Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Allegorical Consent: The Faerie Queene and the Politics of Erotic Subjection

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Allegorical Consent: The Faerie Queene and the Politics of Erotic Subjection

Article excerpt

Marriage and erotic subjection loom large in the political imagination of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. These acts appear repeatedly as characters pledge oaths to a beloved or are taken captive by a sexual aggressor. These allegorical scenes of desire and violence enter into sixteenth-century debates about tyranny and kingship by examining questions of consent and hierarchy. Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition of these relations occurs in Canto xi of Book IV. In Proteus's house, Spenser depicts the marriage of the rivers Thames and Medway, a symbolic union of the English nation that establishes the country's political power in the subjects rather than the monarch. Within the structural foundation of Proteus's house, however, a more disturbing narrative haunts the wedding. For more than sixteen cantos, Florimell has been confined to Proteus's subterranean dungeon. An archetypal example of erotic subjection, her subdued body is completely under the sea god's control, yet her body is not the primary object of the violence. Instead, Proteus holds her in order to elicit her assent by mastering her will. Elizabeth Fowler argues that "when Spenser chooses marriage and the epithalamion for his description of the English constitution, opposing it to Proteus's tyranny, he chooses a particularly sexual consent as constitutive of the polity."1 Scenes of seduction and coercion therefore explore the political middle ground between the Medway's free consent and Florimell's imprisonment.

Throughout The Faerie Queene, perpetrators of erotic subjection pursue sexual consent rather than overcome their victims through force alone. Busirane, for instance, imprisons and tortures Amoret in order to elicit her consent. He desires her body but only if she yields it to him. This narrative pattern demonstrates the importance of consent for monarchs and tyrants alike. It suggests that assent, even if coerced, is a necessary ground for dominion. Characters continually test the flexibility of volition in these scenes as they attempt to manipulate another's will. The repetition of this plot structure raises questions about the difference between conquest and consent, coercion and persuasion. Melissa Sanchez convincingly argues that these categories become confused in the poem because the subject's desire to be subdued can blur the distinction between legitimate sovereignty and illegitimate tyranny.2 She posits that Scudamour's abduction of his beloved "can be only sanctioned retroactively through the lens of Amoret's subsequent loyalty to him."3 The difference between her torture by Busirane and her capture by Scudamour seems to be her eventual acquiescence to (and ensuing love of) the latter. Sanchez's work illuminates the questionable status of seemingly voluntary love and free consent, categories that serve as the foundations of both the institution of marriage and the commonwealth. Differentiating between male force and female consent can be difficult in the poem, and Amoret's abduction presents the terrifying possibility that dominated individuals unwittingly collude with tyranny.

Challenging the lessons of Scudamour's violence, this essay examines the Radigund episode's powerful counter-narrative wherein conquest and consent are not coextensive. Whereas Amoret eventually gives in to her assailant by falling in love, Artegall resists Radigund's advances. Rather than merely repel her assault, however, the knight openly submits to her beauty on the battlefield but never consents to her sexually Earlier instantiations of erotic subjection consider political bonds through sexual narrative, but the Radigund scenes curiously combine them. In these cantos, Spenser drives a wedge between submission and consent, a division too easily elided in earlier books. Artegall's external compliance proves to be mere slavery rather than the consensual bond between sovereign and subject. The knight's political submission and obedience are separate from his sexual consent as his compliant body does not determine his erotic choices. …

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