Was the wife a good or a bad person? My answer to this question is that she was both - when she needed to be. Alisoun was a woman who was who she was because of the situations, trials and tribulations she has been through.
I view the wife of bath as a victim of her original circumstances who used manipulation to escape them. Once she was older and wise and in control, she was able to let her true and loving side shine through. And she may have learned from experience that you get more with honey then you do with vinegar.
"Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. " Machiavelli's "The Prince"
This quote from Machiavelli's "The Prince" ran through my mind through out the entirety of reading the wife of bath. I believe that it applies to her story and the way that she lived her life, always hiding something from someone and appearing differently when the occasion called for it.
1"As help me God, I laughe whan I thinke
How pitously a-night I made hem swinke!
And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor." 201-203
In these lines the wife is beginning her personal tale and her stories about all of her husbands. From the exerpt it appears that the wife has taken control over her first husbands and would make them work for her, and she would never pity them. She is a negative person at this point, controling and power hungry. However, she only does these things because she needs to feel like she has control over anything since she had nothing. She could have been only 12 or thirteen when she acted like that, and not much more should be expected of someone that young who was thrown into marriage without consult.
2"The bacon was not fet for hem, I trowe,
That some men had in Essex at Dunmowe." 217-218
The bacon spoken of would be given to a couple who could swear after a year and a day that they had not quarreled within their marriage. This was never available for the wife of bath's men because she would constantly nag at them until an arguement would insue. She did everything she could to make them miserable. Although it was against common society, the wife of bath lived to make her marriages not work. This is a simple act of rebellion again from a 12 - (?) year old girl who wouldn't (and shouldn't have to) submit to the will of her arranged husband.
3"He shall have never the lasse light, pardee.
Have thou ynogh, thee thar not pleyne thee." 335 - 336
The wife of bath has a belief in regard to her first three husbands that ' as long as they are getting enough - who cares if someone else is getting anything.' This is her way of keeping them in line and committed to her. She offers them only what she has to in order to gain their obedience, but no one ends up being happy, only satisfied.
4"Whan that his shoo ful bitterly him wrong.
There was no wight save God and he that wiste,
In many wise, how soor I him twiste." 494
In reference to her fourth husband who cheated on her and was constantly drunk - the wife of bath proclaims that she got her revenge by torturing him how no one else could see. She speaks of how she is the shoe (A common metaphor for marriage at the time) that pinches him where no one can see on his foot but that she looks like the perfect wife from the outside. This was a very useful (although cruel) technique she used. For even though he was cheating on her, she wouldn't publicly disgrace him.
Through the experinces thus far, the wife of bath has learned how to deal with and manipulate men, however we see in the story of the fifth husband, and of the tale she tells that her mindset has changed somewhat.
5"We womman han, if that I shall not lye,
In this matere a queynte fantasye.
Wayte what thing we may not lightly have,
Therafter wol we crie all day and crave.
Forbede us ting, and that desiren we;
Preese on us faste, and thanne wol we fle. " 515- 520
When telling of her fifth husband the wife of bath first comes in contact with a man who does not allow her to verbally or sexually manipulate him. She speaks of how all women know that they want what they can't have and when offered something, it is no longer appealing. This is the constant circle through which the wife and her fifth husband go around. She only wants what she can't have and he will only offer her things that she finds displeasing. It is a turn of the tide when the wife of bath does not find herself able to get whatever she wants and it inspires in her a new way of going about things.
6"I with my fest so took him on the cheke
The in oure fire he fil bakward adoun.
"And he up stirte as dooth a wood leoun,
And with his fest he smoot me on the heed
That in the floor I lay as I were deed." 792-796
Here we see the wife's first non sexual force used on her husbands. She was so fed up with all of his talk that she flew into action to express her displeasure and he hit her back. This must have been the point in her mind (unless she has planned it all long) that Alisoun realized she could not forcefully control Janekyn. Therefore, she could have thought that she needs to convince him, that giving her power would be his idea.
7"But at the laste with muchel care and wo
We ille acorded by usselven two.
He yaf me all the bridel in mine hond,
To han the governace of hous and lond,
And of his tonge, and of his hond also," 811-815
"After that day we hadden never debaat.
God helpe me so , I was kind to him as kinde
As any wif from Denmark unto Inde," 822-824
After they had settled their disagreements he consented and gave her all the power over the household and over himself. This was exactly what Alisoun was looking for and it was what she needed to allow herself to be the dutiful and obidient wife that he had always wanted. She realized that to get control, she had to give what little she had. And he realized that to give her control was to have a happy and loving marriage.
Later - in the Wife of Bath's Tale, we see how her life story compares with that of the knight and the old woman.
8"My lige lady, generlly," quod he,
"Wommen desire ot have sovereynetee
As well over he housbond as her love,
And for to been in maistrie him above." 1037 - 1040
The knight who was given the task to find the answer to the question "what do all women most wish to have?" answers this to the queen in charge of his punishment. He has learnt from an old woman the answer he traded for any favor within his power. This correct answer (for none of the women dispute it) parellel's what the wife of bath is searching for in her life. She weaves this answer into her tale so that it will always be told of - that men might hear it and realize its truth; that women want to be either equal with or in control of their husbands. These lines just high light what the wife of bath has struggled with obtaining for most of her life.
9"My lady, and my love, and wif so deere,
I put me in your wise governaunce.
Cheseth yourself which may be moost plesaunce
And moost honour to you and me also." 1230 - 1233
Now at the end of her tale, the knight has taken the answer and applied it to his own life when his wife gives him two choices he puts them back on her, which makes her happy that he listened. He, in return gets a loving, obedient and beautiful wife. This is as the Alisoun's fifth marriage ends with them coming together and no longer being at odds, trusting that working together will get them through.
The wife of bath through the telling of her own story and then the tale shows one side of herself that is negative and a poor person who didn't have any say in her situation and did the best she could with what she was given. Once she suffered through those hard times, she came to the conclusion that the marriages can be better when made out of caring and when tended to properly. She was a woman of her situations.