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Perceptions of Love and Partnerships: The Knight and Alisoun, the Wife of Bath
"I ask this question of you lovers:/ which has the worst part, Arcite or Palamon?/ The one may see his lady daily,/ but always has to stay in prison./ The other may ride or walk wherever he pleases,/ but is never supposed to see his lady again."
(Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale", 489-494)
Chaucer begins The Canterbury Tales with "The Knight's Tale" and addresses the aforementioned question on love. Arcite, the released cousin in "The Knight's Tale", gains freedom and the opportunity to find new love, but loses the sight of his desired maiden. Palamon, retained in prison, retains the sight of his maiden, but has no freedom and no means to entice her; he must gaze upon his desire without the hope of attainment. "The Wife of Bath's Tale" quytes, responds in a manner of departing critique, the Knight's tale of two cousins's obsession with beauty. During her prologue, Alisoun recounts her experiences with late husbands and emphasizes the cunning deception she used to control her men. Through Alisoun and the Knight, Chaucer portrays the contradicting interpretations of power in love by man and woman.
Arcite, Palamon, and Theseus depict the violence men utilize to obtain their love. Following Arcite's release from prison, the cousins reunite in "The Knight's Tale" to engage in a bloody duel over who court the mistress both admire, Emily. Theseus encounters and intervenes the chaos:
"At first angry, Theseus soon relents, sets both of his enemies free, and invites
them to return in a year, each with a hundred knights, to take part in a glorious
tournament, with Emily's hand going to the winner."
Theseus's response to the cousins exemplifies the physical nature of men. Although he could end the fighting between the cousins, Theseus gives them a year to prepare for a "glorious tournament." He raises the stakes of battle with the declaration, "each with a hundred knights," and assertion that "Emily's hand [go] to the winner." The objective of Emily's hand in marriage constructs her as chattel before human being and illustrates woman's subjugate role to man. Arcite and Palamon control their fates through action, while Emily has no self-determination. Man's perspective of woman in "The Knight's Tale" presents his power and control over woman in relation to her subjection to man.
While men are the center of the Knight's Tale, Alisoun characterizes women as the authorities of relationships. Alisoun refers to her late husbands as predominately old men who possessed wealth and property. In various marriages, she accuses her husband of treachery against her independence and of affairs with other women to guilt him to her will:
"You shall not be master of both my body and my goods/... What use is it to snoop
and spy on me?/ We don't love a man who carefully watches where we go; we want
to be at large."
Alisoun controls her lover with false accusations and refuses subjection. Contrast to the cousins, Alisoun uses manipulation rather than force to assert her superiority. She forces guilt through accusation upon her husband, then proclaims her desires through word in lieu of action in, "We don't love a man who carefully watches where we go; we want to be at large." Opposing Emily's lack of self-determination, Alisoun declares mastery over herself in telling her husband "[he] shall not be the master of both [her] body and [her] goods." Through mastery of herself, Alisoun negates her objectivity and asserts her humanity. Divergence persists in goals "The Knight's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" depict. Whereas Arcite and Palamon fight for Emily as a prize, Alisoun argues against her husband for self-determination. Alisoun stresses the desire of woman to control her spouse and uses manipulation to maintain superiority.
Through Alisoun and the Knight, Chaucer addresses the contradiction in love and relationships. Male and female representations of power demonstrate the opposing depictions of love. Further, although Chaucer presents male and female views, the higher acceptance of "The Knight's Tale" by the travelers compared to the response of men, such as the Pardoner, to Alisoun demonstrate the explicit masculine arena of society. Chaucer writes "The Knight's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" to proffer the love of man and love of woman; the reception by the travelers substantiates the power of man over woman in society.