Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 206
In her book The Wife of Bath: A Biography, Marion Turner reacquaints us with a remarkable, vital character: Alison, Wife of Bath, the most famous fictional pilgrim in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Turner puts Alison into her historical context in 14th-century England and the literary tradition, arguing that the Wife of Bath is literature’s first “ordinary woman,” neither a paragon of virtue nor a vicious caricature. Instead, she’s funny, sexual, opinionated, competent—a recognizably human character. That’s all the more remarkable for her having been written by a man.
Turner’s biography goes on to trace the afterlives of the Wife of Bath through reinterpretations and reworkings of the character. That includes Voltaire’s version, James Joyce’s Molly Blum, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film adaptation, a recent play by Zadie Smith, and her influence on Shakespeare. Turner is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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Marion Turner is a professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is also the author of Chaucer: A European Life. The Wife of Bath: A Biography is available from Princeton University Press.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published March 28, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Eloise Stevens in Oxford and Jenna McClellan at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: When was the last time you read a biography of someone who was over 600 years old?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
Marion Turner is a professor of English at the University of Oxford whose past books include a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. Her latest is a biography of Chaucer’s most famous character: the Wife of Bath.
In The Wife of Bath: A Biography, Turner reacquaints us with this remarkable, vital character. She puts Alison, the Wife of Bath, into her historical context in 14th-century England and the literary tradition. Turner argues that the Wife of Bath is literature’s first “ordinary woman,” neither a paragon of virtue nor a vicious caricature. Instead, she’s funny, sexual, opinionated, competent—a recognizably human character. That’s all the more remarkable for her having been written by a man.
Turner’s biography goes on to trace the afterlives of the Wife of Bath through reinterpretations and reworkings of the character. That includes a translation by Voltaire, James Joyce’s Molly Blum, a film version by Pasolini, and a recent play by Zadie Smith.
One of the treasures of the Folger Shakespeare Library is a 1477 printing of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer also strongly influenced Shakespeare, as Turner details in her book.
Here’s Marion Turner in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: “Whan that Aprille with his shouris sote,
The droughte of March hath percid to the rote.” I mean, how many people when they hear that you’ve written two books about Chaucer start droning the prologue at you?
MARION TURNER: Yeah, you’re right. A lot of people do remember that from school. They remember those opening lines. And actually, I think it’s then quite an interesting thing to talk about because those opening lines are so amazing with their kind of evocation of fertility, and springtime, and their shift between the Pagan and the Christian, and the way that they set up a really unexpected text.
You know, the way we moved from April showers to, “befell that, in that season, on a day.” Suddenly we’re in a dodgy pub in Southwark and we’ve got that contrast, which Chaucer is so famous for. So, I can always get conversation going even just with those couple of lines.
BOGAEV: Exactly. And they feel so good in your mouth. I mean, it was just… it’s maybe the only verse I remember from college throughout my life, even trumps Shakespeare. And it was so painful to memorize those 20 lines, so that’s probably why it’s stuck in there forever.
TURNER: Well, I’m glad you persevered.
BOGAEV: So, why call this a biography?
TURNER: Yeah, it’s a strange thing, isn’t it, to say that it’s a biography of someone who never really existed. As you know, I’d written a more traditional biography before, a biography of Chaucer. And I was thinking about writing a book about medieval women.
Of course, the traces of medieval women in the records are much harder to come to than the traces of an important man such as Chaucer. In a way, by picking this literary character as a focus, that allowed me to tell lots of different women’s stories because I take different aspects of this fictional character and look at where they come from in literary sources.
Then, also, I look at historical parallels, so I was able to, kind of, put together a composite picture of lots and lots of different women. And that meant that I could tell these really interesting stories about, you know, the 15th-century Duchess who married a teenager as her fourth husband when she was 65. Or the women in the 1360s who formed a union to protest about an important man price-fixing. All those great stories. I felt like I could make those women’s voices heard while weaving in this sense of the literary and the historical together. But then the idea of the biography also allowed me to go across time.
