Allegory of virtue
A letter written by Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1590 contains a preface for The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser describes the allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland". Presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions, this letter outlines plans for twenty-four books: twelve based each on a different knight who exemplified one of twelve "private virtues", and a possible twelve more centred on King Arthur displaying twelve "public virtues". Spenser names Aristotle as his source for these virtues, though the influences of Thomas Aquinas and the traditions of medieval allegory can be observed as well. It is impossible to predict how the work would have looked had Spenser lived to complete it, since the reliability of the predictions made in his letter to Raleigh is not absolute, as numerous divergences from that scheme emerged as early as 1590 in the first Faerie Queene publication.
In addition to the six virtues Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy, the Letter to Raleigh suggests that Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, which ("according to Aristotle and the rest") is "the perfection of all the rest, and containeth in it them all"; and that the Faerie Queene herself represents Glory (hence her name, Gloriana). The unfinished seventh book (the Cantos of Mutability) appears to have represented the virtue of "constancy."
The Faerie Queene was written during the Reformation, a time of religious and political controversy. After taking the throne following the death of her half-sister Mary, Elizabeth changed the official religion of the nation to Protestantism. The plot of book one is similar to Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which was about the persecution of the Protestants and how Catholic rule was unjust. Spenser includes the controversy of Elizabethan church reform within the epic. Gloriana has godly English knights destroy Catholic continental power in Books I and V. Spenser also endows many of his villains with "the worst of what Protestants considered a superstitious Catholic reliance on deceptive images".
The poem celebrates, memorializes, and critiques the House of Tudor (of which Elizabeth was a part), much as Virgil's Aeneid celebrates Augustus' Rome. The Aeneid states that Augustus descended from the noble sons of Troy; similarly, The Faerie Queene suggests that the Tudor lineage can be connected to King Arthur. The poem is deeply allegorical and allusive; many prominent Elizabethans could have found themselves partially represented by one or more of Spenser's figures. Elizabeth herself is the most prominent example. She appears in the guise of Gloriana, the Faerie Queen, but also in Books III and IV as the virgin Belphoebe, daughter of Chrysogonee and twin to Amoret, the embodiment of womanly married love. Perhaps also, more critically, Elizabeth is seen in Book I as Lucifera, the "maiden queen" whose brightly lit Court of Pride masks a dungeon full of prisoners.
The poem also displays Spenser's thorough familiarity with literary history. The world of The Faerie Queene is based on English Arthurian legend, but much of the language, spirit, and style of the piece draw more on Italian epic, particularly Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. Book V of The Faerie Queene, the Book of Justice, is Spenser's most direct discussion of political theory. In it, Spenser attempts to tackle the problem of policy toward Ireland and recreates the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Some literary works sacrifice historical context to archetypal myth, reducing poetry to Biblical quests, whereas Spenser reinforces the actuality of his story by adhering to archetypal patterns. Throughout The Faerie Queene, Spenser does not concentrate on a pattern "which transcends time" but "uses such a pattern to focus the meaning of the past on the present". By reflecting on the past, Spenser achieves ways of stressing the importance of Elizabeth's reign. In turn, he does not "convert event into myth" but "myth into event". Within The Faerie Queene, Spenser blurs the distinction between archetypal and historical elements deliberately. For example, Spenser probably does not believe in the complete truth of the British Chronicle, which Arthur reads in the House of Alma. In this instance, the Chronicle serves as a poetical equivalent for factual history. Even so, poetical history of this kind is not myth; rather, it "consists of unique, if partially imaginary, events recorded in chronological order". The same distinction resurfaces in the political allegory of Books I and V. However, the reality to interpreted events becomes more apparent when the events occurred nearer to the time when the poem was written.
Symbolism and allusion
Throughout The Faerie Queene, Spenser creates "a network of allusions to events, issues, and particular persons in England and Ireland" including Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, the English Reformation, and even the Queen herself. It is also known that James VI of Scotland read the poem, and was very insulted by Duessa – a very negative depiction of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. The Faerie Queene was then banned in Scotland. This led to a significant decrease in Elizabeth's support for the poem. Within the text, both the Faerie Queene and Belphoebe serve as two of the many personifications of Queen Elizabeth, some of which are "far from complimentary".
Though it praises her in some ways, The Faerie Queene questions Elizabeth's ability to rule so effectively because of her gender, and also inscribes the "shortcomings" of her rule. There is a character named Britomart who represents married chastity. This character is told that her destiny is to be an "immortal womb" – to have children. Here, Spenser is referring to Elizabeth's unmarried state and is touching on anxieties of the 1590s about what would happen after her death since the kingdom had no heir.
The Faerie Queene's original audience would have been able to identify many of the poem's characters by analyzing the symbols and attributes that spot Spenser's text. For example, readers would immediately know that "a woman who wears scarlet clothes and resides along the Tiber River represents the Roman Catholic Church". However, marginal notes jotted in early copies of The Faerie Queene suggest that Spenser's contemporaries were unable to come to a consensus about the precise historical referents of the poem's "myriad figures". In fact, Sir Walter Raleigh's wife identified many of the poem's female characters as "allegorical representations of herself". Other symbols prevalent in The Faerie Queene are the numerous animal characters present in the novel. They take the role of "visual figures in the allegory and in illustrative similes and metaphors". Specific examples include the swine present in Lucifera's castle who embodied gluttony, and Duessa, the deceitful crocodile who may represent Mary, Queen of Scots, in a negative light.
The House of Busirane episode in Book III in The Faerie Queene is partially based on an early modern English folktale called "Mr. Fox's Mottos." In the tale, a young woman named Lady Mary has been enticed by Mr. Fox, who resembles Bluebeard in his manner of killing his wives. She defeats Mr. Fox and tells about his deeds. Notably, Spenser quotes the story as Britomart makes her way through the House, with warning mottos above each doorway "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold."