The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser

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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 398

Spenser was influenced by the classical conception of the four cardinal virtues of Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence and the Christian tradition of three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity, but in The Faerie Queene his treatment of virtue becomes his own synthesis of these traditional concepts. In his “Letter to Raleigh,” he says that his first twelve books will be concerned with the twelve private virtues identified by Aristotle and that he will postpone his treatment of public virtue or “politicke virtues” to a later work. When he died, he had completed only six books of the projected twenty-four. Spenser’s six books deal with holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. Attempts to classify these virtues as either public or private have been unsuccessful. Although it is possible to identify specific allegorical passages in which Spenser draws upon a specific tradition—for example, the presence of personifications of Faith, Hope, and Charity, in the House of Holiness—his handling of virtue has to be understood within the context of episodes in the poem.

Spenser guides the reader to a concrete understanding of the abstract virtues of Holiness or Temperance by a sequence of imaginative adventures and images. The knights functioning as protagonists of each book undergo tests of their respective virtues and battle antagonists as a means of defining their virtue. For example, the first book shows Red Cross (Saint George of England) visiting the House of Pride, where he sees a pageant of the seven deadly sins (pride, wrath, jealousy, avarice, gluttony, sloth, and lechery). He falls under the spell of the deceitful Duessa, which leads him to the dungeon, ruled over by the giant Orgoglio, an emblem of pride. Remorse over these lapses makes him vulnerable to the spell of Despair, whose rhetoric is almost irresistible. After a vision of the New Jerusalem from the Mount of Contemplation, he visits the House of Holiness. This visit prepares him for battle with the dragon, and he triumphs over the dragon (representing Satan, the Beast of the Apocalypse, and the Spanish Armada) in a fierce three-day battle, paralleling the harrowing of Hell by Jesus Christ. Spenser depicts holiness, traditionally understood to be a contemplative virtue, as an active, even heroic virtue.

The presentation of Christian themes is less explicit in succeeding books, but virtue in its individual and social configurations remains central to The Faerie Queene.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998

Duty and Responsibility Throughout the The Faerie Queene, Spenser emphasizes the importance of performing one's duty and accepting responsibility to complete the quest. Several heroic figures emerge during the course of the poem and each is given a question to undertake, a monster or demon to extinguish. Each time, the hero must overcome disadvantage and hurdles to succeed, but the importance of the quest is always the overriding concern. Although the Red Cross Knight must fight several demons and overcome despair, he always continues on the quest to rescue the King and Queen of the West. Similarly, Artegall must be rescued himself by Britomart. And although he really wants to continue with her, he must complete the quest of freeing Irena. Calidore is also momentarily distracted, enjoying a brief pastoral respite, but he also realizes that he must complete his quest in subduing the Blatant Beast. Throughout this epic, Spenser makes the same point again and again: mankind must be responsible and fulfill the duties set before them.

Deception For Spenser, deception is most often represented by the Roman Catholic Church and by Spain, which most clearly represents Catholicism in Britain. Archimago and Duessa represent how deception will attempt to prevent...

(This entire section contains 998 words.)

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the honorable man from completing his journey and prevent him from meeting with god. During this period, the division between the Catholic world and Protestant world was filled with suspicion and animosity. Spenser uses this idea as a way to posit that an ideal Britain is one in which the true religion, the Anglican Church, defeats the monstrous Roman Catholic Church. This idea is personified by the Red Cross Knight's overcoming the tricks played by Archimago and Duessa. Since all good men will be tempted, these two characters reappear throughout the epic, thus requiring their defeat by several honorable knights. Spenser's audience would have easily identified Archimago and Duessa as representing the Catholic Church or key Catholic personages, such as Mary, Queen of Scots.

Friendship The bond between all men, his relationship with everyone around him, is important to Spenser's work. None of the knights acts alone. The Red Cross Knight needs the help of Prince Arthur to succeed. And Arthur misses his squire, Timias, when he is lost. Arthur reappears frequently in the epic, each time to bond with another knight and help him in his quest. No knight works alone, with each one requiring the friendship of another to complete his quest. In addition to the friendships between men, friendship becomes the central focus of Book IV. The two women, Britomart and Amoret, continue the search together to find their true loves, illustrating the importance in women's friendships in achieving goals.

Humanism Humanism was an intellectual movement of the Renaissance, beginning in Italy and quickly moving across Europe and into England. Sir Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus were important authors of this movement, which promoted the education of a Christian gentlemen. Ideally, the education of Christian gentlemen emphasized, as a first concern, a preparation for public service. There was an emphasis on classical texts and on learning Latin language, the language of diplomacy. Spenser's purpose in composing The Faerie Queene was to create a model for the ideal gentlemen. He sought to educate the public to chivalric ideals by recalling the medieval romance that he thought presented a better society. Spencer's text not only revives the classical epic, which in its purest form, had not been used since Virgil, but it emphasizes the ideals of charity, friendship, and virtue, which are the hallmarks of the Humanistic movement. Prior to the Reformation, Humanism embraced Catholicism as a representative ideal, as was the case with Sir Thomas More. But after the reformation, Protestantism became the ideal for Humanists in England, such as Spenser.

Justice Justice is an important theme throughout The Faerie Queene, but in Book V, it is the central focus. Sir Artegall is the champion of Justice. As Spenser creates him, Artegall has the power to dispense justice, but he also discovers that justice can be a complex issue, with not every man receiving what is due him. Artegall discovers that what is right or fair is not always clearly defined. With Sir Sanglier, Artegall must use wit to devise a Solomon-like decision to expose the guilty party. Later, Artegall must rule on the consistency of law when he settles a dispute between Bracidas and Amidas. Artegall also discovers, when dealing with the Amazons, that sometimes justice, tempered by pity, does not work well. The trial of Duessa, that completes Book V, illustrates that justice is effective when applied to solve problems.

Virtue Virtue is a theme that runs throughout The Faerie Queene. According to Spenser, the virtuous will succeed at completing their journey or quest. Every knight who undertakes a quest for the Faerie Queene is forced to confront obstacles or deception. That each knight succeeds is a result of his inner strength, both his commitment to his quest, but just as importantly, his commitment to a moral life. The knights deserve to win because they are good, virtuous men. To contrast with a life of virtue, Spenser provides the example of virtue's enemies. In Book I, the Red Cross Knight meets with Lucifera, who is the mistress of Pride. Her six wizards are Idleness, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, and Wrath. These seven deadly sins constitute the opposite of the virtuous ideal. In Book III, four women must fight to preserve their chastity: Britomart, Florimell, Belphoebe, and Amoret. Spenser uses four different examples, and there are several others throughout the six books, to illustrate how important chastity is in a Christian life. Morality is essential to the chivalric ideal in other ways. When Arthur rescues Amoret, in Book IV, there is never any question that he will deliver her, unmolested to her destination. He is an honorable knight, as are Artegall, Guyon, and Calidore. Each man performs according to their code, which makes virtue, morality, and chastity, an essential part of each man's personality.


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