Phaon (fiction) - Social Commentary

Social Commentary

In October of 1589, Spenser voyaged to England and saw the Queen. It is possible that he read to her from his manuscript at this time. On February 25th, 1591, the Queen gave him a pension of fifty pounds per year (McCabe 112). He was paid in four installments on March 25th, June 24th, September 29th, and December 25th (McCabe24). After the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, Spenser found himself disappointed in the monarchy; among other things, “his annual pension from the Queen was smaller than he would have liked” and his humanist perception of Elizabeth’s court “was shattered by what he saw there” (Green 389). Despite these frustrations, however, Spenser “kept his aristocratic prejudices and predispositions” (Green 389). Book VI of The Faerie Queene stresses that there is “almost no correlation between noble deeds and low birth” and reveals that to be a “noble person,” one must be a “gentleman of choice stock” (Green 389). Throughout The Faerie Queene, virtue is seen as “a feature for the nobly born” and within Book VI, readers encounter worthy deeds that indicate aristocratic lineage (Green 389). An example of this is the hermit who Arthur brings Timias and Serena to. Initially, the man is considered a “goodly knight of a gentle race” who “withdrew from public service to religious life when he grew too old to fight” (Green 389). Here, we note the hermit’s noble blood seems to have influenced his gentle, self-less behavior. Likewise, audiences acknowledge that young Tristram “speaks so well and acts so heroically” that Calidore “frequently contributes him with noble birth” even before learning his background; in fact, it is no surprise that Tristram turns out to be the son of a king, explaining his profound intellect (Green 390). However, Spenser’s most peculiar example of noble birth is demonstrated through the characterization of the Salvage Man. Using the Salvage Man as an example, Spenser demonstrated that “ungainly appearances do not disqualify one from noble birth” (Green 390) By giving the Salvage Man a “frightening exterior,” Spenser stresses that “virtuous deeds are a more accurate indication of gentle blood than physical appearance (Green 390). On the opposite side of the spectrum, The Faerie Queene indicates qualities such as cowardice and discouresty which signify low birth. During his initial encounter with Arthur, Turpine “hides behind his retainers, chooses ambush from behind instead of direct combat, and cowers to his wife, who covers him with her voluminous skirt” (Green 392). These actions demonstrate that Turpine is “morally emasculated by fear” and furthermore, “the usual social roles are reversed as the lady protects the knight from danger (Green 392). Scholars believe that this characterization serves as “a negative example of knighthood” and strives to teach Elizabethan aristocrats how to “identify a commoner with political ambitions inappropriate to his rank” (Green 392).

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