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The False Florimell and Nonhuman Consent
by Jeffrey B. Griswold

The False Florimell and Nonhuman Consent

This paper is derived from my dissertation, ‘The Political Animal: Early Modern Literature and Human Exceptionalism’, which argues for the importance of species difference to the political thought of the English Renaissance. Early modern poets, dramatists, and philosophers used Aristotle’s claim that humans are the ‘political animal’ to frame a novel kind of human exceptionalism. Whereas Aristotle grounds our communal nature in the human powers of language, reason, and justice, early modern thinkers depart from the Politics, defining human community through our deficiencies. They argue that we are political because we are physically and morally inferior to nonhuman animals. My project uses the lessons of posthumanism to recover a habit of thought that defines political life outside of sovereignty and subjection, thereby showing how the vulnerability of the human animal provided an ethical framework for political community. Although most of the dissertation explores distinctions between humans and other creatures, my chapter on The Faerie Queene considers more fantastical beings. The following paper examines how Spenser represents the political animal by contrasting a human character with its automaton double. I argue that Spenser juxtaposes Florimell and the false Florimell to think about how the latter’s autonomy illuminates the limitations of the human political subject.

Sex and sexual violence are integral to the political imagination of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. These allegorical scenes enter into sixteenth-century debates about sovereignty and tyranny by testing the limits of consent and coercion. Political philosophers often used marriage as a metaphor for consent to a sovereign body, either the monarch or the mixed government of the state more generally. But The Faerie Queene repeatedly considers erotic subjection, as well. Such scenes test the boundaries between submission and consent, thinking about where force ends and where free choice begins. Spenserians have considered the political implications of Amoret’s abduction by Scudamore, the marriage of the Thames and the Medway, Florimell’s imprisonment by Proteus, and Radigund’s subjection of Artegall.[1] Through allegorical narratives about erotic subjection and marriage, Spenser engages the metaphors on which philosophers such as Thomas Smith build their political systems. But unlike works of philosophy, the romance genre allows Spenser to repeatedly test ideas, rather than construct a single, coherent system. Spenser often pits the lessons of one episode against those of another. Elizabeth Fowler argues that The Faerie Queene’s interlaced ‘plots of marriage and rape’ invite ‘the reader to seek out the underlying principles of comparison’, encouraging ‘the reader to respond affectively and deepen that response with ethical and political judgment’.[2] But if sex is a key metaphor through which the foundation of political life is imagined in the poem, then Spenserians have overlooked some key episodes. The romance’s many instances of nonhuman sex have been largely unexamined by this critical conversation. The sex lives of nonhuman characters suggest that our analytical frame might need adjusting.

Spenserian scholarship on sex as a metaphor for political relations generally aligns a loss of agency with a loss of humanity. Melissa Sanchez, for instance, argues that ‘Spenser situates Amoret as the passive object of Scudamour’s conquest’.[3] And Andrew Zurcher demonstrates that Florimell is treated as ‘a piece of property’, both by her assailants, as well as her saviors.[4] Stripped of their agency, imprisoned or assaulted characters are rendered objects with little recourse to action. Only through internal resistance can these characters maintain any agency. Political personhood in these narratives has been described in terms of volition and more specifically in terms of consent. How, then, might examples of nonhuman consent in The Faerie Queene force us to reassess the human as a political subject?

The Florimell and false Florimell plots, for example, raise similar questions about agency, personhood, and sexual desire—categories central to political philosophy. The human character and the automaton follow parallel plots, thereby inviting comparison. Florimell is continually pursued by attackers until she is imprisoned in Proteus’s dungeon. She has no control over her person, only over her will. By contrast, the false Florimell exhibits agency not afforded to her human counterpart. She seems to up-end the commonplace that humans are defined by choice. The theologian Richard Hooker, for instance, differentiates humans from other creatures by our ability to choose to do an action or to abstain from it: ‘whatsoever we worke as men, the same we do wittingly worke and freely; neither are we according to the maner of naturall agents [nonhuman creatures and objects] any way so tied, but that it is in our power to leave the things we do undone’.[5] Humans are not compelled to act, but can always choose to do otherwise. Our actions are done ‘wittingly’ and ‘freely’. This essay will interrogate the political implications of consent as a defining feature of human political life through an examination of Florimell’s nonhuman double.