You know, one of the texts I was thinking about a lot was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In which she writes a fictional biography of a real woman, Vita Sackville-West, but turns her into a literary character who changes sex and who straddles the centuries, covering hundreds of years.
The Wife of Bath is a figure that has been influential for, you know, 650 years. I really loved the idea of looking at gender across time by following the adventures of this character once she gets outside her text and parades through English literature, you know, right up to the present day. And, the book finishes in 2021 with Zadie Smith’s version.
BOGAEV: Well, you make a great case. Let’s scroll back to the particulars. Remind us who the Wife of Bath was—and by the way, her name’s Alison. You know, what age is she? She’s a widow. How many times was she married? All that.
TURNER: Sure. So the Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s most famous character, created in the 14th century.
For about the last 14, 12 years of his life, Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales. And in the Canterbury Tales, he gathers together this group of pilgrims who are—they meet in this pub in Southwark, South London, to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury. And, although they’re socially diverse, they’re almost all men.
So we’ve got over 20 men and then just three women, and two of the women are nuns. Then there’s the Wife of Bath. She immediately stands out because she’s the only secular woman, the only woman who’s not a nun on this pilgrimage. And, you know, she really, really is not a nun.
In my book, I describe her as the first ordinary woman in English literature. And that’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek description, because she is also absolutely extraordinary in all kinds of ways. But when I say she’s “ordinary,” what I mean is this is a woman who is middle-aged. You know, she’s over 40. She’s what we would think of as middle class. You know, she’s not an aristocrat. She’s not a queen or princess. She’s a working woman who’s worked in the cloth trade, who’s from a mercantile kind of environment.
She also—I mean, ordinary in the, you know, she has sexual desires. She has sex. She talks about sex. She has friends. She drinks too much with them. She goes on holiday. She makes a lot of mistakes. She’s a deeply, deeply flawed character, and she’s extraordinary in that she’s kind of excessive and over the top in all kinds of ways. She’s been married five times. She’s been to Jerusalem three times. You know, she does everything a little bit excessively.
She’s also extraordinary in that there were not other women in literature like this before her. You know, she really stands out because the women in literature before her had been either the idealized princesses, damsels in distress, saints, or they’d been the monsters, the old crones, the prostitutes, the witches. She isn’t any of those things. She’s something quite different.
BOGAEV: Yeah. And there’s a whole post-plague context to this, so give us that backstory. How had the Black Death affected women and the roles open to them in society? How does the Wife of Bath reflect that?
TURNER: Chaucer was born in the early 1340s and the plague hit when he was about six years old. This was a pandemic that really dwarfs our pandemic. You know, we haven’t—no one’s ever lived through anything like what they lived through in the middle of the 14th century when maybe a third, maybe a half of the population was wiped out.
And the plague was indiscriminate in terms of age as well. You know, children were affected as much as working people, as much as old people.
This is just an unimaginable catastrophe. You know, I’ve tried to imagine it often. What must that be like when half the people you know are wiped out? The psychological effects must have been absolutely appalling.
But, in social terms, for the people who survived, things got better in many ways because there’s the same amount of land to be farmed, but there’s a much, much reduced workforce. Wages went up and people have more choice about the jobs they might want to do. People moved around more. More people moved to towns.
This affected women as well as men. More women went into the workforce. More women went to towns, entered skilled labor as well.
So, this is an era when women in some ways had it better than they’d had in other places. That was particularly the case in Northwest Europe, which had quite good laws for things like inheritance. In the late 14th and early 15th century—well, throughout the 15th century—this was a time when women worked in a wide variety of jobs. They also inherited well, and they could keep the money that they inherited. A widow would get at least a third of her husband’s property, for instance. Would often go on running her husband’s business. Women could trade on their own as something called feme sole. They didn’t have to trade as part of their husband’s kind of entity, if you see what I mean. They worked in the cloth trade, in all kinds of fabric trades, in domestic service, in the victualing trade, brewing, that kind of thing. But also, we sometimes find women who were doing things like being parchment makers or blacksmiths or ship owners.
