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ELH 67.2 (2000) 365-397



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Shadowing Intervention: On the Politics of The Faerie Queene Book 5 Cantos 10-12

Tobias Gregory


The concluding episodes of the Legend of Justice make up the least-beloved section of Spenser's heroic poem. Critics have tended to dismiss them or to judge them harshly on both aesthetic and moral grounds, arguing either that their close evocation of history renders the episodes poetically uninteresting, or that the events they celebrate hardly qualify as exemplary instances of justice. 1 The best-known statement of the latter view belongs to C. S. Lewis: "Spenser was the instrument of a detestable policy in Ireland, and in his fifth book the wickedness he had shared begins to corrupt his imagination." 2 If Spenser's imagination was corrupted by his Irish experience, one might ask why it took until book 5 for the corruption to set in; as Andrew Hadfield has pointed out, by the time the first three books of The Faerie Queene were printed Spenser had been living in Ireland for a decade. 3 Nonetheless, versions of Lewis's corruption thesis have held wide currency. Combining both moral and aesthetic dispraise, Michael O'Connell offers a succinct statement of the received opinion:

In the second half of book 5, [Spenser] constructs what can be properly described as historical allegory, for here historical events do indeed structure the allegory of the poem. It is significant, I believe, that readers have long felt that Spenser's vision at this point becomes disturbingly narrow, that the poem loses some of the moral complexity that characterizes the other books. Historical allegory, whether constructed by critic or poet, seems to require a certain singleness of purpose, and in book 5 the celebratory motive becomes apologetic and takes an unwonted precedence over the motive of moral judgment. 4

O'Connell's judgments--narrowness of vision, loss of moral complexity--rest on two assumptions: that the historical allegory is running the show, and that Spenser's motive is predominantly to celebrate Elizabeth's foreign policy. The first assumption has been challenged by Kenneth Borris. 5 The second I shall challenge here. My concern is not to mount an aesthetic or moral defense of the latter Book of Justice, but rather to present a more nuanced account of its politics. The received view [End Page 365] exemplified by O'Connell is not wholly wrong; it is just too simple. In what follows I will attempt to complicate it by re-examining the final three episodes of book 5 in light of information made available by recent work in Spenser studies and in Tudor English and Irish historiography. These episodes, I will argue, do not merely glorify Elizabethan foreign and colonial policy but comment on it from an interventionist Protestant perspective that is far from univocally celebratory or optimistic. Taken together, they present a shifting, ambivalent discourse on the ill effects of half measures in the public sphere; and half measures, to the ongoing dissatisfaction of Spenser and the forward Protestant nobles with whom he sympathized, were the trademark of Elizabeth's foreign policy. 6 The military ventures in the Low Countries, France, and Ireland which Spenser evokes were all efforts which Elizabeth supported only halfheartedly. In placing them at the culmination of the Legend of Justice, Spenser expresses a vision of the English state that looks very much like the interventionist ideal--an ideal to which Elizabeth herself was only minimally committed. The polemical implications of such a vision must be presented with the utmost delicacy--and Spenser does so, as we shall see, through subtle deployment of the conventions of chivalric romance. 7

I. Targeted Praise: the Belge Episode

The tale of Belge is a chivalric set piece, opening with a standard romance scenario: a prince is presiding in state surrounded by knights, when the harmony of court is interrupted by the appearance of a stranger, who issues a challenge or begs a boon, thus setting the plot in motion. 8 Following the execution of Duessa in the blank space...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 365-397
Launched on MUSE
2000-06-01
Open Access
No
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