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Criticism, Vol. 42, 2000

Women's Friendship and the Refusal of Lesbian Desire in The Faerie Queene.

Tracey Sedinger

RECENT FEMINIST CRITICISM OF Spenser's Faerie Queene has increasingly focused attention on the construction of gendered subjectivities throughout the epic romance, and especially within Book 3, the book of chastity. The difficulties of constructing or representing a heterosexual relation based on reciprocity (the Spenserian version of Lawrence Stone's "companionate marriage") has been of critical concern ever since the publication of C.S. Lewis's Allegory of Love. In contrast to the social constructionist views fashionable today, Lewis posited an innate or naturalized heterosexuality, one which is, of course, embattled and in need of mediation by a discourse of love which escapes the barren dead-ends of Petrarchism and idolatry.(1) Other critics have represented sexuality as a battle between the sexes: the dynastic marriage which Britomart's narrative aims at requires the overcoming of a sexual difference which, in a variety of ways throughout the epic, is posited as fundamentally antagonistic.(2) Recently, however, Spenser criticism has been increasingly influenced by discourses such as feminism, queer theory, post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis, the majority of whose practitioners refuse an essentialism which characterizes sexual difference and sexuality as invariable, natural, or "unwavering." But despite the sophistication of the various paradigms of gender construction which these critics cite, their efforts remain marked by a tendency to suture a specific sexuality onto a specific gender--in other words, to assume that the subjectivities constructed in The Faerie Queene, even in their moments of failure, are inevitably heterosexual. For example, Sheila Cavanagh's work on The Faerie Queene defines female sexuality as female heterosexuality--and slippages from the chaste ideal always remain heterosexual.(3) Lauren Silberman argues that the Malecasta episode--a potentially "lesbian" encounter--foregrounds the problem of gender identity and "the defamiliarization of heterosexual desire." But her brief reading of this episode, in which she convincingly argues that Ariosto's more explicit lesbianism is suppressed by Spenser, requires that she read Britomart's reaction to Malecasta's desire as "naive" and "ingenuous"--a reading which, as I will argue, neglects Britomart's complicit response to Malecasta's courtship.(4) Elizabeth Bellamy also notes how Book 3 is marked by its fears of unnatural sexual acts; despite her allusion to Glauce's fears of "endogamous and sodomitic sexuality" she notes Spenser's privileging of incest (via a series of concrete images and allusions) as that form of sexuality most inimical to Britomart's quest. But Bellamy once again imposes an understanding of sexuality in relation to sexual difference which elides an exploration proper of the dynamics of homoeroticism within the poem. For she sees androgyny (which she equates with Freud's bisexuality) as aphanisis, or the extinction of desire: sexual desire therefore becomes dependent upon sexual difference for its maintenance.(5)

Most feminist critics of Spenser have hitherto focused on incest or bestiality as the constitutive outside of the type of gendered sexuality which Book 3 tries to delineate. On the surface, it seems that too much or too little circulation of women is the primary threat to the maintenance of male sexual privilege. But this is to restrict feminist analysis to that which has been given in representation: the disposition of pre-constituted objects of exchange. It is not to query how those representations are generated or how they function. Queer theory has taught us that heterosexuality can no longer be treated as a given, and that the apparent absence of representations of non-reproductive sexualities is not a good indicator of their nonexistence. Given the success of this project, perhaps we should take another look at Spenser's exclusion, or perhaps even suppression, of female homoeroticism. For we miss something important about gender construction if we fail to ask why female homoeroticism is absent, since sexual desires and practices are integral to the construction and representation of gendered subjectivity.

Though The Faerie Queene might be evidence for what Valerie Traub has called the "insignificance" of lesbian desire in early modern England, many scholars have argued that "insignificance" does not means "nonexistence" (i.e., that lesbian pleasures or the representations thereof didn't exist), and have proffered increasingly ingenious readings which have disclosed sexual practices and desires that elude the parameters of reproductive heterosexuality. The project to map female homoeroticism in the early modern period has increasingly focused on female friendship as a privileged set of relations in which non-reproductive desires might be manifest.(6) But female friendship is a rare commodity within The Faerie Queene; as Dorothy Stephens has so astutely noted, "The Faerie Queene does not allow many such meetings between women to happen within its borders."(7) We might conclude that the lack of female friendship points to the absence of lesbian desire as well. But I would like to suggest that the lack of female friendship is an effect, rather than a cause, of the latter--that is, that Spenser suppresses friendship between women because of the possibility that such friendships might "devolve" into homoerotic attachments. This process is evident in Spenser's most sustained investigation of feminine subjectivity--the career of Britomart, which stretches across the three books of chastity, friendship, and justice. Within Britomart's narrative interpellation, friendship and its resulting identifications play an important role in the development of chastity. In order to give chaste desire a body within a poetics of the speaking picture, earlier in Britomart's career Spenser will run the risk of identification in order to produce a feminine subjectivity centered on the virtue of chastity. But when these identifications produce erotic possibilities which do not lead to dynastic marriage, Britomart's friendships become enmity, her identifications abjections, such that her career as the embodiment of chaste desire ends with her "hacking" and "hewing" Radigund's "dainty parts," a synecdoche for femininity itself.


Within The Faerie Queene, examples of friendship usually involve men; in this, Spenser seems to have been a man of his time. Sixteenth-century celebrations of friendship as the highest form of human relation usually assumed that its participants were male; rarely was female friendship explicitly celebrated, at least until later in the seventeenth century. Beyond its idealization, friendship fulfilled many functions: it was a highly practical activity, a way of solidifying or mediating a whole series of relations (political, economic) which moderns (or postmoderns) conduct in a series of increasingly fragmented and specialized relations. Friendship was therefore central to the perpetuation and practice of early modern patriarchy, but scholars have also argued than it was an institution central to the articulation of early modern sexualities.(8) And even though writers, such as Montaigne and Spenser, who celebrated friendship often defined it as the opposite of "this other Greeke license" or "disorderly love, which the learned call paederastice," close and attentive readings by Jonathan Goldberg and Jeffrey Masten have demonstrated how these texts also disclose, at the rhetorical level, a sublimated erotics and discourse of desire.(9)

The early modern discourse of friendship often places friendship in explicit or implicit contrast to erotic love between men and women; and as many scholars have noted, the latter comes off badly. As Montaigne writes, friendship between men is superior to erotic love between man and woman since the latter is a sharper, and therefore shorter, fire; marriage precludes friendship since the continuance of marriage is "forced and constrained." But even more telling is his belief that women are simply incapable of true friendship: "the ordinary sufficiency of women, cannot answer this conference and communication, the nurse of this sacred bond: nor seeme their mindes strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable."(10) Translator John Florio's choice of "ordinary sufficiency" is an odd one. The OED variously defines "sufficiency" as "The condition or quality of being sufficient for its purpose or for the end in view"; "a sufficient number or quantity of; enough"; "sufficient capacity to perform or undertake something"; "self-sufficient." How are women sufficient, especially given the inherent mental weakness to which the following sentence attests? Given that women's "ordinary sufficiency" (a sufficiency of the ordinary? a sufficiency that is ordinary?) renders them incapable of "conference and communication," we might speculate that women cannot engage in true friendship because they withstand desire. Their weakness lies, paradoxically, in their sufficiency, in their having enough.

