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Spenser’s Machiavelli
Andrew Wadoski

Central to Spenser’s ethics is the question of the political and metaphysical insufficiency of the ancient virtues to the task of establishing colonial rule in Ireland. Chapter 6 focuses on Spenser’s engagements with the Florentine political theorist, Machiavelli, claiming that if Spenser’s Irish experience exposes the political limitations of an Aristotelian understanding of virtuous action, then the View’s Machiavelli-inflected account of Arthur, Lord Grey as an icon of virtue notably clarifies the scope, aims, and ambitions of what we might describe as a specifically Spenserian account of virtue. Spenser’s account of Grey’s violent tenure in Ireland, in which he upholds the massacre of Spanish troops at Smerwick as an exemplary action, defines virtue not as fulfillment of normative principles of excellence, but as the ability to respond in politically efficacious ways to various bad choices compelled by fortune and necessity.

in Spenser’s ethics
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Emptying the virtuous middle in Elizabethan Ireland
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in Spenser’s ethics
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Fashioning the imperial commonwealth
Andrew Wadoski

Spenser centers his moral project around the virtue ‘magnificence’, positing the expansive and transformative project of empire building as the privileged form of moral agency in a mutable world. Chapter 3 first traces a brief history of the ways in which Elizabethan vernacular and popular moral discourses align magnificence with specifically secular and political imperatives, while privileging the temporal and mutable body as the origin and end of magnificent activity. Such a shift constitutes a basic rift with received Aristotelian accounts of human excellence’s self-transcending orientation, a rift modeled in the narratives of Redcrosse and Arthur. Both of their quests are organized by a recognition that the ultimate scope and teleological orientation of virtue is fundamentally concerned with establishing a politically viable mode of embodied life in historical time, one whose ultimate goal and material instantiation is the imperial commonwealth.

in Spenser’s ethics
Time, change, and flourishing in the Gardens of Adonis
Andrew Wadoski

Chapter 4’s analysis pivots towards the metaphysical questions such an account of virtue entails. It argues that Spenser’s central image of worldly flourishing, the Gardens of Adonis, describes the metaphysical crux of moral life as Spenser understands it – rendering the good within the material facts of time, death, and decay. The Garden’s iconic exemplar of virtue is Adonis, who represents the instrumentalization of the organic body’s substance by embodying death’s conversion into the infinite potentiality of a form-making life. The image of Adonis in the Garden describes how deathly and temporal bodies become procreant, generative, and expansive forms of life. I argue that such a body stands as the ethical core of this poem and its account of human flourishing. To extend the image beyond the poetic bounds of the Gardens of Adonis and into the critical agendas of the poem writ large, the scene’s images of mortality offer a crucial metaphor for understanding the ways we productively inhabit the mutable world by figuring the point where our poetic, moral, and political lives shape and sustain one another in the task of carving out niches of civilization against the incursions of time and loss.

in Spenser’s ethics
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An alternative virtue for a fallen world
Andrew Wadoski

An overview of Spenser’s basic ethical assumptions is revealed through a reading of what remains the most pointed and vigorous claim for Spenser’s status as an innovator in moral theory: John Milton’s account of Spenser’s ethical poetics in Areopagitica. The image of Spenserian virtue advanced by Milton renders a broad-strokes outline both of Spenser’s moral thought and its particular divergences from key norms and assumptions of the classical and humanist virtue-ethics traditions, depicting Spenser as, above all, a theorist of the problem of virtue in a metaphysically fallen world. We see here an ethics centered in an agent that is necessarily imperfectible, thereby complicating virtue ethics’ foundational centering figure of the perfectible human character and instead making political action and association the normative point of reference for moral agency, life, and being. By construing the human not as a normative center, but as itself an object of speculation, and making social interaction and obligation the normative frame of reference for ethical action, Milton reveals how Spenser offers both a key departure from ancient ethical frameworks and, in turn, a crucial anticipation of modern moral philosophy.

in Spenser’s ethics
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Romance narrative and the generation of empires
Andrew Wadoski

The complicated category of the imperfectible human navigating the mutable world is the pivotal object of speculation in Spenserian ethics, examining how Spenser sets out to discover the moral possibilities of his agents’ boundedness in temporality, worldly change, and transformation. Here we see accounts of the mutable body itself as site of procreant expansion, and thus as a microcosm and animating engine of empire building. Linking Spenser’s romance narrative structures to the formal patterns of colonialist expansion mapped out in Sir Thomas Smith’s 1572 pamphlet written in promotion of the Ulster plantation, Chapter 2 argues that Spenser renders a wholesale reorientation of received Aristotelian ways of thinking about meaning-making aims and of the orienting purpose of a human life away from self-perfecting character-making and towards the articulation of collective, and expansive, political agendas.

