Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 35, 1995
Displacing feminine authority in 'The Faerie Queene.'
by Mary Villeponteaux
Perhaps the most potentially disruptive challenge to the patriarchal ideology of sixteenth-century England was the presence of a powerful and successful queen on the throne. For a culture that envisioned order in terms of corresponding hierarchies, with the masculine God/king/father/head securely at the top of the universe/kingdom/family/body, the presence of Elizabeth I on the throne for forty-five years posed, in Maureen Quilligan's words, "the problem of monstrosity."(1) In this paper I examine the way woman's authority is depicted by a poet usually regarded as a mouthpiece for dominant ideology, Edmund Spenser. Stephen Greenblatt tells us that Spenser worshiped power, specifically imperialistic power, and the poet's career in Ireland and his various attempts to gain position and prestige suggest to us that he had a vested interest in flattering both the queen and her court, and every reason to present the party line in his epic romance, The Faerie Queene, which he dedicated to Elizabeth.(2) All the more interesting, then, are his lapses - the places in his long, epideictic masterpiece where we can perceive ambivalence, hesitation, unease. The virgin knight Britomart is the figure in the poem who best exemplifies Spenser's ambivalent depiction of woman's authority.
Britomart is notable first of all for her absence in Spenser's own list of avatars for his queen. In both the letter to Raleigh and the proem to book 3 (The Legend of Chastity), Spenser identifies the lifelong virgin Belphoebe as well as the absent but central fairy queen Gloriana as the "mirrours more then one" in which he will reflect his queen's glory and chastity (3.proem.5).(3) But it is Britomart who is the hero of book 3, and she has traditionally been regarded as a reflection of Elizabeth I. However, to present Britomart as representative of the queen and her chastity is awkward, since Britomart, unlike Elizabeth, is only a temporary virgin; Britomart is destined to marry, and in history her importance will lie not so much in her martial prowess as in her "wombe's burden," since according to Merlin she will bear a child who will be the first in a long line of British monarchs culminating in Elizabeth I herself. In 1590 it was far too late to urge the queen to marry, but it was not too late to insult her by suggesting that she should have married and borne an heir, which is just what the figure of Britomart has the potential to do.
But there are other reasons that Spenser might like to put distance between his virgin knight and his virgin queen, reasons that have to do with the way authority is constituted and the way that a woman on the throne threatens to unveil authority as constructed rather than innate. In keeping with her role as exemplar of Elizabeth's special virtue, chastity, Britomart initially embodies a complete authority, a power not found in any other knight in The Faerie Queene, as we see when she easily unseats Sir Guyon at the start of book 3. We are told at this point that Britomart is literally invincible because she wields a potent magic spear - a powerful phallic symbol that at the same time connotes her woman's chastity. But immediately an uneasiness arises as a result of her prowess, and that authoritative Britomart, characterized as "masculine" by her armor and spear, is displaced, her invulnerability questioned when she is wounded by Malecasta's knights in the Castle Joyous by the end of the first canto. She is the only knight in The Faerie Queene who suffers such a rapid downfall, wounded when her journey in book 3 has hardly begun. The narrative turn at this point suggests a similar repudiation of the "manly" Britomart we see at the start of the book, for the story in the second canto fills in the background behind Britomart's quest: now we are given Britomart as a young girl, an innocent and sheltered maiden - a characterization that forms a striking contrast to the inexorable force of Britomart the knight of book 3's beginning.
Even within the second canto itself we find that contrast present, for its opening reminds us again of Britomart's martial prowess while neatly skirting any uncomfortably close comparison of Britomart and Elizabeth in regard to power. Here Spenser offers an interesting explanation of why martial women no longer exist: because men not only through envy refuse to give women their share of arms and chivalry but also through censorship efface the memory of the deeds of past women. In a neat pun, he sums up the problem: men in their praise of "braue gestes and prowesse martiall" are "not indifferent to woman kind" (3.2.1). "Indifferent" here bears the meaning "just," but it also bears the suggestion of actual difference - men do not treat women indifferently, meaning that they do treat them differently, inscribe them as "different" although they are, as the expression "woman kind" implies, in fact "kind" or kin, sharing the same origins and nature as the men who "maken memorie" (3.2.1) through their writing about the past and who have excluded the deeds of brave women, creating a history that inscribes women as different.