BOGAEV: So, as a widow who got richer with each of her marriages, is that why you say in the book, apparently widows made the world go round in 14th– and 15th-century England?
TURNER: Yeah, so widows were really important at this time because they could keep their money. And, they could keep their money when they married again, so they were very desirable prospects on the marriage market. We see a lot of really powerful widows at this time who are sometimes using their power choosing to marry again. But, they could still keep a lot of their own rights when they married. So, they might move through successively more important husbands.
That’s what Chaucer’s granddaughter, Alice Chaucer, did in the early 15th century. You know, she ended up a duchess with her third husband. And after he died, she was then a widow for a long time. She ended up owning land in 22 counties. One of the most influential women in England at that time.
So, widows could use marriage to better themselves. But they could also remain widows, and as widows exert influence in their own right. And I suppose thinking about the Wife of Bath in this context, it’s really important to remember her own immediate context.
There were very many societies in the 14th century—and there are some societies today—in which a woman like the Wife of Bath just would not make any sense, in which the idea of a woman who could marry many times, could choose her husbands, could work, could go on holiday without her husband, could go out with her friends… that kind of woman would just be unimaginable. So, she is a product of a particular time and place where women did have a certain amount of rights and opportunities.
BOGAEV: And, as you say, Chaucer had some experience with women like this in his own life. His mother owned property too, right?
TURNER: Absolutely. His mother owned property, some of which she inherited because of relatives dying in the plague. Chaucer’s wife always earned a salary as a lady-in-waiting in important households.
His first employer was a woman, in fact, a slightly older woman who employed him as a pageboy and then bought him all kinds of risqué clothes. Our first life record of Chaucer is about these clothes: these tight leggings and short tunic that this woman bought him to kind of display him in her household. That isn’t the Chaucer that most people think about.
But yeah, in terms of the women in Chaucer’s life, he knew these very important aristocratic women. He also knew lots of mercantile women because he was from the City of London. You know, he was the son of a vintner, a wine merchant. He knew lots of important London traders, widows, people who had fingers in many pies in London.
So, he had experience of lots of interesting women.
BOGAEV: I’m waiting for Chaucer, the Netflix series.
TURNER: Yeah, me too.
BOGAEV: I mean, it’s so exciting to think that maybe the Wife of Bath is a compilation of women that Chaucer knew.
TURNER: Yeah, I mean, I think that what I would say about that is that we can see that Chaucer is drawing on all kinds of literary sources, as well as this historical environment. So, it’s not possible that she’s based on, you know, a real individual, because we can see directly lots of things about her that are taken from literary texts.
But yeah, I think it’s a real mix between the literary sources and then that historical moment in thinking about the Wife of Bath.
BOGAEV: Before we move on from Chaucer and his background, let’s talk about this issue of rape. He was accused of rape, but now there’s new research that’s come out just very recently about the rape story, that it’s a misconception based on language, understanding of a term. So what do we know about this?
TURNER: Yeah, so for a long time we knew that that Chaucer had been released from further action by a woman called Cecily Chaumpaigne relating to her raptors. And for a while there was debate between scholars about whether this “raptors” referred to sexual rape or might refer to abduction. There was a lot of debate.
In some ways, some of this debate became quite polarized, where some scholars said that, “Well, he couldn’t possibly have raped someone because, you know, he wrote such wonderful poetry.” Or, “He couldn’t possibly have raped someone because we can see how many really important men came to his defense and were his witnesses.” I mean, really problematic.
But on the other hand, we also have had people saying, “Well, the fact that there was any kind of accusation demonstrates that he must have been a rapist,” and people saying we shouldn’t read his work because he was a rapist.
