The Wife of Bath’s relationship with her first three husbands in her Prologue serves the Wife's purpose of describing the "wo that is in mariage" because of how badly she mistreats them. It also provides the Wife to air her views on the role and power of women in marital relationship.
The first three were good, she admits, mostly because they were rich, old, and submissive. She laughs to recall the torments that she put these men through and recounts a typical conversation that she had with her older husbands. She would accuse her -husband of having an affair, launching into a tirade in which she would charge him with a bewildering array of accusations. If one of her husbands got drunk, she would claim he said that every wife is out to destroy her husband. He would then feel guilty and give her what she wanted. All of this, the Wife of Bath tells the rest of the pilgrims, was a pack of lies—her husbands never held these opinions, but she made these claims to give them grief. Worse, she would tease her husbands in bed, refusing to give them full satisfaction until they promised her money. She admits proudly to using her verbal and sexual power to bring her husbands to total submission.
She presents the common fourteenth-century concept of sex as a marital “dette” that the husband must pay to his wife. In her own marriages, however, sex transforms from a debt that her husbands pay into a fee that she gives in exchange for their wealth. In the discussion of her first three husbands, the Wife groups the men together, saying, “The thre were goode men, and riche, and olde” (197) and “They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor” (204). To get those benefits from her rich husbands, the Wife uses her sexuality. There is no indication that the Wife gives her husbands sex for any reason other than to get their land and treasure. As she says, “What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,/ But it were for my profit and myn ese?” (213-14). The Wife of Bath wouldn’t take the trouble to please her husbands sexually unless it was for some profit.
The underlying factor beneath all of the Wife’s marital decisions is that they stem from the desire to gain and secure control over men. The Wife clearly states that her greatest wish is to be free and powerful in marriage. She says that with any husband she takes, “I have the power durynge al my lyf/ Upon his proper body, and noght he” (158- 59). In addition to reading the word “body” in the corporeal sense, we can also interpret it as the body of her husband’s wealth and property. In both senses, the main idea is that the Wife wants complete sovereignty. She is successful at getting it within all of her marriages, stating, “Atte ende I hadde the bettre in ech degree” (404).
The Wife is an exceptionally strong woman who takes full advantage of the power of her sexuality. She is not a victim of the commodification of sex; rather, she perpetuates it with full- force. Every textual description of her first three marriages suggests that they were to her benefit. She would have no reason to condemn them.
The Wife of Bath’s treatment of her first three husbands is exactly what the medieval Church saw happening with the “wicked woman.” There are references to a number of satires published in Chaucer’s time, which half-comically portrayed women as unfaithful, superficial, evil creatures, always out to undermine their husbands. However, what surprises us is the absence of either direct criticism or satire on part of the author. The web of ambiguity regarding the voice of Chaucer himself makes the Wife’s character far more complex than a mere literary stereotype.