And since men coined laws to curb the liberty of women in the past, thus excluding them from battle, women eventually turned to other pursuits: "Yet sith they warlike armes have layd away, / They haue exceld in artes and pollicy" (3.2.2). Thus Spenser carefully delineates the difference between Britomart and Elizabeth:
Of warlike puissaunce in ages spent, Be thou faire Britomart, whose prayse I write, But of all wisedome be thou precedent, O soueraigne Queene, whose prayse I would endite.
The distinction is tactfully but very clearly presented. Britomart's prowess is warlike; however, the queen exemplifies not martial achievements but wisdom. Furthermore, the narrator suggests that it is all a matter of time: Elizabeth's expression of power is appropriate for her era, Britomart's for hers, and by means of this explanation the depiction of a woman invested with physical and immediate authority is safely relegated to the distant past.(4)
This passage is central to various critical discussions about Spenser's attitude toward the rule of women: sometimes, of course, critics present these lines as evidence of the poet's unequivocal approval of feminine authority.(5) Other critics find in Spenser a reflection of the more conservative position in the debate over woman's rule. Even before Elizabeth's ascension, debate about gynecocracy had come to the fore because of the two Catholic queens, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart. The most ferocious and infamously ill-timed entry in the debate was John Knox's 1558 First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, an invective against gynecocracy aimed at Mary Tudor but taken by Elizabeth, who ascended to the throne in that very year, as an attack on her regency as well. Anglican supporters of Elizabeth hastened to defend her rule, arguing that women are naturally endowed with the qualities necessary to rule and that they are called by God to do so.(6) These responses to Knox, the most famous being by John Aylmer, usually muster the same list of historical precedents to support their argument: Deborah, Zenobia, Semiramis, and Boadicea, to name a few.(7) On the other hand, Calvinists trying to undo the harm done to their cause by Knox (who confessed, "My FIRST BLAST hath blowne from me all my friends in England"(8)) argued that women's rule is indeed unnatural and normally contrary to God's law, but they found in Elizabeth an exception, especially, even miraculously, approved by God. James E. Phillips contends that Spenser upholds this moderate Calvinist position in his depiction of woman's rule: Lucifera, Malecasta, and especially Radigund are unfit and unsanctioned rulers, but Metcilla, Britomart, and Gloriana are virtuous and anointed exceptions.(9)
Pamela Joseph Benson comes to a similar conclusion through a detailed and perceptive reading of two encomia celebrating Elizabeth in book 3: the passage discussed above from canto 2 and a later one from the start of canto 4. Benson finds that the passage from canto 2 in which Spenser traces men's exclusion of women from martial glory diverges notably from its source in Ariosto in that Spenser seems to accept the decline in women's status as a given rather than predicting a reemergence of women's fame.(10) Spenser does differ somewhat from the Calvinists in that he describes a Golden Age in which women did accomplish great things in the traditionally masculine arena, but when he readily accepts the fact that those days are gone and that a new order reigns, he in effect comes to the same conclusion: women are the weaker sex now; therefore (it is implied) Elizabeth's rule is exceptional.(11) Further, Benson argues, when Spenser in canto 4 uses what had become a familiar device of the Anglican apologists for women's rule, the list of precedents, we are prepared for the traditional comparison of Elizabeth to these great women of the past and surprised when the comparison does not emerge:
For all too long I burne with enuy sore, To heare the warlike feates, which Homere spake Of bold Penthesilee, which made a lake Of Greekish bloud so oft in Troian plaine; But when I read, how stout Debora strake Proud Sisera, and how Camill' hath slaine The huge Orsilochus, I swell with great disdaine.
