Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Human Limitation and Spenserian Laughter

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Human Limitation and Spenserian Laughter

Article excerpt

O supreme generosity of God the father, O highest and most marvelous felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills.

-Pico, "Oration on the Dignity of Man"1

This is the monstruosity of love, Lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.

-Troilus, Troilus and Cressida III.ii.81-32

Pico's extravagant vision of human possibility remains a high-water mark of Renaissance optimism. By our triumphant wills we can make ourselves what we want to be. He writes as if humankind had never fallen and at times his optimism verges on heresy: "if, happy in the lot of no created thing, he withdraws into the center of his own unity, his spirit, made one with God, in the solitary darkness of God, who is set above all things, shall surpass [other created things]...."3 It remains unclear here whether man becomes God or simply dwells with Him. Against this exuberance, Troilus's melancholy comment emphasizes limit: love is monstrous because it forces together incompatible opposites, an infinite will and a body subject to the thousand natural shocks of mortal frustration. Love's monstruosity stems from the will's forgetting its human limitations. Troilus formulates his statement in terms of internal will and external restraint-the resistant world limits infinite desire. But one might as easily emphasize internal limitations: men are monsters because they join spirit and flesh, and the flesh interferes with Pico's vision of boundless self-transformation. For Troilus this human contradiction is tragic, and the play shows the lapsing of Cressida's will and the erosion of Troilus' love.

Long ago Thomas Greene identified this concern with the "flexibility of the self " as a defining debate of Renaissance humanism, and suggested that over the sixteenth century Pico's optimism, based partly on the transformative effects of education, yielded to skepticism about the possibility of self-fashioning.4 In Greene's view, Spenser wavers, but in his romanceepic "the process of fashioning is frustrated by the inconsistency of the clay amid the quicksand of history" (262). Here Greene emphasizes both internal and external limitations.

This essay will consider how Spenser makes this frustration-Troilus's monstrous opposition of will and world, or spirit and clay-the subject of comedy. Much later, Andrew Marvell will epitomize this comedy in the witty antitheses of his "Dialogue Between the Soul and Body." Neither partner in the "dialogue" is capable of listening, each seeing the other as setting intolerable limits on its freedom. The soul complains punningly on its imprisoned state, "fettered... / in Feet, and manacled in Hands" (3-4) and the soul replies "O who shall me deliver'd whole/ From bonds of this tyrannic Soul?" (11-12).5 What each of the stalemated pair cannot realize is that the two are necessary to one another-that the soul cannot carry out God's work without the body, and when the body is "deliver'd whole" it will rot. At much greater length The Faerie Queene uses comedy to explore the awkward nature of the human, caught between body and spirit, internal desire and resistant world. Spenser returns repeatedly to the limits that the body places on Pico's dream of spiritual transcendence, and the kinship between human and animal. Yet the animal component of the human is not simply evil. If, in the opening books of the poem, the body appears dangerously uncontrolled, vulnerable to the attacks of Duessa or Maleger, in the later books it is essential to Spenserian eros, and hence to the working out of human destiny in history. In what follows I'll proceed by examining a series of comic examples-Timias and Belphoebe, Spenser's satyrs and the narrator of The Faerie Queene-all of which explore the nature of human limitation.


When Timias confronts his love for Belphoebe, he considers his "meane estate" (III. …

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