in Spenser’s ethics
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Empire, mutability, and moral philosophy in early modernity
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At the heart of Edmund Spenser’s moral allegory in The Faerie Queene is a problem that would become central to English intellectual life well into the modern era: understanding colonialism, and the coercive violence on which it depends, as a form of moral activity. Spenser’s ethics reads Spenser as a moral theorist whose ethics are significantly shaped by his experiences as a colonial administrator in Elizabethan Ireland. It illustrates how both his poetry and prose take up key shifts in early modern moral philosophy, while addressing the political project of colonial empire-building. This book is an essential study of Spenser as an ethicist grappling, on the one hand, with the decline and transformation of the classical and humanist virtue ethics tradition in the late sixteenth century, and on the other, with imagining new paradigms of heroic subjectivity for the early modern, imperial nation. It examines the ways Spenser draws on and reworks the Western ethical tradition during a period of tremendous cultural upheaval and political transformation, and illuminates that philosophical tradition’s evolution alongside early modern England’s wider political and economic transformation into a global nation-state built on the foundations of colonial expansion. Emphasizing the conceptual rigor, clarity, and coherence of Spenser’s moral vision, it depicts Spenser as a literary ethicist rigorously committed to discovering a politically and metaphysically viable account of moral life in an era that starkly reveals the ancient virtues’ conceptual and practical limitations.

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Questioning the classics
Domenico Lovascio

The conclusion briefly focuses on the recurrence of allusions to the Roman legend of Marcus Curtius in a number of plays in the canon as exemplifying Fletcher’s overall approach to classical texts, paradigms, and values as illustrated throughout the book, thereby rehearsing the main claims advanced in the previous chapters. It is argued that Fletcher’s predilection for the writings of the historians of Late Antiquity is decisive in shaping his bleak Roman world. The pessimistic vision of a disoriented imperial Rome that Fletcher offers in his dramatic works brings his Roman plays close to the Trauerspiel as described by Walter Benjamin, especially their grim depiction of a history devoid of purpose and transcendent meaning. Fletcher thus emerges as a more profound historical and political thinker than is traditionally acknowledged in scholarship. The conclusion also explores Fletcher’s irreverent classicism and his penchant for combining classical and contemporary texts and translations – as well as his fondness for using recently published books ¬– and how his approach to classical sources is connected with his broader attitude towards Roman exempla, especially as regards the women of classical antiquity, whose exemplarity he is not inclined to take at face value. Fletcher’s scepticism as to the passivity of the Roman women who populate his plays is also mirrored in his overall rejection of the precepts of stoicism, while his consistent de-solemnizing approach to the classics is even more excitingly exemplified by his treatment of Shakespeare as to all intents and purposes a classic.

in John Fletcher’s Rome
The inadequacy of Roman female exempla
Domenico Lovascio

This chapter focuses on the contrast between Roman and non-Roman female characters in Fletcher’s Roman plays. The non-Roman women of the canon display superior dynamism, assertiveness, and complexity than the Roman women, who remain dependent on patriarchal values and male gazes, their roles being limited to those of wives, widows, or prostitutes. More than examples of chastity, virtue, or corruption, the non-Roman women instead wield actual power and accomplish actions that have a significant bearing on reality. Such an evident contrast fosters the impression that Fletcher and his collaborators found the women of ancient Rome hardly adequate for the development of their ideal ‘masculine’ female characters. Scepticism about the value system encoded by Roman female models also seeps from the allusions and appeals to Roman paragons that recur so frequently across the Fletcher canon, their largest share pointing to exempla drawn from the history of the Roman Republic and especially to Lucrece and Portia. The negative judgement of the Roman women’s passivity chimes with the canon’s general tendency either to shun or implicitly criticize the tenets of stoicism as they emerge in such plays as The Little French Lawyer, Valentinian, The Captain, and The Loyal Subject. This also reinforces the idea that Fletcher’s engagement with the Roman past may have influenced his thinking and dramatic craft when writing plays not set in ancient Rome. Just as with Fletcher’s choice of sources, which tends to privilege continental Renaissance publications over the classics and suggests little sense of his having found any solemnity in classical texts, these female exempla cannot be followed or adopted solely by virtue of their antiquity. In fact, it is their very antiquity that keeps them firmly stuck in the past, thereby making them unpalatable and hardly viable as guides for the present and the future.

in John Fletcher’s Rome
Fletcher's Roman plays as trauerspeile
Domenico Lovascio

This chapter describes and examines at length the ways in which Fletcher portrays Rome as a corrupted political reality facing irreversible decay, and how he depicts a Rome in crisis and profoundly unsettled by the lack of adequate political leaders and the apparent lack of interest on the part of the gods in human affairs. The only area left to Roman men to prove their virtus is the battlefield, but this emerges as insufficient to offset the violence, the opportunism, and the dejection that exude from the plays, which chimes with the wider scepticism as to the dependability of Roman models and exempla that pervades his canon. In general terms, Fletcher’s Roman plays depict a dissolving Rome that is prey to a deep sense of disorientation; in doing so, they express a pessimistic vision of history and human life, which makes them resemble in some respects the seventeenth-century German Trauerspiel, or mourning play (as opposed to Tragödie), as famously examined by Walter Benjamin. A fresh examination of Fletcher’s depiction of classical history reveals him as a much sharper observer of reality than is usually recognized, not only in the immediacy of the here and now but also in terms of the larger changes and tendencies that are continually at work in history and politics.

in John Fletcher’s Rome