It is evident upon reading the poem that any criticism is not immediately evident and expressed only through allegory. An examination of the social and economic situation in which Spenser lived and wrote makes clear certain obligations and requirements of his poem. In his article ‘The Elizabethan Subject and The Spenserian text’, Louis Adrian Montrose discusses how ‘The Elizabethan Subject’ is both the Queen’s subject, Edmund Spenser, but also the Queen-as-subject, subject of and in her subjects discourse, in the Spensarian text. Thus Elizabeth is not only the subject of The Faerie Queene but in her role as Spenser’s lord, sponsor and provider, the creator of the fiction or at least its editor. It is arguable then that Spenser had a certain dependency on portraying flattering images of Elizabeth as a method of monetary and social advancement. Yet Spenser’s involvement in the aggressive politics of the Leicester faction and in particular the policies of the Earl of Essex explains his manipulation of allegory to form a subtle critique of his Queen. Her shortcomings are illustrated as an expression of Spenser’s politics, beliefs that are necessarily disguised.
Praise is however still heaped upon Elizabeth in those characters which are evidently to be read as images of her. Immediately in Book One we encounter Una who is representative of purity, ‘the virgin borne of heavenly brood’ and the embodiment of the true church. Her recovery of her homeland represents the unity of the nation and the institution of the Protestant faith by Elizabeth. Similarly Florimell, Belphoebe and Britomart also exemplify the Queen’s quality of chaste virtue and the consummate figure of Mercilla, ‘a most sacred wight most debonayre and free,/That ever yet upon this earth was seene’, adds to the group of characters whose association with Elizabeth would surely flatter her. While the characteristics of these women are certainly those that Elizabeth would have wished to embody, it is also important to clearly examine Spenser’s intention in the conception of these images.
The models of Elizabeth do glorify her but it is also possible that she is superseded by these fictional representations, as the contrast between the ‘mythic’ and the ‘real’ is firmly established. The mythical characters seemingly surpass Elizabeth in their values. Yet a closer examination of the portrayals of these characters may reveal a critique of these same images. Certainly Florimell, while virtuously chaste, is portrayed as an image of female vulnerability, she is constantly hunted from one place to another in an attempt to escape the lusty intentions of men. She is rendered helpless in most situations, in a similar way to Amoret. This persistent drive to escape the intentions of men perhaps mirrors Elizabeth’s private concerns. Florimell’s perpetual desire to run is presented almost as paranoia and as a fear of male sexuality. The image is passive and weak and in this way Elizabeth’s same positive decision not to marry is reduced to a girlish, giggly fear.
Belphoebe is another image that is strongly aligned with Elizabeth, she is a model of chastity and a ‘most vertuous and beautiful Lady’ who, we are told in the Letter to Ralegh, figures Elizabeth as her private self, just as Gloriana is the ideal embodiment of the queen’s public figure. She is a divine character, conceived by light, whose beauty and spiritual strength associate her with Gloriana, and in her virginity she is an ‘ensample’ to all women.
However if we examine Belphoebe’s effect on Arthur’s squire, Timias, which leads to the destruction of his aspirations to knighthood, we can see perhaps Spenser’s underlying criticism. Belphoebe prevents Timias from fulfilling his expected masculine role, she even affects his mental faculties rendering him unable to speak. This episode, at a level of historical allegory, clearly refers to Ralegh’s pursuit of Elizabeth, which led to his fall from grace. Belphoebe plays a double role within the allegory, posing as a flattering image of the virgin queen, while simultaneously usurping this apparent praise. The situation expresses succinctly the very real fear of many of Elizabeth’s subjects. Her power evidently derived from her lineage, her position as Henry VIII’s daughter ensured her entitlement to the throne and yet certain tensions remain with her assumption of that role.
Elizabeth’s very presence as the figure head of the nation lead to an certain feeling of emasculation in her courtiers and in fact in her everyday people. The general concern was based on the fact that the very notion of a female monarch was socially as well as politically disturbing; and that it would lead to the dissolution of gender identities. Their desire then, undeniably, was for a king and this was a feeling that Essex’s rebellion attempted to exploit. The psychological wish for a king worked very much against Elizabeth. Controlling the various factions within her court was one of her greatest challenges. What evoked criticism from her contemporaries was not her actual political manipulation of the factions, but her use of her femininity with which to do so. Courtiers were uncertain about exactly how to approach and address Elizabeth, Ralegh took the style of a courtly lover, using Petrarchian discourse to discuss the power of women over men and the frustration that this caused. This ‘quest for love’_ appeared unnatural in the context of the sixteenth century and the image of Elizabeth’s court was equated to a mistress surrounded by suitors or a mother surrounded by her children.