Scholarship on the real Florimell has demonstrated the political implications of sexual consent and conquest within her narrative, but this conversation has not fully considered the significance of her double.[6] Alternatively, work on the false Florimell theorizes her in abstract and often epistemological terms, underemphasizing the automaton’s agency.[7] I want to raise a simple but overlooked question: How does the false Florimell’s narrative complicate the political import of the real one? This oversight is itself not surprising due to the story of the automaton’s creation. In the middle of Book Three, the real Florimell flees from a witch and her aggressive son, who morns losing the object of his sexual desire. To appease him, the witch pieces together the false Florimell out of the physical stuff of poetic tropes. Her body is made of ‘purest snow’, her eyes ‘two burning lampes’, and her hair ‘golden wyre’.[8] This sardonic parody of Petrarchism literalizes the commonplaces of blazon and the metaphors become the physical parts of her body. Into this fanciful collage, the witch places a ‘spright’ ‘to rule the carcas dead’ (III.vii.7).[9] Like most characters who interact with this android, the son cannot tell the difference between the false Florimell and the real one. While the character begins as critique of Petrarchan poetry, I argue that her significance evolves as her narrative progresses.

I follow recent scholarship in emphasizing the false Florimell’s createdness and her status as an artificial human.[10] The witch that constructs the false Florimell is, after all, described as a ‘Creatresse’ (III.viii.10). My use of the terms ‘automaton’ and its synonyms indicates that the false Florimell is ‘a machine which resembles and is able to simulate the actions of a human being’.[11] Maik Goth likewise argues that Spenser portrays her as a ‘robot’ in making the false Florimell’s eyes ‘stirre and roll’, terms that were frequently used to describe the mechanisms of early modern automata (III.viii.7).[12] In this light, the spirit that controls the false Florimell is analogous to the person animating the automaton through hidden mechanisms. The ‘false spright’ is ‘expert’ in the ‘subtile slight[s]’ of women, duping even the ‘wisest earthly wight’ (IV.ii.10).

The Florimells not only look and act identically, they also follow similar narrative trajectories.[13] Florimell continually runs from various assailants and potentially good knights. She flees from the Foster, from Arthur, and from the witch’s son. After being trapped on a small boat with a rapacious fisherman, she is kidnapped by the sea god Proteus, who imprisons her in his dungeon because she will not succumb to his sexual desires. The false Florimell is similarly used by men, who regard her as property to be taken by knightly conquest. She is abducted or won by no less than eight men (and one woman in disguise). Both characters seem to be passive tokens, the ownership of which is governed by homosocial rivalries or outright violence. Florimell has little control over her situation, being able to only flee or internally resist in the face of male violence. The automaton, by contrast, manipulates the men around her. She is hardly the sex object that one would expect.

While she rarely chooses the person with whom she is paired, the false Florimell nonetheless controls her interactions with her many lascivious suitors. The witch creates the replicant in order to cure her son of his lovesickness. But rather than fulfilling his sexual desire, the false Florimell ‘coyly rebutted his embracement light’ (III.viii.10). She holds him in ‘vaine delight’ by stoking his passion while denying him satisfaction (III.viii.10). This kind of manipulation is subsequently seen with each knight by whom the automaton is taken. When Braggadochio woos her with lewd and loving speeches, the false Florimell keeps him at arm’s length. She pretends to be uninterested in his advances, giving him ‘but light regard’ and ‘seeming sory’ that she came into his hands (III.viii.14). The knights even seem to enjoy the manipulation, as she excites them but never gratifies them. This dual action of enticement and rejection puts Blandamour (the preeminent seducer, having ‘a thousand women of their loue beraft’) into ‘a foolish trance’ (VI.ii.9). The male lover has no power either over himself or the object of his gaze. We might expect the false Florimell to be a piece of property, which brings sexual gratification to the men who possess her, but the automaton plays with the knights’ emotions and desires, controlling them instead.

The false Florimell is eventually given the opportunity to choose her mate, an action that accentuates her relative autonomy. The knights have been fighting over who has the right to the seeming Florimell, but the violence never settles the question of ownership. The tournament is suggestive of a state of nature, as the men reject both ‘Iudges powre’ and ‘reasons rule’, only accounting physical possession to be the grounds of dominion (IV.v.24). Stuck in a stalemate, the knights agree to allow the false Florimell to select which of them will be her mate. Satyrane proposes that they

First in the midst to set that fayrest Dame,
To whom each one his chalenge should disclame,    
And he himselfe his right would eke releasse:
Then looke to whom she voluntarie came,
He should without disturbance her posesse
(IV.v.25)

The men relinquish any claims of dominion in order to reestablish ownership of the false Florimell. This passage marks a transition from a state of war based in conquest to a political system founded on free consent. They decide that ‘Florimell’ will voluntarily choose with whom she will partner. Perhaps more explicitly than any other part of the episode, this passage engages the terms of political philosophy, heavy-handedly reminding us that these recurring narratives about sexual pursuit are theorizing the foundation of political bodies. 

