The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

What do the characters in The Faerie Queene represent?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Spenser’s epic poem is a religious allegory, so its characters embody various virtues or stand as archetypal representations of their opposites. For instance, the knights Redcrosse and Britomart represent holiness and chastity, respectively. Britomart’s disguised femininity actually makes her the ideal representation of chastity, since it protects her from succumbing to the temptations that lead many of her male counterparts astray. Una, Redcrosse’s love interest, represents ultimate truth, while her opposite, the witch Duessa, is the embodiment of duplicity: lies and deceit. The sorcerer Archimago, who is capable of altering his appearance, could be seen as the ultimate trickster or devil. Other names within the work contain broader hints about the individual virtues or traits of a particular character. The name, Arthegall, means “like Arthur,” while the names of the three women Redcrosse encounters in the House of Holiness literally mean “faith,” “hope,” and “charity.”

Some of the work’s characters have real-life counterparts. Redcrosse, for example, ultimately is revealed as St. George (England’s patron saint). Arthur, the story’s hero, was an actual historical figure, although the legends that grew around him promised a Golden Age with his eventual return. This made him the ideal consort for Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, an embodiment of Queen Elizabeth I.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial