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Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, 1998

Courteous virtu in Spenser's Book 6 of 'The Faerie Queene.'

by Bruce Danner

Since Richard Neuse accused Calidore of virtu thirty years ago, the issue of Spenser's Machiavellianism in book 6 has been an implicit but underexplored problem.(1) In this essay I propose to refine our conception of virtu and its function in the poem by examining its complicated role as a precept of civil order. Recent discussions of book 6 such as Robert E. Stillman's have begun to bring Spenser's complex historical context to bear upon the legend's courteous ideal.(2) But by seeking "to explain rather than to submit to the idealized autonomy of Spenser's work," Stillman nevertheless reinforces much of the traditional view of book 6 as an autonomous "green world" of poetic self-reflexivity and virtuous resolution.(3) While informed by this work, my reading explores not how Spenser conceals and effaces the violence within book 6, but the ways in which he directly confronts it and lays bare both its exigencies and ethical dilemmas. Spenser's portraits of violence and moral relativism in the Legend of Courtesy stem from efforts to foster virtue in a world of political and cultural instability. They nevertheless produce moments of ethical innovation synonymous with the most disturbing elements of Niccolo Machiavelli's thought. Calidore's initial progress in cantos 1 to 3 provides the clearest picture of these issues, not merely because his departure from the narrative precipitates various degrees of social disorder, but because his reappearance at the book's end represents a truancy from his quest rather than a resumption of it. Calidore's complex, unresolved, and violent virtu in these early pages represents not an ideal of social unity, but a best-case method of social control that defines the task of government for those who will follow him.


Close analysis of the legend's Machiavellian rhetoric has been hampered by two conflicting forms of courteous virtue apparent from the book's opening cantos. The courtly ideal sounded in the proem has long been regarded as an index of Spenser's courtesy, a contemplative light of truth which "inflame[s]" the eye instead of being mediated by it: "vertues seat is deepe within the mynd, / And not in outward shows, but inward thoughts defynd."(4) Against images of courtesy's "sacred noursery" (proem 6.3), however, the poet soon contrasts an active force which disciplines figures of discourtesy: "The gentle minde by gentle deeds is knowne" (6.3.1). Although critics of book 6 have often placed Spenser's virtue within a contemplative sphere,(5) much of the book faces the problems of applying courtesy in notably violent social contexts.(6)

The late episodes of the Dance of the Graces and Calidore's muzzling of the Blatant Beast typify the book's contrast between symbolic visions of courtesy and the largely violent practice of courteous heroes. Instead of resolving force with traditional linguistic and symbolic gestures of courtesy, Calidore's final encounter with the Beast distinguishes heroic action from language all the more:

Tho when the Beast saw, he mote nought auaile, By force, he gan his hundred tongues apply, And sharpely at [Calidore] to reuile and raile, With bitter termes of shamefull infamy; Oft interlacing many a forged lie, Whose like he neuer once did speake, nor heare, Nor euer thought thing so vnworthily: Yet did he nought for all that him forbeare, But strained him so streightly, that he chokt him neare.

At last when as he found [the Beast's] force to shrincke, And rage to quaile, [Calidore] took a muzzell strong Of surest yron, made with many a lincke; Therewith he mured vp his mouth along, And therein shut vp his blasphemous tong.


Against Calidore's superior martial power, Spenser reduces the Blatant Beast to his defining feature of discourteous speech, words which ennoble the knight's force by being not merely defeated but foreclosed, "shut vp" by virtuous discipline. Interesting enough, Calidore's own language doesn't fare much better than that of his antagonist, for though he makes clear efforts toward verbal negotiation and resolution, he finds little success in the face of the strong ideological resistance offered by agents of discourtesy. Relying upon force, then, as his primary means of applying virtue, Calidore defends it through a relative ethics, defining courtesy as a negation of disorder rather than a construction of social harmony. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the knight suppresses discourteous conduct far more than he embodies any clear pattern of civility himself. Such a portrait of the virtue more consistently reflects the heroic action of book 6 and its (at best) tenuous moments of gentlemanly discipline than the isolated vision of Mount Acidale, which is itself disrupted by the book's hero.