Women's exclusion highlights a paradox of early modern friendship: its placement within an economy of desire that eschews material need. Both Aristotle and Cicero assert that true friendship denies the importance of material benefits (monetary, professional, etc.).(11) But Cicero, in De Amicitia, is also at pains to refute those who would argue that all friendship is based on material need (and hence that helpless women and the poor are those most likely to engage in it). Friendship is based on desire, specifically, the desire for virtue, as opposed to material need. This celebration of friendship as beyond material goods leaves its mark on the description of friendship as an intersubjective relation. For Aristotle, since friendship between unequals must be regulated and measured (i.e., that the benefits are distributed proportionally), "true" friendship (i.e., friendship for the love of virtue) becomes impossible between unequals.(12) Cicero's elaboration of an "economy" of friendship highlights the problem for discourses of (male) friendship. What is "proper" to friendship, given its oft insatiable desire? Montaigne writes of how his will was seized and "plunged" into that of his friend, which was likewise plunged and lost in his own, "with a mutuall greedinesse."(13) The rhetoric of sexual violence and loss demonstrates the difficulty of establishing a regulated economy of such exchanges, and bespeaks the need to establish the similitude of the two partners to this exchange. Cicero therefore defines friendship as the desire of like for like: "And what if I also add, as I may fairly do, that nothing so allures and attracts anything to itself as likeness does to friendship? Then it surely will be granted as a fact that good men love and join to themselves other good men, in a union which is almost that of relationship and nature. For there is nothing more eager or more greedy than nature for what is like itself."(14) As Jeffrey Masten has shown, a similar valuation of similitude marks Montaigne's discourse of friendship: "Our mindes have jumped so unitedly together, they have with so fervent an affection considered of each other, and with like affection so discovered and sounded, even to the very bottome of each others heart and entrailes."(15) Consequently, the loss of will involved in this type of friendship leads not to treason, as Cicero feared, but to truth: "wherein men negotiate from the very centre of their hearts, and make no spare of anything, it is most requisite ... and perfectly true."(16) Similarly, as Jonathan Goldberg has pointed out, The Shepheardes Calendar is marked by a desire to produce a moment of identification uncontaminated by desire; E.K. attempts to create a "proper pederasty," one which promotes "the homeostasis of `similarity,' identifications within the self-same and proper."(17) True friendship fosters "propriety," as ethical behavior and as ownership.

This emphasis on the proper suggests why the discourse of friendship has difficulty incorporating women into its vision. As Helen Pringle has noted in an essay devoted to friendship in Greek political thought, ideal friendship requires a proper disposition towards the other; Greek political thought, especially that of Plato, imagines impropriety using the bodies of women and tyrants.(18) Tyrants are incapable of true friendship; moreover, they are "womanish" in their indulgence of appetite and the refusal of limits. As Pringle notes, the female body is used to figure the tyrant because of its imaginary status as permeable, penetrable, "leaky," to cite Gail Kern Paster's work on the female body in early modern culture.(19) The permeable female body relegates women to the material, as opposed to ideal, level; to the level of need, as opposed to desire. Women are "ordinary sufficient," which describes, in a way, a lack of lack: women have enough of, and are imprisoned within, the ordinary, and therefore are not open to the excentric if sublimated desire which stimulates true friendship. In "Of the force of the imagination," Montaigne explains the strange case of Marie Germane by arguing that, "[the imagination] is so continually annexed, and so forcibly fastened to this subject, that lest she should so often fall into the relapse of the same thought, and sharpnesse of desire, it is better one time for all, to incorporate this virile part unto wenches."(20) For Montaigne, female sexual desire (or need) is both too sharp and too material: a woman's sexual desire can only be satisfied by turning her into a man.

Heterosexual desire, given concrete form through the image of the leaky and penetrable female body, renders women incapable of friendship. One response to this problem was the elaboration of a different bodily imaginary, in order to render female friendship possible within this discourse. Chastity, as Laurie Shannon has argued, offers one such strategy. Shannon suggests that, within The Two Noble Kinsmen, Emilia, a captured Amazon, articulates a viable discourse of female friendship (counter to Montaigne) which is both chaste and homoerotic.(21) Chastity offers a way of representing female friendship because it removes women from an economy of heterosexual desire; it offers a potential restriction of circulation which allows women to experience that sublimation of sexual desire which seems so central to male friendship. It also offers, as Valerie Traub has argued, a chaste erotic play without phallic penetration.(22) Consequently, chastity generates an imaginary female body which resists penetration; one need think only of Elizabeth's numerous pictorial and discursive representations of her impermeable virgin body. But chastity also fails in this endeavor. Though Theseus's friendship with Pirithous remains central even after his marriage, Emilia celebrates hers when it has already been lost, which supports James Holstun's claim that one genre closely associated with the representation of lesbian eroticism in the early modern period is the elegy.(23)

Why this asymmetry? Because chastity itself offers only a provisional solution to the problem of propriety, which is clearly demonstrated by Britomart's career in The Faerie Queene. Whereas friendship between men regulates exchange between interior and exterior, and hence polices the boundaries between the proper and improper, chastity itself is too implicated within, and confounding of, this problematic distinction between interior and exterior. For example, Juan Luis Vives, in one of the most popular texts on the education of women in the sixteenth century, defines chastity as a product of both (masculine) political opinion, verifiable by sight, and as a subjective and interiorized state of being. For Vives, the maintenance of chastity depends on the chaste maiden fortifying her bodily boundaries: refusing rich foods, sumptuous apparel, dancing, "licentious" books, company. Asserting that chastity is a "purenes bothe of body and mynde," he warns against lustful thoughts: "Be nat proude mayde that thou are holle of body / yf thou be broken in mynde: nor bicause no man hath touched thy body / if many men haue persed thy mynde ... Thou art proude mayde / bycause thy bealy hath no cause to swell: whan thy mynde is swollen / nat with manes sede / but with deuylles."(24) Chastity must be seen, it must be evident to observers, but as Juan Luis Vives admits, a maid must be "opened" for chastity to be "shewed" to its audience (Mii). Vives's commitment to chastity as an interior and hence intelligible virtue, as well as his insistence that chastity should be visually verifiable, results in an image of sexual violence and bodily mutilation; moreover, it suggests that interiority can only be figured as an internal imaginary body. Vives's oscillation establishes the central problem: since chastity is both subjective and objective, interior and exterior, it will disrupt efforts to map these oppositions onto one another in order to articulate the type of subjectivity which the propriety of male friendship demands.

