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This Great Stage of Fools: The Journey of Delusion and Deceit in
Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s King Lear
Perhaps more than any other period in British history, the English Renaissance embodied the themes of deception and deceitfulness. Political conspiracies ran rampant in court and loyalty was something constantly in question (“Sixteenth” 494). This tone inevitably is shown throughout literature from the English Renaissance, such as both Edward Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and William Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, while Spenser focuses on the finally triumphant journey of a wholly good and holy-minded individual through such a deceitful, and thus sinful world, Shakespeare focuses on individuals so ensnared by delusions that they cannot separate themselves and thus die in such a state.
Spenser’s epic poem is, first and foremost, religious in nature. Book I follows Redcross Knight, who is identified as a knight who will eventually become St. George, patron saint of England. From the beginning, therefore, the reader is aware that the protagonist is not only a holy individual, but will eventually be successful in his quest. In his quest, Redcross Knight encounters trials and embodiments of sins such as the Dragon of Error, the old man Archimago (hypocrisy), Pride, Despair, and the lady Duessa (duplicity). These are allegorical figures that Spenser assumes apply to all “Christian souls,” but especially the Anglican British citizens.
Perhaps the most interesting figure of these is Duessa, who Redcross Knight trusts implicitly throughout most of the poem. In many cases throughout The Faerie Queene, Redcross Knight is at some level aware of the possibility of his being deceived. This occurs near the beginning, when Archimago presents a fake image of a lustful lady Una and again when he is at the House of Pride. In both situations, a sense of unease “tosse his braine” and stop Redcross Knight from being wholly deceived (Spenser 1.1.492). However, Duessa surpasses these entrapments by playing upon Redcross Knight’s understanding of love. She originally presents herself as Fidessa, which stands for faithfulness or fidelity. By playing on this misunderstanding of love, Duessa manipulates Redcross Knight into “follow[ing] her desires unmeete” (1.8.450). Redcross Knight never seems to question Duessa and continuously takes her proclamations of love at face value. In fact, it is not until Arthur and Una strip Duessa of her disguise and Redcross Knight sees her as “[a] loathly, wrinckled hag” that her manipulation mostly comes to an end (1.8.413).
By having Duessa’s lust/love based deception be the most successful throughout the poem, Spenser seems to imply that deception based on love is most damaging. This theme is also the backbone of Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, while Spenser’s tale is certainly allegorical and sure to end in triumph, Shakespeare “explores the extremes of the mind’s anguish… [and] never forgets that his characters have bodies [with] needs, cravings, and terrible vulnerabilities” (“Lear” 1141). The audience to Shakespeare’s play never forgets for a moment that these characters are mortal and, unlike Redcross Knight, have the possibility of failure on a number of levels.
Also unlike Redcross Knight, the deception involving love is not a romantic love, but a familial one. In the first scene of the play, an aging King Lear commands his daughters to say which of them loves him the most, promising to give the greatest share of his kingdom to the daughter that “proves” her love in her speech. Goneril and Regan flatter their father beyond possible truth, insisting that they love him “no less than life” and “profess [themselves] enemy to all other joys” beyond that of their father’s love (1.1.57-73). Lear is completely taken in by his daughters’ flattery and rewards them with large shares of his kingdom. However, because of this blindness to the difference between flattery and true love, Lear does not recognize the far more real devotion that Cordelia expresses for him. In this way, it is not only Goneril and Regan who deceive Lear, but it is also Lear himself. Cordelia is the only daughter to speak without any sense of deceit and to truly express love without conditions for her father, but Lear cannot see it because he has entrapped himself within a false understanding of love. Unlike Spenser’s naive but essentially good protagonist who becomes entrapped by the lies of outside forces, Lear is entrapped by his own illusory vision of reality. Lear becomes his own downfall as his illusory vision begins to collapse and he realizes that his supposedly “good” daughters in fact despise him. As he finds himself thrown out into a raging storm, Lear alternately falls into a rambling state of madness and finds moments of moral clarity in which he sees the world as it truly is: full of “poor naked wretches” (3.4.29) and horrible injustices.
However, Shakespeare’s play is not entirely devoid of characters like Redcross Knight, who are manipulated more than self-deceived. Edmund’s twisting of his father Gloucester parallels a more Spenserian approach in which professions of love are used solely to manipulate what could be seen as an essentially good but naive man. Also like Redcross Knight, Gloucester falls into despair and needs the supports of his true loved one, in this case his son Edgar, to pull him out of it again. However, Shakespeare complicates this situation with Gloucester’s tragic blindness and the pitiful state of his life before his eventual death. In this way, Shakespeare underscores Lear’s statement to the hopeless Gloucester: “When we are all born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (4.6.176-7). Unlike The Faerie Queene, where the good triumph over Satan and the deadly sins, Shakespeare’s vision in King Lear is in no way about poetic justice. Humans delude and deceive themselves and others using expectations of love and examples of “what we ought to say” (5.3.323), and even in moments of reality we are confronted with injustice and cruelty.
The image of the universe as inherently cruel and unfair is reiterated at the play’s end. When Lear enters in the last scene carrying the dead Cordelia, he sobs and initially refuses to acknowledge anyone directly except his daughter’s corpse. As he slowly explains Cordelia’s death, he wavers in and out of coherency, until he finally becomes fixated on looking for any last trace of life in her. One possible and even probable reading of the ambiguous line, “Look on her, look on her lips, / Look there, look there!” (5.3.310-11) is that in his final moments Lear again falls into self-deception and “dies in the grip of the illusion that he detects some breath on his daughter’s lips” (“Lear” 1141).
Through close reading, it is clear that both The Faerie Queene and King Lear explore how easy it is to misread reality and become trapped within an illusion. However, in the end, the clearest difference between The Faerie Queene and King Lear is that the hope for triumph over hardships such as deceit and cruelty is still available in The Faerie Queene. Contrastingly, no one in King Lear is able to escape the effects of deceitfulness or delusion; even a character such as Cordelia, who never gave in to deception, ends up its victim. In this way, Shakespeare’s play suggests that you cannot escape “the rack of this tough world” no matter how you have lived or what level of faith you have (5.3.312).  Perhaps Spenser’s fantastical religious allegory offers a more palatable and pleasing vision where good can triumph over evil and where truth shines through deception. It is not surprising, therefore, that Shakespeare’s King Lear has been compare to works such as Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and judged too depressing for the later seventeenth century stage. But both works offer an essential warning about the danger of deception, especially when closely linked with illusions of love.
Greenblatt, Steven. “King Lear, Introduction.” The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 1962. New York: Norton, 2006.
–, “Sixteenth Century.” The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 1962. New York: Norton, 2006.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 1962. New York: Norton, 2006.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 1962. New York: Norton, 2006.
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