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.