The first three books of Edmund Spenser’s masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, were published in 1590 and attracted immediate and widespread attention and praise. The next year, publisher William Ponsonby brought out a collection of shorter poems by Spenser, Complaints Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie, containing, among other works, Prosopopoia: Or, Mother Hubberds Tale. The Complaints was intended to take advantage of the poet’s newly found popularity. Unfortunately, the sharp satire of some of the poems, especially Mother Hubberds Tale, offended the Elizabethan authorities, and the book was apparently “called in,” or censored, shortly after its publication.
The satire in Mother Hubberds Tale that caused it to be censored was political in nature, and referred specifically to events surrounding the proposed marriage of Queen Elizabeth I to a French duke. Although the events had taken place long before the actual publication of the poem, which was probably written in 1579-1580, its offense to high officials in Elizabeth’s court, including Lord Burleigh and even the queen herself, was sufficient to have the volume suppressed and Spenser, for all practical purposes, banished to Ireland.
The entire poem is framed as if spoken by Mother Hubberd herself. “Prosopopoeia” refers to the rhetorical device in which an imaginary or absent person speaks or acts out a story. The purpose of the device is to set the satire within an imaginary context, allowing the animal fable that follows to be both believable and understandable. The central character of Mother Hubberds Tale, the wily fox who attempts to defraud the public, comes from the popular French stories of Reynard the Fox, translated and published by England’s first printer, William Caxton, in the late fifteenth century.
The format of the poem is that of the travel tale, specifically that of the picaresque story, which follows the adventures of a clever rogue. (The Spanish word for rogue, pícaro, gives the genre its name.) In Mother Hubberds Tale, there are two rogues, the fox and the ape. Their travels take them from rustic isolation to palatial splendor, since each deception they perform advances them another step up the social ladder: They begin as beggars and continue their successful trickeries until the ape becomes a king and the fox becomes his powerful first minister. At that point, Jupiter, a symbol of divine authority, bestirs the rightful monarch, the lion, into reclaiming his throne, and the fox and the ape receive their rightful punishments.
The poem falls into two sections. The largest section of the poem, up to line 950, is a general satire on human society and its ills. The fox and ape meet a succession of stock characters who symbolically represent the various levels of society. First, they encounter and dupe the honest farmer; his failing is that...
(The entire section is 1211 words.)