So, I think, also very problematic, extreme views there. Because really, we didn’t know. There was a lot of uncertainty about what these records meant and what had happened.
But then just a few months ago, in late 2022, two scholars, Sebastian Sobecki and Euan Roger, discovered more records in the National Archives. What these records showed was that Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were on the same side in this case: That Cecily Chaumpaigne had been in domestic service for someone else and had left that service to go and work for Chaucer, and that they were saying to her former employer that he couldn’t sue them for her leaving, that she hadn’t been forced away from that employer.
Scholars have now looked at the complete run of the relevant records—King’s Bench Records, which we do have—and there was no accusation of rape lodged during that time. So, it does seem clear that this lawsuit was not about sexual rape and was not being brought by Cecily against Chaucer.
But while we’re thinking about the Wife of Bath, I think it’s also important that this doesn’t mean that we stop talking about rape. The Wife of Bath’s tale is all about rape.
BOGAEV: Well, I mean, that’s the tale that she tells: is about a knight who rapes a maiden, and then the queen spares his life if he can come back with an answer to the question, what do women most desire?
TURNER: Exactly. The Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale, they deal with these really serious issues relating to women. The Wife of Bath’s prologue deals with domestic abuse: a husband abusing his wife, the Wife of Bath, who is deafened by that abuse. And the Wife of Bath’s tale is the story about rape.
So, for all that, the Wife of Bath is a very funny, witty character, she also deals with the most serious issues in in relations between the sexes. And, as you say, the Wife of Bath’s tale, it upends reader’s expectations about who’s going to be the hero and the villain in a story, and also about where the ethical center of a story is going to lie. Because it’s a tale that begins with the court of King Arthur, a knight riding around. And readers usually expect that that knight is going to be a hero. But he’s not. He rapes someone.
One disturbing element of the story is that the victim then disappears. You know, we don’t hear more about that victim. The focus turns to the rapist. But it turns to the rapist in a very significant way because the tale becomes about, how do you punish a rapist? How do you make a rapist think about what they’ve done and recognize that the horror of what they’ve done?
The other, I think, very crucial aspect of that story is that the ethical center of the story turns out to be an old, ugly, poor woman. Not the young, handsome, rich knight. It’s the old, unimportant seeming woman who’s the one who is able to teach him about Christian ethics and values.
Again, that’s the kind of figure who shouldn’t have a voice in stories at this time, but she turns out to be the one who understands Christianity and an ethical way of being in the world. It’s a very, very interesting story.
BOGAEV: Yeah, it’s so many layers. Well, one of the things that Chaucer was drawing on were real manuscripts about the wickedness of wives for that part of the tale about the Wife of Bath’s fifth husband: the violent one. In fact, that’s the book he’s reading from. And she rips three pages out of it in fury and hits her husband. He falls backwards into the fire, and then he hits her back so hard she goes deaf. So, what were these books about the wickedness of wives like? And how common were they?
TURNER: Yes, so the Book of Wikked Wyves, that she talks about in her prologue is a compilation of lots of misogynous texts. She tells us what some of them are. For instance, St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianus, which was a very popular, very monstrous text against women, particularly against marriage and remarriage.
There were lots of misogynistic texts. We today still have many manuscripts extant where we can see that that scribes or editors or patrons had indeed packaged together lots of texts which are about how awful women are. It’s a bit like a, you know, “If you enjoyed this, you might also like this.” You know, “Three for two.” Or, I think of it also, is like today’s algorithms where you read one thing and then you’ll be linked to something else that’ll back up your views. That people were getting these compilation manuscripts, which just kept telling them about how terrible women are.
When the Wife of Bath describes how her husband is behaving, he’s reading this book every night. Then he’s reading bits out to her and saying, “This is what you women are like.” And the kind of examples that he’s reading out are things like the example of Pasiphaë, who had sex with a bull and then gave birth to the minotaur, which is not really what women are like or something that any woman can identify with. But that’s the kind of thing that she’s facing.