In this essay I examine how Calidore's dual ethic of violence and relativism may be read through the structure of virtu. Such a strategy allows us to highlight Spenser's encounter with the practical problems of civil order without resorting to pejorative extremes, neither revealing his desire to reassert an absolute notion of "natural" social harmony nor reducing him to an advocate of simple tyranny. Although Spenser referred to and praised Machiavelli's work, his application of virtu does not signal a wholesale importation of any simple political viewpoint.(7) Victoria Kahn has shown how Machiavellian rhetoric in Renaissance England functioned as a far more complex discourse than traditionally conceived, one which spanned sympathetic, critical, and even nonreaders of the Florentine writer.(8) In comparing Spenser to Machiavelli, I contend that the poet was not allying himself to a specific Machiavellian position, but was rather drawing upon an increasingly prominent discourse of political pragmatism which both included and applied Machiavelli in a variety of contexts.

At its simplest level virtu conveys qualities of strength and courage inherent in the Latin virtus, but the comprehensive term combines several key attributes essential to the ruling figure - among them ability, force, determination, and self-discipline: "Virtu conveys a sense of energetic, active, conscious involvement in determining the political, civic, and military life of the state . . . In swift, effective action the new prince can successfully convert his will into reality and affix his mark on history."(9) Critics generally agree that the term at its core holds active, specifically martial connotations even as it also represents princely cunning and deceit. Wayne A. Rebhorn's study of "confidence-men" in Machiavelli acknowledges that "however important the cleverness and prudence of the confidence man may be, the toughness, resolution, and daring of the hero are more basic [to virtu]."(10) The familiar pairing of "force and fraud" to define virtu, then, forms a subordinate rather than a coordinate relationship; cunning serves the prince's military ambitions more than force serves mere deceit. The term "fraud," itself, though frequently accurate for Machiavelli, remains an uncritically pejorative term to apply to the rhetoric of Calidore in book 6. While neither immoral nor amoral, Calidore's rhetoric is nevertheless morally relative to the settings, motivations, and opportunities he encounters in a given moment. These situations will prompt Calidore to apply force when traditional, symbolic gestures of courtesy prove ineffective. More provocative still, however, is the way his ethical positions will rely upon force for justification rather than sanction force themselves.

Such a paradoxical condition stems from the highly unstable environment of book 6, a world under assault by fortune at almost every step.(11) As the antithesis of fortune in the context of political order, Machiavellian virtu provides a model through which Calidore's often questionable ethical behavior may be construed.(12) By stressing the dynamic relation between virtu and fortune, order and contingency, Machiavelli alludes to how virtu cannot ultimately free itself from destructive forces, either political or ethical.(13) Leaving aside absolute theories of state unity and power, Machiavelli discusses states which must constantly change to new and shifting circumstances. In the absence of an ideal authority of tradition, such nations rely upon the virtu of an extraordinary leader as their central leverage for political control. Confronted with the forces of contingency constantly threatening his ability to govern, the prince must adopt strategies outside traditional means in order to secure his position.(14) In this context virtu represents a stabilizing force, quelling fortune always with an eye to forestalling future problems. But by abandoning the timeless mystique of tradition for necessary, time-bound strategies of action, the prince risks unleashing the chaotic forces of contingency all the more powerfully into the state. Consequently, virtu shores up one barricade only at the expense of others, implicating the prince in a perpetual cycle of change that makes fortune's grip continuous and inescapable. J. G. A. Pocock neatly summarizes the "ambiguous" but manifest ethical consequences of this paradox: "On the one hand virtu is that by which we innovate, and so let loose sequences of contingency beyond our prediction or control so that we become prey to fortuna; on the other hand, virtu is that internal to ourselves by which we resist fortuna and impose upon her patterns of order, which may even become patterns of moral order. This seems to be the heart of the Machiavellian ambiguities. It explains why innovation is supremely difficult, being formally self-destructive."(15) The paradox of virtu is that it perpetuates civil chaos in the long run even as it solves immediate crises. However disturbing the implications of this dynamic, Calidore's reliance upon it appears far more pragmatic than ambitious. Unable to apply traditional courtesy in a discourteous world, he acts on the assumption that imposed patterns of order stand a better chance of establishing moral order than no order at all.


