In this paper I will compare the approach to marriage in the works “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer and “The Flea” by John Donne; in both cases it is a means to an end: in the first the old woman wants to get “the thing that most of all Women desire” and in the second the lover seeks “How little which his lover (thou) deniest him (me)” and uses an allusion to marriage to achieve this.
In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” the old woman seems to ask the knight a naïve request; there is no hint that what she will ask of him is to marry her: “Swear me true that whatsoever I ask of you, you’ll do it if it lies whithin you might…”. After the knight returns to the queen, and the answer the old woman gave the knight is the one the queen looked for, the old woman’s intent becomes clear: “Before the court I ask you, then, sir knight, To take me, as you wife.”
The knight in shock tries to refuse, but as he has sworn “upon his (my) honor” he has no way out of the deal he closed; therefore, they get married. As married couples are due in the night of the wedding, the couple goes to bed to consummate the marriage. Here is when we learn what the old woman’s plan was.
As they lay in bed they old woman is waiting for the knight to act as a newlywed husband, but she then realizes that the knight’s intentions were not the ones she hoped for: “You are so loathsome and so old as well… …It is no wonder that I toss and turn.”
The wife tells her husband that he has two choices, and he is welcome to choose what he best prefers, for she will do as he bids and never complain. The knight thinks carefully, and weighs his options, and then realizes that this choice should not be his: “My love and lady, my dear wife. In your wise government I put my life… …I am content, whatever pleases you.”
Now the old woman’s motive is clear, and she got “the thing that most of all Women desire” “to have sovereignty… …above their husbands, and to have their way in love”; the choice is hers to do as she pleases, and what she wants is to please him, so she gives her husband everything he could have wanted.
The decision she makes can be confusing since she denies herself the power she wanted after getting the choice, but the main point is that even so she was able to choose.
In “The Flea” the man is not looking for marriage, he seeks only to consummate it. The allusion to marriage is used to undermine the importance of the act that comes after the wedding: the bedding.
The poem starts with the comparison between both lovers being bitten by a flea, and the lover thinks that the act of being bitten by a flea is less than the consumption of marriage: “Yet this enjoys before it woo, And pampered swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do.” The fact that they were bitten by the same flea means that they are as good as married.
The lover tries to convince his mistress that what he wants is not sinful as she thinks since they are already married by the bite of the flea, so they may as well do what married couples do: “The flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed and marriage temple is.”
The woman is not convinced by his words, and tries to kill the flea, but her lover tries to convince her that this flea is them, and their love and marriage, and if she kills the flea, not only the flea will die: “”Three sins in killing three.”
After the flea is killed by his lover, he finds a way to turn around the situation for his benefit, and tells her that the fact that flea is dead only shows that nothing is as important as it seems; therefore, why should not them lay together? She will lose as much as the flea lost which apparently she thinks it is not a lot: “’Tis true; then learn how false fears be: Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, will waste…”
In this works the use of marriage although used for alternate purposes is given different meaning. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the old woman wants “the thing that most of all Women desire”, and is willing to do anything to get it; in “The Flea” the lover wants to lay with his mistress, and will say anything to convince her, even that they are “married” after being bitten by a flea.
The use of the marriage in both stories is done differently since the old woman lures the knight into marrying her, so that she can get what she want, and the lover tries to convince his mistress they are already married in a sense, so that he will able to bed her.
One may well say nevertheless that in both cases marriage is a means of leverage, a tool to be best used as the authors see fit, in order to allow their characters achieve their aims; whatever those aims might be. In these sense marriage gets a similar treatment in both stories.