Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women

Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women

Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women

Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women


"Spenser's female audience included not only his queen, Elizabeth I, but also many nonroyal women associated with the court. How might they have read The Faerie Queene, and how does the text register its awareness of this female reading community? Linking The Faerie Queene with early modern conduct manuals, romances, dedicatory epistles, and devotional literature, McManus examines the poem's depiction of women's interpretive strategies and argues that female readers were expected to exercise considerable autonomy as they endorsed, adapted, or resisted the texts that sought to fashion them as "chaste, silent, and obedient." A contribution both to Spenserian scholarship and to early modern gender studies, Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women situates the poem's ambivalence about women's literacy within a larger cultural context." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


… for to honour ladies this he penned …

—Henry Stanford, 1610

When Sir John Harington, Queen Elizabeth's godson, took up residence at court, he is said to have 'gained the esteem of all ranks, and both sexes.' Part of his popularity with the female sex may have derived from his translation of the scandalous twentyeighth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. As the story goes, the queen, pretending to be offended, banished Harington from court, but only until he had rendered the remainder of the Italian work into English. His translation, 'which was highly pleasing to the Ladies,' was also enjoyed by women in Ireland. As he himself relates, albeit with self-deprecating mockery, 'My Ariosto has been entertained into Galloway before I came; when I got thither, a great Lady, a young Lady, and a fair Lady read herself asleep, nay dead with a tale of it.' Modesty topos notwithstanding, Harington goes on to suggest that this lady would find the text compelling as he links her to an Ariostan counterpart: 'The verse, I think so lively figured her fortune; for, as Olympia was forsaken by the ungrateful Byreno, so had this Lady been left by her unkind Sir Calisthenes, whose hard dealing with her cannot be excused, no not by Demosthenes.' Harington, and possibly the lady reader, saw in the text a mirror of her own condition.

Like Harington, many sixteenth-century authors clearly recognized and courted a female readership. Sir Thomas Elyot, George Pettie, John Lyly, Barnabe Rich, and especially Robert Greene (whom Thomas Nashe seems to refer to scathingly as the 'Homer of Women') all sought women readers. So, too, did Edmund Spenser, who in The Faerie Queene explicitly acknowledges the presence of women, royal and nonroyal, within the literary and political culture the poem reflects and sought to transform. In fact, electing to write his national epic in the mode of chivalric romance may have been an intentional strategy on Spenser's part to invite a female readership. Linda Woodbridge . . .

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