Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Edmund Spenser's Anti-Catholicism: Duessa's Part in It All

Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Edmund Spenser's Anti-Catholicism: Duessa's Part in It All

Article excerpt


This research looks at Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, one of the earliest and most celebrated pieces of epic poetry in the English language. While it has long been recognized that Spenser's work participates in the agenda of the Protestant Reformation, this research illustrates that Spenser's work is much more than a reflection of the norms of the Elizabethan period. Using the character of Duessa as a focal point, this research illuminates the ways in which Spenser used The Faerie Queene to not just echo but present his idiosyncratic stance on the threat of Catholicism to the English people.


Ever since Edmund Spenser completed The Faerie Queene on the eve of the sixteenth century, it has held a place in the literary canon as one of the greatest works of the English language. Many writers have received inspiration from Spenser's classic allegorical fantasy, a vast readership has been drawn in by his rich depiction of a chivalric world inhabited by virtuous knights, and critics have long attempted to dissect his rich yet complicated allegory to find the golden interpretation of nearly every aspect and character of The Faerie Queene. Spenser's romantic epic, inspired by Italian models such as Ariosto, has had an inarguably powerful effect on the development of the English literary canon, and as the definitive English epic of the Elizabethan era, it has had a major effect on the way modern English scholars view the era. The Faerie Queene has become a primary source for interpreting the values of the Elizabethan period, from how Spenser portrays the major virtues that serve as the central focus of each of the six books to how he describes the allegorical trials that each knight faces throughout the quest. Taking Spenser's work as a realistic reflection of the Elizabethan period may be misleading, causing us to interpret his personal views as a representation of Elizabethan standards of thought.

Of all Spenser's allegorical focuses in the work, the most controversial is undoubtedly his treatment of the Catholic Church. In the very first canto of Book I, readers are confronted with the allegorical monster, Errour, and a Catholic hermit who reveals himself to be the evil sorcerer, Archimago. These figures set the tone for the religious statement that Spenser makes on the validity and nature of the Catholic Church in relation to the Protestant faith that Spenser's heroes will adhere to through the rest of the work. While Book 1 is by far the most sustained in its focus on the Catholic Church, Spenser's religious ideology remains central as an underlying, if not always central, theme of his romance epic. When one looks for a recurring antiCatholic figure in the work, Duessa soon reveals herself to be the most prominent. Duessa, who is initially created to mislead the Redcrosse Knight, continues to play a role in subsequent Books as a continual nemesis to the virtuous knights. This places Duessa in a powerful allegorical role as the only evil figure to have recurring appearances in five of the six books of The Faerie Queene. She does not appear in the sixth book because she is executed in Book V as part of a political allegory. Nonetheless, much of the focus of the present paper will be upon Book I, where Duessa appears most frequently in the narrative. In his continued use Duessa to allegorically refer to a twisted and evil Catholicism, Spenser creates a powerful anti-Catholic image that pervades the entire work. Spenser's complex allegory offers a variety of interpretations, but Spenser's motivation for the ever-present hatred and ill treatment of the Catholic Church in The Faerie Queene has yet to be studied and analyzed.

Duessa's very name means two-ness, or duplicity, and all her appearances in the work involve beautiful guises with her true nature hidden beneath the surface, later to be revealed through her actions. Her first appearance occurs shortly after Archimago breaks the Redcrosse Knight away from Una-- Duessa's opposite in Book I and an allegorical personification of the Protestant faith--with an illusion that leads him to abandon her and quest forth on his own into the wilderness. …

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