The Republican Order and the Pragmatic Politics of The Faerie Queene

Cheney (220) discusses many aspects of republican thought, and analyses the changes in political structures to argue that the West’s most enduring problem stems directly from human mortality. This can be seen in Cheney’s reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15. In this work, each aspect of life can be seen in the renewal and decay of political society. In Sonnet 15, it is possible to see the rise of each form of society. In the cycle laid out by Plato (Plato & Cornford, 1945), we see the rise and collapse of republicanism over time. The same concepts may also be seen in The Rape of Lucrece (Hadfield 2002); we see the rejection of the existing order and the continuing cycle expressed in Sonnet fifteen.

            Schulman (2014, 52) talks about the difference between will and desire in Shakespeare’s sonnets. As Sisson (2014, 82) argues, republicanism is a positive judgement that links into the politics of pertinence and requires the active engagement of both the will and the desire. The expression of free will and virtue may be seen in the detailed analogies represented by Shakespeare in capturing the many aspects of republican thought in The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Throughout the traditional representation of classical republicanism in the fall of Tarquin, the desire for order in the ensuing change can be represented unambiguously. Equally, despite criticism by Sisson (76) in arguing that Spenser was not a republican, many of the underlying classical concepts of tyranny versus republican freedom represented in Rome can be seen in the Christian acts of the more Protestant Guyon and his alter ego, Palmer.

            Spenser’s Faerie Queene exhibits many republican trends in its analysis of order. While many authors treat republicanism as a phenomenon that developed in Britain in conjunction with the rise of the Protectorate, it needs to be noted that authors such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and others in the Essex Circle had widely discussed politics at this time.[1] Lewis Lewkenor translated The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (Contarini) in 1598/9 from the original published in 1549, and noted that the Venetian Republic was not based on a city that was more virtuous than other nations but rather one that succeeded through rational discourse.

            The English translation (Lewkenor 1598) included a sonnet by Spenser. In this representation, Spenser presents Venice as the new Babel, which is argued to eclipse the first of antiquity and even the might of Rome. In this respect, Venice can be seen to resemble Una when taken with the explanations presented in the letter to Walter Raleigh that was appended to the first edition of the first book; it can be argued that Spenser is describing a peculiarly English form of Protestant Republic:

And by descent from Royall lynage came

4    Of ancient Kings and Queenes, that had of yore

     Their scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore,

6    And all the world in their subiection held;

     Till that infernall feend with foule vprore

8    Forwasted all their land, and them expeld:

   Whom to auenge, she had this Knight from far compeld.[2]

            In Canto 12 of Spenser’s second book, the ideas expressed by the Essex Circle and the belief that kingship was the source of injustice, disorder, and irreligiousness were promoted when many believed that the end of days was coming. The destruction of the Bower of Bliss by Guyon at the end of book two represents the struggle with temperance, which is the virtue of voluntary self-restraint promoted within the reformed Protestant church. This virtue was seen as one that was not exhibited within kingship and monarchy. Moreover, for all the beauty of the Catholic Church and the authoritarian monarchy, it can be seen that to give into beauty is to lose the key virtues of manhood and be transformed into a beast.

            In the third stanza of Canto VIII, Mammon is holding Guyon enthralled. This aspect is important when it’s taken with the third stanza of Canto XII. In this stanza, the boatman discusses the gulf of greediness which can be linked to Mammon and the desire for wealth and riches. McCarraher (2019) demonstrates the changes in the mediaeval sacramental economy and the move towards a Protestant theology of improvement. As the author notes (37), Locke would later be attributed with possessive individualism while exhibiting admiration for small proprietors and objecting to the unfettered accumulation of large-scale wealth. To Spenser, the greatest fear is thus in the golf of greed which deepens and gorges on those who are too worldly.

Said then the Boteman, Palmer stere aright,
  And keepe an euen course; for yonder way
  We needes must passe (God do vs well acquight,)
  That is the Gulfe of Greedinesse, they say,
  That deepe engorgeth all this worldes pray:
  Which hauing swallowd vp excessiuely,
  He soone in vomit vp againe doth lay,
  And belcheth forth his superfluity,
That all the seas for feare do seeme away to fly.

            Palmer represents both the inner thoughts and ethical conscious of Guyon. As a pilgrim who has visited the holy land, Palmer represents the good governance that will steer Guyon out of the Tempest and enable moderating temperance. The alternative to the course is the Magnes, or as they are also known, the Rock of Vile Reproach. Psalm 15 represents the foundational aspects of temperance and the avoidance of vile reproach. This Psalm is commonly passed over due to its lack of poetic imagery. Still, it simultaneously captures the spirit of Protestant temperance and the Calvinistic concepts of “he who does not celebrate the wicked but celebrates those who fear God.”[3] Toplady (1774) provides early support for the origins of Calvinistic ideas that developed after Spenser and which integrated into the English Protestant church.

            Hume (Hume & Smolett, 1834, 89) noted how the English court acted in derision of the Pope and cardinals. In deconstructing the Catholic religion and rebuilding a Protestant church, Henry VIII enacted laws that were destructive of papal authority and tore down the Bower of the church (90). Salmon (1989) documented the Epicurean concepts of cultivating one’s own garden and stoic concepts of temperance and English neo-Stoicism that Palmer notes to be best avoided as “lustfull luxurie and thriftlesse wast” (II.xii.9.3). The dissolution of the monasteries had been done on the Protestant concept of removing luxury and indulgence. As Bell (1967) argued, the millennial concept of a new utopia was seen to be possible through the redistribution of the wealth of the monasteries (131).

