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About this sample
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19 min read
Published: Jul 17, 2018
Words: 3709|Page: 1|19 min read
For a text of Elizabethan literature, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene is unique in its portrayal of chastity-a virtue generally associated with the domestic sphere-in the figure of Britomart the female warrior. Similarly unique is Britomart's representation as an almost hermaphroditic figure: she dresses in a full suit of armor, fights like a male knight, and presents herself as a man in social settings.
The notion that chastity can be embodied in an androgynous figure is puzzling and counterintuitive to commonly accepted notions of feminine virtue, but Spenser has a purpose in using Britomart as his heroine. Britomart must simultaneously embody both feminine and masculine traits, because if she were solely feminine, like Florimell or Amoret, her chastity would have long been compromised by the time she finds Artegall.
In short, Britomart must be ignorant of her latent femininity in order to be wholly chaste. "In order to uphold the version of chastity lauded in The Faerie Queene, Britomart cannot acquire insight or understanding. Titular chastity demands tough, yet beautiful naivety...Although male knights are similarly blind at times, there is no other figure whose ignorance is similarly central to her/his virtue" (Cavanagh, 141-142). Britomart embodies steadfast chastity because she is ignorant of her feminine powers; her naivety necessitates her chastity. Britomart's ignorance reveals a concealed yet underlying misogyny in Spenser's narrative. While Britomart is described as a powerful figure with agency, her characterization likewise reveals a mistrust of strong women because Britomart remains unaware of the precise magnitude of her strength.
Male anxiety over female chastity may be attributed chastity's very public facade. Because men are so rarely privy to the private, inner world of women, they can never really know if a woman is, in fact, chaste. Similarly, most people take Britomart at face value and think she is male because she dresses the part of a man-because her public fa?§ade signifies masculinity-without ever realizing what her fa?§ade hides: her femaleness.
Even Britomart does not have access to her own private femininity, because she is unaware of its existence. Sheila Cavanagh writes, "Even though she serves as the titular knight for the 'female' virtue chastity, Britomart can only enact this role from a position of 'manliness.' Throughout most of the epic she dresses like a man, interacts with women as though she were male, and only rarely acknowledges her sex or gender" (Cavanagh, 139).
Britomart falls in love with Artegall when she sees herself in the mirror, and her association with a male figure reveals both Britomart's disassociation with her own femininity, as well as the importance of outward signs-what is visible publically-to Spenser's narrative. As Spenser shows, Britomart is on a quest to find the material embodiment of an image; the sign comes first, the emotion follows. In the infamous mirror scene, Spenser writes:
Where when she had espyde that mirrhour fayre,
Her selfe a while therein she vewd in vaine;
Tho her auizing of the vertues rare,
Which thereof spoken were, she gan againe
Her to bethinke of, that mote to her selfe pertaine.
Upon seeing herself in the mirror, Britomart's own image precipitates her love.
Eftsoones there was presented to her eye
A comely knight, all arm'd in complet wize,
Through whose bright ventayle lifted vp on hye
His manly face, that did his goes agrize
When she first looks in the mirror, Britomart sees herself. Then, all of a sudden, her reflection transforms into a handsome knight, whom she acknowledges as her future husband. This moment of narcissism leads Britomart to identify herself as a masculinized figure, and in so doing, she removes herself from under the masculine gaze. At the moment of rupture, Britomart transfers her person to the scrutiny of her own gaze, and gains agency from her liberation.
Moreover, Britomart's weapon-the spear-also signifies masculinity. "We are told at this point that Britomart is literally invincible because she wields a potent magic spear-a powerful phallic symbol that at the same time connotes her woman's chastity" (Villeponteaux, 54). When Britomart stares into the mirror "in vaine," Spenser protects his heroine from entering the private female world by transforming her into a man.
Spenser depicts female chastity as an entity that is constantly under assault by men. Presented as a man, whenever Britomart is attacked, it is as a knight-like Redcrosse or Guyon-and not, like Florimell or Amoret, as a mere woman. In Faeryland, violence toward women almost always figures into a type of sexual violence, and because the female Britomart is hidden under a suit of armor, she is protected from sexual assault. In Spenser's world, a chaste woman is always chased; she is never safe.
The knights in The Faerie Queene are constantly coming across damsels in distress, as women, it appears, require protectors. "Spenser insists on chastity's redefinition by threat, rape, and captivity, even as that insistence generates instabilities that negate any absolute definition of gender roles" (Frye, 73). Women such as Florimell, who are constantly subject to the male gaze, are the constant victims of unwanted male advance. Florimell is represented in Book III as another chaste figure, but she is not the ideal of chastity that Britomart embodies.
