The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser

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The personal, historical, and political allegories in Spenser's The Faerie Queene


The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser includes personal, historical, and political allegories. Personal allegories reflect Spenser's own life and experiences. Historical allegories depict events and figures from England's past, such as the Protestant Reformation. Political allegories critique the court of Queen Elizabeth I and broader societal issues, using characters and events to symbolize contemporary political situations.

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What evidence marks Spenser's The Faerie Queene as a political allegory?

George Armstrong Wauchope, Ph.D. of South Carolina College explains in his introductory remarks to Book I of Spenser's text in Gutenberg Project that Book II is an allegory about "man's relationship to himself." He further points out that in early time periods, a poet's sovereign ruler was an integral part of that theme of man's relationship to man. It is in the opening lines of "The Legend of Sir Gvyon (Gwyn)" preceding the first Canto of Book II that primary textual evidence for a political allegory is found in that the Faerie Queene is expressly tied to the allegorical presence of the political head of England, Queen Elizabeth.. [Remember also, as Wauchope similarly points out, that poets in earlier eras were dependent upon the financial patronage of royalty and nobility in order to have leisure to pursue their masterpieces. Spenser was particularly in need of royal patronage since he did not come from an independently wealthy family and earned his way through his schooling on what may be called work-scholarships.]

Right well I wote most mighty Soueraine,
That all this famous antique history,
Of some th'aboundance of an idle braine
Will iudged be, and painted forgery,
Rather then matter of iust memory,
Sith none, that breatheth liuing aire, does know,
Where is that happy land of Faery,
Which I so much do vaunt, yet no where show,
But vouch antiquities, which no body can know.

But let that man with better sence aduize,
That of the world least part to vs is red:
And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
Many great Regions are discouered,
Which to late age were neuer mentioned.
Who euer heard of th'Indian Peru?
Or who in venturous vessell measured
The Amazon huge riuer now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?

These two stanzas open Book II of The Faerie Queene. The first line is addressed to "most mighty Soueraine (Sovereign)." If that were all the textual evidence there was here to connect the allegory to a political theme by a connection to the Sovereign, it might conceivably be argued that the address was to a fantasy Queene who was part of the whole fantasy Spenser was meticulously building. However, this view cannot hold up once you read as far as lines 12 and 13 of the excerpt. These begin a passage that definitively identifies the "Soueraine" of the opening line and enumerates some political enterprises undertaken by the Faerie Queene. These lines read:

And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
Many great Regions are discouered, ....

Spenser is here referring to Queen Elizabeth's "enterprize" in exploring and conquering many distant lands in the navigational outflux that began discovering a whole world after Columbus opened the possibilities. There remains no doubt that Queen Elizabeth's political enterprise is precisely what Spenser refers to when the next lines reveal allusion to Peru, the Amazon River, and Virginia. As a result of Spenser's specific mention of things directly attributable to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, all textual doubt is removed that Spenser is addressing anyone but the Queen whom he hopes to gain as a friend and a patron. In so doing Spenser has established an unquestionable political element to his allegory.

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Explain the personal, historical, and political allegories in Spenser's The Faerie Queene.

Many scholars recognize two dominant categories of allegory in Spenser's work: (1) moral and religious allegory; (2) historical and national allegory. "Political" is a term that might be interchangeable with either of the standard terms, historical/national. "Personal" might be interchangeable with either of the standard terms moral/religious.

The moral or religious allegory (one allegory described by two different focalizing words) addresses Spenser's objective of producing a work that might instruct and guide gentlemen and noblemen into living morally and religiously upright and virtuous lives:

The generall end therefore of all the booke, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline. (Letter to Sir Walter Raleighi, The Faerie Queene)

The dominant characters of this category of allegory are Red Cross Knight and Una. He has various companions at different times and does or does not behave, at any given moment, with virtue. An early example of virtuous action is when, with Una's help, Red Cross Knight finally stops the monster Error in Wandering Forest. An example soon after of his acting virtulessly is when he abandons Una (allegorizing True Religion) at the inn after having a dream that she herself was unvirtuous and sent to seduce him.

The dominant historical or national (political) allegory is that which cast Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, as the double of England's Queen Elizabeth I. She is introduced in Canto I as the bestower of valorous adventures and the rewarder of suppliants. Red Cross Knight is introduced as the recipient of a mission from Gloriana that would end with him slaying a "dragon horrible and stearne":

Upon a great adventure he was bond,
That greatest Gloriana to him gave,
That greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond,
To winne him worship, and her grace to have, (Canto I, Stanza III)

The Dedication of The Faerie Queene establishes the connection between Elizabeth I and Gloriana. The historical/national aspects of the allegory are calculated to give her praise, glory, and honor for her virtue, valor, and noble sovereignty:

Defender of the Faith etc.
TO LIVE WITH THE ETERNITIE OF HER FAME. (Dedication, The Faerie Queene)

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