This consent-based political paradigm invokes the language of just rule. Having been given the chance to choose her mate, the false Florimell ‘long had lookt vpon each one’, evaluating each of the knights in turn (IV.v.26). She eventually selects a knight as superficial as herself: ‘At last to Braggadochio selfe alone / She came of her accord’ (IV.v.26). The character’s consent, her ‘accord’, figures a legal and political bond. ‘Accord’ suggests that this choice is an agreement, but also that the action is of the character’s own volition. The choice is ‘voluntarie’ in Satyrane’s words. Consent derives its importance from the autonomy of the political subject. That the false Florimell is given the choice of sexual partner emphasizes her agency. She freely selects Braggadochio, whereas she previously had control only over the interactions with the knight who held her.[14]

The language of the passage employs the terminology of political philosophy to activate this discourse. Thomas Smith, for instance, defines a political body in terms of consent: ‘A common wealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenauntes among themselves, for the conservation of themselves’.[15] Humans are unbounded or ‘free’ and come together ‘by common accord’, or mutual consent. This action is the grounds of political life.[16] Without the ability to consent, there is no commonwealth for Smith. He argues that an individual with ten thousand slaves is not a political body because the bondsmen have no agency over the relationship.[17] Nonhuman objects likewise have no say in the matter: ‘what reason hath the pot to say to the potter, why madest thou me thus? or why dost thou break me after thou hast made me’.[18] The ability to consent (whether legal in the case of the slave or ontological in the case of the pot) is the defining characteristic of political life. That sexual consent is extended to the false Florimell temptingly suggests that the political subject need not be a natural person. After all, the false Florimell’s choice is preceded by the common consent of all the knights to leave a state of nature and enter into the legal solution proposed by Satyrane. He devises this solution in order ‘to accord them all’ (IV.v.25). The knights enter into a covenant that gives legal personhood to the false Florimell, thereby allowing the replicant to participate in civil life.

The automaton, of course, is ironically afforded an active role in her sexual life that is denied to her human counterpart.[19] What does it mean that the nonhuman enters into contracts the likes of which the real Florimell is deprived? How does this narrative quirk complicate our sense of the human as a political agent? It is tempting to see a parliament of things in this assemblage of human and nonhuman agents. But I think that this reading would fit poorly with Spenser’s treatment of the automaton. Counter to the tantalizing possibility of the nonhuman subject, the false Florimell is unable to forge erotic bonds. She is the fabricated image of the real character, a negative exemplum that sharpens The Faerie Queene’s account of the human subject. Her sex life is contrasted with the unfailing fidelity of her human double. Her dissolution in Book Five, moreover, illustrates her inefficacy. I want to suggest that this episode theorizes human politics through the reverse image of the nonhuman. The automaton represents a false ideal of human political freedom.

The false Florimell revises free consent as the grounds of personhood and political community. Her ability to select a lover makes her no more human. She is the freedom of choice, unsubstantiated by desire. Her consent is empty, rather than an expression of internal feeling. It is a meaningless agreement that is unable to maintain itself.[20] Her apparent autonomy is not driven by natural affections. Spenser uses an android to make this argument because, as Jonathan Sawday has demonstrated, early modern thinkers understood automatons to be fantasies of autonomy.[21] They represent a degree of agency that is inaccessible to humans, who are creatures largely driven by affect. Without the natural inclinations that induce human beings to form political society, automatons can consent to a relationship without anything to substantiate the agreement. When the false Florimell consents to Braggadochio’s desire, she creates a bond that is not part of her being. This episode suggests that agency is not itself the measure of the political subject.

Florimell, by contrast, is defined by her unflagging pursuit of Marinell. She flees from any man who approaches her and withholds her consent even when imprisoned. Her love for Marinell is defined less by agency and more by desire. Spenser puts the emphasis not on autonomy, but on one’s physiological state. Florimell’s apostrophe at the end of Book Four accentuates this feeling. She asks the gods to bring her love to join her in Proteus’s prison. The resistant Marinell should be ‘compell[ed]’ ‘by duress’ to come to this dungeon (III.xii.10). To be imprisoned with her lover would be preferable to freedom alone: ‘So had I rather to be thrall, then free; / Such thraldome or such freedome let it surely be’ (III.xii.10). Florimell would have Marinell brought to this cell against his will, an act that seems to replay Proteus’s abduction of Florimell. This imagined mutual thralldom (both emotional and physical) is preferable to any actual freedom. The alexandrine, moreover, implies that to be bound in this manner is itself a sort of freedom. Steven Swarbrick reads this scene in terms of ‘relinquishment of autonomy and self-determination’ in a recognition of ‘shared vulnerability’.[22] Swarbrick’s consideration of the materiality of human bonds illustrates that choice and agency are not the abiding grounds of friendship. Florimell’s desire, however, could hardly be described as wayward. She single-mindedly pursues her love. The false Florimell, by contrast, is devoid of such inclinations. She is choice in and of itself, choice that is unmoved by the ‘kindly flame’ of ‘naturall affection’ (IV.Proem.2).

