If there's one thing that unites this otherwise massive, unwieldy poem it's love. Whether good or bad, female or male, knight or monster… chances are that love, romance, or sexual desire plays an important role in every character's actions and identity. Of course, distinguishing between those three categories is an important part of why love is so central to The Faerie Queene.
Spenser really wants us to think about how we distinguish between true, life-long love and infatuation and inconsequential little crushes. Almost every happily ended storyline in the poem ends with an engagement. In the world of The Faerie Queen, all you need is love.
Spenser's The Faerie Queene isn't actually about real love at all. We never see characters form complex emotional relationships—they just see each other and decide to be in love.
You want to stay away from love in The Faerie Queene—it's a one way ticket to abandonment, sorrow, and death.
Spenser's The Faerie Queene was written at a time when religious affiliation was seriously important. England had recently broken from the Catholic Church and formed its own Protestant Church. So religion in The Faerie Queene is often not just an exploration of good living and ethical decision-making (although there's tons o' that, too), but specifically defends Protestant principles over Catholic ones.
This is why there is so much talk of true religious faith—Protestantism was perceived to be under threat. Religion informs almost every aspect of The Faerie Queene, from the motivations of the main characters to the representation of villains… many villains embody some stereotype of other religions.
Whoa. We totally thought The Faerie Queene was just a delicious fairy tale/Greek Myth smoothie.
The entanglement of religion and politics depicted in the poem (and that existed in Spenser's historical reality outside the poem) makes its engagement with "true" religion very suspect; it's more about politics in the end.
How can Spenser be genuinely interested in religion and faith when he writes a poem with so much violence? Violence is a sin, right?
The Faerie Queene is basically House of Cards, plus monsters. Well, sort of. Although we spend most of our time in the poem following the deeds of knights and ladies without political responsibility, politics is always lurking in The Faerie Queene. Many of the knights we meet, like Britomart and Arthur, are destined to be involved in the political world later in their lives.
Others are responsible for defending the political power of various monarchs, like the Faerie Queene or Mercilla, and are part of a political structure even if they may not always seem to realize that. This is a poem where the political—sometimes good, sometimes problematic, but always unavoidable—plays a major role.
The Faerie Queene is set an imaginary place with imaginary rulers and queens—there's no way it can be actually referring to politics in the real world.
Because The Faerie Queene depicts outdated social and governmental structures, it's really thinking about a political world of the past, not about a political world in Spenser's present.
Spenser famously wrote that his intention with The Faerie Queene was "to fashion a gentleman." (Hamilton, 714). An important part of a gentleman's educational process (according to Spenser) is developing a strong, Christian moral compass. And morality and ethics totally shapes almost every single moment in this poem.
Whether through encounters with characters who very explicitly embody moral virtues (such as Prudence) or more complicated characters who find themselves in challenging moral quandaries (like, ahem, Redcrosse with Duessa), Spenser wanted to illustrate moral dilemmas to serve as a learning experience for both his characters and his readers. Basically, Spenser was a 16th-century Dear Prudence.
Since Spenser uses allegory to depict moral and ethical problems, it's hard to translate those problems into the real world outside the poem… making Spenser's poem hard to apply to actual moral conundrums.
Spenser's Faerie Queene is able to directly and clearly address moral issues, since it doesn't worry about characters' personalities or psychological states.
Even though the The Faerie Queene doesn't offer us a narrative of one single character's development in the way most coming-of-age stories do (like in Harry Potter), every main knight we meet is developing, learning, and growing in very important ways. In fact, we could say that the main characters in The Faerie Queene are learning how to be the virtues they embody as opposed to embodying those virtues automatically from the get-go.
That's why Redcrosse falters from Holiness at first by taking up with Duessa and Guyon falters from temperance when he leaves behind the Palmer. So clearly Spenser thinks that youth is a state in which we learn and grow. We bet Spenser would have loved Stand By Me.
Coming-of-age is a process that involves deep emotional and psychological developments that Spenser's allegorical mode doesn't depict at all, making this poem a pretty boring story about growing up.
Too many random things happen to characters in the poem to make it a plausible depiction of coming-of-age. Characters just don't seem to have enough control over their world.
Justice is the explicit theme of Book V of the The Faerie Queene, but it's a topic that is significant throughout the poem. Judgment in particular is constantly used (and abused!) when characters face challenging, confusing, and potentially dangerous situations.
In fact, there is no virtue embodied by the other characters—Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, or Courtesy—that doesn't require a sense of justice and good judgment in order to be carried out well. Since we also know that appearances can be deceiving in The Faerie Queene, judgment is also an essential tool to differentiate between the good and the bad, and the true and the false.
Justice is hard to totally understand in The Faerie Queene since so many bad things seem to happen to characters that don't deserve bad things at all.
It's hard to be clear on the representation of justice in the land of Faerie since there doesn't seem to be anything resembling a judicial system. Can there really be justice without that institution?
Appearances are tricky in The Faerie Queene. There are a bunch of artificial objects (and even artificial people, like the False Florimell) floating around. This shows us that becoming overly attached to what you see, instead of what you know or believe, can often lead down a path that is no kind of good.
But just to keep us on our toes, Spenser throws in some instances where appearances aren't deceiving. The magic mirror of Merlin, for example, that shows Britomart the face of her destined love, Arthegall. Appearances are tricky in this book… because they aren't always tricky.
In Spenser, you pretty much are what you look like. Appearances are only deceptive if you don't know how to judge them properly.
Appearances are such a changing and unstable aspect of The Faerie Queene that there's really no way to offer a unified account of them in the poem as a whole.
We can think of loyalty as the glue that keeps this unwieldy and sometimes disjointed poem together. Loyalty is what brings all of our protagonist knights together (eventually) and what allows them to work together and help each other out.
Loyalty is a particularly important concept in the universe of The Faerie Queene because it doesn't only govern relationships between lovers, or between knights who already know each other. It also governs the bond formed between knights who have just met and don't know each other at all. We can usually immediately figure out if a knight is a "good guy" because he immediately assumes a knightly loyalty toward all well-intentioned knights.
Because knights seem to so easily vow loyalty to one another (even if they barely know one another), loyalty doesn't actually seem like such a special thing. It's been reduced to something almost routine.
If loyalty is the glue that keeps the knights in the poem together, it's not doing a very good job! Knights still find themselves abandoned, helpless, imprisoned, and excluded despite this whole system of loyalty.