Published: 1590; 1596


Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene


Spenser’s The Faerie Queene can be studied, in its local Elizabethan context, as an exemplar of Philip Sidney’s claim that the purpose of poesy is to “teach and delight” and, in its more global realization of the epic tradition, as English mythmaking of a Virgilian order. As Virgil grafted Roman ideals onto Greek myth in order to celebrate Caesar and vaunt the ideals of Roman leadership, Spenser borrows from the Arthurian tradition to populate a mythical landscape that glorified Queen Elizabeth and depicted the virtues necessary for social advancement in her court.

Spenser tells Sir Walter Raleigh, in a letter traditionally included in publications of the poem, that he follows Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue and outlines his plan to write a total of 24 books, 12 for the “private morall vertues” and 12 more for the “polliticke vertues” (FQ 715). In the end, he only completed six books covering the virtues holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. In 1609, nearly 20 years after the publication of the first three books, he added a seventh book entitled Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, expounding the virtue of constancy.


Illustration from a 1905 edition of Spenser’s work | Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Una_and_the_red_cross_knight,_and_other_tales_from_Spenser%27s_Faery_Queene;_(1905)_(14803356823).jpg

Ostensibly, Spenser had endeavored to engineer the ideal English king in two stages, making him first a good person and second a good ruler. By presenting these virtues as allegories—that is, imagined bodies for abstract concepts—Spenser invites his reader to enjoy the challenge of “fashion[ing] a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” (FQ 714).

Each of the first six books comprises the allegory of an individual virtue embodied by a knight, the relationships between knights and other characters, the relationship between a knight and their environment, the actions of a knight, or the interactions of a group of distinct characters, each of whom stand in for an aspect of the virtue or an opposing vice. In other words, no single set of interpretive rules applies to every referent within Spenser’s allegory. In Book 1, for example, the Knight of the Red Cross is sometimes the allegorical embodiment of holiness and sometimes a knight trying to be holy and sometimes St. George, the symbol of England. Red Cross Knight is accompanied by Una, or the one true faith, who is also a woman who needs Red Cross Knight, or holiness, to defeat a monstrous beast called Error who spews forth Catholic heresy when killed.

While the characters in each book occasionally meet each other and are connected through common foes or objectives, the cohesion of The Faerie Queene relies less on plot and more on the complex organization of the virtues. With a few exceptions of characters woven throughout the whole poem, continuity derives from the logic of the virtues. Where Holiness is established, Temperance can begin, etc.

One way to visualize the logical relationships between the six virtues is to imagine each successive virtue as a larger concentric sphere that relies on the previous virtue while also expanding its publicity and application. So, holiness must come first as the centering stake of salvation, temperance next with its practical governance of time and place and body. Chastity, which for Spenser is not celibacy but preparation for marital love, is the child of holiness and temperance and, in turn, is more publicly ventured through friendship. From there, moving further away from the private realms, one encounters the need for justice. Of all the virtues, Spenser’s rendition of justice is the most intolerable; given his documentation of his own experiences as an English administrator in Ireland, it is difficult not to see Book 5 as propaganda for harsh and oppressive policies of law and order and empire. Within the rubric of his gentleman-fashioning project, however, proper justice could only be an extension of holiness, temperance, love, and friendship. Courtesy ends the progression being the outermost circle of the allegory and the most visible of the virtues; in courtesy is the fruition of all previous virtues, the decoration of the noblest courtier.

Despite the apparent social mobility projected by this allegorical instruction, Spenser frequently reinforces the ideology of a stratified society, arguing that nature can be nurtured by practice, but it cannot be replaced. To say, however, that Spenser merely merchandized his poetry to serve a classist status quo and gain a little favor from the queen (50£ per annum) underplays the historical momentum of his work. Succeeding in Elizabethan England was not as simple as courting the favor of the queen because the queen’s power was itself sustained by the efforts of her courtiers. Therein lies what makes The Faerie Queene such a repercussive work in English literature. Spenser’s own innovations—the invention of a nine-line stanza of interlocking rhymes (probably adapted from the Italian ottava rima), the richness and diversity of his poetry, and the intricacy of his allegories—deserve their wide critical acclaim on their own merit, but it is the coincidence of Elizabeth’s reliance on the allegory of her own sovereignty that gives Spenser’s poem a time and place to matter.

Spenser may have been conservative in his social views, but his poem operated within a culture that increasingly saw virtue as performative and, by extension, character as an interiority that is not only outwardly measurable but perhaps outwardly constitutive—that is, faking it was quite near to making it so much so that Elizabethan sumptuary laws regulated the color and type of cloth that different classes were allowed to wear in public. In Elizabeth, the social implications of performance and appearance became most prominent; in order to combat the challenges to her rule, Elizabeth presented herself as an allegory of England, of the power instilled in the position rather than as a physically female body. By reifying her sovereignty as a thing separated from her sex, Elizabeth implemented the allegorical means of self-fashioning within her own court. In The Faerie Queene, the noble graces, through allegory, become bodies, and as bodies, these virtues become objective and separable items that can be accessorized by rhetorical effort. Because of Elizabeth, literacy becomes power, overcomes nature, and gives The Faerie Queene the way to become the poesis of selves.

Jason Lotz
SUNY Farmingdale


Annotated Paperback Version

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Revised 2nd ed., Edited by A. C. Hamilton. Pearson Longman, 2007.


Online Versions

The Project Gutenberg eBook, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book 1, Edited by George Armstrong Wauchope.

Renascence Edition, based on The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser (Grosart, London, 1882), eBook prepared by Risa S. Bear (1993-96). Text is in public domain. Markup is copyright 1995 by University of Oregon, labeled for nonprofit reuse.


Online Audiobook

The Faerie Queene


Critical Studies

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Hamilton, A. C. The Spenser Encyclopedia. U of Toronto P, 1990. [eBook]

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford UP, 1958.

Nohrnberg, James. The Analogy of ‘The Faerie Queene.’ Princeton UP, 1976, 1981, 2014.


The above bibliography was compiled by Jason Lotz (SUNY Farmingdale).


Further bibliography in:

Daniel T. Lochman, “’Mishaps… Maistred by Aduice Discrete’: Teaching The Faerie Queene.”  Pedagogy (2003) 3 (2): 184–190.