The Faerie Queene


Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene: Satire 6 key examples

Definition of Satire
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians... read full definition
Book I: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Saintes and Popes:

Spenser alludes satirically to Catholic practices and ideas throughout the poem as part of the Protestant polemic central to the work. After vanquishing Error, for example, the Redcross Knight and Una seek refuge in a home that resembles a Catholic monastery: 

Arriued there, the little house they fill, 
Ne looke for entertainement, where none was: 
Rest is their feast, and all things at their will; 
The noblest mind the best contentment has. 
With faire discourse the euening so they pas: 
For that old man of pleasing wordes had store, 
And well could file his tongue as smooth as glas; 
He told of Saintes and Popes, and euermore 
He strowd an Aue-Mary after and before.

At first, an elderly man (later identified as Archimago, one of the poem’s chief villains) opens his doors to the exhausted travelers, and he appears to be a kindly figure. However, Spenser’s subtle allusions to Catholicism signal to his Protestant readers that there is more than meets the eye in this scene. There is no “entertainement”  in the house, so instead the guests chat with their elderly host through the evening. The old man has a “tongue as smooth as glas,” suggesting that he is charming but also perhaps a wily or manipulative figure.

Through the night, he regales them with stories of “Saintes and Popes.” For many Protestants of Spenser’s day, such tales were considered to be dangerous deceptions used by Catholics to trick the naive and superstitious. So too does the elderly man repeat “Aue-Mary” ("Ave Maria" or “Hail Mary”), a prayer to Mary, the mother of Christ, whose prominent role in the Catholic Church was critiqued by many Protestant reformers. Through these various allusions, Spenser satirizes Catholicism and portrays this seemingly comfortable house as yet another spiritual trap that Redcross must overcome.

Book II: Canto VII
Explanation and Analysis—God Below the Sky:

Spenser’s critical description of Mammon, the god of wealth and money, satirizes economic greed. When Guyon calls upon Mammon to identify himself, Mammon states: 

God of the world and worldlings I me call, 
Great Mammon, greatest god below the skye, 
That of my plenty poure out vnto all, 
And vnto none my graces do enuye: 
Riches, renowme, and principality, 
Honour, estate, and all this worldes good, 
For which men swinck and sweat incessantly, 
Fro me do flow into an ample flood, 
And in the hollow earth haue their eternall brood.

Though Mammon identifies himself as a powerful god, Spenser undermines his arrogance. He might indeed be the “greatest god below the skye,” but this boast also serves as a significant caveat: gods are generally imagined as being up in the heavens, not hiding under the ground. Mammon additionally claims that he generously distributes his “plenty” to “all,” and that “all this worldes good” stems from him, but he quickly contradicts himself, acknowledging that “men swinck and sweat incessantly” for his money and goods.

In the final lines of the stanza he contradicts himself yet again, acknowledging that all of his money flows down “in the hollow earth” forever, rather than being redistributed among the people for their benefit. In this satirical portrayal of Mammon, Spenser lampoons the wealthy who claim to serve the public while in fact hoarding their riches. 

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Book III: Canto IX
Explanation and Analysis—The Cuckold :

In Canto IX, Britomart, Satyrane, and a small cluster of other knights attempt to seek refuge from a storm in the castle of Malbecco. Through the figure of Malbecco, Spenser satirizes a common target of early modern folk humor: the cuckold, or in other words, a man whose wife conducts adulterous affairs. Of Malbecco, whose name means “evil goat,” the narrator writes: 

But he is old, and withered like hay, 
Vnfit faire Ladies seruice to supply; 
The priuie guilt whereof makes him alway 
Suspect her truth, and keepe continuall spy 
Vpon her with his other blincked eye; 
Ne suffreth he resort of liuing wight 
Approch to her, ne keepe her company, 
But in close bowre her mewes from all mens sight, 
Depriu’d of kindly ioy and naturall delight.

Malbecco has married the much younger Hellenore, but, as the narrator notes in a simile, he is old and “withered like hay,” and therefore an unfit husband for such a young woman. He feels guilty due to his inability to sexually pleasure his wife and as a result of his guilt he constantly suspects her of adultery, keeping a “continuall spy” or constant eye on her. However, the narrator mockingly suggests that even these paranoid attempts to keep her away from other men are in vain, as he has a “blincked eye” that cannot see well. The narrator is harsh in condemnation of Malbecco, who doesn’t allow anyone to see his wife and keeps her locked up in a “close bowre” away from “all men’s sight.” Malbecco, then, is a conventional satirical figure representing the vanity of older men who marry young wives.

