Spenser’s allegorical poem The Faerie Queene is a remarkable literary venture of the Elizabethan age. In fact, allegory was the most popular literary device of the time and he uses it to express the spirit of his age.
Allegory is a literary device in valuing a double meaning. The primary meaning is clearly expressed while the secondary meaning is only suggested by subtle means. In The Faerie Queene, Spenser employs moral allegory as his purpose is essentially didactic. He wants to express the interaction between virtues and vices and shows that virtue must be a triumph in the long run. Spenser, however, colors his theme with a fiction of variety and entertainment in order to make his lesson delightful.
A careful analysis of the poem reveals the fusion of these kinds of allegories: moral, religious, and personal.
The good characters of the poem represent different virtues while the bad characters represent vices. Holiness is represented by the Red-Cross-Knight and Lady Una stands for Holiness, youth, and wisdom while her parents represent the embodiment of evil.
The mission Holiness undertakes a lot of adventures and encounters a number of evils including the terrible monster error. Holiness goes on defeating the forces of evil as long as Truth comes to his sleep. The Red-Cross-Knight encouraged by Lady Una finally kills the monster illustrating the first moral youth. It is to be noted that the evil forces are easily defeated when they appear without disguise. But when they appear in subtle guise, they remain triumphant. When Error appears in the guise of Hypocrisy, Archimago, the symbol of Hypocrisy, succeeds in separating Holiness from Truth. The Red-Cross-Knight takes Duessa the embodiment of falsehood as his lady love and gives up looking for her champion being helped and protected by the lion. Symbolic of primitive courage, truthfully, arrests itself and overcomes Abessa, Corceca, and Kirkorapine. But soon she becomes the victim of hypocrisy represented by Archimago who approaches in the guise of the Red-Cross-Knight. She is also unable to encounter lawlessness, represented by Pagan knight Samloy. The Red-Cross-Knight is led by Duessa to the place of Lucifera representing pride. He encounters six other deadly sins there- idleness, gluttony, lechery, avarice, wrath, and jealousy. Holiness is eventually defeated and imprisoned owing to this evil company by the giant Orgoglio, representing pride. But his servant symbolizing Humility gets freed and tries to save monster with a plan of rescue. Meanwhile, Synstyrgne, representing natural force rescues truth from the captivity and lawlessness. This triumph reveals a moral lesson that ultimately truth overcome all the obstacles and win the long run. Truth also meets Arthur who looking for Gloriana, the faerie queen. Truth also comes to the rescue of Holiness who suffers miserably losing his former strength. Truth escorts him to the palace of divine grace where he regains his strength. Finally, he defeats the Dragon, the embodiment of evil and restores Lady Una’s parents representing Humanity to the Throne.
This moral and spiritual allegory of the poem gets a new meaning when interpreted in terms of a religious allegory. The important religious events are represented by different characters in the poem. The reformation movement has been allegorically represented by Spenser. In this context, the Red-Cross-Knight represents the Reformed Church of England wagging a relentless war against main fold evils of Papacy, Pagan, and Catholicism. The Dragon represents to the Pope of Rome while Archimago symbolizes the corruption and hypocrisy of Papacy. The papers and the books which monster Error swallowed represent the false teaching of the Catholic Church. Orgoglio represents Phillip II of Spain who conspired against England collusion with the Pope. The poem allegorically recounts how the people of England had to face the joint attack of the Pope and Phillip and how they struggled against the evils and corruption of the Catholic.
The element of personal political allegory also enriches the poem to a great extent. Spenser wrote this allegorical poem in order to glorify Queen Elizabeth and her countries. The queen is presented as glorious The Faerie Queene. Lord Leicester is represented as Arthur while Mary Stuart stands for Duessa.
However, Spenser’s allegorical poem received hostile criticism on different grounds from critics as well as scholars. They have pointed out that Spenser has not succeeded as an allegorist as he perplexes the readers having failed to impart a vision of charity.
Moreover, a number of digressing in the poem simply adds to its confusions and ambiguity. Though Spenser’s outlook is essentially moral, the sensuous atmosphere spoils it to a great extent. But I do not fully agree to such criticism. As a poet, Spenser was certainly more interested in his art than in the teaching of Morality. Spenser, the pictorial artist attracts us more than Spenser, the allegorist in the poem. Despite some flaws, the allegorical poem has been acclaimed as a great poetic achievement.