Yet these, and all that else had puissaunce, Cannot with noble Britomart compare, Aswell for glory of great valiaunce, As for pure chastitie and vertue rare, That all her goodly deeds do well declare. Well worthy stock, from which the branches sprong, That in late yeares so faire a blossome bare, As thee, O Queene, the matter of my song, Whose lignage from this Lady I deriue along.
Benson argues that Spenser, in failing to make the expected comparison between Elizabeth and the ancient heroines (two of whom, Penthesilia and Deborah, were used to figure Elizabeth in contemporary accounts), changes the values used to judge women by shifting into a discussion of Britomart's "pure chastitie and vertue rare." He is thereby able to set Elizabeth apart as the only woman, ancient or modern, who may claim descent, and thus exceptional virtue and talent, from Britomart. He avoids traditional Anglican defenses of her rule based on precedents from the past, but he flatters her all the same by depicting her as a special case without precedent, "a solitary representative of the glory of womankind."(12)
Whereas Benson is surely right in her claim that Spenser is no Anglican apologist for women's rule, and while her reading of the passages in question is perceptive and fruitful, her account of these two moments of authorial comment might be amplified. For one thing, Benson's tendency to equate women's martial prowess and women's rule is problematic; as Phillips demonstrates by reference to contemporary definitions of monarchy, a good ruler was thought to need martial strength along with a host of other qualities: moral and intellectual virtues such as temperance, wisdom, valor, and clemency.(13) Therefore, when Spenser in the opening of canto 4 separates his praise of Elizabeth from his description of women at war - Penthesilia slaughtering Greeks and Deborah leading the Israelites in battle (and by conflation, Jael killing Sisera) - he is not simply disavowing the notion that there are historical precedents for women's rule, although that may be one effect of the structure of this encomium, given that Penthesilia and Deborah were two commonly used precedents for women's rule. He is also carefully separating Elizabeth from a martial tradition, just as he does at the start of canto 2 where he describes not the erosion of women's rule but the erosion of women's martial power. In that earlier encomium Spenser contrasts Britomart's "warlike puissaunce" with Elizabeth's wisdom, but by canto 4 he seems anxious to differentiate clearly between even Britomart and the woman warrior spilling lakes of Grecian blood: no other historical figure can match his chaste knight's "puissaunce," he declares, but his mention of Britomart's nobility and valiance in the abstract cannot compare in vigor and enthusiasm with his graphic depiction of her predecessors' deeds.(14) Spenser devitalizes Britomart's portrait as heroic warrior, emphasizing instead her "pure chastitie and vertue rare," in order to accommodate the stanza's culmination in Elizabeth. He thus not only displaces Elizabeth from a tradition of gynecocracy, as Benson suggests, but in fact removes her completely from the specific tradition which valorizes women warriors.
These maneuvers on Spenser's part signify something other than a methodical attempt to express a philosophy about gynecocracy; they signify an uneasiness with a narrative situation in which an extremely powerful female knight threatens our sense of patriarchy and suggests, through her unacknowledged representation of Elizabeth, that the queen's rule does the same. Those who analyze Spenser's attitude toward women's rule often want to read the shifts and seeming contradictions in the narrative attitude as somehow consistent with a coherent ideology. The assumption that the poet is always in perfect control of his poem and its expression of ideas colors most critical commentary on The Faerie Queene. One discussion of Spenser's attitude toward women's rule that does focus on its inconsistencies still insists (implicitly) that the text is a reliable reflection of a coherent authorial ideology; this critic concludes that the seeming contradictions in Spenser's stance are there on purpose, a "poetics of choice" that transfers the burden of decision about the rightness of women's rule to the reader.(15) I think a more likely explanation is that the caginess and contradictions we sometimes notice in the text are there because Spenser is dealing with issues that, both publicly and privately, cannot be resolved simply.