One of the things that I talk about in the Wife of Bath biography is the way that she describes her husband’s reading of this book, leading to this incident of domestic violence and ultimately his deafening her. I compare that with an anecdote that Christine de Pizan, the early 15th-century French writer, tells where she says that she has an example that has come from life of a woman that she has heard about whose husband read the Romance of the Rose every night. Then, after reading the Romance of the Rose said, “Gosh, this is how awful you women are.” And then would beat his wife after reading that text.
I think that historical example and the Wife of Bath’s fictional example are really interesting in reminding us of the link between literature and life. Again, this links with my whole concept of biography of the fact that we can’t separate literature fiction from fact and history. Because the way women are treated in life is determined partly by how people think about women in texts. You know, people base their real-life behavior on what they’ve read in books.
BOGAEV: The Wife of Bath sums it all up in just one sentence, which I remember leaping off the page at me when I was read it in college. She says she was, “Beaten for a book.”
TURNER: Yes, absolutely. And we see right through her prologue. This is another interesting example of characterization, I think. She keeps on mentioning what has happened to her kind of elliptically, briefly in the way that someone who is deeply affected or traumatized by something does. She keeps telling us little bits about it, and it’s only quite late in the prologue that we actually get the full story of what has happened.
But exactly, “I was beaten for a book.” You know, books have a real effect in the world. They really matter.
BOGAEV: Well, she is irresistible. And she’s really funny. What part tickles you the most?
TURNER: Gosh, that’s an interesting question. One of the bits that I really like is, there’s a bit in the prologue where she’s saying, “Well, I know that St. Paul said, ‘It’s best to be a virgin. If you want to be perfect, you should be a virgin.’ But that’s only for people who want to be perfect.” And then she says, “And that am not I.” You know, “I’m not someone who wants to be perfect. I don’t care about that. I just want to be good enough.” I just think that’s a really lovely moment.
BOGAEV: I love that part too. She just wants to be real. It comes… she seems so modern when you read the Canterbury Tales. She is just this modern incarnation in the midst of these men.
TURNER: Yeah. I think also that’s an interesting way to put it because I think it also encourages us to question what we think of as modern. Because so many things that we think of as “modern” are not modern.
You know, women back in the 14th century were saying, “Why can’t women get their voices heard?” And then that’s what, you know, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, they say exactly the same things hundreds of years later. So many of these things were being talked about in the Middle Ages.
BOGAEV: Okay, we have to get to Shakespeare, happily. And you’re write that he was a great Chaucerian. So how do we know this?
TURNER: Wow, so almost all the early modern playwrights, we can see their references to Chaucer in their works. And Chaucer was much, much read at that time. Other scholars have traced quotes, references to Chaucer in almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. We know that he was reading Chaucer. When we look at things like, Two Noble Kinsmen, or Troilus and Cressida, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know, these are plays which are drawing very, very closely on Chaucer. There’s no doubt about that. We know that Shakespeare was very, very interested in Chaucer’s writing and read them very closely.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s talk about one of the biggest influences— Harold Bloom called Falstaff the Wife of Bath’s only child.
TURNER: Yeah, so I see the Wife of Bath influencing Shakespeare in in two different, major ways. So first of all, Falstaff. Absolutely. Falstaff, I think, is to Shakespeare what the Wife of Bath was to Chaucer. A larger-than-life character. A character whose voice takes over every text that they are in, who talks very excessively with these extreme, you know—piles up their clauses, these beautifully long sentences. Ends up spilling out of their first text into lots of other texts. Falstaff’s case, you know, moves into different genres. Seems to be excessive physically as well; very bodily, lots of emphasis on their body, on their appetites, as well as on the power of their voice. They both misquote the Bible extensively. They use authority and they’re, kind of, carnival characters in their opposition to authority in lots and lots of ways.
