However, the characters Desdemona in William Shakespeare’s Othello and Dame Alison from The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales seemingly go against common conventions of women, as they are bold characters who have strong opinions and exert dominance. Dame Alison, the Wife of Bath, is a character created by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. She is a merchant who has an interest in profit, and uses sex and her many husbands to gain that profit. Alison has been married five times, and she is open to more, as sex is extremely important to her. Welcome the sixte, whan that ever he shal! / For sothe, I wol nat kepe me chast in al,/ Whan myn housbonde is fro the world anoon. ” (51-53) Alison is boldly stating that she will continue to remarry because she cannot remain without sex, a statement that blatantly goes against the ideal woman, a lady who has one husband and is chaste at all times. Alison challenges this ideal when she says, “but that I axe, why that the fifthe man/ was noon housbond to the Samaritan? 1/ How manye mighte she have in mariage? / ... God bad us for to wexe and multiplye. (21-23, 28) In Alison’s time, the messages in the bible were considered the truth and 1 Referencing a story in the bible where Jesus told a Samaritan that though she had five mates, only one was her husband. were not to be challenged, especially by a woman. Within the first one hundred lines of her prologue, Dame Alison is breaking traditional womanly conventions by admitting her love of sex and questioning why the bible says she can only have one husband. Traditionally, husbands worked to make money and wives took care of the household.
However, in The Canterbury Tales, we find out that Dame Alison is a business woman who “of cloth-making she hadde swich an haunt,/ she passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt. ” (Prologue to Canterbury Tales, 449-50) And though she is a successful business woman in her own right, Alison also uses sex to control her men and receive material gifts from them. She states that her first husbands were so old that “they had me yeven hir gold and hir tresoor;/ me neded nat do lenger diligence/ to winne hir love, or doon hem reverence. (204-206) In this quote, Alison is saying that they gave her land, money, and love without her having to have sex with them, a quote that shows readers she is open about sleeping with men to get what she wants. She reaffirms this notion of using sex to get what she wants by stating, “a wys womman wol sette hir ever in oon/ to gete hir love, ther as she hath noon. / But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,/ and sith they hadde me yeven all hir lond/ what sholde I taken hede hem for to plese/ but it were for my profit and myn ese? (209-214) In the lines following that quote, Alison goes on to mention that she had her husbands wrapped around her finger and that they were happy to please her. This is a direct contradiction to the social expectations of women in the time of Chaucer. Women were supposed to be at their husbands beckon and call, to ask for nothing, and to provide sex when needed by the husband. However, Alison’s husbands are at her beckon and call, she asks repeatedly for things, and she only has sex when she wants something. By using sex to her economic advantage, Alison is further breaking the socially acceptable behavior of women.
Dame Alison challenges the bible in reference to virginity. Challenging the bible was generally taboo, especially when it came from a woman. Alison poses strong arguments and questions about virginity. Firstly, she says that Saint Paul’s talk of virginity and remaining celibate throughout life “al nis but conseil. ”(82) Secondly, in lines 105-114, she is saying that virginity is a kind of perfection, and though Jesus was perfect, virginity is only meant for those who strive for absolute perfection, like Jesus was. Alison, on the other hand, says that “[she] wol bistoew the flour of al myn age,/ in the actes and in fruit of mariage. (113-114) Thirdly, Alison questions the design of the physical body. “Telle me also, to what conclusion/ were membres maad of generacioun/ and for what profit was a wight y-wrought? ” (115-117) In this quote, Alison is asking why genitals were made perfect for each other if they weren’t mean to be used. Questioning why the bible and society have such strong opinions on virginity, a subject that is not generally discussed by women, is yet another reason why Dame Alison, the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales challenges the socially acceptable behavior of women.
Desdemona, the main female character in William Shakespeare’s Othello is another example of a character who is breaking female behavior norms. In the first act, Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, makes note of what a proper Venetian woman should be. He says they should be “of spirit still and quiet... never bold. ” (I. iii. 95-97) Contrary to Brabantio’s statement however, Desdemona is arguably bold. Her father, Brabantio, has long decided Desdemona will marry a business man. She, however, finds them boring, and thus marries Othello.
Othello, though a celebrated general of the Venetian arm, is a moor2 and is therefore somewhat of a 2 A person who usually comes from northern Africa or Arabia and is therefore black or dark skinned. societal outcast in the predominantly white Venice. Desdemona blatantly defies her father, something proper women never do, by marrying a social outcast. Any proper woman in Othello’s time would have been meek and polite both in public and in private, characteristics that are not displayed by Desdemona in either place.
When confronted by her father about her marriage to Othello, Desdemona fights back, stating “I am hitherto your daughter: but here’s my husband/ and so much duty as my mother show’d/ to you, preferring you before her,/ so much I challenge that I may profess/ due to the Moor my lord. ” (I. iii. 185-189) Desdemona is maintaining a strong stance on her marriage to Othello and is not cowering away because of her angry father. She publicly argues with Brabantio, an act that easily challenges the socially acceptable behavior of women as women were supposed to be submissive, never arguing with their fathers (or any man for that matter), specially in public. Like Dame Alison, Desdemona is a temptress who uses sex to get what she wants. Trying to convince Othello to forgive Cassio, Desdemona states, “tell me Othello, I wonder in my soul/ what you would ask me that I should deny,/ or stand so mammering on? ” (III. iii. 68-70) By referring to her unquestionable desire to please Othello in every possible way, Desdemona is saying that Othello cannot possibly love her as much as she loves him if he denies her wishes. In this one instance, Desdemona is subtly defying the socially acceptable behavior of women as she is using her sexuality to get what she wants.
Overall, both Desdemona from Othello and Dame Alison from The Wife of Bath’s Prologue are characters who defy the socially acceptable behavior of women in their respective time periods. Desdemona acts bold by defying and arguing with her father, and uses her sexuality to manipulate. Similarly, Alison uses her sexuality for economic gains from her five husbands, has a successful business of her own, and challenges the bible’s stance on multiple marriages and virginity. Therefore, both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare challenge the ideals of the behavior of women in the early 14th and 17th centuries respectively.