The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Faerie Queene Study Guide." Course Hero. 24 May 2019. Web. 23 Sep. 2020. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2019, May 24). The Faerie Queene Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "The Faerie Queene Study Guide." May 24, 2019. Accessed September 23, 2020.


Course Hero, "The Faerie Queene Study Guide," May 24, 2019, accessed September 23, 2020,

The Faerie Queene | Themes


The Importance of a Virtuous Life

Spenser views the righteous moral life as a noble quest similar to a knight's journey. His knights go on pilgrimages both to save people in peril and to perfect their own virtues.

The demands of virtue hold knights to a high standard. And the knights' code of honor, with its strict requirements for behavior, represents the virtuous life a Christian should live. And knights want to follow this code because of their innate integrity and valor. Book 1, Canto 5 says the noble heart can't rest until it achieves glory. By remembering his higher calling, Guyon can resist Mammon's repeated temptations in Book 2, Canto 7. When Arthur saves Guyon from thieves in Book 2, Canto 8 he resists Guyon's thanks, saying he only did his duty as a knight to battle oppressors. Spenser indicates Christians should also complete virtuous actions for their own sake.

He believes virtues bring humans closer to the divine. The proem that introduces each book describes the book's virtue as a reflection of glory or the ideal heavenly good. Justice resembles the ruling power of God in Book 5. The Book 6 proem compares courtesy and the other virtues to flowers in a sacred nursery the gods plant and cultivate. The huntress Belphoebe's commitment to chastity also gives her the promise of divine glory. Book 3, Canto 5 says Belphoebe will get the same heavenly crown the angels wear. The Redcrosse Knight's difficult pilgrimage to the heavenly Hierusalem or New Jerusalem in Book 1 is a literal representation of the virtuous person's reward. Arthur and the Faerie Queene, Gloriana, who represents Queen Elizabeth I, are exemplificatons of the virtuous ruler supported by the divine.

High standards mean none of the virtues can work alone. The cooperation of the poem's knights shows how each skill requires and supports all the others. Book 1, Canto 9 offers the image of a golden chain linking the virtues. With the combined plotlines of Books 3 and 4, for example, Spenser illustrates how chaste married love and true friendship work together. Just as chaste lovers are devoted to each other, true friends are sacrificially loyal. And, many characters require temperance—restraint from sensual pleasures—and the gentle manners of courtesy to maintain their chastity when faced with tempting lovers. Guyon calls on both temperance and courtesy to resist Phaedria in Book 2. Timias also applies temperance, chastity, and courtesy to his budding relationship with Belphoebe in Book 3. When Britomart and the Redcrosse Knight defend one another in Book 3, Canto 1 outside Malecasta's castle, they demonstrate how chastity and holiness augment each other. A truly chaste person will be devoted to a holy life and vice versa.

Disguises, False Identities, and Hypocrisy

Characters in disguise populate The Faerie Queene. Many times this technique leads to dramatic irony. While the reader knows an evil character is adopting a false identity, the virtuous knights under threat don't yet know the truth.

Wicked characters often use disguises to imitate virtue. Their hypocrisy shows how outward piety doesn't always represent inward devotion. They also bear an uncanny resemblance to truly good characters, demonstrating how easily people can mistake illusions for reality. Duessa's skill at playing Fidessa in Book 1 convinces the Redcrosse Knight she's faithful. Archimago appears as a wise old man, a religious pilgrim, and the Redcrosse Knight himself. The false Florimell looks more desirable than all the real women in the Book 4 tournament. And Book 2's enchantress Acrasia uses the manmade skill of art to turn the Bower of Bliss into a false representation of nature's beauty. While Braggadocio doesn't wear a physical disguise, he pretends to be braver and stronger than he really is. In Book 5 Artegall accuses him of decorating himself with borrowed honors. Through all of these examples, Spenser is pointing out that people must search diligently and guardedly for real virtue and not accept circumstances for their surface appearance. Real virtue must be tested, and remain virtuous over trials and extended periods of time.

Love and its Power

Love leads characters to tremendous feats of both good and evil. Book 3, Canto 5 contrasts two types of love: noble love with good intentions and lustful love with selfish goals. While noble love encourages heroism beyond what characters believe they are capable of, love in the wrong form damages individuals and societies.

True love, both romantic and friendly, requires not only passion but fidelity and selfish dedication. The Canto 4 proem says love is the root of all virtue and honor. The wise Glauce later calls love the crown or greatest achievement of knighthood. Many knights in the book prove her statement. Arthur's courage is motivated by love for Gloriana. Britomart and Artegall's love leads them to found England's royal Tudor dynasty, which in turn leads to Queen Elizabeth I's reign. The Garden of Adonis and the temple of Venus in Books 3 and 4 show love as the force behind virtues stabilizing all of society, such as peace and concord.

But excessive, wrongheaded or lustful passions can destroy any peace true love creates. The tapestry Britomart sees in Busirane's castle warns that love can conquer rulers and erode empires. Cupid the winged god of love is labeled the "victor of the Gods"—even the strongest deities succumb to him. When Venus searches for Cupid earlier in Book 3, she learns he has disrupted civility and created strife throughout the land. Characters driven by lust create havoc. The lecherous giants Argante, Ollyphant, and Poeana represent the monstrous results of lust without genuine affection.


Though Protestantism and Catholicism are both forms of Christianity, Spenser embraces the Protestant faith and rejects the Catholic faith. Political loyalties help determine his stance, but it is rooted in his genuine religious beliefs.

Inner devotion and piety, not outward rituals and pageantry, prove faithfulness in The Faerie Queene. Spenser even equates Catholic rites with idolatry or the worship of false gods. Protestants embraced the idea that Christ's love was accessible to everyone and did not require a priest to mediate between humans and the divine, which was the prevailing ideology in the Catholic version of Christianity. Spenser believed that good deeds and genuine devotion formed the heart of religious practice and communion with Christ and rituals were not only unnecessary but were akin to the practice of witchcraft. Geryoneo, a monster Arthur conquers in Book 5, performs blood sacrifices at his altar. These sacrifices represent the Catholic Mass and ritual of communion. Catholics believe communion delivered the real body and blood of Christ; only a priest could deliver communion to worshippers. To Spenser this tradition placed the human priest between believers and their God, becoming a form of blasphemy. Orgoglio's altar in Book 1, Canto 8 includes the icon worship Spenser observed and detested in Catholicism. When Arthur destroys both altars, he symbolically breaks down barriers between humans and God. There is situational irony here, since if there was an historical King Arthur, he would have been Catholic.

Spenser also emphasizes the love and forgiveness of God is available to anyone who seeks it, a general tenet of Christianity whether Catholic or Protestant. Two characters signify mercy or compassion to the undeserving. Mercy runs the holy hospital in Book 1, Canto 10 where her workers aid suffering people. And Mercilla in Book 5, Canto 9 is a righteous ruler who combines justice with grace. Christian mercy plays a large role in the Redcrosse Knight's quest. Despair almost convinces him his sin is unforgivable. He only escapes when Una, representing the Protestant faith, reminds him that God is powerful enough to forgive anyone. Other knights offer wicked characters chances to reform. Pyrochles refuses the grace Arthur offers in Book 2, Canto 8. But Crudor accepts Calidore's mercy in Book 6, Canto 1, which Calidore offers because he hopes to receive mercy himself.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Faerie Queene? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!

Stuck? We have tutors online 24/7 who can help you get unstuck.
A+ icon
Ask Expert Tutors You can ask You can ask You can ask (will expire )
Answers in as fast as 15 minutes