Florimell is chaste, but she represents beauty-because she is the outward appearance of chastity, she is constantly harassed by men. Such, it seems, is the fate of all conspicuously beautiful women in Faeryland. Britomart is beautiful, but she hides her beauty and escapes advance-in a sense, she is the opposite of Flormell because her chastity is hidden; it is chastity's inner, rather than public, component. The only time Britomart is ever hurt in Book III is in Castle Joyous when she removes her masculine disguise.
As a woman, the seemingly invincible Britomart suffers her only wound. James Broaddus writes: "When Britomart discovers Malecasta in her bed, she goes for her sword, thinking to 'gride' a 'loathed leachour'. And while she stands before the bed in her 'snow-white smocke, with locks vnbownd,' i.e. feminine and vulnerable, but 'Threatning the point of her auenging blade' i.e., masculine and aggressive, she is wounded by an arrow shot by Gardante" (Broaddus, 33).
The arrow shot by Gardante can be seen as a metaphor for sexual invasion, as Spenser describes: Gardante "drew out a deadly bow and arrow keene,/ Which forth he sent with felonous despight,/ And fell intent against the virgin sheene" (III.I.65.2-5) and that the wound "lightly raised her soft silken skin,/ That drops of purple bloud thereout did weepe,/ Which did her lilly smock with staines of vermeil steepe" (III.I.65.7-10). Her white frock (a color is associated with chastity) is stained with red (a color associated with sexuality) after Gardante's arrow invades her virgin's skin. As a man, Britomart wins jousts against Guyon, Marinell, and Busyrane, but as a woman, she is wounded by the little known Gardante.
Modern readers may wonder, why do women deserve such atrocious treatment at the hands of men? In a sense, Spenser almost blames women for their own victimization. Spenser depicts rape as ravishment, but in Early Modern England, ravishment had two definitions. "The Faerie Queene revises sixteenth-century ravishment by introducing a third definition of the term, one that exists somewhere between the primary one of kidnapping and raping female bodies, and the secondary one-more familiar to the modern reader-of excessive, discombobulatory rapture that takes a person away from herself.
In this third term, ravishment is physically felt, located within and upon the body, as it is for the unfortunate victim of the crime. But it is also pleasurable in its sensuality, ecstasy without ekstasis" (Eggert, 7-8). In creating this third definition of ravishment, Spenser reveals his belief that chastity is the duty of the woman and that when women are raped or victimized, they somehow bring it upon themselves.
When Florimell is constantly pursued, no matter how cruelly, Spenser makes sure his readers understand why; she is not pursued senselessly for no reason, but rather because of the way she portrays herself, because of her extreme physical beauty. Likewise, Britomart is attacked because she chooses to remove her outer garments, exposing herself. "As a result of her voluntary disarming, Britmart renders herself vulnerable; and she is indeed wounded by Gardante, a wound associated with sexual or amourous attraction. This sequence of events suggests more than that Britomart has been smitten by love. It also implies that her wound is in part self-inflicted: 'she gan her selfe despoile'.
In her partial defeat by love she is both victor and victim" (Leslie 41). The duty of preserving chastity, Spenser seems to argue, is up to the woman-as if, because men cannot help acting boorish, women must take on the added duty of deflecting them. Britomart's agency largely derives from the fact that she is alleviated of this duty in her masculine representation. Unlike the other women in Book III, Britomart is free, and her freedom is empowering.
Belphoebe, another figure of chastity in Book III, is similarly independent, but she is confined rather than liberated by her independence. Like Florimell, Belphoebe is chaste without ever reaching the pinnacle of 'perfect' or 'ideal' chastity. Discovered at birth by Diana and Venus, Belphoebe is claimed by Diana and raised as a huntress while her twin sister Amoret is claimed by Venus and raised in the Garden of Adonis. Belphoebe symbolizes an extreme version of chastity that borders on sterility.
To your faire selues a faire ensample frame,
Of this faire virgin, this Belphoebe faire,
To whom in perfect loue, and spotless fame
Of chastity, none liuving may compaire:
Ne poysnous Enuy iustly can empaire
The prayse of her fresh flowring Maidenhead;
For they she standeth on the highest staire
Of th'honorable stage of womanhead,
That Ladies all may follow her ensample dead.
Spenser's description that no living woman can compare in chastity to Belphoebe, and that "that ladies all may follow her ensample dead" signifies the deadening potential of such stringent chastity. Such monastic chastity directly conflicts with Britomart's quest to find her destined mate so that her offspring will one day inherit Great Briton (as well as Spenser's Protestant ideals). As Merlin's prophesy foretells, the loss of Britomart's virginity is a narrative inevitability, whereas as far as Belphoebe is concerned, she will remain chaste until the day she dies.