Calidore's subjection of Briana and Crudor in canto 1 exemplifies the paradox of virtu as he confronts the ethical necessity of violent action in a contingent world. The bound squire whom Calidore initially discovers represents only the first of a long series of victims "not occasion'd through . . . misdesert, / But through misfortune" (6.1.12, my emphasis). Appropriately enough, the squire's plight stems from a policy of political innovation, Briana's creation of a "lewd" custom requiring the beards of men and hair of ladies for safe passage through her domain (6.1.13). Calidore's slaying of Briana's seneschal Maleffort and her guards occasions a crucial debate on the ethical status of violence to implement courteous doctrine. Rather than begging Calidore for mercy, Briana challenges the hero's right to uproot her political supremacy:

False traytor Knight, (sayd she) no Knight at all, But scorne of armes that hast with guilty hand Murdred my men, and slaine my Seneschall; Now comest thou to rob my house vnmand, And spoile my selfe, that can not thee withstand? Yet doubt thou not, but that some better Knight Then thou, that shall thy treason vnderstand, Will it auenge, and pay thee with thy right: And if none do, yet shame shal thee with shame requight.


Sharply upbraiding Calidore for his own act of violence, Briana deftly places him in the villain's role. Glossing over her initial revision of custom, she frames Calidore's conduct in the same terms with which the knight has judged her: an unprovoked violence threatening social order. Presuming his intention to both rob and rape her, she conversely portrays herself as a wronged innocent.

Behind Briana's hypocrisy, however, rest deep-rooted Christian codes of non-violence and anti-heroism which Calidore cannot so easily dismiss. Such ethics have been established in The Faerie Queene as early as Contemplation's remarks to Redcrosse near the end of book 1:

But when thou famous victorie hast wonne, And high emongst all knights hast hong thy shield, Thenceforth the suit of earthly conquest shonne, And wash thy hands from guilt of bloudy field: For bloud can nought but sin, and wars but sorrowes yield.


In her lament Briana invokes the problematic status accorded to ethical action in Contemplation's remark and throughout book 1 as a whole. From Redcrosse's false triumphs over the "sans" brothers to his heavenly-directed defeat of the Dragon, the connotations of force in the first book fluctuate between necessity and regret. Even at its most efficacious, action seems irrevocably separate from the contemplative virtue allegorized in Redcrosse's retreat from the world. In the figure of the "guilty hand," Briana skillfully sounds this ambivalent chord in the attempt to make Calidore's force no more legitimate than her own.

Backed into a corner, Calidore's defense sanctions the linking of violence with a relative ethics in order to preserve social order:

Much was the Knight abashed at that word; Yet answered thus; Not vnto me the shame, But to the shameful doer it afford. Bloud is no blemish; for it is no blame To punish those, that doe deserue the same; But they that break bands of ciuilitie, And wicked customes make, those doe defame Both noble armes and gentle curtesie. No greater shame to man then inhumanitie.


Calidore defends his conduct on relative and contextual grounds rather than on abstract precepts against violence which would unequivocally implicate him in wrongdoing. By contradicting Contemplation's edict, "bloud can [yield] nought but sin," so diametrically with "Bloud is no blemish," the knight sides firmly with the active life and its rationale in an unstable political environment. His position deflects two implicit criticisms of martial heroism operative throughout the first book: 1) its inflation of personal vanity (allegorized in the tournament at the House of Pride and the figure of Orgoglio), and 2) its pagan ethos. He resolves the first issue by predicating the value of his actions upon the "bands of ciuilitie," a communal stability to which he himself stands subordinate. The second issue Calidore answers with an unapologetic relativism, juxtaposing violence which disrupts civil order with a morally sanctioned punitive counter. Corrective force avoids blame because it secures the structure of tradition and community which discourtesy threatens to destroy. The stanza's proverbial conclusion, "No greater shame to man then inhumanitie," defends necessary violence by evoking the urgent need to stave off the inhuman and chaotic. Even as he states this truism, however, Calidore feels the blush of shame upon his own face, the knowledge that his own ideals are not pure and absolute: "Much was the Knight abashed at that word [shame]." Instead of resolving this problem, Calidore openly acknowledges none at all, as if the system of relations privileging his force negates all of its uncertain ethical character. Calidore's defense of action not on the basis of universal theoretical principle but on contingent social practice establishes a pattern of virtu which can be traced throughout the subsequent episodes of his early quest in book 6. This defense, operating on a principle of innovation allied with active force, unequivocally departs from the Christian pacifism of book 1 and thus places the virtues of books 1 and 6 in direct contradiction.

The consequence of this moral position is to lay the final blame of Briana's force upon the shoulders of Crudor, who has exercised no force at all, but whose refusal to wed his betrothed precipitates her aberrant revision of custom. Readings of the Crudor-Briana scene stressing the "resolution" of the conflict(16) fail to consider the threat of death enforcing Crudor's assent to marriage. Neither do they appreciate how Briana adopts courteous behavior by getting exactly what she wants rather than by feeling ashamed of her behavior. The obedience of Crudor vividly represents how violence characterizes social "reformation" as it does outright punishment:(17)

The wretched man, that all this while did dwell In dread of death, his heasts did gladly heare, And promist to performe his precept well, And whatsoeuer else he would requere.