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Book III: Canto X
Explanation and Analysis—Paris and Helen:

Spenser satirizes the Trojan War in Book III of The Faerie Queene. Britomart and a small band of knights have sought refuge in the home of the paranoid Malbecco, and one of the guests, Paridell, has begun to court and seduce Malbecco’s wife Hellenore. Utilizing the satirical techniques of “mock-epic,” which employs the lofty language of epic poetry to discuss minor and petty themes, Spenser writes: 

No fort so fensible, no wals so strong, 
But that continuall battery will riue, 
Or daily siege through dispuruayance long, 
And lacke of reskewes will to parley driue;
And Peace, that vnto parley eare will giue, 
Will shortly yeeld it selfe, and will be made 
The vassall of the victors will byliue: 
That stratageme had oftentimes assayd 
This crafty Paramoure, and now it plaine displayd.

Here, Spenser lampoons the language of epic poetry, and more specifically of The Illiad, Homer’s epic portrayal of the Trojan War. Spenser uses a series of metaphors drawn from war in order to portray the affair of Hellenore and Paridell, whose names mimic those of Helen and Paris, chief players in the Siege of Troy. Their names immediately signal to the reader that these characters will conduct an affair regardless of the cost, in much the same way that Paris’s abduction of Helen directly led to the destruction of Troy by the Greek army. 

Spenser’s satire cuts two ways. First, the gulf between the grand rhetoric he uses here and the petty affair conducted by Hellenore and Paridell highlights their status as “minor” figures in comparison to their famed namesakes. However, Spenser’s parody also underscores the fact that the mythological Helen and Paris conducted a tawdry affair that ruined the lives of many. This is Spenser’s most notable instance of “mock epic” in The Faerie Queene.

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Book V: Proem
Explanation and Analysis—Right Now is Wrong:

In the Proem to Book V, the most directly political section of The Faerie Queene, Spenser uses hyperbole to satirize what he believes to be the impoverished values and priorities of his own day in comparison to those of the classical and medieval epochs. Of the comparison between his own era and the past, the narrator writes: 

For that which all men then did vertue call, 
Is now cald vice; and that which vice was hight, 
Is now hight vertue, and so us’d of all: 
Right now is wrong, and wrong that was is right, 
As all things else in time are chaunged quight. 
Ne wonder; for the heauens reuolution 
Is wandred farre, from where it first was pight, 
And so doe make contrarie constitution 
Of all this lower world, toward his dissolution.

Spenser hyperbolically claims that all values have completely reversed in his own era, the late 16th century. That which “all men” once called “vertue” is now deemed “vice,” and that “which vice was hight” is instead “now hight virtue.” He continues his pessimistic lament, arguing that “Right now is wrong, and wrong that was is right,” and “all things in time are chaunged quight.” Spenser further underscores his point by suggesting that chaos in the social sphere has even led to disarray in the natural world: “the heauenes reuolution / Is wandred farre," he suggests, and everything in the world is moving “contrarie” to its natural order, leading towards the “dissolution” of the Earth itself.

Here, Spenser harshly condemns the moral disorder which he believes to be not only prevalent but almost universal in his society. His language here marks a sharp break from his previous praise of the reign of Elizabeth I and the chivalric values fostered in her court, though he carefully avoids criticizing the Queen directly. 

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Book V: Canto II
Explanation and Analysis—Equality and Hierarchy:

In Book V, the Book of Justice, Spenser turns his attention to more explicitly political concerns, and he fiercely satirizes popular movements of his day that called for greater economic and political equality. Arthegall, the Knight of Justice, and his metallic sidekick, Talus, encounter a Giant surrounded by a large and frenzied crowd of people. They listen to the Giant’s speech, in which he promises to bring about universal equality not only politically but geologically. To the approval of the assembled crowd, the Giant states: 

Therefore I will throw downe these mountaines hie, 
And make them leuell with the lowly plaine: 
These towring rocks, which reach vnto the skie, 
I will thrust downe into the deepest maine, 
And as they were, them equalize againe. 
Tyrants that make men subiect to their law, 
I will suppresse, that they no more may raine; 
And Lordings curbe, that commons ouer-aw; 
And all the wealth of rich men to the poore will draw.

Here, Spenser presents the Giant’s argument as a nonsensical parody of populist and egalitarian political movements of his day that called for the redistribution of land and wealth. Revolts led by peasants and poor farmers were a regular feature of 16th century England, and they were, as a general rule, harshly suppressed by the crown and the nobility. The Giant calls for mountains to be cast down to “make them leuell with the lowly plaine” in order to “equalize” the Earth. Further, he proposes to “suppresse” political tyrants, as well as “Lordings” or gentlemen, and to redistribute “all the wealth of rich men.” Here, Spenser throws his support behind the English aristocracy which held the majority of power and wealth in England. He suggests that those who would confiscate personal wealth are as absurd as those who would level mountains in order to bring about an artificial equality. For Spenser, the hierarchy of class is as natural as mountains. 

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