Philosophy and Social Commentary in Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’
Few books in the Western literary canon have elicited as broad a range of critical interpretations as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. It is a deeply allegorical work of great imagination, but to what extent, and in what ways, it is allegorical has been the subject of considerable debate since its publication in 1590. Some believe it was, in part, intended as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I, while others claim that it is a representation of the tumultuous world of Elizabethan England, which was emerging from the violence and oppression that marked the death struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Still others insist that Spenser, who wrote that Aristotle had been his inspiration, wanted to write about virtue in detail, each of his knights symbolizing one of Aristotle’s 12 human virtues.
There is no disagreement over the contention that The Faerie Queene is richly allegorical. This presentation will examine two critical interpretations of Spenser’s use of allegory, one of which holds that Spenser wished to emphasize the great religious struggle that still dominated life in England; the other view argues that The Faerie Queene was less “topical,” that Spenser instead was concerned with the nature of virtue. This perspective sees the book as a story through which Spenser writes about virtue as an element, personified by the Arthurian knights in Book One. It is to be understood that both views, though divergent, have merit and one can easily argue in favor of either. As such, both are presented here as worthy and viable interpretations.
Book One of The Faerie Queene is a tale about a great quest, which draws from the great literary device of the era and from other great works, such as Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which chronicles the quest of Arthur’s knights for the Holy Grail. Spenser’s quest knights are the embodiment of noble duty as they pursue their mission, but there is deeper, richer meaning at work in the text. “While there is no denying that chivalry is blatant in the storyit can be construed that the representation of ‘the quest’ within the poem is a metaphor for the nature of chivalry, not of its actuality, but of an aspect of its complexion” (Arthur, 2). Chivalry, for Spenser’s quest knights, becomes the active personification of virtue, without which there is no quest. There is an “eternality” of knightly chivalry and duty in Spenser, the portrayal of which provides a rich backdrop against which he paints an allegorical morality play. It is thus that The Faerie Queene exists as an allegory for virtue.
Virtue, “dressed up” as chivalry, is for Spenser an eternal wellspring “that Spenser intended to represent (as) continuity and renewal with regards to this gallant, knightly code. There is evidence of this not only on a large scale comprising the entire text; with the traditional, epic format of the poem and with Arthur’s recurrence in every book, but also on a more detailed level, as(in) Book I” (Arthur, 2). Along with the chivalric quest, Elizabeth I stands as an overt representation of virtue, which Spenser admitted in his famous letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. Elizabeth I was one of the most outstanding images of virtue in the long history of the English monarchy, and is often referred to as “the Virgin Queen,” a ruler who led her people out of the bloody religious conflict and in their great war against Spain’s powerful Catholic monarchy.
Elizabeth, as Gloriana is a human metaphor for both personal and queenly virtue, but it is a timeless virtue, as is the knightly quest. Spenser’s use of virtue is part of a literary continuum, or tradition. “Its inheritance from past poets and knights elucidates its timeless history, and the way in which it operates in the text temporally establishes it as ever present in the future and ever necessary” (Arthur, 9). This was Spenser’s aim, to show the timelessness and importance of virtue, of upholding and defending it, and to “foster a noble, virtuous, and essentially chivalric attitude among his readership” (10).
Allegory in Spenser: Religion
Book One features Gloriana’s knights battling Catholic enemies, who exhibit superstitious conceits that would have been instantly recognizable to the readers of the day as typical of Catholic ideology. The reference to the Reformation, and to Elizabeth’s role in guiding England to Protestantism, is unmistakable even today. In late-16th century England, Spenser’s meaning was clear. And while some have claimed that Spenser’s references to religious conflict are ambiguous, his confession of admiration for Elizabeth and her impact on an England engulfed in chaos clearly indicate that The Faerie Queene was a medium for social commentary. In it, Spenser makes a point about the Reformation in England as an important, though violent, phenomenon. Elizabeth, who is exemplified in the character of Gloriana, made a rousing speech in 1588 to English troops at Tilbury as they prepared to take on the fearsome Spanish Armada, a threatening incarnation of Catholicism and one which must have awakened
terrible memories of religious civil strife (Dimmock and Hadfield, 12).
Given Spenser’s avowed admiration for Elizabeth and his desire to comment on the events of the day, one is left to wonder whether his primary aim was philosophical or propagandistic. As a story clearly concerned with the nature and permanence of virtue, The Faerie Queene offers insights on human nature and on the desire to be virtuous, as well as the difficulty of remaining virtuous in an ambiguous world. Or is The Faerie Queene principally a means for making a socio-political point, or points, about power and politics in late-16th century England? Many have contended that The Faerie Queene is so laden with allegorical meaning that one does not necessarily supersede another. But Spenser’s letter to Raleigh does seem to indicate that the author intended to infuse his allegory with philosophy and metaphysics, as well as topical subject matter.
In The Faerie Queene, the word “Rauran” appears, a reference to a place in Wales near the ancestral home of the Tudors, a reference to Elizabeth’s supposed ancestral ties to Arthur himself (Spenser, 164). At the same time, Spenser makes the point, to Raleigh, that “I labor to portrait in Arthur, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues” (235). Thus, it can be argued that these two different critical interpretations of The Faerie Queene find parallel and intertwining story lines, combining to make Spenser’s epic poem one of the greatest allegorical works ever produced. For Spenser, the 12 virtues, of which Aristotle had written, were palpable, elemental forces, as much as was the personal influence and leadership evinced by Elizabeth I.
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