To figure Elizabeth was an anxious task, fraught with the danger of scandal, in that women's rule violated and called into question the ideological system itself. Elizabeth maintained power at least in part through careful and canny representation of herself as many things but never one thing. Her personal self was effaced in order that her public, overtly constructed self could be used as was necessary to solidify her power, increase her popularity, manipulate her court and parliament, and in general accommodate the desire of the public. Therefore, she could represent herself publicly as mother, as object of courtly love, even as prince or king, and any of these roles at a given moment might operate in her favor. But represent herself as warrior she rarely if ever did, possibly because this avatar is too much of an incursion into traditionally masculine territory, and if we can identify one aim in all of Elizabeth's rhetorical manipulations, it is to make herself as woman monarch palatable to her subjects without attenuating her power.(16)
The woman warrior was a problematic figure for an age like Spenser's, which was so anxiously concerned with outward, distinguishing signs that were believed to reveal the innate qualities of an individual, such as station and gender. Sumptuary codes, laws regulating dress by gender (and the uproar over actual cross-dressers), as well as regulations that sought to keep the poor from wandering away from their proper parish - all such laws speak to the importance in this period of the outward marks, such as dress, that were supposed to define inward, essential qualities.(17) The theater, for instance, was criticized by Puritan moralists as a den of idleness and also deception - the illusions of the theater pose a threat to one's ability to recognize instantaneously and distinguish, both in terms of class and, in the case of the boy actors, gender. The fear that such distinctions will be lost, or can be manipulated for interested reasons, seems to have been a potent anxiety in this period. In her important essay on cross-dressing in the theater and in Renaissance English society, Jean E. Howard makes the point that for a moralist like Philip Stubbes, "transgressions of the dress code don't just signal social disruption; they constitute such disruption." In his Anatomie of Abuses, Stubbes describes the violations of sumptuary codes as making it impossible for the observer "to knowe, who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not." The violation of these codes actually breaks down social distinctions. Similarly, when women dress as men, they "undo the work of heaven."(18) Stubbes complains uneasily in his diatribe against cross-dressing: "And if they could as well change their sex, & put on the kinde of man, as they can weare apparel assigned onely to man, I think they would as verely become men indeed."(19)
And indeed, despite the fact that the woman knight is a traditional figure, Britomart's masculine disguise does seem to pose problems for the narrator. The powerful woman knight does not endure as an acceptable avatar for Queen Elizabeth, and soon her own martial prowess becomes unacceptable as well, in part because the masculine disguise that unsettles identity is risky in association with Elizabeth and troubling in its own right, in part because it is difficult to reconcile this side of Britomart with her eventual destiny, in which her power is recast in terms of generation. A similar recasting occurs in the encomium of canto 4 discussed above, when Spenser praises first women's martial deeds, then their inner virtues, and then a different kind of power, the mention of which is somewhat awkward in association with Elizabeth the virgin queen: the power of generation. Spenser depicts Elizabeth's signature virtue, chastity, as originating in a warrior's force and culminating in a wife's fruitfulness - and both roles make uneasy vehicles for praise of Elizabeth.
Thus Spenser is never entirely comfortable with the warfaring chastity he creates at the start of book 3. Britomart's disguise unsettles identity, presenting a challenge to the patriarchal notion that authority is something biologically masculine, invested in the male at every social level (from the family to the polls to the spiritual kingdom). Perhaps that is why Spenser's portrait of Britomart initially moves between two extremes: the masculine, authoritarian Britomart of canto 1 and the innocent and helpless maiden of canto 2 stand in stark contrast to one another. The two possibilities for Britomart come face to face with each other in one of the most resonant episodes in book 3 when Britomart, the naive young princess, looks into the enchanted mirror and sees the image of "the prowest knight, that euer was" (3.3.24), Arthegall. The moment when Britomart sees Arthegall in the mirror and falls in love initiates her search for him, and thus her quest, but it also initiates her search for herself; her identity in the poem rests on the role of knight she adopts in order to find Arthegall and on the very different role of wife and mother she will eventually adopt when she does find him. One way of looking at what happens in this mirror episode is to see that Britomart does not so much search for Arthegall as become him. In order literally to find him, first she figuratively finds him by becoming herself what she has seen in the mirror: the "prowest knight that euer was."
