Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

By Melissa E. Sanchez | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
“Who Can Loue the Worker of
Her Smart?”
Tyrannous Seduction in The Faerie Queene

Like Sidney’s Arcadia, Spenser’s Faerie Queene ponders the intricate relationship of authority and submission through images of assaulted female virtue. But whereas Sidney is confident in the ability of the virtuous subject to stand up to unjust monarchal demands and thereby effect reform, Spenser is less optimistic about the possibility of such principled resistance. For Sidney, characters who lose control of their emotions are weak at best (like Amphialus) and demonic at worst (like Cecropia). For Spenser, they are simply human. As the allegorical mode of The Faerie Queene stresses, even the most virtuous of beings are constantly battling desires that are so intense that they feel like foreign, external attacks. In Spenser’s Faerie Land it is hard to distinguish between innocent and depraved desires, blissful harmony and self-destructive enthrallment—between the natural fecundity of the Garden of Adonis and the sterile luxury of the Bower of Bliss, for instance. And because political and sexual subjects can never fully comprehend their own darker impulses, they can never be sure that they are resisting them. Accordingly, the martyrdom that Sidney saw as the source of both moral and political authority may give way to a perverse pleasure in abjection. By exploring the possibility that one may mistake one’s own motives and thereby fail to differentiate external force from internal consent, Spenser tests the limits of the hagiographic politics that Sidney endorses.

In the 1596 version of The Faerie Queene, the elusiveness of chastity and friendship are closely tied to the ultimate failure of justice. Following Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Elyot, Spenser proposes that friendship offers a model of mutually

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