Study Guide

Belphoebe in The Faerie Queene

By Edmund Spenser

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Belphoebe, the chaste and powerful huntress who makes various guest-appearances throughout the poem, is the closest direct representation of Queen Elizabeth I (queen of England while Spenser was writing the poem) that we get in the whole Faerie Queene. While the Faerie Queene herself is another obvious representation of Elizabeth, we never actually meet her, we just hear about her.

Belphoebe is a more present and more developed exploration of Elizabeth's qualities. Belphoebe's association with Elizabeth is made most explicit when she casts her lover, Timias, away from her when she sees him kissing Amoret. This incident is widely interpreted to represent Elizabeth's famous exile of one her favorite courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, when he secretly marries one of her ladies-in-waiting.

Chastity vs. Virginity

Belphoebe is one of several embodiments of chastity in the poem. Unlike Florimell (who flees) and Britomart (who fights), Belphoebe hunts. This associates her with her namesake, Phoebe, which is another name used for the virgin goddess Diana. Now Queen Elizabeth was famously known as the "Virgin Queen," and used her association with the virtues of virginity to wield power over her court and kingdom. So, it makes sense that a representation of Queen Elizabeth in the poem would be connected to a famous virgin goddess.

But, there's a bit of a catch. Belphoebe, unlike Diana—who is known to dismember men who even look at her—has a lover, Timias, and the two live happily after Belphoebe forgives him for his indiscretion. Belphoebe is chaste, in that she waits to have sex with her true love Timias only after they marry, but she doesn't stay a virgin. Indeed, none of the chaste women in the poem actually stay actually virgins.

The reason is that while Queen Elizabeth effectively created a kind of cult surrounding her virginity, it started to become a problem that she wasn't going to produce any heirs. In a monarchy passed along to your children, this is a big problem, obviously. So we can see a character like Belphoebe, who is chaste but not a virgin, as a representation of Spenser delicately praising Elizabeth's chastity while tacitly condemning her virginity. Belphoebe is the sister of Amoret, whose name means love, and this familial association further connects Belphoebe not a world that renounces romance, but is just very picky about it.

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