Study Guide

The Faerie Queene Morality and Ethics

By Edmund Spenser

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Morality and Ethics

Virtue gives her selfe light, through darkness for to wade. (I.i.13)

This is one of the first things we hear from Redcrosse. While it sounds like he has a pretty good plan of action, one crucial thing is missing: Redcrosse needs a little help from his friends.

Ay me, how many perils doe enfold/ The righteous man, to make him daily fall? (I.viii.1)

This is our narrator lamenting the difficulties that inevitably seem to befall even the best of us. Morality may be important, but it isn't easy.

Behold the image of mortalitie,/ And feeble nature cloth'd with fleshly tyre,/ When raging passion with fierce tyrannie/ Robs reason of her due regalitie. (II.i.57)

When Guyon and the Palmer come upon the deeply mournful sight of Amavia dying with her baby and husband next to her, Guyon immediately attributes their suffering to their past moral transgression.

Said then the Boteman, Palmer stere aright,/ And keepe an euen course; for yonder way/ We needes must passe (God do vs well acquight,)/ That is the Gulfe of Greedinesse… (II.xii.3)

On their way to the Bower of Bliss, the Palmer, Guyon, and the Boatman must navigate a their boat between moral perils—navigation is a pretty good metaphor for negotiating a course through an unethical universe.

Ah (said [Britomart] then) now may ye all see plaine,/ That truth is strong, and trew loue most of might,/ That for his trusty seruaunts doth so strongly fight. (III.i.29)

In the world of the Faerie Queene, Britomart's knightly skillz (which allow her to beat a bunch of other knights) is also a testament to her moral ability: when Britomart wins, truth wins.

Her name was Ate, mother of debate,/ And all dissention, which doth dayly grow/ Amongst fraile men, that many a publike state/ And many a priuate oft doth ouerthrow. (IV.i19)

Ate, a goddess of discord, is often at the root of unethical behavior. Friendship and concord tend to go hand in hand in Faerie Land.

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 vs'd of all:/ Right now is wrong, and wrong that was is right. (V.proem.4)

We can't say that Spenser has the most optimistic take on present day (16th Century) morality…We can't say that Spenser has the most optimistic take on present day (16th Century) morality…

Then brought he forth, with griesly grim aspect,/ Abhorred Murder, who with bloudie knife/ Yet dropping fresh in hand did [Duessa] detect,/ And there with guiltie bloudshed charged ryfe. (V.ix.48)

At the trial of Duessa, actual personifications of her crimes end up on the witness stand. Not the easiest thing to defend yourself against, huh?

Bloud is no blemish; for it is no blame/ To punish those, that doe deserue the same. (VI.i.26)

Calidore makes one of the most explicit statements in the poem, suggesting that violence and morality aren't incompatible.

It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill,/ That maketh wretch or happie, rich or poore:/ For some, that hath abundance at his will,/ Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store. (VI.ix.30)

What do you make of Meliboe's more relative understanding of moral behavior and happiness?

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