Spenser intended The Faerie Queene to be read primarily by young men desiring to learn better what virtues to cultivate in their lives. As such, the epic makes clear who the heroes and villains are, whom they represent, and what good behavior looks like. The most basic reading of The Faerie Queene is an education in proper living for 16th Century England.
Interdependence of the Virtues
The Faerie Queene makes it clear that no single virtue is greater than the rest. While some are superior to others, they require one another to strengthen the integrity of the whole person. For example, Redcrosse’s Holiness requires rescuing by Britomart’s Chastity, while Britomart’s Chastity seeks Justice to complete it in the social realm.
Chivalric Society and Social Classes
Spenser chose to set his epic in a romanticized medieval fantasy world full of knights, monsters, and damsels in distress. He uses this environment to give power to his allegorical statements, but at the same time, he includes an undercurrent of criticism for feudal Britain (and the class system his own age had inherited from it). Along with virtuous knights, Spenser includes noble savages (the Savage Man), honorable squires (Tristram), and even battle-hardened women (Britomart and Radigund). The knights, who are supposed to be the ideal of virtue, are often the most wrong-headed characters in the epic.
While ostensibly constructing an epic devoted to theological virtues of the Christian faith, Spenser cannot resist including his beloved classical mythology and legends in the work. Alongside the Redcrosse knight stands the half-satyr Satyrane; Calidone, the knight of Courtesy, spends time with rustic shepherds and a magical storyteller; and the virtuous Queen of England herself is depicted as Gloriana, Queen of the Faerie. To Spenser, there was no contradiction between classical aesthetic values and Protestant Christianity.
Protestantism versus Catholicism
Although The Faerie Queene can be read as a simple allegory of virtue, there are too many overt criticisms of the Catholic Church to keep the work theologically neutral. The monster Errour vomits Catholic tracts upon Redcrosse in Book 1, and Grantorto stands in for Catholicism as a whole in Book 6. Throughout the epic, Godliness is equated with Protestant theology, while falsehood and the destruction of lives are attributed to Catholic sources.
Spenser makes much of female Chastity in The Faerie Queene, and not just in the book devoted to that virtue (Book 3). Britomart is the ideal of chastity, yet she does not seek to remain a maiden; her quest is to find the man she has fallen in love with and marry him. Belphoebe, the virgin huntress, eventually develops a relationship with Arthur’s squire Timias. Arthur himself looks forward to the day when he will woo and win the Faerie Queene herself. Each of these strong female figures points to the real-life Queen Elizabeth, whose continued celibacy caused great concern among many of her subjects (who feared she would leave no heir to continue her glorious reign). In some ways, the entire epic is not just dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, but it also aims to change her mind and push her into accepting a suitor.
The Pervasive Effects of Slander
Through the Blatant Beast in Books 5 and 6, Spenser expounds the effects slander can have upon its victims. The Blatant Beast bites its prey, leaving them poisoned and dying. Only self-control, good living, and forthrightness of speech can cure them of their ills. Spenser uses the poisoning of Serena to show how a woman’s virtue can suffer even when she has done no wrong; he uses the poisoning of Timias following Belphoebe’s misperception of his intentions toward Amoretta to show a similar evil worked upon an upright man. Spenser had real-world counterparts in mind for these episodes: well-known political figures had been the victims of slander and could not escape its detrimental effects even after the allegations were disproved. The Blatant Beast is the one creature left alive by the questing knight: apparently, Slander is subject to repression (the Beast’s jaws can be bound for a while) but not complete elimination (the Beast still lives).
The Faerie Queene Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Faerie Queene is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.