An Analysis of Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen": A War With Words
Much is revealed in the way that an author expresses himself; the diction he uses and the images he creates often serve to represent secondary meanings not apparent at first glance. For example, by examining the literary devices and word choice employed by Queen Elizabeth of England in her speech “Answer to the Commons’ Petition That She Marry,” it can be determined that she cloaks deeper messages of superiority and authority under the pretense of believing herself to be a weak and unworthy woman, incapable of solely ruling the country of England. She then goes on to create a mockery of her modest words, and thereby reveals her true aim of letting the commoners know she is much more than capable.
Spenser, when writing a poem that can be perceived to be a critique of the powerful queen’s character and chastity, also uses words to claim he is an incapable artist; unable to write a true account of her personality and but an unwilling and ungifted messenger in his art, Spenser therefore reasons that any offense and concurrent anger should not be directed at him. Both Queen Elizabeth and Spenser practice methods of false modesty to pacify their audiences; Elizabeth in an attempt to not completely offend the commoners and yet let them know she is in charge, and Spenser in an attempt to excuse his bold literary project by placing the blame on fate and therefore escaping any resulting punishment if the queen found his work offensive.
When called upon by her subjects to marry and therefore secure an heir to the throne, guaranteeing a smooth succession, Elizabeth uses skilled rhetoric to flatter and at the same time insult her commoners. She starts off her speech “Answer to the Commons’ Petition That She Marry” by giving the appearance of agreeing that they have reason to worry about their safety, “The weight and greatness of this matter might cause in me, being a woman wanting both wit and memory, some fear to speak and bashfulness, besides, a thing appropriate to my sex” (Course Reader 3). By saying she is a woman and therefore lacking in both intelligence and the ability to think, she is acknowledging that their concerns have merit, and that with her bashfulness and womanly characteristics she may not be in a position to distinguish matters of “weight” and “greatness,” such as her refusal to marry and consequent inability to produce an heir.
However, in the next sentence she reminds them that she was ordained to rule by heavenly powers and that by questioning their queen, the commoners could be considered blasphemous:
But yet the princely seat and kingly throne wherein God (though unworthy) hath constituted me, maketh these two causes to seem little in mine eyes, though grievous perhaps to your ears, and boldenth me to say somewhat in this matter, which I mean only to touch but not presently to answer (3).
By calling herself unworthy she is calling attention to her actual worth, as it was God who willed her to rule, and if He deemed her capable, it is not for the people to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, she uses words like “princely” and “kingly throne” to discreetly bring to mind images of masculine authority and say in so many words that, although she is a woman, she holds the same power and authority as all the men who have ruled before her. Queen Elizabeth is reminding her people that she is the one in charge, the only one with the experience and knowledge to understand what is important to the safety of her country, and this wisdom has allowed her to view all issues with a viewpoint of authority and to surpass her normal womanly instincts in favor of a higher purpose. She contrasts her ability to see the whole picture, due to her experience as a ruler, with the ineptness of her subjects, who find such realistically insignificant matters as her gender to be of “grievous” importance.
By deciding only to touch upon the commoners’ concerns, Queen Elizabeth is dismissing the importance of their arguments. This serves in great juxtaposition to her former claim that the subject is of weight and greatness, by then claiming that, although she will not completely ignore their request, she also sees no need to justify her actions to her people. She stresses the actual unimportance of marrying and providing an heir, by using the same words “great” and “weighty” yet again later in her speech, suggesting a form of disguised mockery: “And though, I am determined in this so great and weighty a matter to defer mine answer till so me other time because I will not in so deep a matter wade with so shallow a wit” (3-4). This sentence comes after her quotation of a great philosopher in a way that justifies her actions, and follows with the strict reminder that it was she alone who saved her people from the rule of Queen Mary of Scotts, a rule of Catholicism. Such references bring with them the connotations of great knowledge and achievement, things meant to disprove any thoughts that the queen is lacking any mental or leadership capacities.
It is through her words that Queen Elizabeth at first appears to be agreeing and even complimenting her people on their ability to foretell any tragic consequences due to the nonexistence of an heir to the throne. However, her use of constant repetition and stark juxtapositions serve to prove that she intends the exact opposite meaning of her words, and is in fact chastising the commoners’ for their lack of faith in her ability to protect and provide for her country. A sense of bitterness and reproach underlie the queen’s whole speech, along with a subtle warning that such requests anger her, epitomized by a statement near the end:
I assure you, I mean to charge you as further to let you understand that I neither mislike any of your requests herein, nor the great care that you seem to have of the surety and safety of yourselves in this matter (4).
This statement accuses the people of selfishness in their requests, and by saying that she does not dislike the fact that her people will put themselves and their own desires over her own, Queen Elizabeth creates a sense of extreme sarcasm and insincerity, which encompasses the whole statement. Not only is she angered that her subjects would sell her into an unhappy and undesired marriage for their own benefit, but she does greatly dislike their whole petition and fashions her speech in such a way to make this evident but at the same time not blatantly chastise the commoners in a way that would inspire great resentment or hatred.
