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Faith, folly, and ‘The Faerie Queene’

Once a byword for Protestant sobriety and moral idealism, Spenser is now better known for his irony and elusiveness. Yet his sense of humour is still underestimated and misunderstood. Challenging the bias behind this neglect, this study shows that humour, far from being peripheral or superficial, goes to the heart of Spenser’s moral and doctrinal preoccupations. It explores rifts between The Faerie Queene’s ambitious and idealising postures and its Protestant vision of corruptible human nature. Figures to be comically ‘undone’ include the hero, the chivalric lover, the virgin, and the ideal monarch – as well as Spenser’s own epic-poet persona. Yet bathos has a positive significance in Christian theology, and Spenserian humour proves to be an expression of tolerance and faith as well as an instrument of satire. On this basis, Comic Spenser contends that the alliance of humour and allegory in The Faerie Queene affirms the value of the creative and ‘errant’ imagination.

couplets of eighteenth-century satire. Donne’s Metempsychosis sets out to trace the progress of a soul from the Garden of Eden to the present age but gets only as far as the first generation of Adam’s descendants. The Cantos of Mutabilitie have come willy-nilly to serve as conclusion to Spenser’s unfinished and unfinishable Faerie Queene. Each of these poems is deeply concerned with questions of moral and physical decay, the instability of species, the subversion of hierarchy, the transmission of poetic form, 1 and poetic reputation, and each uses Ovid to sharpen

in Spenser and Donne
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allegory, and the connections that have been made warrant our full attention here. Allegory is fundamental to Spenser’s comic achievement. As readers of The Faerie Queene , we are not simply asked to see through a story to its moral applications; we are asked to engage with a mode of representation whose secondariness, limitations, and pleasurability are philosophically and theologically suggestive. The survey of allegorical methods below will help us to understand how Spenser is funny but also, in the most far-reaching sense, why he is funny. As well as thinking

in Comic Spenser
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Spenser, Donne, and the philosophic poem

hypothesis, intimations of infinite space, and the increasing decentring of humanity within a contingent universe. Spenser may be thinking here of Giordano Bruno, who lectured at Oxford in 1583 (mentioning Copernicus) and published The Ash-Wednesday Supper , a dialogue on Copernicanism dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, in 1584. 15 Spenser’s straying Zodiac is a sign of both moral failure and a failure of epistemic understanding: the random roving of the stars and planets is an obvious mirror of earthly disorder, but it also registers a crisis of human knowledge about the

in Spenser and Donne
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sobriety as the hallmark of the moralist. In a poem once associated with Protestant and nationalistic ‘single-mindedness’, we are increasingly appreciative of Spenser’s willingness to leave major moral issues in a state of tension. 3 Humour has, as it were, a critical footing. Yet the old view is still deeply influential, shaping our expectations in ways that are often quite unconscious. Spenser’s sense of humour remains underexplored and, at crucial moments, missed altogether. Fundamentally, it is undervalued. This book does more than bring a comic perspective to new

in Comic Spenser

Known for its heroic mythology, idealising love poetry, and forthright didacticism, the Renaissance is sometimes portrayed as a literary Golden Age sandwiched between the unheroic Middle Ages and the mock-heroic eighteenth century. More than a product of modern nostalgia, this reputation for gravitas was actively fostered during the period itself: the assumption that seriousness is synonymous with moral and literary value (the latter two things being theoretically equated) is frequently encountered in prefaces and dedications. Elizabethan theorists tell us

in Comic Spenser
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the narrator’s earnest commentary, and partly because of the evident moral importance of the hero’s first battle: his decapitation of the serpentine monster ‘Errour’. I will argue, however, that the moral seriousness of the episode is attested rather than contradicted by its comic absurdity – which is everywhere in evidence once we are willing to see it. The victory over Errour emerges as a parody of heroic action that is absolutely crucial (thematically, tonally, allegorically) to our understanding of Book I. On one level, ‘humour and heroism’ is the subject of

in Comic Spenser

directly linked to how they view Greene’s claims to moral motivations for his writings. 18 Yet perhaps more significantly, how one views Greene’s repentance also has implications for how one views his authorial persona and the extent of his professionalism. Unfortunately, the matter is far from clear-cut, since the only available accounts of Greene’s repentance – his own works and three posthumous pamphlets purporting to be by him – are unreliable as sources. Greene’s prefaces suggest that he was very conscious of his authorial persona and encouraged autobiographical

in English literary afterlives
The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night

traditionally attracted actors. The interrogations of comic fulfilment in Measure for Measure are less narrowly focused: its moral ambiguities notoriously touch virtually all of the principal characters and situations. The present approach will, however, throw into relief a less familiar locus of the tragic: the Claudius-like conscientious torment of the angelic ‘devil’ at its centre. And if the tragic overtones accruing to the trickery and humiliation of Malvolio in Twelfth Night are comparatively muted, they nevertheless issue in a resounding declaration of generic

in The Shakespearean comic and tragicomic

misleading about the knight’s triumph over Errour. The irony here is considerable, but limited to a didactic and cautionary message: ‘Red Crosse is struggling to vanquish his sinfulness, and this failure will soon become explicit in his relationship with Duessa.’ However, the twist on this interpretation proposed by Adelman, that Red Crosse ’s values govern the representation of evil in Canto i, yields a richer and more morally complex irony – one, moreover, that makes sense of the disconnection between the knight’s triumph and his subsequent moral state. 21 If we

in Comic Spenser