They both are very aware of their own faults. They’re confessional, they’re very much confessional characters who share their sins and their flaws with the audience. Though of course, they may be very unreliable in the kinds of things that they’re telling us.
But I think as characters—you know, I mean, there’s a part of my book where I look at comparing some of their, kind of, verbal patterning and so on. I think they are deeply similar in all kinds of ways.
BOGAEV: And so many people did resurrect the Wife of Bath. Later writers. You cite some really interesting omissions and additions to the rape story by Dryden and Voltaire, that that just changed the whole gender politics of the original.
TURNER: So, Voltaire is writing his version based on Dryden’s translation of the Wife of Bath’s tale. Dryden had said that he did not dare to translate the prologue because it was too licentious. His friend Pope translated the prologue, but he took out all the bits about genitals and the body and so on, and so there isn’t that much left.
So, when Voltaire then writes his version, he strongly implies that the rape is not really a rape in his view.
BOGAEV: He pretty much—he lands hard on victim-shaming, it sounds like.
TURNER: Yeah, it’s awful. I mean, because it… first of all, it sounds as if what’s described would to most readers, we would think it’s a rape. And then he says that immediately afterwards, the woman’s calmly sitting there doing her hair and she’s asking for money. Then, what she gets really cross about is not getting money, not the sexual act.
So, he makes it into a kind of, is this prostitution? Is it rape? Is she she wanting money as payment for sex or as a kind of compensation for a crime? You know, it’s all kind of blurred in many ways.
TURNER: And then later on, when the knight has to have sex with the loathly lady, Voltaire makes that sound like the rape, that it’s the knight himself who is being raped. So, he suggests that, you know. He goes into a lot of detail about how terrible it is for him to have to have sex with this older woman.
So this story, which in Chaucer’s version is a story about rape and then about ethics and female ethics, then becomes this story about how incredible is it that a man could get an erection with an older woman.
BOGAEV: It’s such a window into a writer’s mind. But more recently you have Pasolini who seemed to take Voltaire’s tack, and misogynistic lead, in his treatment of the Wife of Bath in his film adaptation of the Canterbury Tales. I don’t know, the bottom line of her story in his movie is basically that sex with an old woman will kill you.
TURNER: Yeah, and it actually does kill her fourth husband. He actually dies. Pasolini’s film of the Canterbury Tales is an extraordinarily skewed understanding of what Chaucer was doing. Because, you know, the Canterbury Tales is all about variety and the idea of telling stories from lots of different perspectives and different forms, different genres. And Pasolini is only interested in sex, so he just gives us a few tales. They’re all about sex. Some of them are not about sex at all in Chaucer’s version, but he just puts in some extra sex bits, brothel scenes, those kinds of things. Then, the version of the Wife of Bath. it makes her into a monster.
In a way, you know, I was talking before about the fact that a lot of the sources of the Wife of Bath are these monstrous old crones. Then, Chaucer has taken those sources and done something more interesting with them. Pasolini kind of goes back to the sources, the monstrous old crone, and just makes her into this horrendous figure.
What I found when I was researching this book is that in many ways, you know, the most misogynistic interpretations came in the 20th century, not the 15th. It’s an interesting reflection on what’s happened across time.
BOGAEV: What’s your favorite adaptation or resurrection of the Wife of Bath?
TURNER: I think that one of my absolute favorites is the most recent one, Zadie Smith’s Wife of Willesden, I think is a brilliant new version of the Wife of Bath.
Zadie Smith has taken the prologue and tale, translated them really quite closely and transposed them so that the Wife of Bath becomes a 21st-century woman of Caribbean origin living in northwest London. And the tale is no longer set in Arthurian Britain, it’s set amongst freed slave communities in 18th-century Jamaica. Zadie Smith really weaves together a modern take on this and a real fidelity to the original in a very, very clever way.
I’m actually very excited about lots of things that have been happening in the 21st century, in the last 20 years in terms of adaptations. Because I think there’ve been a lot of interesting ones. That one is really an exceptionally good one.
