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By Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, Patrick Cheney, Michael Schoenfeldt (eds.)

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In the Arthurian cycle the problems of the realm cannot be sorted out because of the destructive behaviour of those who are supposed to govern (revealing Lancelot’s sin will only lead to a civil war, but failing to do so causes disunity which will eventually lead to the same result). Spenser is implying that Elizabeth/Belphoebe has acted just as badly as a ruler and will lead her subjects to a similar end involving the consequent death not just of large numbers of them, but also of the regime itself.

The narrative drive of The Faerie Queene is also determined by one of the most significant deaths in Elizabeth’s reign, that of Mary Queen of Scots, executed for treason on 8 February 1587, explicitly represented in Book 5, Canto 9. This event can be seen to counterbalance that of Elizabeth, and Spenser makes it clear that he reads the deaths of the two queens in symbiotic terms in his great poem. 20 It is easy to see why there might have been opposition to the Stuart claim in England. Mary’s biography reads like an English nightmare.

18 Nevertheless, it is one that has to be followed unless one wishes to remain as an arrested adolescent. The adult love that Amoret and Scudamore, and Britomart 36 Imagining Death in Spenser and Milton and Artegall experience is in sharp contrast to the unsavoury encounters with aged lechers that Florimell has to endure – until she overcomes her fears and marries Marinell. The ending of the first edition of The Faerie Queene juxtaposed the joyful hermaphroditic form assumed by the lovers, Amoret and Scudamore, with Britomart’s envious and lonely isolation: Had ye them seene, ye would haue surely thought, That they had beene that faire Hermaphrodite, Which that rich Romance of white marble wrought, And in his costly Bath caused to bee site: So seemd those two, as growne together quite, That Britomart halfe enuying ther blesse, Was much empassined in her gentle sprite, And to her selfe oft wisht like happinesse, In vaine she wisht, that fate n’ould let her yet posesse.

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