Spenser's uneasiness with the invincibly armored female knight who emerges from this mirror episode surfaces even during the episode itself. For in a curious stanza, almost a non sequitur in his description of the mirror, Spenser compares the enchanted glass to a wondrous Egyptian tower:
Who wonders not, that reades so wonderous worke? But who does wonder, that has red the Towre, Wherein th'AEgyptian Phao long did lurke From all mens vew, that none might her discoure, Yet she might all men vew out of her bowre? Great Ptolomaee it for his lemans sake Ybuilded all of glasse, by Magicke powre, And also it impregnable did make; Yet when his loue was false, he with a peaze it brake.
"Such was the glassie globe that Merlin made," continues the narrative, but in what ways are the two similar, the "glassie globe" in which King Ryence views his enemies and the glass tower from which Phao looks out on all men? Except that both provide the viewer with magical powers of vision, there is not a great deal of similarity, certainly not enough to justify an entire stanza describing the history of the tower in an episode otherwise notable for its brevity. Most critics remain silent on the matter of Phao and the tower, and a source for the story (or stories, since it is unclear whether Phao is also Ptolemy's "leman" who is mentioned in line 6) has not been discovered.(20)
But whatever its origins, the description of the tower suggests the fragility of the phallic authority that is the source of Britomart's identity.(21) The tower that makes Phao's voyeuristic position possible suggests the literal phallus as well as the idea of phallic authority: it is made to be impregnable and built by "Magicke powre" wielded by "great Ptolemaee," presumably a monarch, since Ptolemy was the name of all the kings from the Macedonian dynasty of Egypt. But his power is wrecked by his inability to control a woman, his unfaithful love whose infidelity causes him to destroy the tower, which is made of glass and can be broken "with a peaze," glossed by Hamilton as with "a heavy blow." "Peaze" is indeed a variation of the word "peise," which can mean a blow, but it is also a variation of a more common word, "pease," meaning simply a pea, one of the smallest and most laughably harmless objects imaginable. "Pease" or "peaze" can be used to express "something of very small value or importance," as in this 1598 example offered by the OED: "Yet neither is . . . worth a peaze."(22) The double meaning possible in "peaze" suggests that the tower is so frail that it can crumble at the most insignificant threat. Thus Merlin's enchanted glass, through which Britomart sees and eventually becomes a powerful knight, is immediately associated with a phallic structure that has proved fragile, a tower of glass that might initially seem to embody authority but that collapses easily as a result of its own fallibility. Spenser's imaginative rendering of power - specifically Merlin's power exemplified in his magic looking glass - as the fallen tower of glass suggests the threat posed to patriarchal authority by Britomart's adoption of the masculine identity first envisioned at this very moment in the poem. The danger that Britomart poses to the various male authorities in the poem seems specifically one of castration at the point where Merlin's glass is compared to the crumbling tower, and this is further suggested in canto 3 when the readers, along with Britomart and Glauce, meet Merlin himself.
Notable in this episode are the references to caves and wombs, which establish a pattern of imagery that will culminate in canto 6 in the Garden of Adonis episode. For instance, when the narrator introduces Merlin, it is with heavy emphasis on his frightful cave and his fate of being buried under a stone or bier by the Lady of the Lake. Spenser's use of Ariosto is particularly telling here: Britomart's meeting with Merlin at the start of canto 3 is based on Bradamant's visit to Merlin's grotto at the beginning of canto 3 of Orlando Furioso. Ariosto's heroine literally falls into Merlin's cave, where she meets not Merlin but a sorceress who has come to consult the already buried magician, whose voice can still be heard from within his tomb. It is this sorceress, Melissa, who shows Bradamant her descendents and explains the historical importance of her love for Ruggiero. Spenser diverges from his source in the depiction of the cave, setting an appropriate tone for the episode, for Spenser will also diverge significantly from Ariosto in his depiction of the lady knight and her quest.