The Faerie Queene confronts a similar problem in its efforts to represent chastity as embodied by its female exemplars. The prologue to Book 3 describes Spenser's own efforts as a supplement to a representation whose perfections already render the poet's efforts superfluous:

 For which what needs me fetch from Faery 
Forreine ensamples, it to haue exprest?
Sith it is shrined in my Soueraines brest,
And form'd so liuely in each perfect part,
That to all Ladies, which haue it profest,
Need but behold the pourtraict of her hart,
If pourtrayd it might be by any liuing art.(25)
As the first five stanzas demonstrate (as noted in Louis Adrian Montrose's excellent work(26)), Spenser's representations of Elizabeth are implicated within a power struggle which simultaneously renders the poet fearful and faint. Yet he remains one of the few (Raleigh excepted) who can satisfy her desire to "In mirrours more then one her selfe to see" (3.5.6).(27) Consequently, chastity is displaced ("shrined in my Soueraines brest"), even sublimated; though originally located in Elizabeth's breast, it is then transformed into a series of representations ("form'd so liuely in each perfect part"), such that even the Ladies who would imitate Elizabeth have no access to the thing-in-itself; but only to its representation ("the pourtraict of her hart"). Elizabeth's chastity thus constitutes a "sublime object," an object beyond representation which nevertheless renders a certain field of representation possible and intelligible.(28) The poet's description of Belphebe's chastity retains a similar sublimity, though one whose threatening negativity is made more explicit. As in Spenser's description of Elizabeth, Belphebe's chastity is displaced upwards, to her breast, and supposedly made available to Ladies for imitation:
 To your faire selues a faire ensample frame, 
Of this faire virgin, this Belphoebe faire,
To whom in perfect loue, and spotlesse fame
Of chastitie, non liuing may compaire:
Ne poysnous Enuy justly can empaire
The prayse of her fresh flowring Maidenhead;
For thy she standeth on the highest staire
Of th'honorable stage of womanhead,
That Ladies all may follow her ensample dead.

But this celebratory stanza retains some ambiguity. First, though Ladies are encouraged to imitate Belphebe, four lines later the poet informs the reader that none living can compare with her. Though imitation should forge some mimetic relation between Ladies and Belphebe, her absolute exceptionality denies the possibility of this relation. At the same time, though no envy should supposedly poison this rose, stanza 50 informs the reader that Belphebe envies not only Timias, but also the entire world, the circulation of her "soueraigne salue," which she keeps secret. Again, it is difficult to see how her refusal of any circulation whatsoever of this image would aid her function as an exemplar. Perhaps this is why the stanza ends on such an equivocal note: Belphebe offers an "ensample dead"; according to the OED, "dead" can refer to sterility as well as perfection.(29) As the examples of Elizabeth and Belphebe show, chastity (or chastity as virginity) does not reconfigure the female body's imaginary such that friendship becomes possible. In fact, insofar as friendship, as a homosocial structure, makes possible certain horizontal identifications, or allows imitation between its participants, chastity as it is embodied by Elizabeth and Belphebe actively discourages such imitation. 2.

But Elizabeth and Belphebe are not the central exemplars of chastity within The Faerie Queene. For a variety of historical and ideological reasons, and like virtually all of his (Protestant) contemporaries, Spenser privileges a form of chastity within marriage. Britomart's chastity is defined as "chaste desire," and given The Faerie Queene's function as a conduct book, it must be made available for imitation. "Chaste desire" must therefore be given a content, a purpose for which even Amoret remains unsatisfactory (her restoration as "perfect hole" [3.12.38] reveals the problem: her chaste bodily integrity coincides with her representation as nothing). Spenser will therefore pursue a project in which chaste desire is given content through imitation (or the refusal thereof), in order to enable imitation.(30) As David Lee Miller has suggested, Spenser's heroes encounter personifications which embody the qualities they themselves are supposed to possess or represent: "Personifications enter into a dialectical pattern that subsumes lesser or more specific figures into increasingly comprehensive ones."(31) Miller's subsumption entails imitation or identification, an identification represented by and subject to rhetorical structures. Imitation is both specular and rhetorical; hence the peculiar weight which the verb "to read" bears within the Spenserian text.(32) Reading describes a subjective mode: it is the primary process by which subjectivity in The Faerie Queene is fashioned, and by which is accomplished the heroes' consent to their interpellation by The Faerie Queene's primary virtues. The Faerie Queene represents Britomart (and therefore the reader) establishing resemblance or difference between herself and other images of women--reading the image, and its literal meaning (the allegorical referent), and then incorporating or rejecting the image: "for good by paragone / Of euill, may more notably be rad, / As white seemes fairer, matcht with blacke attone" (3.9.2). In at least one case (Britomart's encounter with Amoret), imitation will be instanced by one of the very few examples of female friendship throughout The Faerie Queene.

But this imitation or refusal of the image assumes that the image's value has already been established, an assumption which Spenser would reject. For as many critics have noted, Spenser's allegorical images remain ambiguous, polysemous, even duplicitous, both for the heroes within the story and the readers consuming the story.(33) Reading is always an imperiled activity, for Britomart's identifications or rejections occur within, and as reactions to, courtship scenes in which she participates by virtue of her disguise. Puttenham defined allegory as the figure of dissimulation par excellence; and his designation of allegory as the "Courtly figure" should remind us that the early modern court was increasingly a space for performance and indeterminancy.(34) As Puttenham's treatise describes, the "courtly" figure is an example of the political and erotic practices supported by (as opposed to impeded by) indeterminacy.(35) As courtship, which presumes at the very least the woman's ability to say "no," increasingly disturbs the traffic in women, the indeterminacy and rhetorical manipulation which reflect sexual antagonism mandate the managing of misreading, as opposed to its outright banishment. The rhetoric of courtship will increasingly demand not the excoriation of indeterminacy, but its administration, often through the increasingly popular conduct books such as The Courtier and Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Representations of courtship therefore become privileged sites for exploring the relation between sexual difference, subjectivity, and imitation.

Britomart's career represents this opposition in miniature, since the various relations configured by the interplay of her disguise, her revelation of her true sex, and the perceptions of other characters implicate her within courtship, friendship, and later, violence (events which could be read as a parody of the battle between Cambel and Triamond). Britomart's disguise demonstrates, I think, how courtship as an eroticized indeterminacy is fundamental to, though displaced by, friendship as homosocial and heterosexual construct.(36) Her disguise, as I will demonstrate, is not merely a homage to one of Spenser's "sources," Ariosto; nor is it an effort to represent the anomalous effects which Elizabeth's presence on the throne generated for patriarchal ideology Britomart's cross-dressing will demonstrate how friendship, or identification, can provide a solution, provisional and increasingly unstable, to the erotic indeterminacy of courtship. Erroneous readings of Britomart's ostensible gender produce either desire (in the case of Malecasta), fear of rape (Amoret), or aggression (Artegall). In all these cases, the error is righted, the division between the visible (what Britomart appears to be) and the intelligible (what she really is) is resolved, producing in the first two cases identification, in the third, love and postponed marital union. Initially, it seems as if the indeterminacy occasioned by Britomart's disguise is resolved, therefore recuperating the rhetorical structure of allegory (exterior and interior, shell and kernel). But these resolutions are increasingly threatened, especially when Britomart's relation to Amoret produces erotic possibilities not sanctioned by the reproductive heterosexuality towards which Britomart strives. Eventually, both disguise (indeterminacy) and friendship (mimesis) are eschewed; Britomart herself becomes an exception.

