Gender in Faerie Queene

This is the second blog in a series of three in which I discuss topics that we have covered in the seminar portion of our class.

It was interesting for me to read into the male definition of female virtue and the fear of women in Faerie Queen in the context of Queen Elizabeth’s patronage of Spenser. He is obviously trying to give a positive light to women, yet his fears of women’s sexuality still comes out. I was immediately surprised by the presence of such strong female characters that dominated the narrative.

My reading of the poem as guided by the video analysis on Coursera brought me to the conclusion that Britomart represented a feminine ideal, as she embodying chastity. Even Malecosta, while representing the temptation of erotic love was nonetheless a character full of empowerment and I was impressed with the construction of how control she was of her sexuality.

I was interested to see what contemporary feminist writers had to say about how Spenser approached gender in the poem. Did they look upon with approval at the progressive and positive portrayal of women or would they point out something I was missing?

It turned out that there was quite a bit of literature published on the exact topic. I found several dissertations on the subject within a few minutes of browsing online.

Pamela Benson in Invention of the Renaissance argues that Spenser praises the feminine in the poem and deconstructs the status quo of inferiority that other literature of the time may have enforced. “Rather than being a mere abstraction, a prop to male order, or a useful tool for literary exposition, the feminine is an essential principle in the grand scheme of The Faerie Queene; it represents an alternate order.” (253) She further points out that “the feminine is defended against male attempts to dominate and marginalise it.” In reference to the venus and adonis parable she also uses a positive lens, “In describing the lovemaking of the goddess and the mortal, he contradicts the traditional philosophical explanation of the biological process of generation,according to which the passive female contributes matter and the active male contributes form, a scheme that places the female in an inferior position.” (254)She believes that he “liberates women from the tyranny of biological inferiority.”

I was especially struck by how she points out that Britomart assumes power with her “phallic magic lance” in a masculine fashion. It represents “the power of the female to transform male aggression into productive energy.”

However, there were definitely others that saw the portrayal of women in the poem as more negative. Britta Santowsky in “Transgressing terms of gender in The Faerie Queen: Britomart, Radigund and Artegall” writes that in “woman, it seems does not represent her sex at all; rather, she is there as an imaginary reflection of man’s desire. . : The challenfe of female independence in the literature and thought of italy and england

While the woman is singularly subjected to codes of chastity, the man is unequivocally associated with power, including the power to define the feminine in order to suit his own ideal” (2) She saw in the poem female characters that “not read as actual women but, rather, as attributes categorizing the feminine according to patriarchal standards.” (3)

I could see her point, especially when you look at how Britomart is held in the highest esteem and portrayed as the ideal, but only because she has neutralized her dangerous sexuality. With Malecosta and the journey in Castle Joyous we can see the fear of the uncontrollable and threatening lens that Spenser views women’s eroticism as. I see this especially evoked in the fear of castration imagery in the Venus and Adonis tapestry.

So while I am really refreshed by the presence of strong active women and can see the positive power that Benson argues is present, I also see ways that Santowsky argues woman are ultimately still under male control even in the depiction of the feminine ideal.

-Diana Zhu

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