All which accepting, and with faithfull oth Bynding himselfe most firmely to obay, He vp arose, how euer liefe or loth, And swore to him true fealtie for aye.


Calidore's action - not Crudor's or Briana's repentance - exerts the moral force of the canto's resolution. Crudor does not lie before Calidore ashamed of his behavior, but in "dread of death" itself. Even more disturbing is the way Spenser's rhymes juxtapose Crudor's "faithful" oath of fealty with the irrelevance of his inner feelings regarding it ("oth . . . loth"). In this context Crudor's pledge is a speech act in its most radical sense, performed only in the mechanical utterance and not infused with any commensurate emotional sympathy for reform. Problematic as well is the "conversion" of Briana equally void of any regret over her actions. Disdaining Calidore's advice to give up her desire for Crudor's love (6.1.27), Briana reveals no assent to Calidore's "courteous lore" that would indicate any essential change in her character.

In revealing the vulnerability of courteous discourse in a world of discourtesy, Spenser shows not only how force becomes the authorizing principle of speech, but also how it functions as a preeminent form of that speech. More than just speaking louder than words, force speaks where words cannot, when ideological barriers render courteous discourse unrecognizable to the discourteous ear. As avatar of courteous virtue, Calidore defines himself most immediately against the Blatant Beast's "thousand tongues" and the "shrill voice" of Briana apparent throughout the narrative as well as in her Irish name.(18) The tensions between force and speech also extend, however, to the image of Calidore himself. Against the hero's symbolic qualities of manners, appearance, and language, Spenser unequivocally contrasts his martial prowess:

In [Calidore] it seemes, that gentlenesse of spright And manners mylde were planted naturall; To which he adding comely guize withall, And gracious speach, did steale mens hearts away. Nathlesse thereto he was full stout and tall, And well approu'd in batteilous affray.

(6.1.2, my emphasis)

As Calidore soon finds out, few of courtesy's symbolic attributes present any effective counter to disdainful behavior. Unlike that of Redcrosse, no courteous faith invigorates Calidore's force in subjugating agents of discourtesy. Instead, violence serves a wholly recuperative role in maintaining codes of civil conduct which in themselves have no practical social effect.

Later representations of speech in the canto support this early characterization. Unable to dissuade Briana from her discourteous path, the knight counters her disdainful speech by appealing to the higher rhetorical ground of martial action:

To take defiaunce at a Ladies word (Quoth he) I hold it no indignity; But were he here, that would it with his sword Abett, perhaps he mote it deare aby.


For Calidore violence serves to authenticate words which lack any inherent authority. The passage unequally poses "word" against "sword," a distinction gendered by the phonic elision in "Ladies word" and "his sword." The opposition playfully recalls the Beast's variously hundred or thousand sharp tongues, stressing the allegorical function of disdainful speech as a piercing weapon. The privilege afforded to violence by the comparison, however, more powerfully refigures language's claims to violent authority into Briana's humiliating military defeat. Inevitably, ladies' swords are words; knights' words are swords. Victorious in his combat with Crudor, Calidore reinforces this empty, effeminate status accorded to language:

And is the boast of that proud Ladies threat, That menaced me from the field to beat, Now brought to this?


Here Briana's speech becomes conflated with Crudor's military defeat, a link secured by the reduction of the knight's violent role to that of a suppliant pleading for mercy.

Calidore's earlier efforts to persuade Briana to abandon Crudor further illustrate the ineffectiveness of language by dramatizing the failure of even courteous speech to affect discourteous behavior. After disputing Briana's negative representation of his violence, Calidore attempts to forestall Briana's own force by rhetorical means:

Then doe your selfe, for dread of shame, forgoe This euill manner, which ye here maintaine, And doe in stead thereof mild curt'sie showe To all, that passe. That shall you glory gaine More than his loue, which thus ye seeke t'obtaine.