From the very beginning, Britomart's chastity is configured in relation to a female body which is imagined as permeable, even wounded. This wound follows upon her first sight of Artegall, her future husband, in a mirror which is initially ascribed to Venus and is later found in Britomart's father's closet--emphasizing love's subordination to the father. Britomart's gaze into the mirror constitutes a moment when a symbolic mandate--her future role as Elizabeth's ancestor--has been conferred upon her. Yet Britomart's successful subjection "to loues cruell law" (3.2.38) remains in question, for she hysterically resists this interpellative moment; desire is implanted within her body from without, which suggests the incapacity of her originary innocence. Her growing feelings are represented as a disease which invades her body and as bait which she has swallowed unaware: "Sithens it has infixed faster hold / Within my bleeding bowels, and so sore / Now ranekleth in this same fraile fleshly mould, / That all mine entrailes flow with poysnous gore" (3.2.39). The mirror reveals to her a man encased in steel with only his face visible, "His manly face, that did his foes agrize [horrify]" (3.2.24). This resistance to interpellation or subjectivation opens up the possibility that haunts the epic: that Britomart might not become the subject of chastity but the subject of lust.(37) Glauce, in her efforts to absolve Britomart from guilt, contrasts her desire to that of women who lusted unlawfully, such as Myrrhe and Biblis, who loved their "natiue flesh," and Pasiphae, who loved a beast. These loves departed "From course of nature and of modestie" (3.2.41), and in so doing, constitute the outer limits of the field of Britomart's desire. Glauce's fears of the possible illegitimacy of Britomart's love for Artegall, as well as her wish to accomplish her desire, leads then to Merlin's cave in search of legitimization, where he inscribes her desire within a history culminating in, and perhaps ending with, Elizabeth. For the history which Merlin reveals to Britomart in canto 3 takes the form of a genealogical account of the royal families of Britain, in which as Claude Lefort has argued, the real of the monarch's body (the reproductive body) becomes, in a sense, the ground of history.(38) Merlin's narrative therefore bestows, retroactively, external, political validation for Britomart's apparently "private" feelings by inscribing an initially contingent and transgressive act (Britomart's look into the mirror) into a symbolic realm of "heauenly destiny, / Led with eternall prouidence" (3.3.24).(39)

At one level of analysis, then, Britomart's cross-dressing provides a resolution to the failure of an immediate relation with Artegall. Within this early modern mirror stage, Artegall constitutes for Britomart a threatening other; consequently, her relation to him oscillates between object-choice and identification. Artegall is placed in the position of ego ideal, the other in the mirror with whom the subject identifies in order to assume some mastery over a debilitating "infantile" state.(40) In other words, in order to stabilize her hysterical reaction to this concrete manifestation of the Other's desire (the mandate which the socio-symbolic order will impose upon her), Britomart identifies with Artegall at the level of imaginary resemblance, and therefore disguises herself as a knight. Identification is, after all, a sort of incorporation, and one which is, as Kaja Silverman has pointed out, profoundly implicated with one's bodily imago.(41) Thus, the traumatic implantation of sexuality is transposed into the aggressivity of the wandering knight, as when her "priuy griefe," her melancholic desire for Artegall, is suddenly transformed into rage against Marinell (3.4.12). But the identification with Artegall must be mediated by another woman, as if Britomart can only identify with a woman who identifies with men: for the armor which she wears actually belongs to Angela, the female nationalist hero for whom England is named.

The armor therefore provides a resolution, temporary, it is true, to the initial asymmetry of Britomart's (non)relation with Artegall. It also sets up, both subjectively and rhetorically, a deceptively simple lesson about "chaste desire." The armor supplements Britomart's wounded virginal body; as the visible sign of her identification with Artegall, it acts as a sort of defense against the desire emerging from within her. But it also symbolizes chastity: in a poetics of the speaking picture, the internal disposition to chastity requires a visible sign, a shield which will keep her vulnerable female body free from external attack.(42) Britomart's cross-dressing duplicates in its structure the traditional division of meaning in figural language: shell and kernel, exterior and interior, perceptible and intelligible.

But responses to Britomart's cross-dressing demonstrate that the act of penetrating the shell of exteriority (her disguise) to the kernel inside (her "true" sex) often fails. The text then explores how the failures of reading may generate sexual desires which otherwise seem unimaginable within this representational frame. This strategy is first announced in Britomart's encounter with Malecasta (3.1). The Petrarchan "law" which brings Britomart into Malecasta's court allows no escape; a contingent of bully knights forces every errant knight into a sexual relation to the Lady (Malecasta). If the errant knight wins, he becomes her servant; if he loses, she becomes his. Either way, Malecasta's law enforces the subject's interpellation by presenting him with a false choice. Britomart's position in this system is provisional, though, given her disguise (and her professed dedication to her male beloved). In other words, her disguise splits her identity into an interior and exterior so as to leave her outside of Malecasta's mandate. Once Britomart defeats the knights and enters into the castle, she becomes the object of Malecasta's lust, which is predicated upon the latter's mistaken belief that Britomart is "a fresh and lusty knight." As in many other literary texts of the period, an explicitly homoerotic possibility is proffered to the reader through the medium of disguise, thereby assuming the status of error within the parameters of a supposedly foundational heterosexuality. But the division between Britomart's apparent participation in Malecasta's court and the "inner truth" that she withholds begins to break down. Though Malecasta's desire is written in her countenance, Britomart dissembles it "with ignoraunce," and mistakes lust for love "by self-feeling of her feeble sexe" (3.1.54). I would argue that her supposed ignorance is actually complicity, for her recognition of Malecasta's desire and maintenance of her disguise sustain the other woman's desire. In other words, Britomart might not want Malecasta, but she wants to be the object of Malecasta's affections.