For Britomart, chastity serves a greater social purpose-basically, she is chaste because short-term losses reap long-term gains, and 'saving it' for Artegall will ensure the continuation of their line. Until she meets Artegall, Britomart will remain ignorant of her emerging womanliness, but as the story unfolds, Britomart slowly becomes as more and more of a woman. "In Britomart's story, Spenser most fully sketches the benign abashedness of a nascent erotic awareness, the emergence of new impulses within the self which insist on making themselves known and accommodated.
The structural importance of abashedness to the book thus hinges on the issue of the self's hidden privacy and its exposure in the larger world" (Trier, 134). Even though she is a fierce warrior, Britomart often suffers from feminine bouts of self-consciousness and abashedness. According to Katherine Trier, Britomart's abashedness is the result of erotic awareness. "Erotic emotions bring into play vulnerability to others, uncertain identity, and intense self-awareness, all of which contribute to embarrassment and distress" (Trier, 137).
Even though Britomart is the representation of perfect chastity, she is still human and consequently not immune to chastity's threats. In framing the story so that Britomart will eventually marry, Spenser offers her chastity the additional protection of marriage. In Book III, Britomart is a chaste virgin, but eventually, she will become a chaste wife. Because nothing short of death will prevent Britomart from flowering into a full-fledged woman eventually, Spenser ensures that she does not stray from the path of righteousness by forecasting her marriage to Artegall from the very beginning of Book III.
For Spenser, Britomart's version of chastity is superior to Belphoebe's because reproduction, regeneration, and motherhood is both natural and ordained by God. Venus is depicted as a motherly figure, searching for her lost child, Cupid. She adopts Amoret as her daughter and raises her in the sacred Garden.
Britomart's quest in Book III ends, in fact, when she saves the daughter of Venus from the evil Busyrane. Though she enters as a knight still under a masculine guise, Britomart can only save Amoret when she removes her armor. The point is, Britomart must come out as a woman in order to save Love. She even discards her phallic spear: "Britomart's action in dismounting before trying to enter Busyrane's house dissociates her from the husband's power and authority; equally, her abandonment of the spear removes the threat of violent and excessive sexuality this weapon has come to represent for Amoret.
It is because she does not threaten Amoret in the ways that Scudamour does that she can gain entry; and the fact that she does not threaten her so is conveyed through her dismounting and the relinquishing of her characteristic weapon" (Leslie, 82). As a warrior, Britomart is the enemy of all who try to destroy love. Her final enemy in Book III is Busyrane, who holds Amoret captive in his castle and tortures her by attempting to steal her heart. Busyrane, the ultimate enemy of love, is Britomart's arch-nemesis. Belphoebe may be sterilely chaste, but Britomart is intended for Love.
In Canto VI, Spenser discusses the Garden of Adonis in length and rich detail. In pausing the linear narrative of his poem to rest for a while in the Garden (as it were), Spenser draws a distinct and opposing parallel between the Garden and the Quest. "The Garden of Adonis, the principal expression of the metaphor of generation in Book III...is indicative of the degree of opposition between quest and garden...Britomart is expressive of the paradox and conflict which the conjunction of the metaphors of generation and quest implies" (Tonkin, 408). Britomart's quest for Artegall, in a sense, guarantees her chastity because of her asexual and hermaphroditic self-representation, but her quest is temporary because one day it will end in the figurative "garden" of reproduction.
In that same Gardin all the goodly flowres,
Wherewith dame Nature doth her beautifie,
And decks the girlonds of her paranoures,
Are fetcht: there is the first seminarie
Of all things, that are borne to liue and die,
According to their kindes. Long worke it were,
Here to account the endlesse progenie
Of all the weedes, that bud and blossome there;
But so much as doth need, must needs be counted here.
This garden is not only the perfectly natural culmination of Britomart's tale, as Spenser states, but mandated by God:
Ne needs there Gardiner to set, or sow,
To plant or prune: for of their owne accord
All things, as they created were, doe grow,
And yet remember well the mightie word,
Which first was spoken by th'Almightie lord,
That bad them to increase and multiply"
Venus, unlike Diana, has nature on her side. It is natural to reproduce, and all things have, according to the Creator, the seeds of growth within, and "the hunt of Venus and Diana for Cupid is emblematic of Britomart's own quest for Artegall" (Tonkin, 413). Britomart is represented as a man, but willingly chooses such a representation so she can best preserve her chastity for Artegall; she ensures that only Artegall will plant his 'seeds' in her 'garden.'
