The Wife of Bath: Standup Comic


  • Margaret Rogerson


In this article I argue that the prologue to The Wife of Bath's Tale is also an exercise in carnival, and that rather than being a true autobiography of Alisoun of Bath, it is a joke routine for a standup comic. My reading of both prologue and tale as a comedy act has been influenced by the scholarly work of feminist film and television critic, Kathleen Rowe, whose studies of unruly women in modern comedy help to explain the appeal of Chaucer’s Wife for medieval audiences and for those who observe her at the end of the twentieth century. Following Rowe’s lead, I propose that the Wife of Bath is in some ways a Roseanne Barr of the Middle Ages, who exploits the comedy inherent in the figure of the unruly ‘woman on top’, who is ‘too fat, too mouthy, too old ... too sexual ... for the norms of conventional gender representation’. The compelling energy that Rowe has noted in Roseanne, a television sitcom star of the 1980s and 1990s, is similar to the attraction of the Wife of Bath. Both ladies exude the excesses of the archetypal grotesque woman who can be a focus for comedy in any period. It is also important to observe that the creator and original live performer of the Wife of Bath was not a woman, but Chaucer, a member of the medieval male patriarchy. As Peter Beidler has pointed out, Chaucerian scholars assume that the Wife’s prologue and tale were ‘designed initially to be presented orally by Chaucer himself, either in the royal court or at some other gathering—a bachelor party, for example, or a visit by a diplomat, or a trade guild festival’.4 The ‘Wife’ was, then, conceived of as a female role to be presented by a male reader, possibly for an all male audience, and I contend that ‘she’ can be interpreted as a foremother of Dame Edna Everage, Australia’s own ‘housewife-superstar’,5 as created and performed by Barry Humphries.