Why would Britomart take pleasure in Malecasta's desire? The text does not divulge her motivations, conscious or unconscious; her pleasure remains, for the most part, unintelligible within this discursive field. But the text does put this scene to work, by constructing an imaginary identification--Britomart's resemblance to Malecasta. Initially, Britomart identifies not with Malecasta herself but with the position she occupies within a structure: she identifies with Malecasta because Malecasta desires her as she desires Artegall. Spenser represses the possibility that Britomart identifies with Artegall as the object of love, emphasizing the gender-based ground that underwrites Britomart's sympathetic reaction to Malecasta. At the very least, Britomart tolerates Malecasta, and perhaps encourages her, through "self-feeling of her feeble sexe," a type of identification which suggests other ways in which they resemble one another. After all, Malecasta's name means "bad chastity"; like Queen Elizabeth, she is at the center of a Petrarchan court, and like Britomart, she actively pursues the knight she "loves." The text implicitly raises the question of an identification which is imaginary, based on an image: the subject identifies with the object because the object is like (potentially or actually) the subject. But identification proves unreliable, and the distinction between Britomart and Malecasta threatens to collapse. Their in-difference is marked by a confusion of pronouns in the first line of stanza 56: "Therewith a while she her flit fancy fed ..." (3.1.56; my emphasis). In stanza 55, "she" refers to Britomart; in the rest of stanza 56, "she" seems to refer to Malecasta. But at this transitional moment, "she" could refer either to Britomart or Malecasta, a rhetorical confusion which underwrites the former's resemblance to the latter. But the type of erotic relation which Malecasta's court represents must be rejected. Spenser's ambivalence regarding his own rhetorical strategies is made manifest here, for the text produces the resemblance between Britomart and Malecasta only to disavow it when it threatens to produce an erotic relation which turns chastity into its opposite.

Britomart's adventures with Amoret and Radigund expand upon this initial dialectic of identification and object-choice. Britomart first meets Amoret when she rescues her from the House of Busirane, whose masque enacts many of the narcissistic and aggressive Petrarchan images which haunt love throughout the book.(43) Britomart's rescue of Amoret and their subsequent adventures in Book 4 suggest why Spenser rejected his initial ending for Book 3. The 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene concluded with Amoret's reunion with Scudamour (captured in the image of the hermaphrodite), but the 1596 edition postpones the hermaphroditic image until Book 4, the book of friendship, where it is relocated to a more transcendent level--that of the veiled body of a sacred statue of Venus. This postponement allows an exploration of the possibilities of Britomart's relation to Amoret as they travel together. Like Malecasta, Amoret initially believes that Britomart is a man, though she responds to this belief with a "proper" fear for her chastity rather than lust. And the result of Amoret's misreading and Britomart's enigmatic "flirtation" is a "courtship" in which the threat of sexual violence is the subtext. As Dorothy Stephens points out, Britomart "maske[s] her wounded mind, both did and sayd / Full many things so doubtful I to be wayd" (4.1.7); as in her encounter with Malecasta, Britomart acts in such a way as to encourage Amoret's belief that she is a man.(46) From Amoret's perspective, Britomart's disguise proves impervious to a reading strategy which imagines the text or emblem as husk and kernel. In order "to hide her fained sex the better," Britomart "both did and sayd / Full many things so doubtfull to be wayd, / That well she [Amoret] wist not what by them to gesse" (4.1.7). "To hide her fained sex" suggests that disguise can no longer be construed as husk (masculinity) and kernel (femininity), since we can no longer know which sex is hidden or rained. Disguise conflates both exterior and interior, sensible and intelligible, much in the same way as Amoret's restoration to "perfect hole" did.

Britomart's dalliance, and the erotic indeterminacy prompted by her disguise, are finally resolved when she and Amoret arrive at a castle which, like Malecasta's, refuses the single knight: "The custome of that place was such, that hee / Which had no loue nor lemman there in store, / Should either winne him one, or lye without the dore" (4.1.9). Entrance into the castle requires that the knight already have a lady, or "win" one by taking away another's. In other words, heterosexual love rests on armed competition between knights for an apparently scarce commodity (women)--a thematic continued through the rest of Book 4. But Britomart's solution to the scarcity problem is ingenious and unique. When a single knight claims Amoret, Britomart informs him that he will have neither or both of them, a lack or an overabundance which subverts the castle's enforced monogamy. After trouncing him thoroughly and reaffirming her own claim to Amoret, she then offers herself to him as his lady Britomart's cross-dressing allows her to mediate between the young knight and Amoret, to adopt two gendered positions, each of which is determined by her relation to another. First, her identity as a (male) knight is determined by her relation to Amoret, which has been secured by her martial victory over her rival and affirmed by the court's seneschal. At the same time, the voluntary unveiling of her hair and the choice of her rival as her own knight confirms her position as a lady. Here, we see Spenser exploring an understanding of sexual difference as determined strictly by one's position in a series of relations, as opposed to an ontological state (the "self-feeling of her feeble sexe"). Identity is not secured through an imaginary identification, but rather by the position which one occupies in a social field.

After Britomart reveals her true sex, Amoret

 More franke affection did to her afford, 
And to her bed, which she was wont forbeare,
Now freely drew, and found right safe assurance theare.
Where all that night they of their loues did treat,

And hard aduentures twixt themselues alone,
That each the other gan with passion great,
And griefull pittie priuately bemone.

This time the process of identification is based on mutual sympathy for the other's loss, leading Britomart to identify with the representative of married chastity and preparing her for her battle with Artegall in canto 6. But this time, it is not "self-feeling of her feeble sexe" which provides the ground for such an identification. Whereas that quality promoted a kind of immediacy between Malecasta and Britomart which threatened to erase their differences, here the identification remains structural: it is grounded by the positions which Britomart and Amoret occupy in relation to Artegall and Scudamour, respectively. In this case, heterosexual bonds are assured priority over a potentially unruly friendship between women. But even this apparently "innocent" identification evokes the possibility of an erotic relation which must be firmly dispelled by Glauce, Britomart's nurse. She informs Scudamour, who believes that Britomart is actually a man, that his jealousy of Britomart was misguided: "Fearing least she your loues away should woo, / Feared in vain, sith meanes ye see there wants theretoo" (4.6.30). Britomart's "want" renders her incapable of exercising a sexuality imagined to be phallic. But Spenser's second "banishment" of homoerotic possibility suggests that such a possibility does not simply arise through an error in judgment (the spectator's judgment) associated with cross-dressing: "Her [Britomart's] second care, though in another kind; / For vertues onely sake, which doth beget / True loue and faithful friendship, she by her [Amoret] did set" (4.6.46). Spenser's repeated assurance to the reader regarding Britomart and Amoret's friendship reveals the central problematic underlying the book of friendship as a whole: the libidinal investments of "true loue and faithfull friendship," which are captured in the image of the hermaphroditic union of marriage, may also lead to discordant erotic and/or aggressive relations which undo the virtuous concord Book 4 seeks to promote.(45) In the more "local" case of Britomart, identification with Amoret might give way to a perverse erotic relation which could seduce her away from her mandated position as Elizabeth's historical origin. Initially, it seems that identification resolves the problem of erotic indeterminacy. But Freud's work on identification repeatedly emphasizes how this particular psychic mechanism is locked into a peculiar dialectic with object-choice, in which each psychical mechanism can be transformed into the other. Diana Fuss therefore concludes, "For Freud, I would suggest, the real danger posed by the desire/identification co-dependency is not the potential for an excess of desire to collapse back into an identification, but the possibility for new forms of identifications to generate ever proliferating and socially unmanageable forms of desire."(46) Female friendship remains problematic because the erotic desire which it has replaced remains an active possibility, even if only in the mind of the beholder.

