Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Myth, Monsters, and Romance
with Dr Matthew Woodcock (UEA)
at Sutton Hoo on Saturday, 2nd December, 2017

This study day provides a structured introduction to the greatest poem of the Elizabethan age: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). After exploring how to read and interpret Spenser’s allegorical epic, we’ll locate the poem within the wider picture of Tudor mythography, and the religious and political history of Elizabethan England.

The sessions offer a framework for reading The Faerie Queene and assume no prior knowledge of the poem.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                What is The Faerie Queene? – In this first session, there will be a short introduction to the author Edmund Spenser and the context in which his epic poem was composed. There will be an overview of the poem as a whole, and a consideration of the form and genre(s) of the poem employed. We’ll also discuss how Spenser drew upon a host of different sources when constructing his great work, including medieval and Renaissance fairy mythology. We will get to see the key building-block of the poem itself, the nine-line Spenserian stanza, and also think about how Spenser contrives a particular kind of narratorial scenario.

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                How it works: Reading the allegory of The Faerie Queene.- This session gets to grips with how to read the poem’s allegory—how we are instructed by the poet himself to read beyond the literal level of the text to see a wide range of political, religious, historical, and philosophical ideas in play. We’ll use Book 1 of The Faerie Queene as a case study of how to read Spenserian allegory, with a little help from Spenser’s instructive letter to Sir Walter Ralegh that was appended to the 1590 edition of the poem.

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:                 Reading Elizabeth I in The Faerie Queene.In this session we’ll consider the ultimate implied reader of The Faerie Queene—Elizabeth I—and explore how she is represented and celebrated in the poem. Our focus will be books 2 & 3 of the poem, though we’ll also consider the wider issue of Tudor myth-making and how The Faerie Queene plays with different mythological versions of Elizabeth, her nation and her dynasty.

14.50 – 15.10:                Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:                The 1596 Faerie Queene: Trouble in Fairyland? – In this final session we’ll turn to the second edition of The Faerie Queene, which was published in 1596 and included an additional three books (books 4, 5, & 6). It is in these books that doubts begin to be arise for Spenser about his mythographic project and the poem’s original vision. We’ll see how Spenser takes us into different kinds of allegorical terrain, inviting his readers to think about contemporary colonial Ireland as well as the equally perilous world of court, before finally abandoning fairyland for a grander cosmic vision.

c.16.00:                            Thanks and Close

About Dr Matthew Woodcock

Matthew Woodcock is Senior Lecturer in Literature at the University of East Anglia. He has published widely on medieval and early modern literature: his books include Sir Philip Sidney and the Sidney Circle (2010), Shakespeare: Henry V: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (2008), and Fairy in The Faerie Queene: Renaissance Elf-Fashioning and Elizabethan Myth-Making (2004). He is co-editor of Medieval Into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper (2016), which came out with Boydell and Brewer, and his biography of soldier-author Thomas Churchyard was published by Oxford UP in 2016. His current research projects focus on early modern military identity and Tudor war poetry.  He is also editing a volume of the Records of Early English Drama for Norwich 1540-1642.


Here is what people said when asked at a previous Study Day by Matthew “what was best about the day?”:

  • Speaker was excellent, powerpoint presentation and images and handout were brilliant, and so helpful to speaker’s sessions
  • Everything was so clear and well – constructed
  • It was good, interesting and understandable
  • Good lecturer and handout
  • Speaker was excellent
  • Good, clear presentation with full references to sources
  • Good structure, excellent material, well delivered, right amount of time for questions
  • Whole day extremely interesting
  • The interchange between speaker and audience. Very stimulating


Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

The sessions offer a framework for reading The Faerie Queene and assume no prior knowledge of the poem. Obviously if anyone is interested in reading the poem in more detail then a good critical edition is a must. The most detailed annotated edition is that edited by A.C. Hamilton (Longman 2001). There is also a Penguin edition of the complete Faerie Queene, edited by Thomas P. Roche (2003), which provides a clearly presented, lightly annotated text.

Paul Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (1967).

Edwin Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser’s Historical Allegory (1932) [now quite old, but an important early attempt to read the poem historically].

Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (2012) [most recent, and very thorough, biography].

Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley eds., Edmund Spenser: A View of the Present State of Ireland (1997) [this is a student edition of the controversial treatise that Spenser wrote in 1596 when working as a colonial official in Tudor Ireland].

Elizabeth Heale, The Faerie Queene: A Reader’s Guide (2008).

John King, Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition. (1990).

C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936) [much-criticized but still a classic, influential reading of the poem].

William Allan Oram, Edmund Spenser (1997).

Gareth Roberts, The Faerie Queene (1992).

R.H. Wells, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Cult of Elizabeth (1983).