Some Review Help with Spenser’s Fairie Queene
A Scheme for Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus
If you have some trouble with sorting out all the characters and incidents as you first read Spenser’s Fairie Queene, don’t despair. The text is dense, and it is a text to be experienced rather than solved. There is sometimes a feeling of characters or incidents appearing “out of the blue,” a stylistic feature not uncommon in romance, the genre of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Wife of Bath’s Tale and an important element in the FQ.
The final will include identifications from the FQ, but these will be passages dealt with in lecture. You will need some familiarity with the major themes in the text in order to give a strong answer on the identifications. You are also responsible for the literary terms discussed in relation to the text; epic, romance, in medias res, etc. For the final, you will need to have an understanding of the major themes and ideas in the text to use in essay questions. These “major themes” will be discussed in the FQ lectures and then listed in review in lecture. It might be most useful to try to make connections between Spenser’s work and other texts, especially SGGK and Paradise Lost, although connections to various texts (think of all those supernatural woman, for example) abound. If possible, reread as much of the text as you can. I know from experience that this is the only way for FQ to really sink in.
So, to help you deal with the plot complexities, here’s a summary of what we will read with some hopefully helpful hints thrown in. I’ve tried to stay focused on the level of the plot, although I occasionally get carried away and gesture beyond this.
Canto One: After the proem showing (among other things) the
speaker/poet’s move from pastoral to epic and his dedication to Queen Elizabeth
(the Goddesse), and the four line stanza that tells us that this book is about
“true Holiness,” we begin “in medias res” with a “gentle
knight...pricking on the plain.” We get
a description of the knight and his lady, who are only named later. (Spenser always holds off on these
names). We have learned in the “Letter
A sudden storm forces the pair to seek shelter in a dense “wandering” wood. They can’t see the forest for the trees and get lost, losing their horizon--the plain on which they had traveled. Then they encounter the Den of Error. Although Una and that Dwarf warn him against it, the Red Cross Knight dashes into the den, determined to fight. Error is a dreadful monster, half woman/ half snake. She has a brood of a thousand little baby errors that she suckles. She at first wraps herself around RCK, but then Una calls to him “shew what ye be” and he defeats her by cutting off her head. She vomits up stinky masses of books, papers, and “gobbets” of flesh. Then the little errors eagerly drink up all her blood until they swell and burst. Una congratulates RCK and they leave. Those books and papers really clue us into the fact that Errors seems to suggest religious (Catholic) error. Be sure to get a sense also for how Spenser evokes disgust here and look at RCK’s behavior: is he the perfect knight?
After conquering Error, RCK and Una soon encounter an old hermit with lots of very Catholic habits who puts them up for the night. This hermit turns out to the Archimago, (Latin. archi+ magus, the first or chief magician or arch-enchanter) and while they sleep he summons dreams from Morpheus, god of sleep (related to the word for Morphine) and then magically transforms a sprite at this bidding into the shape of Una. He then has this false Una try to seduce RCK. This doesn’t work and the sprites report back that they have failed.
Canto Two: So then Archimago shows RCK this fake Spright-Una copulating with another Knight. RCK is enraged and he takes off, deserting Una. Then, Una awakes, and she takes off after them as fast as her slow mount can go. Note: the Spright who looks like Una is not Duessa, although the references to magic, her baited hook and the general duplicity of the situation all are connected to the type of evil that Duessa represents.
You might also want to consider the different natures of evil Spenser attempts to describe. What differences do you see between Archimago’s hypocrisy and Error’s threat? How does this later compare the experience with Acrasia in Book II (see summary below).
After separating Una and RCK, Archimago then transforms himself into the likeness of RCK. [All you need to know about this is that it is another form of doubling; we don’t see the plot repercussions in our readings.]
Then, the real RCK encounters a lady dressed up all in red, whose description evokes (with purpose) the Whore of Babylon. She is with a Saracen Knight, Sansfoy (without faith). They fight, as knights do (check out the epic simile here). RCK defeats him. The lady tells RCK that the Saracen had her captive and thanks him, throwing herself on his mercy. She introduces herself as “Fidessa,” explaining that she is searching through the world to find the corpse of her betrothed to give it proper burial. RCK offers her protection and they go on their way. They are resting under a tree and RCK plucks a small branch to make “Fidessa” a crown for her head. To his surprise the tree cries out and bleeds.
Fradubio’s story: [a kind of story within a story in the text] It turns out that the tree is actually a man, Fradubio (Ital. Fra (in, among)+dubbio (doubt) one who wavers in faith or Brother Doubt, from fra, frate) . He and his lady, Fraelissa (It. Frale) are now trees. He tells how this came to pass: He was traveling with Fraelissa and then he saw another beautiful lady with her knight. This lady is Duessa (Ital. Due+Latin esse) and she is evil, but Fradubio does not know this. The two knights fight. Fradubbio wins the new lady. Then it seems he is a situation to decide which is fairer. They seem equally beautiful, but then Duessa calls up a fog that shrouds Fraelissa’s beauty and then the real witch, Duessa, declares Fraelissa a witch. Fradubbio believes Duessa–he doubts his own lady, and then it seems that they leave here there and Duessa transforms her into a tree (it is unclear exactly when).
Fradubbio takes Duessa as his new lady and he is happy for a long time, but one day he happens to see her bathing at Prime (as all witches must do). He sees her secret misshapen “nether half” and that she is really old and ugly. She senses that he has seen her and turns him into a tree.
Now, it turns out that this evil Duessa, the witch who turns people into trees, is actually RCK’s Fidessa. She hears all this, but pretends simply to be afraid and incensed by the tree’s story. The tree can’t see her and so she is still safe and RCK “too simple and too true” (although not, it seems, all that true to Una) goes on with her, thinking her to be a perfectly nice lady....
And, this is where we leave off. You don’t need to worry about the plot further, but just know that after many, many trials and tribulations and a good dose of despair on the part of poor RCK, Una and RCK are reunited and betrothed.
The play is divided up into 13 scenes, but I think (following critic G.K. Hunter) that we can also think of it as a five act drama, as we do with Shakespeare’s plays.
Act I: The Decision
Act II: The Contract
Act III: The Challenge to Religion and Power
Act IV: The Disintegration of Power
Act V: The Reckoning
I break down the scenes in Acts as following:
Act I: prologue and scenes 1-4
Act II: scenes 5-6
Act III: chorus 2 and scenes 7 and 8
Act IV: chorus 3 and scenes 9-11
Act V: chorus 4 and scenes 12-13
Another way to describe the Acts is:
Act I: Introduction
Act II: Presents Central Conflict
Acts III and IV: Moving Back
Act V: Catastrophe