This immediately, perhaps intentionally, recalls the image of the procession of the seven vices behind Lucifera in the House of Pride, and this allegory is made more applicable by Lucifera’s personal pride, as Elizabeth herself was deeply concerned with pageantry, dancing and dress; female concerns around which her court was centred. Evidently Lucifera is not intended as a representation of Elizabeth but connections can certainly be made, which serve not only as criticism, but also distance Elizabeth from Gloriana, the ‘historical’ from the ‘mythical’. Furthermore although Elizabeth is strongly aligned with the positive characters in The Faerie Queene, it is also important to note that each of these figures of virtue has an antithetical figure of vice. The most obvious of these is Duessa, whose duplicity contrasts Una’s singleness of faith. Britomart’s adversary takes the form of Radigund, the Amazon queen and the palace of Mercilla, an exemplary place of justice forms an opposition with the excesses and earthliness of Lucifera’s House of Pride.
The presence of conflicting images can be interpreted either as foils, further reflecting the goodness of those images that are to be read as mirrors of Elizabeth. Alternatively Elizabeth and her regime are tainted by the comparison to these less successful characters. Certainly, the presence of the various, conflicting portraits of matriarchal courts serves to throw a different light upon Elizabeth’s administration. Her court centred largely around her maintenance of power and this involved securing domination away from the aristocracy into the autocracy. In this way Elizabeth, not only by her presence but by her actions too was seen as attempting to dominate over men, effeminising them. Her role of dominant female, her politics and her attitude meant that as men, nobles and courtiers, her subjects were left uncertain and frustrated.
In Spenser’s portrayal of Radigund we see perhaps these central concerns illustrated. Radigund, ‘A Princesse of great powre, and greater pride,/And Queene of Amazons, in armes well tride’ has established a matriarchal society where:
‘Many brave knights, whose names right well he knew,
There bound t’obay that Amazons proud law,
Spinning and carding all in comely rew.’
Thus, the effeminised condition, a central concern of Elizabeth’s courtiers is exemplified and while Elizabeth attempted to distance herself from imposing upon the principles of the established patriarchal hierarchy by stressing her royal exception, she was always to pose a psychological threat. In a similar way to Belphoebe, Elizabeth’s body natural, Radigund was responsible for feminising men. Therefore it is interesting to note that while Belphoebe should be the protagonist of Book III, Of Chastity, instead it is another female, Britomart, who assumes this role. Britomart adheres then more closely to Spenser’s idealised view of chastity, a view clearly influenced by his understanding of kingship. Britomart is subservient to the patriarchal ideology, and thus a reflection of how Elizabeth should be. She conceals her femininity behind male armour, slays Radigund and goes on to reform her matriarchy, repealing women’s rights and liberty and ‘them restoring/To men’s subjection, did true Iustice deale.’
Britomart then, while chaste, also gives her private body to the good of the state by marrying Artegall and producing a succession of great leaders, culminating in Elizabeth. The ‘historical’ Elizabeth however refuses to marry and produce an heir, which evoked widespread criticism from courtiers who remained deeply concerned about the progression of the throne and the strength of the monarchy. Specifically Elizabeth also refused to name a successor until her deathbed, causing unrest and enormous uncertainty. The need for assurance is echoed in Spenser’s poetry and the description of the anticipated ‘mythic’ Elizabeth being
‘a royall virgin….,which shall
Stretch her white rod ouer the Belgicke shore,
And the great castle smite so sore with all,
That it shall make him shake, and shortly lerne to fall’
Obviously this Elizabeth is the idealised version and Spenser arguably uses her as an inspiration for the ‘real’ Elizabeth. His involvement with the Leicester faction explains what can be interpreted as a call for Elizabeth to enlist on a more militant foreign policy, to fight abroad and protect the Netherlands from the might of Catholic Spain. In his flattering portrayal of an autocratic ruler Spenser in fact demonstrates Elizabeth’s weakness and uncertainty in comparison to the mythic heroine.
Finally, then, it is evident that on the surface Elizabeth would be flattered by the images which are to be viewed as portrayals of her; yet it is impossible to fail to note Spenser’s intent beneath the superficies. The mythical heroines both celebrate Elizabeth and undermine her potency and in a parallel manner the figures of vice elucidate subtly problems evident in Elizabeth’s reign. What seems central is that each of the images that represent or mirrors Elizabeth reflect certain valuable human qualities, yet these fail to come together into a coherent whole, in the shape of Gloriana. The final conclusion must be drawn from Gloriana’s absence, if she is not fully realised in the text then it is impossible that she should exist in reality. Spenser’s flattery, then, becomes little more than a screen for expressing a politically ineffable truth.