Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wives of Bath

The Wife of Bath is arguably the most enduringly provocative character created by Chaucer.  A serial monogamist who has outlived four of her husbands (and is working on her fifth), she describes herself in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales as being well-versed in the arts of love, especially those practiced in the bedroom. Later, when the Wife of Bath tells her tale about courtly love, she references a fable in which a lion and man examine a painting of a man killing a lion. The lion asks, "Who painted the lion?" suggesting that if a lion had done the job, the outcome would have been much different.

With that in mind, we decided to take a look and see how the Wife of Bath herself has been depicted by various men at various times (as well as obviously being the creation of a man from the start). Displayed here are three artists' renderings. The first is a woodcut from the 1542 edition of Chaucer's Workes; the second, an engraving by William Blake in 1810; and the third by Blake's rival engraver Thomas Stothard from 1817. Each of them provides a different interpretation of the Wife of Bath, be it a typical (if somewhat austere-looking) woman of means from the medieval period, a bawdy and drunken profligate, or a flirtatious high-brow lady. All of these images display an aspect of the Wife of Bath, but we would argue that none of them truly encapsulates her essence.

To form your own opinion in person, come in and examine these images of Alysoun yourself. To see the Blake, ask for Iconography 1596; the Stothard, Iconography 1661; and the 1542 edition, Hickmott 101.

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