Calidore measures Briana's love against the potential glory to be attained in "mild curt'sie" - and finds the former clearly wanting in comparison. It is a common argument by this point in the poem, where the book's titular heroes constantly defer gratification of their desires in ongoing quests for virtue. But in the increasingly imperialistic environment of the later books, the granting of such undesired "honor" merely heightens the antagonism underlying intercultural disputes. Briana's animosity toward Calidore points to this form of xenophobia as it answers accusation not with defense but with counteraccusation: "Vile recreant, know that I doe much disdaine / Thy courteous lore, that doest my loue deride" (6.1.27, my emphasis). The relative context which fashions the knight's courtesy into derision dramatically exposes the limitations of symbolic structures to foster civil order. Calidore cannot distinguish his own well-meaning efforts for courteous reform from the Blatant Beast's spiteful venom. His rhetoric, virtually unnecessary after Briana's complete subjugation, appears to be introduced only to be flatly dismissed as a means of civil control. Whereas language fails to negotiate between opposing viewpoints, action breaks down ideological barriers not merely by appealing such conflict to the field of battle, but also by simplifying it into the binary terms of order and contingency - orthodox virtue versus rebellious dissent.


Calidore's encounter with Tristram and the young man's slaying of the anonymous Knight of the Barge reinforce the mechanics of virtu introduced in canto 1. Like its earlier counterpart, the episode of canto 2 places the efficacy of armed conflict over an ineffective, subordinate practice of language while distancing itself from the moral precepts of the poem's early books. This second challenge to Calidore's arbitration of "courteous lore" closely resembles the previous one: the charge that violence is an abuse of courtesy, not an instrument of it. The very terms of Calidore's hail to Tristram in fact echo Briana's criticism of his own force:

What means this, gentle swaine? Why hath thy hand too bold it selfe embrewed In blood of knight, the which by thee is slaine, By thee no knight; which armes impugneth plaine?


Here violence does not stand in need of defense in the abstract. Instead, Tristram transgresses the chivalric code precluding combat between members of unequal rank. Calidore's figure of the stained hand, nevertheless, reopens the question of "bloud" as "blemish" for the defender of courtesy. Not surprisingly, Tristram's defense mirrors back to Calidore his own logic of relation and context. The representation of the unnamed knight as an agent of fortune lays the groundwork for such an argument. His heraldic banner, "A Ladie on rough waues, row'd in a sommer barge" (6.2.44), identifies the villain as a figure of sudden and violent changeability. As Hamilton's note to the passage persuasively asserts, the devise synthesizes the image of the licentious and ungoverned figure of Phaedria with the brutal victimization of the knight's lady. The emblem, thus, allegorizes both the knight's fleshly appetite and its consequences in his lady's rude treatment. His anonymity suggests an unusual detachment from the narrative, given his prominent role in the canto. Despite his brief life span in the story, the knight exhibits a surprisingly broad scope of discourteous behavior in his two attacks upon unarmed foes, his lust for Priscilla, and his reprehensible treatment of his lady.

In the face of the anonymous knight's discourteous behavior, Tristram rejects any blame for his force by invoking the doctrine of "necessity" which rationalizes all acts of virtu. As if to drive home this argument conclusively, Spenser frames Tristram's force in unequivocally superior terms against the young man's own verbal defense of it:

Much did Sir Calidore admyre his speach Tempred so well, but more admyr'd the stroke That through the mayles had made so strong a breach Into his hart, and had so sternely wroke His wrath on him, that first occasion broke.


Spenser's bald juxtaposition of action and language provocatively stages a context for force to appropriate language's own signifying function. Tristram ironically translates the Pauline rhetorical ideal of piercing the spiritual heart into a death-blow applied to the knight's material heart. Like the word/sword play in canto 1, the figuration of force as speech merely emphasizes the pronounced opposition between the two categories. The passage disrupts language's distinctive power to signify in order to demonstrate the superior role of violence in setting the conditions for signification. Force, thus, functions as a transcendental signifier, setting the parameters for what can be spoken and authorizing speech beyond the capacity of persuasion or convention.

Calidore does invoke his symbolic power to acquit (or "quite clame," 6.2.14) Tristram of his actions, but his admiration for violence over language problematically positions him in relation to such a speech act. Successfully enforced action appears to validate itself here, according to Machiavelli's notorious model of "effectual truth."(19) Such deference to Tristram's force is signaled in stanza 24, where Spenser describes the squire as having "had himself so stoutly well acquit" (my emphasis). Here Tristram's acquittal subtly transforms from Calidore's judicial absolution into the knight's own self-vindication.

