The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 7)

In its resolution in particular, the story of Petruchio and Katherine also bears a remarkable similarity to the Franklin’s Tale, which, as Kittredge has shown, offers Chaucer’s definitive word on the subject of mastery in marriage.[1] The Franklin’s Tale lays its foundations, like much of the work of Chaucer, upon the thought of Boethius, which places the greatest emphasis on one’s virtuous dealings with one’s external circumstances rather than upon those circumstances themselves. As the Franklin exclaims in a succinct summation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, “Fy on possessioun, / But if a man be vertuous withal!”[2] This is, it should be noted, in the same spirit as the words spoken by Petruchio after his dismissal of the haberdasher and the tailor when he insists that “honor peereth in the meanest habit.”[3]

The resolution to the issue of mastery in marriage offered by the Franklin is told in the form of a story of a knight, Arveragus, and his wife, Dorigen, whose arrangement at the inception of their marriage was

That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,

Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie

Agayn hir wyl, ne kithe hire jalousie,

But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in al,

As any lovere to his lady shal,

Save that the name of soveraynetee,

That wolde he have for shame of his degree.[4]

In a combination of the characteristics attributed in the Middle Ages to courtly and to medieval love, then, Arveragus has promised to obey Dorigen and never to exercise authority over her so long as she obeys him in public as befits his station as a knight and as her husband. The Franklin comments on this arrangement and the marital bliss it engendered:

Thus been they bothe in quiete and in reste.

For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,

That freendes everych oother moot obeye,

If they wol longe holden compaignye.

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.[5]

This mutual obedience and love between the two was so strong that each time Arveragus had to go away on a military campaign, “for his absence wepeth she and siketh.”[6] She is unable to be cheered by her friends and their dances and holds nothing but scorn for any man who would attempt to woo her into betraying her husband while he is away.

It is this, however, which gets her into trouble when she jests to Aurelius, a young man trying to win her favors, that she will “been youre love” if “ye remoeve alle the rokkes” along the seashore “stoon by stoon.”[7] Though Dorigen intends to mock Aurelius with the imposition of this impossible task, Aurelius is able to accomplish the feat, albeit temporarily, with the help of “his brother, which that was a clerk” who had studied magic.[8] Upon returning home and finding out what his wife had promised, Arveragus, with tears, orders her to fulfill the promise she had made because “trouthe is the hyeste thyn that man may kepe.”[9] She must do as she said, says Arveragus, in order to avoid the further and greater dishonor of dishonesty. Dorigen, in obedience, sets out for the place where she will meet Aurelius. Aurelius, however, is unable to go through with the act, so impressed is he by the virtue of Arveragus and the love of Dorigen for her husband. In the end,

Arveragus and Dorigen his wyf

In sovereyn blisse leden forth hir lyf.

Nevere eft ne was ther angre hem bitwene.

He cherisseth hire as though she were a queene,

And she was to hym trewe for everemoore.[10]

As Petruchio and Katherine will in the Taming of the Shrew, Arveragus and Dorigen have, through their shared mastery in marriage, attained a mastery over the world around them, including nature, as embodied in the black rocks which quickly vanish from importance when the couple are reunited, and the society around them, as embodied by Aurelius and his clerkly brother. As Bloom said of Petruchio and Katherine, so one might say of Arveragus and Dorigen that they are the couple in Chaucer most likely to live a happy life together.

[1] George Lyman Kittredge, “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage,” Modern Philology 9, no. 4 (Apr. 1912): 467.

[2] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales V.686–687. Of course, the influence of Chaucer upon Shakespeare and the fact of the pervasive presence of Boethius’s thought in Chaucer’s work is also indicative of a strong Boethian strain of thought in Shakespeare, though it must be remembered, as Will Durant has written, that Shakespeare “is an inescapable psychologist, but he is not a philosopher: he has no structure of thought unified by a purpose for his own life and for mankind. He is immersed in love and its problems, and thinks of philosophy, through Montaigne’s phrases, only when his heart is broken. Otherwise he accepts the world blithely enough; he is not consumed with the reconstructive vision that ennobled Plato, or Nietzsche, or Bacon.” Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), 180–181. The same could not be said of Chaucer.

[3] Taming of the Shrew IV.3.170.

[4] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales V.746–752.

[5] Ibid. V. 760–764.

[6] Ibid. V.817.

[7] Ibid. V.990, 992.

[8] Ibid. V.1105.

[9] Ibid. V.1479.

[10] Ibid. V.1551–1555.

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