Ariosto's cave is like a temple, supported by alabaster pillars and with an altar placed in the middle. Although Merlin has already been buried alive by the Lady of the Lake, he is able to speak both to the visiting sorceress, to whom he has predicted Bradamant's visit, and to Bradamant herself. Spenser's Merlin has not yet been buried, but Spenser spends several stanzas reminding us that this betrayal by a woman will inevitably come and focusing on its terrible results: the cave of Merlin in the present day, he tells his readers, is said to be a "balefull Bowre," "an hideous hollow caue," a "dreadfull place" wherein a passerby can hear the "ghastly noise of yron chaines" and other horrifying sounds made by the fiends in Merlin's service who were building a brazen wall at the time when the Lady of the Lake entombed him (3.3.8, 9). Spenser's focus on Merlin's tremendous power before his entombment (the sun, moon, sea, and land all obeyed him, we are told in 3.3.12) and complete powerlessness afterward - he cannot even command the demons to stop building - is quite different from Ariosto's vision of the Merlin whose spirit and voice live on in the cave. And the cave itself, a sacred and holy place in Ariosto, is so grisly in Spenser's account that the hyperbole becomes humorous; nevertheless, the connection is apparent between the emasculated Merlin, once all-powerful but now entombed by a woman's power, and the horrors of that cave. Book 3, which has as its centerpoint the Garden of Adonis with its clearly vaginal cave where a powerful boar is buried, offers only Merlin's cave as a counterpart or companion to Venus's; I would not argue reductively that a cave always represents a vagina, but in this case the combination of the tale of Merlin's entrapment in the cave by the Lady of the Lake, the parallel legend that the same cave was the site of his conception, not to mention the centrality and importance of Venus's overtly vaginal cave in this same book - all these lead to my reading of Merlin's cave as a site of anxiety about feminine power and its threat to masculinity.
One other aspect of Spenser's use of Ariosto deserves mention. The one time that Merlin's voice speaks directly from his tomb to Bradamant, it reassures her that she is destined to marry Ruggiero, that this is indeed Heaven's will. But the voice also approves her active quest:
Accio dunque il voler del ciel si metta in efetto per te, che di Ruggiero t'ha per moglier fin da principio eletta, segue animosamente il tuo sentiero.
To give effect, therefore, to Heaven's will, which has from all time appointed you to be Ruggiero's wife, pursue your way with courage.
Spenser's Merlin. offers a different prophecy: while he too reassures Britomart that heavenly destiny has "Guided thy glaunce," he follows with the exhortation, "Therefore submit thy wayes unto his will" - coupling the charge to fulfill her destiny with a charge to submit (3.3.24). Furthermore, while he assures Glauce that human endeavor plays a role in the fulfillment of destiny, on the other hand he never suggests directly that Britomart should travel forth and search for Arthegall. Nor is the idea of the masculine disguise Merlin's: Spenser ascribes this plan instead to Glauce's "foolhardy wit" (3.3.52). Britomart's quest has not only a "hard begin" (3.3.21) but an ambivalent beginning as well. Her destiny is approved by the patriarchal Merlin but the means by which she fulfills it are not.
That ambivalent beginning, with its overtones of castration anxiety, segues rapidly into the next canto, which opens with Britomart's arrival on the. seacoast where she will complain to the sea and then attack Marinell - an episode notably ambivalent in its depiction of the martial maid. First Britomart strikes the pose typical of the suffering Petrarchan lover as she transforms nature's turbulence into a metaphor for her own inner chaos. This episode has been described as one in which Spenser shows us the way love's rage can be sublimated into and expressed through warfare: he clearly shows Britomart converting her grief into anger as she prepares to fight Marinell. But what we can also see is the way Britomart, already attired as a knight, takes on another masculine role when she speaks as a Petrarchan lover. The dominant metaphor she employs, that of the "feeble vessell crazd, and crackt" by the sea and wind, is traditionally employed by the male poet as an emblem of self in the throes of passion (3.4.9). It is also a metaphor with potential phallic overtones.(24) When Britomart prays for her ship to be brought "unto the gladsome port of her intent," she appropriates an image that suggests both masculine selfhood and masculine sexuality as well (3.4.10). In her fight with Marinell, it is no coincidence that the savage beating she delivers leaves him described as "the sacred Oxe" that "doth groueling fall" and stain his surroundings "with his streaming gore" (3.4.17). An ox is of course a castrated bull, and this ox is the victim of a martial maid who has appropriated the phallus.
