The Faerie Queene


Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene: Irony 4 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Book I: Canto II
Explanation and Analysis—Gealous Fire :

Spenser employs dramatic irony in a pivotal scene in Book I in which Redcross is separated from Una due to the deceptions of the villainous wizard Archimago. Earlier, Archimago conjured a spirit disguised as Una who attempted unsuccessfully to seduce Redcross. Later, Archimago sets up another illusion in which Una appears to have gone to bed with another knight, horrifying and enraging Redcross. The narrator states that: 

All in amaze he suddenly vpstart 
With sword in hand, and with the old man went; 
Who soone him brought into a secret part, 
Where that false couple were full closely ment 
In wanton lust and lewd embracement: 
Which when he saw, he burnt with gealous fire, 
The eye of reason was with rage yblent, 
And would haue slaine them in his furious ire, 
But hardly was restrained of that aged sire.

Redcross is too angry to think clearly, as “the eye of reason” was blinded with “rage.” Unlike the reader, he is still unaware of Archimago’s villainous nature and falls for the illusion completely. The narrator even states that Redcross “would have slaine them” if Archimago, “that aged sire,” had not “restrained” him. At this point, Redcross believes that Archimago is a wise and kindly man who has kept him from acting out rashly. The reader, however, understands that Archimago has manipulated Redcross, fueling his anger and driving a wedge between the knight and the innocent Una. This is one of the many errors that Redcross makes in his long journey toward becoming an ideal knight. 

Book I: Canto IX
Explanation and Analysis—Despair's Argument:

Despair utilizes logos in his argument in favor of suicide in a deeply ironic scene. Redcross rushes into Despair’s cave in order to defeat the monster who has successfully convinced a number of knights to kill themselves. However, Redcross soon finds himself falling for the logical, but ultimately malevolent, argument offered by Despair, who states: 

The lenger life, I wote the greater sin, 
The greater sin, the greater punishment: 
All those great battels, which thou boasts to win, 
Through strife, and bloud-shed, and auengement, 
Now praysd, hereafter deare thou shalt repent: 
For life must life, and bloud must bloud repay. 
Is not enough thy euill life forespent? 
For he, that once hath missed the right way, 
The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.

Despair frames his argument in the manner of a logician or philosopher. The longer a person lives, he reasons, the more opportunities they have to commit sin. If “greater sin” leads to “greater punishment,” he argues, then a shorter life is more desirable than a longer one. Redcross is deeply affected by Despair’s argument that he will one day repent for the “great battels” and “bloud-shed” that characterize the life of a knight. If “bloud must bloud repay,” Despair claims, then Redcross adds to his spiritual debt with every new adventure. 

Despair’s argument showcases the ways in which logos can be manipulated and misused. In some ways, his argument is logically sound, but it is nevertheless in clear violation of traditional Christian values, which strongly prohibit suicide. The great irony of the scene is that Despair is able to use Christian arguments to reach what Spenser considers to be a deeply unchristian conclusion. For Spenser, obedience to Christian principles is far more important than following human logic. Redcross, then, has made a critical error in even entering into a debate with Despair. 

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Book II: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Ne Would She Speake:

In a scene suffused with dramatic irony, Duessa attempts to deceive Guyon into attacking the Redcross Knight. Describing her false attempt to portray herself as an innocent victim of Redcross, the narrator states: 

Which when she heard, as in despightfull wise, 
She wilfully her sorrow did augment, 
And offred hope of comfort did despise:
Her golden lockes most cruelly she rent,
And scratcht her face with ghastly dreriment,
Ne would she speake, ne see, ne yet be seene,
But hid her visage, and her head downe bent, 
Either for grieuous shame, or for great teene,
As if her hart with sorrow had transfixed beene.

By this point in the story, the reader is familiar with Duessa’s tricks and, like Redcross himself, no longer falls for her deceptions. Guyon, however, has had no experience with the tricky duo of Archimago and Duessa, and he watches sympathetically as she begins her highly theatrical performance. Spenser writes that she rips at her “golden lockes” and “scratcht her face” as if mad with despair. She rejects Guyon’s attempts to comfort her while in fact encouraging his behavior. She even pretends that she is too ashamed to “speake” or “be seene” as a result of Redcross’s abuse.

Having read Book I, the audience is fully aware that her refusal to speak is really an attempt to manipulate the chivalrous Guyon and demand his attention. Though Duessa is able to trick Guyon for a short period, the Redcross Knight is quickly able to establish the truth and put an end to Duessa’s schemes. 

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Book III: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Malecasta and Britomart :

Spenser employs dramatic irony during Britomart’s stay in the house of Malecasta. Though the reader knows that Britomart is a female knight, her knight’s armor has concealed her body and Malecasta has falsely assumed that Britomart is a male. In a deeply ironic scene, the “Lady of Delight” attempts to court Britomart: 

Whom when the Lady saw so faire a wight, 
All ignoraunt of her contrary sex, 
(For she her weend a fresh and lusty knight)
She greatly gan enamoured to wex, 
And with vaine thoughts her falsed fancy vex: 
Her fickle hart concerned hasty fire, 
Like sparkes of fire, which fall in sclender flex, 
That shortly brent into extreme desire,
And ransackt all her veines with passion entire.

Malecasta is “ignouraunt” of the “contrary sex” of Britomart, whom she believes to be a “fresh and lusty knight.” Britomart is not only, as Spenser acknowledges, a female knight, but also the Knight of Chastity, leading her to butt heads repeatedly with the "wanton" Malecasta. In a simile, Spenser further describes Malecasta’s growing attraction to Britomart, which “like sparkes of fire” has set  “hasty fire” to her “fickle hart,” a fire which has spread through her “veines” and consumed her entirely. Malecasta’s subsequent attempts to seduce the female knight present the first of many challenges to the Knight of Chastity throughout Book III. 

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