Because, throughout Book III, Britomart remains completely ignorant of her feminine and reproductive powers, Britomart's 'garden' is left fallow and unseeded; the regenerative power of Britomart's sexuality is preserved, protected by its own secrecy. By concealing her femininity, Britomart bypasses the destructive and violent lust men display toward women, and as Iris Hill writes, "If love, as many recent critics of Book III have observed, as a necessary destructive aspect, the heroism of Britomart implies the overcoming of that beginning so that she may experiences its wholeness and generative powers" (Hill, 184). Yet, though Britomart fashions her outward appearance as a steadfast knight, she is not impervious to lovesickness
With such self-pleasing thoughts her wound she fed,
And thought so to beguile her grieuous smart;
But so her smart was much more grieuous bred,
And the deepe wound more deepe engord her hart,
That nought but death her dolour mote depart.
nor the inner turmoil of the heart.
Huge sea of sorrow, and temptestuous griefe,
Wherein my feeble barke is tossed long,
Far from the hoped hauen of reliefe,
Why do they curell billowes beat so strong,
And thy moyst mountaines each on others throng,
Threatning to wallow vp my fearefull life?
Spenser again draws the distinction between external and internal appearance, and specifically relates it to Britomart. Though she seems composed, the violent seacoast is a better approximation of her inner emotional state than her own outward appearance. Throughout Spenser's narrative, Britomart's pretense shows signs of wear, as when she takes her distress out on Marinell and attacks him at slight provocation. Her inner and outer lives, though separate, are divided precariously, and Britomart betrays herself at times in the narrative when her burden becomes too much to bear (like the time she is wounded by Gardante).
The division between the public and the private is a cause of anxiety for Spenser and other men of Early Modern England. Theresa Krier maintains that The Faerie Queene "offered [Spenser] a means to explore the relationship of public to private worlds, the valuable moral capacity to form social bonds, and the nature of the isolate self" (134). Spenser was fully cognizant of the inaccessibility of the private feminine world.
There are aspects of women that men will simply never be privy to-one of which is chastity. Due to its absolute importance in determining patrilineage, female chastity is the cause of great apprehension and even resentful and misogyny. "Britomart, of course, looks like a man most of the time, while the dazzling False Florimell is a male sprite in disguise. Knights and readers are forever cautioned the read between the lines or beneath the surface where women are involved, since neither appearance nor behavior can be trusted" (Cavanagh, 6).
Even the character Britomart, Spenser's ultimate embodiment of chastity, shows markedly different outer and inner-lives, as almost every aspect of her outside appearance betrays what is concealed underneath. Britomart's chastity is preserved because her outward appearance deceives men, but at the same time, her own deception seems paradoxical to the purity and incorruptibility of all things chaste.
Instead of working through or explaining away this inherent contradiction, Spenser saves chastity with Britomart's ignorance. There is no question whether Spenser's protagonist knows she's being deceptive-she does. When Britomart leaves for her quest, it is under the "secret cloud of silent night,/ Themselues they forth conuayd, & passed forward right" (III.iii.61.8-9). However, though she realizes that her appearance is a lie, Britomart's conscience is clean because, as far as she is concerned, she has no "isolate self." She may conceal her sex insofar as she hides her true gender, but Britomart does not knowingly hide her femininity, because she has not come into possession of it yet. When Britomart watches Scudamour and Amoret embrace, Spenser writes,
Britomart halfe enuying their blesse,
Was much empassiond in her entle sprite,
And to herselfe oft wisht like happinesse,
In vaine she wisht, that fate n'ould let her yet possesse.
Gazing at the lovers, Britomart wishes in vain for Amoret's feminine knowledge, but she cannot acquire it until Artegall's gaze is upon her, until she comes into her own femininity.
Like Amoret, Britomart must reveal the woman beneath:
Her body, late in the prison of sad paine,
Now the sweet lodge of loue and deare delight:
But she faire Lady ouercommen quight
Of huge affection, did in pleasure melt,
And in sweete rauishment pourd our her spright.
Only after unearthing her body from the male armor she wears-Britomart's own "prison,"-can she truly experience the "rauishment" of female power. Katherine Egger writes, "Ravishment's dominant connotation, then, is one of possession, of gaining access...In The Faerie Queene, however, ultimate power is conveyed...by means of acquiring access to the truth, whether spiritual, moral, marital, or genealogical. By this logic, ravishment indeed ought to be a tool of revelation, willfully entering the dark and vicious place of begetting in order to see the light." (Eggert, 6).
Britomart's chastity rests on the fact that her naivety denies her access to the private spaces of womanhood-once she, like Amoret, exposes herself to the male gaze, she will also lose her chastity. The chastity that gives Britomart her warrior's powers simultaneously disowns her woman's powers, but as Spencer's narrative suggests, womanliness is a profound and mysterious force, one that is the cause of much male anxiety. In Faeryland, Britomart's chastity is preserved only because she is unaware of the nascent potential of her femininity. Once she discovers the power "rauishment", she can no longer be perfectly chaste.
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