BOGAEV: It is. And you have a whole chapter about Black Alisons. How three women of color have adapted the Wife of Bath in recent years. Why do you think these women writers are so drawn to this one tale and this one character?
TURNER: I’d recommend that listeners go onto YouTube and you can look up “the Wife of Bath in Brixton Market” and you’ll find Jean “Binta” Breeze walking through Brixton Market in the actual market space. You know, reciting part of her translation of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. It’s really wonderful.
Patience Agbabi has done a modern version called Telling Tales of all of the Canterbury Tales. But the Wife of Bath was the first one that she did, and she returned to it as well. Like so many authors, you know, once they start with the Wife of Bath, they then go back again. So, the Wife of Bath is a Nigerian woman. Her tale set in Ghana, and Patience Agbabi herself is of Nigerian British heritage. Then Zadie Smith’s version in which the Wife of Bath becomes Alvita. And as I said, the tale is set in Jamaica.
So I think that the three projects are all different to each other. One of the main things that the Wife of Bath is talking about is how can someone from a more marginalized demographic get their voice heard? And talking about the fact that, you know, literature is dominated by people who are from particular backgrounds and look a certain way.
That is perhaps less—I hope—less true today than it was in the 14th century. But it’s still true. I think it is really important that women have been reclaiming the voice of the Wife of Bath, particularly over the last 20 years.
And, really interesting that so many people from different kinds of communities, from Black diaspora communities in particular, have been taking on this voice and making the Wife of Bath their own.
And I think that’s also really appropriate because, you know, Chaucer was not writing in a homogenous, monolingual context at all. This was someone who was writing in a very multilingual environment who was drawing on texts written in many different languages from many different places. So, it is really appropriate to think of the Wife of Bath in an international context and to think of her tale and her prologue in conversation with lots of different traditions today as well.
BOGAEV: Right. I mean, she’s unique and she has so much agency. I love the character, it makes me feel very optimistic talking about her, but also very depressed at how little has changed. I don’t know. Coming out of researching this topic and talking about it so much, do you relate to what I’m saying?
TURNER: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that the fact that, you know, 650 years ago people were articulating the fact that women’s voices weren’t being heard, that domestic abuse and rape were such terrible problems. And, of course, they still are. It is of course depressing because you feel like people talk about these things and nothing happens and there’s some change, but the change is slow. Sometimes things go backwards as well as forwards, as I was saying before. That there are some ways in which responses became more misogynist across time. So, I think that is depressing.
What I find positive… I mean, so one of the epigraphs I use in the book is, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” You know, her voice does persist across time. Even when people keep trying to put her down and censor her and tame her and make her into what they want her to be, she keeps coming back. She is a zombie who keeps returning. She keeps resurrecting herself.
The fact that in the last 20 years, so many more women have been writing these versions, women’s voices are being heard more. Even if not equally to men’s, they are being heard more than they were before.
One of the things that she says in her prologue, and I think this is one of the things that is part of her as a very developed character, the way she talks about the future. She says, “Even though I have all these regrets, yet I’m going to look to the future.” And she says, “To be right myrie wol I fond,” and fond there means, “I will try. I will try to be merry,” but it also means, “I will taste enjoyment.” You know? “I will suck the marrow out of life.”
I think her sense that whatever’s happened, she’s going to try to enjoy things, she’s going to try to think positively, is then also reflected in these wonderful women writers who are writing these interesting versions of her prologue and tale at the moment. So, I think eventually I do feel optimistic.
BOGAEV: Well, thank you for this. I mean, you really brought her alive in the book and here, too, today. Thanks for taking the time.
TURNER: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. Really nice to talk to you.
WITMORE: Marion Turner’s book The Wife of Bath: A Biography is out now from Princeton University Press.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Eloise Stevens in Oxford and Jenna McClellan at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.