From acquitting Tristram of blame for subverting knightly codes of combat, Calidore moves toward a far more questionable practice: allowing Tristram to spoil the dead knight of his arms and armor. The young man frames his request for these items in the terms of the fortune-virtu dialectic:

Therefore, good Sir, sith now occasion fit Doth fall, whose like hereafter seldome may, Let me this craue, vnworthy though of it, That ye will make me Squire without delay That from henceforth in batteilous array I may beare armes, and learne to vse them right; The rather since that fortune hath this day Giuen to me the spoile of this dead knight, These goodly gilden armes, which I haue won in fight.


Tristram's figuring of his acquittal as an "occasion" for entering into the knightly profession reinvokes the function of virtu as a counter to fortune and the contingency it represents. The figure of Occasion, a woman bald apart from a forelock of hair, associated with moveable images like wings, ships, balls, and wheels, closely resembles that of Fortune in Renaissance emblem books.(20) Rather than possessing a negative connotation, however,(21) Tristram's occasion occupies a middle ground between fortune and virtu consistent with Machiavelli's use of occasione. For Machiavelli, effective virtu is wholly dependent upon opportunity: a moment where the prince's ability and position are uniquely poised to strike against contingent forces. Occasion thus prepares the way for successful virtu, but as Machiavelli admits, such opportunity also arises from the fortune it potentially undermines. Commenting on the founding of kingdoms by Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus, he concedes that "from fortune [the leaders] received nothing but the occasion; which in turn offered them the material they could then shape into whatever form they pleased; and without that occasion their very [virtu] would have been extinguished, and without that [virtu] the occasion would have come in vain."(22) Occasion produces the context for virtu and fortune's subjugation, but by so doing it locks the two in a paradoxical interrelation that makes virtu dependent upon fortune for its very success.

In the final lines of Tristram's speech, the middle ground of occasion positions the would-be squire between an external fortune and an internal virtu, the one "[giving] to [him] the spoile of this dead knight," the other achieving it for himself: "these goodly gilden armes, which I haue won in fight." Intriguingly linked with this imprecision is the hysteron proteron of line 6, whose uncertain sequence of bearing arms, and then learning their use opens more space between the two acts than it closes. The position of squire which Tristram seeks constitutes a provisional status of knighthood that will teach him the lessons of chivalry. Calidore's refusal of his service, however, and the boy's subsequent "greedie" desire for the weapons of combat prompts the question of who will properly guide him through his new path.

Tristram's use of fortune to position himself as a passive recipient of the dead knight's arms may merely be a salve for his questionable intention to seize the spoile. For just as Calidore's virtu contradicts Contemplation's edict against violence, here Tristram's force and seizure of opportunity overturns an equally strong anti-heroic precept from the poem's early books. Here, the moral pronouncement under challenge is the Palmer's command against spoiling the dead in book 2:

Faire Sir, said then the Palmer suppliaunt, For knighthoods loue, do not so foule a deed, Ne blame your honour with so shamefull vaunt Of vile reuenge. To spoile the dead of weed Is sacrilege, and doth all sinnes exceed.


The magnitude of sin associated with reaving the dead in book 2 is not explicitly clear; rather it seems to rest upon an implicit opposition between pagan and Christian codes of combat allegorized in Pyrochles and Cymochles as intemperate "sarzins" and Arthur's rescue of Guyon as heavenly grace.(23) Tristram's demonstration of lust toward the spoiled arms in stanza 39 reveals a clear ignorance of any moral difficulty in seizing spoil. Calidore's brazen encouragement of these desires even more boldly rejects such an edict:

Faire chyld, the high desire To loue of armes, which in you doth aspire, I may not certes without blame denie; But rather wish, that some more noble hire, (Though none more noble than is cheualrie,) I had, you to reward with greater dignitie.


Calidore unequivocally affirms the positive connotations of Tristram's "occasion," even going further to suggest that the dead knight's arms might not be adequate to the young man's "high desire." In this episode as well as its counterpart in canto 1, Calidore's innovation does not merely function in relation to an unspecified, "natural" conception of courtesy; it also directly opposes elements of the poem's first edition. Calidore's reversal of moral precepts from books 1 and 2 respectively in cantos 1 and 2 fashions a keenly ironic symmetry in the face of his innovative behavior. As these early ethical dilemmas demonstrate the relative grounds of courteous virtue, they retrospectively extend this relativism into the traditionally more stable ethical projects of the early books.

