The subject matter of the epic poem The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spenser, stems largely from Arthurian legends, so we can take some of our cues from there when we look for insight into what Spenser’s characters might represent. The poem contains supernatural elements and figures in order to convey allegory, which contains layers of hidden meaning. Spenser utilized these “pastoral” elements as a framework for his characters. It’s important to note that Spenser also used elements of the Protestant religion alongside classical mythology and pagan symbolism, which were used harmoniously to impart these deeper meanings. Thinking about this will help us to better understand what the figures, or characters, represent.
There are three categories to consider when defining Spenser’s allegorical representations: moral, religious, and political. For example, the Lion represents reason (moral) and reformation (religious) as embodied by Henry VIII (political). The Dragon represents sin (moral), Satan (religious), and Rome and Spain (political). We begin to see a theme present itself in the characters, which are based on Spenser’s interpretations of the moral, religious, and political climate in England during the Edwardian era.
In another example, the strong anti-Catholic movement in England during Spenser’s lifetime is referenced, in addition to the social and political unrest in Ireland. The characters Corceca, Abessa, and Kirkrapine are all based on Irish Catholic figures and represent what the author and most of his contemporaries believed about the Irish clergy. Together they embody the unseemly qualities of sin, superstition, blind devotion, robbery, and immorality. In contrast, the characters who represent the higher virtues are based on English religious and political figureheads.