- Approaches to Teaching Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”
In many respects, the teaching of Spenser’s Faerie Queene is an experience that most completely encapsulates both the challenges and the rewards of introducing students to the literature of the early modern period. As a work whose length, complex narratives, substantial cast of characters, and polyvocal allegories are often daunting to undergraduates, Spenser’s epic can easily appear as a riddle to be solved rather than a work to be appreciated, let alone enjoyed. Too frequently the constraints of the syllabus and the resistance of students result in a one-dimensional rendering of the text, which permits students to feel that they have “learned something” about Spenser, and about literature generally, by seeing simple, point-by-point allegorizations (Archimago as the Pope, Duessa as Catholicism) as the work’s whole meaning. However, if these difficulties can be surmounted, few other works can equal the great opportunities available in The Faerie Queene to enrich students’ understanding of Elizabethan aesthetic, ethical, social, and political climates, and, perhaps more significantly, to impress upon them the fact that literature, as the most self-conscious of written works, seeks to elicit a multiplicity of meanings from its readers. Thus the task of critical reading appropriately moves toward expansiveness rather than inclusiveness, toward calling forth a plethora of meanings rather than eliminating all but the one “right” reading.
Valuable help in overcoming the problems posed by Spenser’s work in the classroom is found in Approaches to Teaching Spenser’s “Faerie Queene.” The collection includes six essays that suggest various strategies for introducing the text to students, and nine essays devoted to more advanced study of the poem. The majority of essays in the former group concentrate on Book 1, and negotiate the practical difficulties of incorporating The Faerie Queene into undergraduate survey courses by suggesting methods to help students to bridge the gap between the work’s cultural context and their own, while also stressing the need to appreciate the text’s distinctiveness.
The “special topics” essays treat individual books and themes within a variety of methodological frameworks and in light of cultural touchstones, such as the Renaissance association of painting and poetry (aided by the volume’s eight illustrations), Elizabethan colonial and imperial attitudes about Ireland, and early modern treatises and conduct books describing women’s character. A “Materials” section includes a descriptive bibliography of texts for classroom use and for students’ assigned readings, a wonderfully inclusive bibliography describing editions, reference works, background reading, and critical interpretations for the instructor’s use, and an outline of aids to teaching, such as portraits, films, and music. Even the experienced teacher of Spenser will find this a useful summary of the available materials. [End Page 278]
While rooted in practical pedagogy, the essays in this collection also, for the most part, offer provocative comments on Spenser’s poem that are of scholarly interest beyond the classroom as well. Julia M. Walker’s discussion of Britomart alongside Elizabethan portraiture and Dorothy Stephens’ reading of the “feminine” in Book 4 are abridgments of longer articles from Modern Philology and ELH, respectively, and Theresa M. Krier’s provocative comments on the gendering of Spenserian symbol and allegory point toward her work in progress. Overall, the collection recommends numerous innovative techniques to energize and enliven one’s teaching of the poem and to enhance students’ experiences of it. While teachers’ awareness of the demographics and dynamics of their own students may preclude the adoption of specific approaches suggested in this volume, its essays dramatically illustrate the need to avoid reductive readings of The Faerie Queene and, at the same time, offer worthwhile guidance to prevent students from wandering endlessly through the woods of semiotic indeterminacy, error, and despair.