Spenser depicts Britomart ambivalently or even negatively at the moments in the poem when she adopts an authority characterized as masculine.(25) The reason for Spenser's ambivalence may lie in his attitude toward his own queen's authority, and it may also have a more general but related ideological foundation. Britomart's ability to don a masculine identity and the authority it confers, even as she can don her armor and weapons, is potentially subversive in what it suggests about the nature of power and authority - that they are constructs that can be adopted, even by a woman, rather than innate and "natural" traits of maleness. It is no wonder that Spenser displaces his powerful female knight from the narrative; it is no wonder that her adoption of the armor of authority is imaginatively associated with the crumbling of a potent tower - for the figure of Britomart has the potential to reveal a fissure in the ideological foundation of patriarchy.
1 Maureen Quilligan, "The Comedy of Female Authority in The Faerie Queene," ELR 17, 2 (Spring 1987): 156-71, 170.
2 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 174-7.
3 This and all further quotations from The Faerie Queene refer to A. C. Hamilton's edition (London and New York: Longman, 1977).
4 Another factor at work when Spenser distances Queen Elizabeth from any suggestion of warlike pursuits may be the queen's well-known (and sometimes celebrated) advocacy of peace. Elizabethans often celebrated the peace their queen tried to maintain between England and the continent, but the queen's reluctance to intervene with military force in the European religious conflicts was also a source of frustration to some of her Protestant subjects.
5 For example, see Susanne Woods, "Spenser and the Problem of Women's Rule," HLQ 48, 2 (Spring 1985): 141-58. Woods finds the issue of women's rule problematized only in book 5; in reviewing this passage from the opening of 3.2 (among others from book 3) she asserts that "the evidence from Book III strongly suggests that women are perfectly capable of power and authority by nature, and . . . particularly skilled in . . . governance" (pp. 141-5). For a contrasting argument, see Harry Berger Jr., who hears negative overtones in Spenser's portrayal of the martial women of antiquity but attributes this negativity to Spenser's attitude toward love itself in earlier eras: "During the early phase depicted in III, when eros was manifested primarily as hostility, they [women] were forced to express themselves on alien grounds and to compete with men in physical warfare" (" The Faerie Queene, Book III: A General Description," in Essential Articles for the Study of Edmund Spenser, ed. A. C. Hamilton [Hamden CT: Archon Books, 1972], 395-424, 399).
6 For a thorough review of the debate, see James E. Phillips Jr., "The Background of Spenser's Attitude toward Women Rulers," HLQ 5, 1 (October 1941): 5-32.
7 Phillips, "Background," pp. 6 and 18.
8 From a letter of 1559 by John Knox, quoted in Phillips, p. 13.
9 James E. Phillips Jr., "The Woman Ruler in Spenser's Faerie Queene," HLQ 5, 2 (January 1942): 211-34.
10 Pamela Joseph Benson, "Rule, Virginia: Protestant Theories of Female Regiment in The Faerie Queene," ELR 15, 3 (Autumn 1985): 277-92, 285. She notes that Spenser also differs here from Anglican supporters of gynecocracy who argue that in modern times the distortion of women's achievement in traditionally male realms should be corrected. Spenser, of course, suggests nothing of the kind.
11 Benson, pp. 285-6.
12 Benson, pp. 290-2, 292.
13 Phillips, "The Woman Ruler," pp. 226-30.
14 Benson, p. 291. She makes a similar point about the first encomium: the deeds of past women are described in active terms, but present women who excel "in artes and pollicy" are described by vaguer, less assertive verbs (p. 285).
15 Woods, pp. 154-5. She finds book 3 unambiguous in its praise of women's authority, as I noted earlier. But the contradictions that lie between the attitudes expressed in book 3 and those of book 5, as well as the internal ambiguities about women's rule in book 5, Woods finds "delightfully ironic." "The reader must interiorize value by choosing it," she asserts.
