In his Letter to sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser describes the ‘Fairy Queen’ as ‘[…]most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the most part of men delight to read [..] than for profit of the ensample’1. Though the modern reader, lacking the benefit of a renaissance education may find it hard to dis entangle the multiple layers of allegory, it is possible to get a sense of the stresses and strains afflicting early modern English society through Spenser’s work. Hidden beneath the didactic tales, anti-popish paranoia and courtly intrigue is one central idea: the duality and interdependence of Monarch and nation, church and state. This concept is threaded through the entire work effecting every aspect of the plot, Spencer even demonstrates the chaos that ensues when the relationship is broken.
Evidence of this duality can be seen in the structure of the cantos. When Una appears in canto XII.21 there is an implied smoothness to the verse, a repetition of sounds and words. ‘Then forth he called his daughter fair ’2 compare this to the language used when the messenger interrupts the court halfway down verse 23 ‘[w]ith flying speede, and seeming great pretence, [c]ame running in, much like a man dismayed’3 through the Spenserian stanza is not broken the unity of the language is gone. The implication of this is to inject a chaotic element into the ordered life of the court. Possibly this could be taken to represent the effect of any kind of dissenting voice within the church or state. That only through unity can chaos be kept at bay.
The duality between church and Monarch is emphasised in the language used to describe Una. She is associated with heavenly bodies such as ‘the morning star’4 and heavenly directions ‘Out of the east’5. Thus she is not only the one true heir to the one true church (at least in Spenser’s world-veiw), she is also its herald as the star heralded the birth of Jesus6. Her purity is exaggerated by her garments, ‘[a]ll lily white, withoutten spot or pride’7. The symbolism of the Lily is more important than at first it might appear. It serves to illustrate just how much of the protestant canon was still in flux. The Lily was a symbol of the virgin Mary8, for Spenser, a staunch protestant to reference the cult of the Queen of heaven demonstrates how ingrained ‘catholic’ patterns of thought were. But even in this seemingly catholic metaphor there is still a duality. Elisabeth is queen on earth as Mary is queen in heaven. It could be argued that virgin Elisabeth acts as mother to the Church of England and by extension the Nation as a whole.
While Una’s opposite, Duessa is not physically present in this passage her voice is still heard through the letter delivered by her messenger. In contrast to Una’s filial piety and silence until she comes to her knight’s defence; Duessa’s voice is strident and un-abashed. She ‘bids thee be advised for the best’9, practically ordering the king to listen to her. Her speech is impassioned, she boasts of her lineage seeming to revel in her own importance. She is ‘the forsaken heire, Of that great Emperour of all the west’10 and she demands that she be heard. Her imagery is emotional and full of Catholic symbolism, ’sacred pledges’ and ‘burning Altars’ feature heavily. The effect is to associate Duessa with the profane and to increase Una’s holiness. The King’s verdict on her is damning, ‘what mean these bloody vowes, and idle threats, Throwne out from womanish impatient mind’11, she does not act as a woman should, or rather she acts as a woman would act without true restraint.
Redcrosse is a complicated figure, he has his own mirror image in Archimago, but he shares a different connection with Prince Arthur. Arthur is what Redcrosse is becoming, the perfect Knight. There is another strand to this character, he can be seen as emblematic of the nation. Many people…