The ethical stakes of Calidore's virtu are raised even higher in canto 3, where Calidore conceals the "blame" (6.3.8) of Aladine's and Priscilla's lovemaking through violence and prevarication. Urged by Aladine to resolve the "fortunes of his loue" (6.3.15), Calidore fashions a courtly deception that will prevent any threat to Priscilla's reputation. Felicitous though the attempt is, Spenser describes Calidore's act in provocative terms. Priscilla first conceives of her plan as a "coloured disguize" (6.3.8) to obscure her shame, while the narrator labels the fiction even more pejoratively as a "counter-cast of slight" (6.3.16). Instead of relating the facts of Priscilla's disobedience and sexual misconduct to her concerned father, Calidore claims to have prevented her capture by a "discourteous knight" (6.3.18). The rhetorical ground for this version of events is, characteristically, a sign of heroic force, the evil knight's dismembered head. His presentation of Priscilla to her father strings together decontextualized truths with outright falsehoods which contradict the knight's supposed love of "simple truth and stedfast honesty" (6.1.3):

There he arriuing boldly, did present The fearefull Lady to her father deare, Most perfect pure, and guiltlesse innocent Of blame, as he did on his Knighthood sweare, Since first he saw her, and did free from feare Of a discourteous Knight, who her had reft, And by outragious force away did beare: Witnesse thereof he shew'd his head there left, And wretched life forlorne for vengement of his theft.


Earlier implications of force as a transcendental signifier - setting the conditions for and authorizing speech - here receive their full ratification. Even more powerful than the subterfuge sustaining Priscilla's doubtful innocence is the silent pronouncement of the dead knight's head. In this context military victory confers the very ability to speak - not merely to fashion moral justice out of ideological conflict, but also to continue refashioning it for expedient social purposes. Critics have justifiably questioned Calidore's deliberately vague confirmation of Priscilla's innocence "[s]ince first he saw her." Having followed the spirit of courtesy to obscure the lovers' unsanctioned meeting, Calidore retreats to the exact letter of his account to gloss over a doubtful virtue. Still more questionable, however, is the way Calidore's account directly contradicts the apparent facts of the case. The knight's indirect discourse asserts that he has made Priscilla "free from feare," yet his presentation of her as "fearefull" gives the lie to this claim. The paradox of a frightened lady with no apparent reason to be afraid exposes the truth behind Calidore's deceit; Priscilla has experienced much more than a simple kidnapping. Within the fictional reality, however, Calidore effaces this difference, framing an effectual truth through the instrument of the sword.

Canto 3 marks the end of an initial sequence of episodes focusing on Calidore, whose pursuit of the Blatant Beast leaves Calepine as a distinctively inadequate surrogate in defending courteous virtue. From its start the canto juxtaposes Calidore to knights of an inferior grade (Aladine as well as Calepine), who represent not so much youthful aspirants to the knight's virtu as flawed counterparts subjected to the ravages of fortune. Both fall victim to sudden intrusions into their sexual encounters - literally caught with their pants down in a hostile environment. These examples are followed by similar imperfections in the knights who stand in for Calidore throughout the middle of the book: Timias's lack of self-control, the savage man's need for leadership and guidance, even Arthur's inexplicable slumber before Turpine (6.7.19). Capable as these representatives can be, their struggles to impose discipline upon the chaotic environment of book 6 remain at best secondary efforts behind Calidore's early success. Each surrogate's difficulties in one way reflect Calidore's high standard of ability. But each's also exposes the limits of Calidore's virtu as well, for in his trail the knight leaves a world not secure in virtuous resolution, but provisionally controlled, subject to the forces of change which expose stability as equilibrium, and to the antagonisms which transform symbols of the well-meaning mind into empty signifiers. That Spenser was deeply concerned with a growing disorder in Faerie land is evident from the Mutabilitie Cantos. That his reaction to it in book 6 was not to represent closure within the boundaries of an ideal landscape, but to show the necessity of virtu in a world of instability demonstrates a vision of society consistent with Machiavelli's model of Renaissance government.(24)


1 Richard Neuse, "Book VI as Conclusion to The Faerie Queene," ELH 35, 3 (September 1968): 329-53, esp. 347. On Spenser's relation to Niccolo Machiavelli, see Edwin A. Greenlaw, "The Influence of Machiavelli on Spenser," MP 7, 2 (1909): 187-202; H. S. V. Jones, "Spenser's Defense of Lord Grey," University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 5, 3 (1919): 151-219; and Emile Gasquet, Le Courant Machiavellien dans la pensee et la litterature anglaises du XVIe siecle (Paris: Didier, 1974), pp. 345-53.