16 At Tilbury, on the occasion of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth did ride on horseback carrying a truncheon to review the troops. As far as I know this is the only occasion when she presented a martial image through her dress or language. It is perhaps notable that this excursion into bellicosity came only late in her reign and at the moment of her most important military victory, perhaps the most important victory of the century.
17 Jean E. Howard has discussed Elizabethan and Jacobean controversy over the theater's morality in light of this obsession with distinguishing marks ("The Stage and the Struggle for Social Place in Early Modern England" [paper presented at the twenty-fifth annual conference of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, SUNY-Binghamton, Place and Displacement in the Renaissance, 18 October 1991]).
18 Jean E. Howard, "Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," SQ 39, 4 (Winter 1988): 418-40, 422.
19 Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (1583; rprt. New York and London: Garland, 1973), from the section "A Particulare Discription of the Abuses of Womens Apparell in Ailgna," [p. 93].
20 A. C. Hamilton's notes tell us that "Phao" is from the Greek [Phi][Alpha]os, light, and signifies erotic gazing on all men. Notes in the Variorum edition suggest that the Ptolemy referred to is Ptolemy II, famous for his skill with glass and a particular tower made of "a magical steel-glass." No mention is made of Phao, however, and no explanation as to whether Ptolemy II was also thought to have been betrayed by a faithless paramour (The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, 9 vols., ed. Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, and Frederick Morgan Padelford [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1934], 3:216-7).
21 Lauren Silberman follows Kathleen Williams's analysis of Merlin's mirror as a model for Spenser's poetic enterprise and reads Ptolemy's tower as "a phallic image of artistic creation that will not stand up against woman's autonomy" ("Singing Unsung Heroines: Androgynous Discourse in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986], 259-71, 261). Silberman interprets Phao as Ptolemy's object rather than a voyeuristic subject; thus the tower is a symbol for the Petrarchan poetics and Platonic metaphysics she thinks Spenser is critiquing, and the mirror is a symbol for "subjective participation in the object," an "engaged subjectivity in which admitting the danger of illusion is the price of vision." This latter "vision" is the remedy, she implies, which inspires the "act of courage" - Britomart's quest - which stands also for the act of reading (pp. 261-3).
I disagree with this reading for several reasons, one of which is a basic problem of textual evidence: it is not at all clear from the text that Phao is Ptolemy's "leman," and certainly there is no mention in the passage of his "objectifying" her: the emphasis is all on her position as voyeur, that is, subject. I also think that Silberman's reading of Britomart's "act of courage" - seeking the original of an image which might be (but of course is not, she implies) "a subjective, Narcissistic fantasy" - as a wholly positive enterprise ignores the negative implications of such a quest (p. 263). Silberman's assumption is that subject and object are autonomous enough so that we can discuss the possibility that Britomart's vision is either an other or a Narcissistic fantasy with the assurance that the two are discrete possibilities rather than inextricably bound.
22 See the OED, s.v. pease and s.v. peise.
23 Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, 2 vols., ed. Marcello Turchi and Edoardo Sanguineti (N.p.: Garzanti, 1977), 1:59. The English prose translation is by Guido Waldman (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 22.
24 See for example Joseph Pequigney's explication of Shakespeare's sonnet 80 (Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985], p. 120).
25 Sheila T. Cavanagh's recent book, Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in "The Faerie Queene" (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994), offers another perspective on the ambivalent presentation of Britomart and her gender. Cavanagh reads Britomart's less-than-ideal behavior as part of a larger problem in The Faerie Queene: "The poem's and the culture's conflicted responses toward women and their sexuality encourage an emphasis on 'vir-tue,' which fundamentally restricts female access to virtue. Female characters are constrained from achieving the 'manliness' of vir-tue, while 'their' virtue also hovers outside their grasp" (p. 171).
Mary Villeponteaux is associate professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is writing a book about gender and authority in Spenser and Milton.