Power and Love in Marriage: A Comparison of An Ideal Husband and The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and Wilde, although writing 500 years apart, both present power as an intrinsic aspect of marital life in Medieval and Victorian patriarchal societies. January sexually dominates May in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, while in ‘An Ideal Husband’ it is Lady Chiltern who exerts domestic power over her husband. Though May gains independence from January, deceiving him in a manner which conforms to the fabliau tradition, Lady Chiltern’s reconciliation with Robert comes at the price of her marital power and autonomy.

In ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, January’s uses the sacrament of marriage as an excuse to exert carnal power over May. Chaucer describes how ‘the bride was broght abedde as stille as stoon’, a use of alliteration and sibilance which emphasizes May’s unresponsive state, portraying her as submissive to January’s advances. This passivity acts in juxtaposition to January’s lusty excitement, especially when he explains how he ‘moot trespace // to yow, my spouse, and yow greetly offende’. Medieval society held the view that once a marriage was consummated it was permanent, a notion which explains January’s haste to sexually dominate May. Indeed, January’s use of the modal verb ‘moot’ suggests that he regards sex as a necessity. This stance is reflective of a 14th century view that a wife’s primary role was to produce an heir who could inherit the family’s fortune through the law of primogeniture. However, January anticipates that the experience of sex will be unpleasant for May, a realization which heightens that sense that January ‘seeks to take control of May’s sexuality’ (Fiona Dunlop) for his own personal gain. Certainly, we are never given an insight into May’s thoughts, with Chaucer drawing attention to this fact by exclaiming that ‘God woot what May thought in hir herte’. This statement once again draws attention to May’s compliant nature, highlighting how women were regarded as inferior to men in Medieval society, being expected to remain subservient to their husbands at all times. January’s sense of ownership over May’s body is examined further when requests ‘hire strepen hire al naked’, forcing her to ‘obeyeth, be hire lief or looth’. Chaucer’s use of alliteration throws weight onto how we are never given May’s perspective of events, strengthening the feeling that she is sexually submissive to her husband. Indeed, January’s affection towards his wife seems to be founded in his sexual superiority and control, a revelation which suggests that Medieval marriages were more concerned with power than love.

While January exerts sexual power over May in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, it seems that Lady Chiltern holds the power to influence her husband’s decisions in ‘An Ideal Husband’. At the end of Act 1, Robert tells Lady Chiltern of his plans to support the fraudulent Argentine canal scheme. Gertrude responds to this disclosure in horror, dictating that Robert ‘must never see (Lady Chiltern) again’, and instructing him to ‘write that (he) declines to support this scheme of hers’. Gertrude’s use modal verbs and imperatives suggests that she holds authority over Robert’s actions, forging the feeling that her control over her husband could potentially permeate his political choices. This would have appalled Victorian audiences, especially seeing as wives were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere, supporting their husbands in all decisions, and not concerning themselves in the politics of the patriarchal public sphere. Lady Chiltern’s power over Robert is also explored through her idealization of him. Indeed, Gertrude’s veneration of Robert prompts Sos Elitis to observe that ‘both (Robert’s) marriage and the country’s financial integrity are rendered vulnerable through an insistence upon unrealizable standards of morality’, a realization which accentuates the far-reaching implications of Lady Chiltern’s control over her husband. Gertrude’s domestic power is also examined when Lord Goring implores to her that Robert’s life and love are ‘in your hands’. This phrase is repeated twice, emphasizing how Lady Chiltern has the ability to alter Robert’s future due to the control she wields over him from her position as his wife. Certainly, Gertrude’s marital power seems to govern her marriage to Robert, however there is also a sense that her influence over him would not be possible without a basis of love, thereby suggesting that power and love are inextricably linked within marriage.

Just as Lady Chiltern exerts her domestic power over Robert, May is able to control aspects of her marriage to January through various acts of deception. After discovering Damyan’s feelings of courtly love towards her, May ‘taketh him by the hand, and hard him twiste’. This line employs a harsh assonance, enhancing the sense of May’s growing assertiveness. Her actions are cunning and secretive, revealing her duplicitous character, and accentuating her willingness to find a reprieve from her unsatisfying marriage to January. Maurice Hussey comments that May’s quest for independence ‘shows the gradual dominance of the bride, who takes a lover and deceives her old husband until the end of the story’, conforming to the fabliau tradition. However, May’s increasing autonomy and violation of one of the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, would have shocked Chaucer’s contemporary readers. On the other hand, modern feminist readers would applaud May for pursuing independence from January, aligning her defiance against Medieval conventions with examples of females exerting power within a patriarchal society. When January catches May having sex with Damyan, she maintains a mask of deceit to disguise her immoral act, thereby demonstrating her shrewd control of the situation. She cunningly tricks January into believing that she ‘dide it in ful good entente’, an excuse which he foolishly believes. Therefore, January’s naïve acceptance of May’s explanation increases the sense that she has taken control of their loveless marriage.

Likewise to May, Wilde depicts Lady Chiltern as exerting power over her husband, however while May’s control grows stronger towards the end of ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, Lady Chiltern’s power is significantly diminished at the conclusion of ‘An Ideal Husband’. Gertrude loss of independence and autonomy is demonstrated when she exclaims that ‘a man’s life is of more value than a woman’s’. This comment is a direct repetition of Lord Goring’s chauvinistic speech which ‘consigns women to a purely domestic and supportive role’ (Sos Eltis), highlighting how Lady Chiltern has submitted to Victorian patriarchal views. While Wilde’s contemporary audiences would have accepted this view of women as inferior and subordinate to men, a modern feminist audience would be outraged at such a comment, seeing it as a tragic loss of Gertrude’s autonomy within her marriage. Certainly, Lady Chiltern seems to have conformed her role as wife to the Victorian ideal portrayed in Coventry Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’, becoming submissive and obedient to her husband. It seems that Gertrude’s compliance is an essential aspect of her reconciliation with Robert. In the play’s final line, Lady Chiltern declares that it is ‘love, and only love’ she feels for her husband, exclaiming that ‘for both of (them) a new life is beginning’. The optimism of their ‘new life’ seems to be inextricably linked to Gertrude’s loss of marital power, suggesting that love cannot survive in a relationship in which the wife has control over her husband, especially within the patriarchy of Victorian society.

Overall, power is a fundamental aspect of all the marriages in ‘A Merchant’s Tale’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’. May is originally sexually dominated by January, yet she gradually gains control of her own sexuality, increasing her independence by deceiving her husband and committing adultery, proving the loveless nature of their marriage. However, while Lady Chiltern initially idealizes her husband and holds a significant amount of domestic power over him, this is reversed by the end of the play when Gertrude submits Robert and Victorian patriarchal ideals, allowing for love to flourish.

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