Similarly, Spenser must be careful that his words do not inspire the wrath of his own audience, namely the Queen herself. Such an effect may be achieved through the publishing of his work, “The Faerie Queen,” in which he admittedly fashions the fictitious fairy queen in the form of Queen Elizabeth: “In that Faery Queene […] I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene” (13). A work of flattery would not be dangerous, however, Spenser admits that in his work “I doe otherwise shadow her,” (13) such as in his character Britomart. Although the word “shadow” is glossed to mean “portray” in the Reader, it also has a dark, negative connotation, which comes forth in the third book of Spenser’s story.
In this third book, Spenser writes about the quality of chastity, a quality which he shows through his fictitious representation of the Queen of England in the character Britomart. Queen Elizabeth embodies this quality, as she is as yet unwed and claims to be a virgin queen, a being deserving respect and worship. Spenser initially appears to agree with the queen’s image as strong and pure, as he shows the “famous Britomart” in an attractive light, revealing qualities of braveness and power, as she comes upon “sixe knights, that did darraine/Fierce battle against one, with cruell might and maine,” and immediately rides to the knight’s rescue. Having defeated the knight’s tormenters, who wished to make the knight the slave of a beautiful lady unless he could prove he had a love of equal or surpassing beauty, Britomart goes on to claim:
‘Now may ye all see plaine,/
That truth is strong, and trew love most of might,/
That for his trusty servaunts doth so strongly fight’ (FQ 3.1.29)
Britomart is crediting her prowess in battle to the fact that she fights for truth and honor. The other knights simply rely on the power of numbers to enforce their wrongful motives, to trap and enslave all men who ride through their land. Fighting on the side of pure love, a single female warrior can defeat and overpower all of six impure knights.
Such power is recognized by the knights, and they invite Britomart to their fair lady’s castle to claim a reward. Once inside, the rescued Redcrosse Knight quickly disarms and makes himself comfortable, whereas Britomart will only lift up the guard on her helmet. The beauty of purity and virtue shine from her face, and her true identity as both warrior and woman is revealed, much like the role Elizabeth plays in her position in society. Britomart is a woman filled with admirable characteristics, and in her “the attractiveness of Venus combines with the cool virtue of Diana and the might of Minerva” (Course Reader 34). The Lady of the castle, known as Malecasta, gazes upon Britomarts face and immediately ignites with passion and desire, later creeping to Britomart’s bedchamber, “Th’ embroderd quilt she lightly up did lift,/And by her side her selfe she softly layd” (FQ 3.1.61).
Having discovered the imposter, Britomart leaps out of her bed and grabs her weapon, only to have Malecasta shriek and awaken the household before falling into a deadened faint. It is in this light that the six knights and Redcrosse Knight come upon the scene:
Confusedly they came, and fownd
Their Lady lying on the sencelesse grownd;
On th’other side, they saw the warlike Mayd
All in her snow-white smocke, with locks unbownd (3.1.63).
This whole series of fictitious events is employed by Spenser to represent a direct critique of Queen Elizabeth’s claims of purity and chastity. Many believed the Queen to not be the virgin idol she claimed to be, and through his work Spenser shows that chastity is a virtue that cannot be proven, but lies solely on hearsay and appearance. Chastity is a quality that must be believed, or else it does not exist, regardless of whether or not a person is truly chaste. Without the acceptance of her claims of purity, Queen Elizabeth is as much a potential victim for slander and in a position to have her virtue desecrated as Britomart. Britomart loses her purity, and one of the six knights symbolically wounds her with a bow and arrow, “drops of purple bloud thereout did weepe,/Which did her lilly smock with staines of vermeil steepe” (3.1.65). This blood represents the loss of Britomarts virginity, not physically but spiritually. As all present no longer believe her virtuous, and since her virtue cannot be proven, it no longer exists. Britomart has been defiled in the eyes of everyone, and her purity and innocence have been snatched away by Malecasta. In such a way it could be interpreted that by bringing into question the true presence of virtue and its intangibility, Spenser is soiling the Queen’s reputation and making her an object open to debate and criticism, potentially taking away her claimed virtue.
It is because of these potential readings, and therefore the possible anger the Queen might feel as a result, that Spenser takes time at the beginning of his third book to use words to appease the queen and excuse himself of any blame. An example of this lies in Spenser’s first line of his third book, “It falles me here to write of Chastity,” (3.intro.1) suggesting by the word “falles” that the task of scrutinizing the ideals of chastity is given to him against his will. He then adopts the tactic Queen Elizabeth formerly employed and begins to flatter his audience, claiming that the epitome of virtue is “shrined in my Soveraines brest,/And formed so lively in each perfect part,” (3.intro.1) saying that Queen Elizabeth is the perfect living representation of the virtue of chastity. He claims that any seeming words of belittlement would be the result of his own ineptness, and that his quest requires boldness because of the possibility and “fear through want of words her excellence to marre” (3.intro.2) Also like the queen, he is modestly claiming that he is unable to appropriately represent the Queen due to his own limitations and may “her perfection, with his error taint,” (3.intro.2) excusing himself of blame for causing offense in a method similar to the way the queen excused herself from having to explain her reasons behind rejecting the ideals of matrimony and guaranteed biological succession to her commoners. Spenser requests the right to “sing his mistresse prayse, and let him mend,/If ought amis her liking may abuse,” (3.intro.5) assuring that he will be forgiven for causing offense and not do irreparable damage to his audience, like Elizabeth similarly tries to avoid greatly offending her subjects.