Mar 17 2023
THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN: Charles Rammelkamp takes a transatlantic look at Zadie Smith’s updating of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath
Seven hundred years after her introduction in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath is having a moment. On top of Marion Turner’s feminist study, The Wife of Bath: A Biography, in which Turner analyzes Alison of Bath as a woman of her times, Zadie Smith’s brilliant new play re-imagines the iconic lusty, comic wife in the twenty-first century.
After an Introduction in which Smith explains the accidental origin of her play – a misunderstanding with a friend about a tribute to Brent, her Northwest London borough in which Willesden is located – the text of her play follows. As with Chaucer, there is a Prologue followed by the Tale and then a Retraction.
A “General Lock-In,” in which the author sets the stage, starts it all off. Everything takes place in Colin Campbell’s pub on the Kilburn High Road. Publican Polly, who helps run the pub, and several other characters are introduced, including the Wife of Willesden (Alvita) and her five husbands – Ian, Darren, Winston, Elridge and Ryan – along with Zaire, Alvita’s best friend. In both the Prologue and the Tale, Alvita is the narrator while various people in the PUB CHORUS act out the drama.
The Wife of Willesden’s Prologue, like the Wife of Bath’s, is twice as long as her tale. Smith gives us a picture of Alvita in her own words. “My thing is: you want to think you’re a saint? / Fine. But don’t slut-shame me because I ain’t / About that.” She goes on: “My thing is, to be honest, I’m just real. / I do and I say exactly what I feel.” To sum it up, she tells Colin, the pub owner:
Simple advice, Colin, it’ll take you far: Whoever’s behind the wheel drives the car.
Darren, Ian, Winston and Elridge all have opinions, but it’s the final husband who gets the most attention. This one she married for love, only to find him oppressive and misogynistic. She signs over all of her wealth to him and he beats her, reads to her from texts that defame women. Alvita writes of her fifth husband, Ryan, a Scottish student working on a Master’s degree:
He’s fit, you know! Nice body, tight round bum… He was twenty. I could have been his mum. Yeah, I was forty, to tell you the truth, But he’s a honey, and I’ve a sweet tooth – Plus, I’m gap-toothed like Madonna; which suits Us both; symbolizes passion; it’s cute, It’s sexy, and Christ Almighty, I liked sex….
But ultimately, Alvita subdues Ryan, and they live harmoniously. He declares: “Oh, my amazing wife, / Do whatever you want with your own life; / What’s best for you is clearly what’s best for me.”
Alvita’s tale, of course, illustrates her point of view. In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath’s Tale is one of a group of “Marriage Tales,” perspectives on matrimony that also includes the Clerk’s, the Merchant’s, the Squire’s and the Franklin’s. Instead of Arthurian England, Alvita’s tale takes place in eighteenth-century Jamaica and is full of Jamaican patois and folklore. As in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, a Maroon (a Black person in the West Indies who escaped slavery) rapes a girl and is sentenced to death; only, his life is spared when Queen Nanny proposes an alternative. “So here is my deal:” she tells the Maroon,
You’ll live – if you can tell me what we feel – I mean we women. What we most desire. You tell me that? I won’t set you on fire.
As in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the man is given a year and a day to find the answer. But he hears all kinds of responses about the desires of females – power, money, jewels, orgasms – and almost despairs. He laments:
Me can’t find no one, enslaved or free, Fi give me answers wat mek wi all agree!
In the end, just as in The Wife of Bath’s tale, an ugly old woman saves him on the condition he agrees to marry her. She tells him what women want (what we really really want, as the Spice Girls might sing!), and a year and a day after making the agreement, the Maroon tells Queen Nanny:
Queen Nanny, who rules this place with iron fist: The thing women want is basically this: They want their husbands to consent freely; To submit to their wives’ wills – which should be Natural in love; for we submit to love. To keep power, and have no man above Them – all women want this. And you can kill Me, but I speak the truth. Do what you will.
Smith employs a vast variety of characters to tell Alvita’s tale, including Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley, Socrates, Black Jesus and God himself!
Zadie Smith’s re-interpretation of The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a delight to read, for rendering the “moral” in accessible modern slang. The volume includes Chaucer’s Prologue and tale, in the original Middle English, if anybody feels compelled to read the prototype.