But the representational status of this relation remains problematic. Stephens has concluded that "Britomart daIlies more with Amoret than she ever does with Artegall, and it is tempting to say ... that she feigns only in order to flirt."(47) Stephens's qualification ("it is tempting to say") rhetorically marks the difficulty of interpreting this "dalliance" as evidence for an intentional lesbian desire (i.e., one which Britomart possesses, and one which inheres within her). Via another female character's misreading of Britomart's cross-dressing, a potentially sodomitical or "lesbian" scene emerges, but only in relation to a third party, an external reader (both within and without the text) who knows that these characters have read Britomart's disguise literally, as opposed to figuratively.(48) The split between Britomart's interior truth and her exterior appearance produces alternative erotic possibilities, just as a figural meaning can potentially abuse the literal meaning it references. For "lesbian" desire is articulated here as a general resistance to identification and hence identity. A lesbian spectacle briefly appears, but not a lesbian desire, at least not insofar as it could be attributed to an intentional subject within the text. That a triangulated relation is required--Britomart, Malecasta or Amoret, and an external reader--explains why a character such as Britomart occasions a subjective effect, but does not possess the type of subjectivity which we attribute to novelistic, "round" characters--and the type of subjectivity which underwrites an essentially modern understanding of sexual identity as an "orientation." On one level, then, Spenser's critics have not simply overlooked positive (and positivist) sexual identities; in general sodomitical sexualities are absent from The Faerie Queene. Spenser's epic therefore suggests a limit to certain projects of historical recovery, for reading the epic raises the problem of recognizing sodomitical sexualities (a term which would refer to any sexualities which did not occur within marriage, or would lead to marriage) as positivities--as visible queer identities. Only this approach can explain, I think, why sodomitical sexualities remain absent as visible positivities, and yet why these exclusions are repeatedly marked.


That the book of friendship is the most narratively aberrant suggests that the resolution of an indeterminacy associated with courtship in favor of mimetic, homosocial bonds remains tenuous. Romance is replaced by history; Bonfont is replaced by Malfont. Likewise, the focus shifts from the pleasurable, if risky, indeterminacy associated with Britomart's disguise to Artegall's ritual shaming and Radigund's usurpation of traditional gender roles.(49) Whereas one might characterize the manifestation of friendship within the sociopolitical realm as the installation of a concordant relation among equals, the manifestation of justice necessitates the installation and maintenance of the proper relations among unequals--the production of hierarchy in which each knows his or her proper place. Britomart's intervention into the maintenance and restoration of justice occurs when her beloved Artegall is defeated in battle by the Amazonian Radigund and then forced to wear women's clothing and spin (recalling the myth of Hercules and Omphale). Female friendship can never be at issue here, since Radigund and Britomart see themselves as rivals for Artegall's affections ("As when a Tygre and a Lionesse / Are met at spoyling of some hungry pray" [5.7.30]). Likewise, the situation refuses the erotic possibility; unlike Malecasta and Amoret, Radigund always knows that Britomart is, in fact, a woman. Even in as local a case as Britomart's disguise, Book 5 disavows the fictional possibility. Because Radigund is so clearly represented as a monstrous example of injustice (reinforced by her Amazonian label), Spenser does not set up, at the diegetic level, an explicitly positive identification between her and Britomart. And yet, no other character so much resembles Britomart: Radigund is a martial maid (though not cross-dressed); she defeats Artegall in battle--after he sees her face (4.5.11-13) in a description which explicitly parallels Artegall's first sight of Britomart in battle; and she falls in love with him. Structurally, then, Radigund and Britomart are placed in the same position through their desire for Artegall.

Thus, Spenser sets up what we might call a negative identification (an expulsion as opposed to incorporation) for Britomart in relation to Radigund: Radigund, who is most similar to Britomart, must nevertheless be completely rejected (even abjected) in order for Britomart to assume her socio-symbolic mandate--that acceptance of her role as subject of chastity which is marked by her disappointing (to us feminists) restoration of an explicitly patriarchal society.(50) Britomart's position vis-a-vis Radigund reveals the problematic construction of femininity within a textual moment attempting to promulgate an adherence to patriarchy. Relations between women have been rendered problematic since identification may devolve into desire. A female identification with the knightly ideal has, via its representation in Radigund, likewise become somewhat unsavory, raising the frightening image of the "woman on top."(51) At this point in the narrative, Britomart's position recalls, within a psychoanalytic paradigm, the position of the girl in relation to the terminus of the Oedipus complex; according to Catherine Millot, "For her [the little girl] there is no ideal feminine identification possible other than the phallic woman."(52) Britomart is placed in the scarcely viable position of rejecting femininity (or its images) with an almost misogynist violence in order to become its exemplar. Thus the display of an incredible violence against the female genitals, which become a synecdoche for femininity itself, in her battle with Radigund:

 Ne either sought the others strokes to shun, 
But through great fury both their skill forgot,
And practicke vse in armes: ne spared not
Their dainty parts, which nature had created
So faire and tender, without staine or spot,
For other vses, then they them translated;
Which they now hackt & hewd, as if such vse they hated ...

Once an identification with a demonized "phallic woman" (i.e., Radigund) is rejected, once Britomart severs her rival's head, Britomart assumes her mandate (that of the chaste, subordinate, maternal woman) in ideological accord with the Elizabethan patriarchy she has restored:
 During which space she there as Princes rained, 
And changing all that forme of common weale,
The liberty of women did repeale,
Which they had long vsurpt; and them restoring
To mens subiection, did true Iustice deale:
That all they as a Goddesse her adoring,
Her wisdome did admire, and hearkned to her loring.

Like John Aylmer's 1559 defense of Queen Elizabeth, Spenser justifies Britomart's rule through an appeal to her absolute singularity, an expression of the sublime religiosity of God's will: "But vertuous women wisely vnderstand, / That they were borne to base humilitie, / Vnlesse the heauens them lift to lawfull soueraintie" (5.5.25). Imaginary identifications with other women have been rejected.(54) Britomart's "subjection to love's cruel law" has been secured through a symbolic identification: "symbolic identification [is] identification with the very place from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable, worthy of love."(55) As the end point of Britomart's adventures in the epic, the Radigund episode demonstrates Britomart's successful interpellation by the symbolic order, secured when the final possible object of identification has been erased and Britomart stands alone. If, as Lacan has argued, the subject's freedom, indeed, its very existence as subject, depends upon the maintenance of a gap between itself and its identifications, Britomart's capitulation to patriarchy implies a subsumption into her virtue such that the narrative can no longer proceed with her.(56) 4.

