The Faerie Queene (1590) is an epic poem by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), which follows the adventures of a number of medieval knights. The poem, written in a deliberately archaic style, draws on history and myth, particularly the legends of Arthur. Each book follows the adventures of a knight who represents a particular virtue (holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy) and who has that quality in him or herself tested by the plot. The Faerie Queene is an allegorical work in praise of Elizabeth I (represented by Gloriana – the Faerie Queene herself – and the virgin Belphoebe) and of Elizabethan notions of virtue. The poem employs frequent allusions to recent history and contemporary politics in its celebration and critique of the Tudor dynasty, such as the religious controversies and reforms under Mary and Elizabeth. Spenser wrote that one of his intentions was that the reading of this work should ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle disciple’. Spenser invented a new verse form for his epic that is now known as the Spenserian stanza.
The poem is unfinished: Spenser’s original plan was for 12 books, but we have just seven, the last being incomplete. The first three books were published in 1590 and the second three in 1596.
The Faerie Queene as a source for King Lear
In Book 2, the knight Guyon reads an old history of faerie land, which gives Spenser the opportunity to recount a chronicle of British rulers. In Canto 10, Stanzas 27–32 (pp. 332–34), Spenser tells the story of Leyr. The story is similar to that found in Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, in Spenser’s version, Leyr is looking to retire in his old age. After the love test and division of the realm, he weds Gonorill to the king of Scotland, and Regan to the king of Cambria (Wales). Cordeill/Cordelia is sent dowerless to Aganip of Celtica (France). In an ending very similar to Holinshed’s, Cordeill restores Leyr to the crown and later inherits it only to be overthrown by her nephews. In Spenser’s version, Cordeill hangs rather than stabs or slays herself (as in previous versions), which may be the source for the method of Cordelia’s murder in Shakespeare’s play.
Warrior women in The Faerie Queene
In Book 5, Canto 5, Sir Terpin tells the knight Artegall (representing Justice) of an Amazon Queen called Radigund who defeated and enslaved him (p. 232–33). Radigund is described as proud, lustful and skilled at arms. She is reported both to kill men and to dress them in women’s clothes and make them do housework such as cleaning and sewing. Artegall fights Radigund and is himself made captive.
In Canto 7, Britomart (a woman knight representing Chastity and with allegorical links to Elizabeth I) goes to rescue Artegall, with whom she is in love. She seeks out Radigund and kills her in a fight, releasing Artegall and the other imprisoned men (pp. 275–81). On seeing Artegall dressed in women’s clothes, she asks him, ‘What May-game hath misfortune made of you?’ (126.96.36.199), relating this inversion of gender roles to the topsy-turvy world of festive license and misrule.
Britomart and Radigund represent two different types of warrior woman: Radigund the Amazon is a renegade who operates outside of the social control of men, whereas Britomart upholds patriarchy. When Britomart overthrows Radigund she also reorganizes the Amazon enclave, subjecting them to male rule: ‘The liberty of women [she] did repeale, / Which they had long usurpt; and them restoring / To mens subjection, did true Justice deal.’ (188.8.131.52–7) In this way, Spenser is able to criticise the idea of female rule without necessarily criticising Elizabeth I herself. He explicitly excludes ‘lawfull soveraintie’ in his condemnation of the liberty of women:
Such is the crueltie of womenkynd,
When they have shaken off the shamefast band,
With which wise Nature did them strongly bynd,
T’obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
That then all rule and reason they withstand,
To purchase a licentious libertie.
But virtuous women wisely understand,
That they were borne to base humilitie,
Unlesse the heavens them lift to lawfull soveraintie. (5.5.25)