            In the final stanza of Canto XII, Spenser replays the Protestant and puritan concepts of humanity. We see the problems with inconstancy through this stanza and how men like beasts return to their formal ways. Yet, despite the efforts to reform them, the men lack intelligence and act irrationally (II.xii.87.5), retaining the gross hog like mind and vowel and consonant behaviours (II.xii.87.6-8). Despite the efforts being made, the average person represented by Guyon’s men refuses to adhere to the new order and embrace temperate and rational behaviour, preferring filth and fouling incontinence to order (II.xii.87.7).

Said Guyon, See the mind of beastly man,
  That hath so soone forgot the excellence
  Of his creation, when he life began,
  That now he chooseth, with vile difference,
  To be a beast, and lacke intelligence.
  To whom the Palmer thus, The donghill kind
  Delights in filth and foule incontinence:
  Let Grill be Grill, and haue his hoggish mind,
But let vs hence depart, whilest wether serues and wind.

            Consequently, whilst Sisson (78) argues a modern definition of virtue and uses this and an analysis of Spenserian syncretism and Spenser’s purported abandonment of Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus), another argument can be seen as the dissolution of Rome as the second Babel that is abandoned for the new Protestant city. Spenser was closely associated with Lewkenor, having been at university together and having included “Commendatory Sonnets” in each other’s work. The problem with this theory is that it fails in an analysis of the actions of Spenser in translating Les Antiquitez de Rome (Du Bellay 1558). As Chambers (1945) demonstrates, the author’s interactions with Du Bellay go beyond the translation of Petrarchan sonnets into the analysis and translation of works by Lucan.            

            As Chambers (1945, 7) simply demonstrates, Spenser preserves the value judgements and captures the failure of Renaissance idealism with the natively optimistic attitudes, tinged with realism (5), that Spenser held. The Protestant reimagining of Roman virtue and manliness is exhibited in the interplay between Guyonand his superego, represented through an idealised secular saint in the Palmer. Through this, Spenser captures a cautiously optimistic view of the changing world order and its potential to bring human freedom. In many ways, the perceived end of the indulgences of the church and the Reformation lead to a new sense of order that is likely to be ignored by most, as Spenser demonstrates through his representation of the beasts, which represent Guyon’s men (II.xii.87.1). In the end, achieving order is possible for some, not the many, or even most; order and temperance remain legendary and the thing of fairy tales.

Works Cited

Bell, Susan Groag. “Johan Eberlin Von Günzburg’s Wolfaria The First Protestant Utopia1.” Church History 36.2 (1967): 122-139.

Calvin, Jean, and James Anderson. Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Vol. 4. Calvin Translation Society, 1847.

Chambers, Frank McMinn. “Lucan and the Antiquitez of Rome.” PMLA 60.4-Part1 (1945): 937-948.

Cheney, Patrick, Patrick Gerard Cheney, and Cheney Patrick. Shakespeare, national poet-playwright. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Contarini, Gasparo. Casparis Contareni… De magistratibus, & republica Venetorum: libri quinq [ue]. Froben, 1722.

Dowey, Edward A. The knowledge of God in Calvin’s theology. Columbia University Press, 1952.

Du Bellay, Joachim. The Antiquities of Rome (1558) .

Hadfield, Andrew. “Tarquin’s everlasting banishment: republicanism and constitutionalism in The Rape of Lucrece and Titus Andronicus.” Parergon 19.1 (2002): 77-104.

__________. Shakespeare and republicanism. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hume, David, and Tobias Smollett. The History of England: by Hume; v. 9-13 by Smollett; v. 14-21 by Hughes. Vol. 4. Valpy, 1834.

Levy, Fred J. “Hayward, Daniel, and the Beginnings of Politic History in England.” The Huntington Library Quarterly (1987): 1-34.

Lewkenor, Lewis. “The Commonwealth and government of Venice”, (London, 1598)

McCarraher, Eugene. “1. About His Business: The Medieval Sacramental Economy, the Protestant Theology of “Improvement,” and the Emergence of Capitalist Enchantment.” The Enchantments of Mammon. Harvard University Press, 2019. 23-47.

Plato, and Francis Macdonald Cornford. The republic of Plato. Vol. 30. London: Oxford University Press, 1945.

Salmon, John HM. “Stoicism and Roman Example: Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 50.2 (1989): 199-225.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 15”. The Norton Anthology Of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., NORTON, New York, 2012, pp. 1172-1173, Accessed 7 Nov 2016.

Schulman, Alex. Rethinking Shakespeare’s Political Philosophy: From Lear to Leviathan. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Spenser, Edmund et al. The Faerie Queene. Penguin Books, 1978.

Toplady, Augustus. Historic Proof Of The Doctrinal Calvinism Of The Church of England: Including, Among Other Particulars, I. A Brief Account of Some Eminent Persons, Famous for Their Adoption of that System, Both Before and Since the Reformation; More Especially, Of Our English Reformers, Martyrs, Prelates, and Universitys: With Specimens of Their Testimonys. II. An Incidental Review of the Rise and Progress of Arminianism in England, Under the Patronage of Archbishop Laud. With a Complete Index to the Whole: In Two Volumes. Vol. 2. Keith, 1774.

[1] Levy, Fred J. “Hayward, Daniel, and the Beginnings of Politic History in England.” The Huntington Library Quarterly (1987): 1-34.

[2] Spenser, Edmund et al. The Faerie Queene. Penguin Books, 1978. 7), I.i.5; See also I.ii.

[3] Dowey, Edward A. The knowledge of God in Calvin’s theology. Columbia University Press, 1952.; Calvin, Jean, and James Anderson. Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Vol. 4. Calvin Translation Society, 1847.

[Image: Frontispiece of ‘The Faerie Queene’ by Edmund Spenser published in 1590, William Ponsonby, 16th century printer, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

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