Study Guide

Pastorella in The Faerie Queene

By Edmund Spenser

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Raised amongst shepherds and renowned as the most beautiful shepherdess around, Pastorella really does live the pastoral life to the fullest. But if that makes her sound pretty one-dimension, it shouldn't, because there's a lot more to the pastoral life than you might think.

First of all, pastoral doesn't simply refer to fields, sheep, and shepherds. It's also a designation for an entire category of literature: The Pastoral:. Pastorals depict life amongst shepherds and sheep, but not particularly accurately. In fact, sheep and shepherds are more of a backdrop for depicting the production of poetry and art, because in the Pastoral world you're far more likely to find a shepherd singing with his lyre or dancing than actually involved in any manual labor. So, Pastorella embodies not only the life of a shepherdess, but a literary genre.

And sure enough, Pastorella in many ways fulfills the expectations of that genre, which enjoys depicting the "simple" life of the shepherd but isn't completely ready to suggest that lowly shepherds are actually better than lords, ladies, and queens. The solution to this problem is typically to make a handful of pastoral characters long-lost abandoned children of aristocrats, thereby cementing their actual nobility.

Pastorella, we find out, is actually the daughter of Claribell and Bellamour, making her now a socially suitable wife for the noble Calidore, who wouldn't actually have been able to marry just any old shepherd's daughter. So while Pastorella does embody the benefits of the pastoral life, she also embodies its shortcomings… and the complexity of negotiating a world in which who your parents were still totally governed your life.

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