.”
He said his prayer with sighs,
Lamenting his misdeed;
He crosses himself, and cries
On Christ in his great need (Gawain 204)