What was Spenser's primary purpose in writing The Faerie Queene?
Spenser himself stated that the main goal of his epic was to instruct young men in the ways of virtuous living. To this end, he uses the examples of several noble knights to work through the various virtues, overcoming temptations and learning the proper behavior associated with the virtue, as allegorical stand-ins for the young readers themselves.
How do Spenser's personal beliefs color the epic?
Spenser allowed his own fervent Protestantism to give The Faerie Queene a distinctly anti-Catholic bias. Catholic "heresies" are depicted in the person of Grantorto, the monster Errour, and the failure of the knight Burbon. Each of these episodes serves to promulgate the superiority of Protestant Christianity over Roman Catholicism.
What view of women is presented in The Faerie Queene?
In many ways, Spenser's view of women as depicted in the epic is ahead of its time. While many of the damsels in distress are vapid and frail, major characters such as Britomart stand out as examples of strong femininity. Britomart's gender serves the purpose of the allegory in making her immune to evil feminine wiles, but Spenser goes further in his depiction of Britomart as a woman equal in beauty and battle-prowess. Only her future husband, Artegall, can master Britomart, and he only achieves a form of equality on the field of battle, not superiority.
How is the virtue of Holiness depicted in The Faerie Queene?
Holiness is represented by Redcrosse, a knight bearing the symbol of Jesus Christ upon his shield. His brand of holiness includes moral and theological purity, as he fights deceptive monsters on behalf of his lady Una (whose name means "truth"). Una herself reminds Redcrosse that his holiness proceeds from God, not from within, allowing him to overcome Errour and eventually to destroy the dragon imprisoning Una's parents. Holiness overcomes false doctrine in this Book.
How is the virtue of Temperance depicted in The Faerie Queene?
Temperance is the most ambiguously depicted virtue in the epic. Guyon, the knight of Temperance, is himself often intemperate (he even threatens harm to an old woman!). While he is a more human character than many of the other walking symbols in the work, his representation of Temperance is not unequivocally pure even by the end of his quest: as he enters the Bower of Bliss to destroy it, he is sidetracked by his desire to stand and watch two beautiful, naked women frolic in a fountain. Only the Palmer--a more mature believer who has taken the path already--can urge him on his way to fulfill his quest.
How is the virtue of Chastity depicted in The Faerie Queene?
Contrary to popular views, Chastity is not depicted as perpetual abstinence from sexual relations. Britomart does not seek to remain a virgin all her life; in fact, her quest is to find the man she has fallen in love with, win his heart, wed him, and raise up a noble and mighty line of rulers. Her Chastity is more a single-mindedness in love: she will not turn from her path toward her beloved Artegall for any man, and her gender gives her built-in immunity to the charms of the temptresses along the way.
How is the virtue of Friendship depicted in The Faerie Queene?
Spenser departs from his traditional single-knight representation of virtues in Book 4, where two knights must illustrate Friendship through a bond of mutual love. Spenser intentionally sets Book 4 up as a series of balanced pairs, which interlock into tetrads (groups of four). Cambell and Triamond are the exemplars of friendship; their relationship is double-bonded by their virtuous wives, Canacee and Cambina, each the sister of her husband's best friend.
How is the virtue of Justice depicted in The Faerie Queene?
Justice is represented by the knight Artegall and by the iron man Talus. Talus shows Justice in its most mechanical, systematic, and stubborn form. The iron man knows nothing of mercy and must be repeatedly stopped from slaughtering everyone associated with an unjust character or place. Artegall is a more fully developed kind of Justice: he is fair and impartial, but knows when punishment must stop and reconciliation must begin.
How is the virtue of Courtesy depicted in The Faerie Queene?
Calidore is the knight of Courtesy, which in Spenser's day meant proper behavior in relation to the social classes, particularly the nobles (those who reside in the sovereign's court). Spenser follows the traditional depiction of Courtesy as a virtue of those born to high estate and raised properly by courteous parents. At the same time, he introduces the problem of nature versus nurture into the equation in the form of Tristram, who has not been raised properly but is nonetheless courteous due to his noble lineage; and the Savage Man, who has no noble heritage but was raised properly by his adopted parents and behaves most courteously in the epic. That the Savage Man saves the knight of Courtesy and is himself immune to any knight's weapon suggests that Spenser saw Courtesy as a universal virtue rather than one limited to societal constructs.
How does The Faerie Queene fit into the chivalric tradition?
Spenser self-consciously imitated the works of Thomas Malory and the purveyors of the Arthurian legends in his epic. However, he also takes critical shots at the code of chivalry by depicting many of the knights as immoral, lazy, cowardly, and incompetent. There is an undercurrent of critique against the romantic tradition in his repeated use of the "damsel in distress" trope as a catalyst for confusion and foolishness on the part of the otherwise virtuous knights. The best example of this is Florimell, who lures even Arthur off his path with her fleeting beauty.