2 See Robert E. Stillman, "Spenserian Autonomy and the Trial of New Historicism: Book Six of The Faerie Queene," ELR 22, 3 (Autumn 1992): 299-314; Anne Fogarty, "The Colonization of Language: Narrative Strategy in A View of the Present State of Ireland and The Faerie Queene, Book VI," in Spenser and Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Patricia Coughlan (Cork: Cork Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 75-108; Gordon Teskey, "Mutability, Genealogy, and the Authority of Forms," Representations 41 (Winter 1993): 104-22, 108-10.

3 Stillman, p. 301.

4 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), proem 6.5. Further references will appear parenthetically in the text by book, canto, and stanza numbers.

5 Prominent exponents of the role of contemplation as principle of structural unity in book 6 include Humphrey Tonkin, Spenser's Courteous Pastoral: Book Six of "The Faerie Queene" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of "The Faerie Queene" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976); and John D. Bernard, Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the poetry of Edmund Spenser (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).

6 Along with Neuse, critics who have examined the darker implications of Spenser's courtesy include Harry Berger Jr., "A Secret Discipline: The Faerie Queene, Book VI," in Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. William Nelson (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 35-75; David L. Miller, "Abandoning the Quest," ELH 46, 2 (Summer 1979): 173-92; and Stanley Stewart, "Sir Calidore and 'Closure,'" SEL 24, 1 (Winter 1984): 69-86.

7 Spenser's lone reference to Machiavelli in A View of the Present State of Ireland is nevertheless highly significant, for he cites the Discorsi as an authority in advocating absolute power for the Lord deputy when the "necessitye of present occacions" requires it (The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, Fredrick Morgan Padelford, et al., 9 vols. [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1949], 9:229). Spenser's connections to Machiavelli were probably fostered by his friend Gabriel Harvey, who compliments the Florentine writer throughout his marginalia (See Gabriel Harvey's Marginalia, ed. G. C. Moore Smith [Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1913]).

8 Victoria Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994).

9 Silvia Ruffo-Fiore, Niccolo Machiavelli (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), p. 37. For a bibliography of twentieth-century views of virtu, see Neal Wood, "Machiavelli's Concept of Virtu Reconsidered," Political Studies 15, 2 (June 1967): 159-72, 159, note 1. More recent approaches to virtu are cited by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Lions and Foxes: Machiavelli's Confidence Men (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988), p. 147, notes 17-8.

10 Rebhorn, p. 148. On virtu in the context of the active life, see Wood, p. 165, and J. H. Hexter, "The Loom of Language and the Fabric of Imperatives: The Case of Il Principe and Utopia," American Historical Review 69, 4 (July 1964): 945-69, 956-7.

11 On the dominant role of Fortune in book 6, see Kenneth Borris, "Fortune, Occasion, and the Allegory of the Quest in Book Six of The Faerie Queene," SSt 7 (1986): 123-45.

12 On virtu as an antithesis to fortune, see Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984), pp. 142-4; and John Plamenatz, "In Search of Machiavellian Virtu," in The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli's Philosophy, ed. Anthony Parel (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 157-78, 160.

13 On virtu as a dynamic principle, see Wood, pp. 166-7; and J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), p. 167.

14 See Pocock, pp. 152-82.

15 Pocock, p. 167.

16 The most conventional of these is Tonkin, pp. 38-40, but see also Jacqueline T. Miller's skeptical reading of the scene in "The Courtly Figure: Spenser's Anatomy of Allegory," SEL 31, 1 (Winter 1991): 51-68, 56.

17 See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979).

18 On Briana's name, see Hamilton's note (6.1.14).

19 Machiavelli's use of "verita effettuale" occurs in the much cited chapter 15 of The Prince, trans. Mark Musa (New York: St. Martin's, 1964), p. 127.

20 See Borris, p. 125.

21 For an example of such a negative connotation in The Faerie Queene, see the figure of Occasion in book 2, canto 4.

22 Machiavelli, p. 43. See also Pocock, pp. 167-9.

23 See also the Palmer's implicit description of the pair as "Sar'zins" (2.8.18).

24 I would like to thank the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama and its former director David Lee Miller for fellowship support and encouragement. Appreciation also to the 1993 meeting of Spenser at Kalamazoo, where an abbreviated version of the essay was read. Finally, great thanks to Seth Weiner, who guided me through the early stages of this project with inimitable patience and enthusiasm.

Bruce Danner teaches at the University of Alabama. He is writing a study of literary authority in Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, and Puttenham entitled "Chaining the Beast: Acts of Language in the English Renaissance."