Vis-a-vis her relations with women, Britomart's career moves from courtship (based on misreading) to friendship to a violence legitimated by the harsh justice of Book 5. Female friendship, which should foster imitation, is a brief and uncertain affair. Like many of his contemporaries, Spenser was unable to imagine female friendship as a viable possibility The majority of relations between women within The Faerie Queene are marked by considerable social differences (usually, a lady and her maid); and frequently, these unequal relations are marred by jealousy and rivalry. Even Amoret and Belphebe's single encounter is cast as potential rivalry over Timias; only the reader knows that they are, in fact, sisters. Spenser's Neo-Platonism is partially to blame for this problem. In Colin Clouts Come Home Again, Colin Clout decisively rejects the sterile licentiousness of the court in favor of a Neo-Platonic unity. Love creates concord between opposites, thereby creating resemblance ("So being former foes, they wexed friends, / And gan by litle learne to love each other"(57)). But love is also based on resemblance, in which like searches for like in a fundamentally homosocial and specular relation. In searching for the greatest good, the lover therefore searches for the greatest beauty: "[Man] Chose for his love the fairest in his sight, / Like as himself was fairest by creation."(58) The female beloved therefore embodies the Good, that which is located outside any system of exchange (which demonstrates its external limit).(59) Spenser's model of heterosexuality therefore occludes any possibility of female friendship, based as it is on what Cavanagh calls "The Importance of Being Fairest."(60) If friendship must mediate between a difference which Spenser images as violence, his representations of women do not incorporate this difference. Women are either bound by a likeness which threatens in-difference;(61) or they are differentiated in terms of the exception. And as we have seen, the logic of the exception precludes the mimetic relation necessary for the inculcation of chastity as a positive virtue. Sixteenth-century discourses on chastity are riven by contradictions which render impossible any notion of chastity as positive; consequently, chastity actively interferes with women's implication within a series of intersubjective relations.

For Spenser, on the other hand, the representation of virtue (including chaste desire) requires identification (including active repudiation) with fragmented exemplars in order to produce it as a positive identity He therefore represents subjectivity within a rhetorical field: the intersubjective relations by which identity is secured are, in fact, cast as relations between reader and text or emblem. But because female identity is too much defined by an image of the body as leaky, and hence liable to improper exchanges; because femininity is the locus of a materiality which overwhelms the intelligible ideal, the intersubjective relations which foster female friendship prove unstable and threatening. Initially, it seems as if Britomart's disguise will stabilize the improper female body (by literally rendering it impermeable, like a man's). But the erotic possibilities which arise threaten this provisional solution. In Britomart's case, female friendship is liable to be judged (mistakenly) as "improper" (e.g., her friendship with Amoret), as much as it is liable to be "improper" (e.g., Britomart and Malecasta); and that inability to differentiate between these two possibilities is itself suggestive of the instability of female identity. The meanings attributed to her disguise prove unstable; disguise generates an excess of signification.

The example of Spenser's Faerie Queene therefore offers the following caveats to recent efforts to render sexual identities historically legible. First, Britomart's disguise suggests that contemporary efforts to pursue analyses of sexual identities separate from analyses of gender will be problematized by disguise plots which implicate each mode of subjectivity within the other. Disguise, we might say, is the vanishing point at which the difference between gender and sexuality is rendered obscure. Secondly, Spenser's example impresses upon me the need for a rhetoric of sexuality, an archaeology of those symbolic systems--here a rhetorical theory of allegory which inflects Britomart's disguise--which make possible or impossible the representation of sexual desires as underwriting social identities. In The Faerie Queene, rhetorical forms which privilege mimesis and seek to banish an improper indeterminacy generate what one might call a queerness which is neither secured by nor represented as a socio-sexual identity Though "thick descriptions" of the early modern period have unearthed much, their attention to the represented content of discursive practices has often been pursued to the detriment of the form. Archaeological research into early modern sexual identities should articulate the rhetorical field which shapes Spenser's socio-sexual imaginary Rather than refuse a close reading which has too often been associated with arid formalism, we should pursue an intensive reading of "the content of the form."

University of Northern Colorado


(1.) See C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 340-41.

(2.) Thus, Harry Berger writes of "the two contraries--male and female--which have emerged from the matrix of the pre-human, the presexual, the prerational." See "The Faerie Queene, Book III: A General Description," in Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spencerian Dynamics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 105, 116. In another essay, Berger insists on Britomart's "unwavering commitment to heterosexual pursuits." See "`Kidnapped Romance': Discourse in The Faerie Queene," in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 213.

(3.) Sheila Cavanagh, Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in The Faerie Queene (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

(4.) See Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 30. Paul Alpers also argues that Britomart is "triumphantly innocent" and therefore not aware of the "sexual grotesqueness" of the situation in which she is involved with Malecasta. See The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 379.

(5.) Elizabeth J. Bellamy, Translations of Power: Narcissism and the Unconscious in Epic History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 197-200, 211.

(6.) The classic texts are Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1981); Carol Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America," in Signs 1 (1975): 19-27. Recent efforts to read a lesbian subtext within early modern female friendship include Douglas Bruster, "Female-Female Eroticism and the Early Modern Stage," in Renaissance Drama 24 (1993): 1-32; Janel Mueller, "Troping Utopia: Donne's Brief for Lesbianism," in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, Texts, Images, ed. James Grantham Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 182-207; Dorothy Stephens, "Into Other Arms: Amoret's Evasion," in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 190-217; Richard A. Levin, "What? How? Female-Female Desire in Sidney's New Arcadia," in Criticism 39 (1997): 463-79; Laurie J. Shannon, "Emilia's Argument: Friendship and `Human Title' in The Two Noble Kinsmen," in ELH 64 (1997): 657-82.

(7.) Stephens, "Into Other Arms," 191-92.

(8.) See Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London, 1982); Alan Bray, "Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England," in Queering the Renaissance, 40-61.

(9.) The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, 2 vols. (London: J. M. Dent and Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1910; rpt. 1928), 1: 199; The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 33-34. See Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 66, 71-81; Jeffrey Masten, Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), especially chapter 2: "Between Gentlemen: Homoeroticism, Collaboration, and the Discourse of Friendship" (28-62).

(10.) Montaigne, Essayes, 1:199.

(11.) Cicero, De Amicitia, trans. William Armistead Falconer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923), 103-211, 163.

(12.) Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 218-20.

(13.) Montaigne, Essayes, 1: 202.

(14.) Cicero, De Amicitia, 161.

(15.) Montaigne, Essayes, 1: 203.

(16.) Ibid., 1: 205-6.

(17.) Goldberg, Sodometries, 66, 71-81.

(18.) Helen Pringle, "Women in Political Thought," Hypatia 8 (1993): 136-60.

(19.) Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

(20.) Montaigne, Essayes, 1: 94.

(21.) Shannon, "Emilia's Argument."

(22.) Valerie Traub, "The Perversion of `Lesbian' Desire," History Workshop 41 (1996): 23-49, 25, 29.

(23.) James Holstun, "`Will you rent our ancient love asunder': Lesbian Elegy in Donne, Marvell, and Milton," ELH 54 (1987): 835-67. As Louis Adrian Montrose noted years ago, the narrative form of Shakespeare's comedies ends up disrupting bonds between women and cementing bonds between men. See "`The Place of a Brother' in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form," Shakespeare Quarterly (1981): 28-54.

