Spenser's Idea of Womanhood with Special Reference to Una in The Faerie Queene

Spenser's conception of womanhood is different not only from that prevalent in the Middle Ages, but also from that of his contemporary writers and poets. During the middle ages, the woman was undoubtedly held in esteem, but it was mere show. She was, in reality subjected to restrictions and even kept in bondage. She had no freedom to move about and participate in worldly affairs along with man. She was the embodiment of humility and helplessly depended upon the chivalry and protection of man. Spenser's woman is a heroine fully participating in the struggle of life and showing her physical, mental and spiritual powers.


Edmund Spencer (1552-1599)

Spenser's women are types of pure abstract virtues, quite different from Shakespeare's heroines. They are idealized types of females in real life. Their beauty is not only physical, but also spiritual and intellectual. Spenser combines sense with spirit or body with soul in the beauty of woman. His heroines are charming in appearance and deportment; they have pleasing manners and morals. They attract with their virtues like temperance, chastity, truth, wisdom, and bravery.

Spenser considered chastity to be the highest virtue in a woman. But this is not the chastity of a nun which goes to waste. A woman is not destined to remain a virgin all her life. Celibacy is at variance with God's will. She is meant to observe the sanctity of marriage and procreate a noble race. Moreover, a chaste woman can prove to be an asset to man when he fails in heroism and nobility. In Book 1 of The Faerie Queene Una is represented as an ideal woman. Truth, reverence and humility are the chief qualities which constitute her character. She is a devoted daughter and spends her life in her efforts for the deliverance of her parents. She is also loyal in her love for the Red Cross Knight and remains faithful to him under most terrifying circumstances. She is meek and humble, but brave and fearless. She rescues the Knight with her timely courage and tact. She also saves him by snatching the dagger from his hand when he is in a fit of despair. Innocence and wisdom stand out prominently in her character. She finds no fault with others, even when they are in the wrong. She only suffers and struggles for the good of others, completely forgetting herself. In fact, she is self-denial and sacrifice incarnate.

Beyond doubt, Spenser's attitude towards women is guided by Platonic considerations and is essentially poetic in character. Spencer has presented himself as a champion of womanhood and has considered himself as the defender, of their faith and their feminine dignities. This stout championship of woman has been approved by the poet in the first two stanzas of the third Canto of Book 1 in The Faerie Queene. Here the poet's attitude towards womankind has got a beautiful exposition, and it is Una who stands behind this utterance.

Una is the heroine of the first Book in The Faerie Queene. She stands for Truth therein. She is the ideal female character in many ways. In her we find the apotheosis of feminine virtues. She is the daughter of a king and is nobly bred and brought up. She is beautiful and charming, though she covers her face with a black stole to hide her face from profane eyes. In Una we have the union of innocence and wisdom, and this leads us to love and adore her simultaneously.

The whole life of Una is summarized in only two words: innocence, ever under suffering itself, and wisdom, ever guiding and assisting others. Una is the embodiment of innocence, purity, truth, and common sense. She may for her innocence be easily deceived sometimes as by Archimago when he presents himself both as an aged sire and later as the Red Cross Knight. Una is simple and innocent at heart, and it is not easy for her to pierce through the veil of hypocrisy, fraud and roguery of kind Archimago. But at other times, Una's wisdom is almost always with her, and it guides her and the Red Cross Knight in all the trials and tribulations of life. When the Red Cross Knight is in haste to step into the Error's den, it is Una who wisely holds him back with her wise council.

Una is a lady of compassion. She has a deep love for her parents. Her heart is filled with grief at the captivity of her parents in the dungeon of the Dragon. Early in her life, she becomes acquainted with grief and sorrow after the captivity of her parents. She sets out in the company of the Red Cross Knight, after her prayer has been granted by the Faerie Queene, in order to release her parents from the Dragon's thralldom. A weak woman, she has to encounter many dangers on her way. In this wandering for the release of her parents, Una forgets herself and bears troubles and difficulties which might have damped the spirit of a weaker woman. But Una is firm and resolute in her decision to deliver her parents from captivity and to that end she bends all her nerves and sinews. When Una reaches Dame Celia in Canto X, she embraces her, recalling her wanderings in search of her parents. Una finally succeeds in her search, and her mission is fulfilled. The Dragon is killed by the Red Cross Knight and Una is happily united with her parents who get back their kingdom and freedom.

Una's love for the Red Cross Knight is also remarkable. She loves him deeply. Though her Knight deserts her, being a prey to the machinations of Archimago, she is ever desirous to stand by his side in woe or weal, and offers him good service in times of need. She heroically saves him from the dungeon of Orgoglio and once again nurses him to manhood by taking him to the House of Holiness (or Grace). For her Knight she does not have any ill will or jealousy; she has no words of reproach of indignation, of cold reserve. On the other hand, meeting her Knight she exclaims with great joy. Whenever she talks of the Red Cross Knight, she speaks endearingly of him.

Una's role as the inspirer of the Red Cross Knight in the moment of distress and despair is also praiseworthy. Una never shines birighter as a guardian angel, her wisdom is never more brightly displayed, than in the action and the words with which she saves her Knight from self-destruction. Una's words in the Cave of Despair in Canto X are full of inspiration and decision. They reveal the essential feminine virtue of inspiration in times of diversity and distress. Una checks the Red Cross Knight from committing suicide.

Una is the embodiment of forgiveness. Most of the troubles in Una's life rise due to the evil designs of Duessa. But even for Duessa she does not show marks of malice or retaliation. At a time when Duessa is totally at her wish, Una forgives her and allows her to go away unpunished on her lonely way. Again, it is Una who guides Prince Arthur to Orgoglio's castle as she had guided her own knight to the Error's den. His victory does not elate her as a final victory would, for she always has the grief of her enthralled parents before her eyes.

Taking all these facts into account, it can be said that if her sufferings feed the fountain of the pathos in Book I, it is her wisdom whose strength is the mainspring of its action. She finds a champion "full of fire and greedy hardiment": it is her wisdom that supplies the guidance such a champion sorely requires. The part played by her as a guide to the Red Cross Knight during his fight with the Monster of Error and the Dragon is quite admirable. For Spenser, Una, in brief, is the ideal of womanhood and of all the finest virtues that should be cultivated by. She is not the idol of passivity, but of active life and inspiring deeds.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Spenser's Idea of Womanhood with Special Reference to Una in The Faerie Queene." BachelorandMaster, 19 Mar. 2018, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/spensers-idea-of-womanhood.html.