(24.) Juan Luis Vives, "A very frutefull and pleasant boke called the Instruction of a Christian Woman," 1523; trans. Rycharde Hyde, rpt. in Distaves and Dames: Renaissance Treatises For and About Women, ed. Diane Bornstein (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1978), Fiiv-fiiiv.

(25.) Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 3.1. Hereafter cited in the text by book, canto, and stanza.

(26.) See Louis Adrian Montrose, "The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text," in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore and Londom, 1986), 303-40; "`Eliza, Queene of Shepheardes,' and the Pastoral of Power," ELR 10 (1980): 153-82; "`The perfete paterne of a Poete': The Poetics of Courtship in The Shepheardes Calendar," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21 (1979): 34-67.

(27.) In fact, it might be important to note how the imaginary, and potentially maternal, relation between queen and poet here is transposed into a triangular relation, in which Raleigh intervenes for, and displaces, the poet.

(28.) Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 71, 132.

(29.) Maureen Quilligan, Milton's Spenser: The Politics of Reading (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); Judith H. Anderson, "`In liuing colours and right hew': The Queen of Spenser's Central Books," in Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance, ed. Maynard Mack and George deforest Lord (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), 47-66.

(30.) Maureen Quilligan proposes a definition of allegory as a narrative about learning to read well: "If the concept of text and commentary supplies the form of allegory, then the concept of interpretation, of construing words, properly provides the subject of narrative action." See The Language of Allegory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 62. See also A. Leigh DeNeef, Spenser and the Motives of Metaphor (Durham: Duke University Press, 1982), 142-56. DeNeef notes that the word "legend" derives from the Latin legere, meaning both "to read" and "to follow in the footsteps of." The task of interpretation would therefore be metaphorically represented by the knight errant's wandering path through Fairy-land.

(31.) David Lee Miller, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 115.

(32.) As Anne Ferry has demonstrated, reading in the early modern period referred to much more than the (silent) consumption of a written text; it could refer to a whole series of (non-textual) activities and practices of discernment. See The Art of Naming (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 84-96.

(33.) Carolynn Van Dyke argues that the narrator's insufficiency vis-a-vis the allegorical message suggests that Spenser exploits the genre's inherent duplicity, again in order to teach the reader to read well. See The Fiction of Truth: Structures of Meaning in Narrative and Dramatic Allegory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 252-62. See also Isabel G. MacCaffrey, Spenser's Allegory: The Anatomy of Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 33-59, 153-68. Other critics have suggested that a Protestant iconoclastic urge is responsible for Spenser's "darke conceit." See Ernest B. Gilman, Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); John N. King, Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

(34.) George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589; rpt. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970), 196-97.

(35.) See Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 208-33. On the semiotics of "courtship," both erotic and political, see Catherine Bates, The Rhetoric of Courtship in Elizabethan Language and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 6-44.

(36.) Though Spenser refuses the complete valorization of male friendship over and above heterosexual relations, and in fact explores, within Book 4, friendship as both a homosocial construct and as an erotic relation between men and women (i.e., marriages as the "flower of friendship"), nevertheless courtship and friendship remain often in conflict. See Mark Heberle, "The Limits of Friendship," Spenser Studies 8 (1987): 101-18.

(37.) As Andrew Fichter notes, this tension is inscribed even within Spenser's sources: for while Britomart takes her name from Britomartis, apparently a Cretan name for Diana, her dialogue with Glauce, her nurse, is derived from Virgil's Ciris, which tells of the tragic and unchaste love of Scylla. See Andrew Fichter, Poets Historical: Dynastic Epic in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 158.

(38.) See Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 244.

(39.) See Theresa M. Krier, Gazing on Secret Sights: Spenser, Classical Imitation, and the Decorums of Vision (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 171-72. Fichter suggests that Spenser is here rewriting Virgil's Aeneid: whereas Aeneas must choose between empire (Rome) and love (Dido), Britomart's pursuit of love is identified with the pursuit of empire (Poets Historical, 160-61).

(40.) See Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I," in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977), 1-7.

(41.) Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York: Routledge, 1996), 9-37.

(42.) Roche, 54-55.

(43.) Lewis, Allegory of Love, 340-41.

(44.) Stephens, "Into Other Arms," 200.

(45.) Heberle, "Limits of Friendship," 100.

(46.) Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York: Routledge, 1995), 71-72. See also Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," in General Psychological Theory (New York: MacMillan, 1963), 170-71.

(47.) Stephens, "Into Other Arms," 201.

(48.) Bruster argues that female-female eroticism in the early modern period often required a third party for its intelligibility; moreover, he suggests that sadism was a crucial mode of such desire ("Female-Female Eroticism," 12-25).

(49.) For a reading of the repression of the feminine genre of romance in Book 5, in favor of a more masculine history, see Katherine Egger, "`Changing all that forme of common weale': Genre and the Repeal of Queenship in The Faerie Queene, Book 5," English Literary Renaissance 26 (1996): 259-90.

(50.) For treatments of Spenser's real or apparent reversal of attitude toward women from Book III to Book V, see Pamela Joseph Benson, "Rule, Virginia: Protestant Theories of Female Regiment in The Faerie Queene," English Literary Renaissance 15 (1985): 277-92; Susanne Woods, "Spenser and the Problem of Women's Rule," Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1990): 509-28.

(51.) Natalie Zemon Davis, "Women on Top," in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), 124-51.

(52.) Catherine Millot, The Feminine Superego, trans. Ben Brewster, in The Woman in Question, ed. Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 300.

(53.) Mary Villeponteaux glosses their "dainty parts" as their breasts. See "'Not as women wonted by': Spenser's Amazon Queen," in Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana, ed. Julia M. Walker (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 209-25, 220-21. Whether breast or genitalia is intended, Villeponteaux's suggestion that the "dainty parts" represent the female reproductive power which Britomart must embrace and Radigund has rejected seems correct to me.

(54.) Cf. Susanne Woods: "In conquering Radigund, the unusually barbaric Britomart has conquered all other women," in "Amazonian Tyranny: Spenser's Radigund and Diachronic Mimesis," in Playing with Gender: A Renaissance Pursuit, ed. Jean R. Brink et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 52-61; 59.

(55.) Zizek, Sublime Object, 105.

(56.) See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 3: The Psychoses, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W, W. Norton, 1993), 218; Gilbert D. Chaitin, Rhetoric and Culture in Lacan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 12-56.

(57.) Edmund Spenser, "Colin Clouts Come Home Againe," in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 517-62, lines 854-55.

(58.) Ibid., 11. 869-70.

(59.) It is for this reason, I think, that Spenser focuses much less on father-daughter relations than Shakespeare does. The active presence of the father reminds us that the female beloved is also a good; i.e., an object of exchange within the traffic in women.

(60.) Cavanagh, Wanton Eyes, 75.

(61.) Thus, sonnet 74 of the Amoretti celebrates the three women who have given the poet "body, fortune, and mind," through the conceit of their sharing the name Elizabeth. The proper name, the mark of differentiation, here signifies an equivalence between the three women, established via their relations with the poet.