If Spenserians have demonstrated that sexual consent figures political consent to a monarch, then the false Florimell presents the striking argument that consent does not define the human political subject. Whereas other scholars have been interested in the degree to which internal and external forces impinge on an individual’s political agency, this episode suggests that the continuum between free consent and violent coercion potentially misrepresents how and why humans enter into civic bonds. The ideal of the autonomous political subject is a fiction of disembodied agency, only realized in the unencumbered choices of the automaton. The false Florimell allegorically figures the voluntarist fantasy of truly free consent, but her artificial nature points to the impossibility of the ideal. This episode, however, does not reject human volition outright, nor does it undermine the importance of sexual consent. Rather, the false Florimell interrogates the metaphor of sexual bonds as figuring political life. Although consent might be an apt hermeneutic for sex, it fails to represent how humans participate in the polis. The metaphor of political consent is a fiction that misconstrues human agency within political bodies. The false Florimell suggests that we must think outside of consent to understand human participation in civil life.

Jeffrey B. Griswold

University of Maryland

 



[1]I am very grateful to Jane Grogan, Andrew Hadfield, Richard Danson Brown, Amanda Bailey, Gerard Passannante, Kimberly Coles, Scott Trudell, Joseph Campana, Benjamin Bertram, and Jeffrey Theis for their generous and thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.

[1] See Elizabeth Fowler, Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 179–244; Elizabeth Fowler, ‘The Failure of Moral Philosophy in the Work of Edmund Spenser’,  Representations 51 (1995): 47–76; Melissa E. Sanchez, Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 57–85; Andrew Zurcher, Spenser’s Legal Language: Law and Poetry in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2007), 89–122; Jeffrey B. Griswold, ‘Allegorical Consent: The Faerie Queene and the Politics of Erotic Subjection’, Spenser Studies 29 (2014): 219–37. For a seminal account of the politics of sexual consent in the seventeenth century, see Victoria Ann Kahn, Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). See also Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 122–47.

[2] Fowler, Literary Character, 205. On the multivalent and recursive nature of Spenserian allegory, see Carol V. Kaske, Spenser and Biblical Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of the Faerie Queene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 1–16; Gordon Teskey, ‘Thinking Moments in The Faerie Queene’, Spenser Studies 22 (2007): 103–25.

[3] Sanchez, Erotic Subjects, 68.

[4] Zurcher, Spenser’s Legal Language, 105.

[5] Richard Hooker, The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, ed. W. Speed Hill (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 1.1.7.

[6] See Fowler, Literary Character, 193–214. Zurcher, Spenser’s Legal Language, 102–15. Fowler argues that Florimell’s imprisonment in Proteus’s dungeon mirrors the wedding of the rivers Thames and Medway, thereby establishing sexual consent as the foundational metaphor of the polis. Cymodoce’s legal solution points to the network of social relations required for political systems to function justly. Zurcher contends that the episode interrogates political and social consent, presenting the necessity of magnanimity in contract.

[7] See, for instance, Sean Kane, ‘Spenserian Ecology’, ELH 50.3 (1983): 461–83; Patrick Cheney, ‘“And Doubted Her to Deeme an Earthly Wight”: Male Neoplatonic “Magic” and the Problem of Female Identity in Spenser’s Allegory of the Two Florimells’, Studies in Philology 86.3 (1989): 310–40; Mihoko Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 173–79; Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of the Faerie Queene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 99–116; Linda Gregerson, The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 133–43; Rufus Wood, Metaphor and Belief in The Faerie Queene (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 110–26; Jane Grogan, Exemplary Spenser: Visual and Poetic Pedagogy in The Faerie Queene (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009), 126–36; Kenneth Borris, ‘Platonism and Spenser’s Poetic: Idealized Imitation, Merlin’s Mirror, and the Florimells’, Spenser Studies 24 (2009): 209–68; Robert W. Tate, ‘Haunted by Beautified Beauty: Tracking the Images of Spenser’s Florimell(S)’, Spenser Studies 29 (2014): 197–218. Kane argues that the false Florimell is ‘a projection of infantile narcissism’, reflecting each subsequent partner (331). Cheney contends that male interaction with the two Florimells allegorizes the dehumanizing thinking of Neoplatonism. He reads the false Florimell as the false beauty that the Neoplatonic male creates to console himself during rejection. Suzuki argues that the false Florimell is the ‘logical conclusion’ to ‘the predominant male attitude toward Florimell as an object’ (176). Silberman calls the false Florimell ‘an unalloyed figment of the imagination’ and ‘a placeholder in a structure of male homosocial rivalry’ (109). Gregerson contextualizes the false Florimell within Petrarchan discourse to claim that she is the apotheosis of male idolatry. Rather than being an ‘independent agent’, she is a ‘distillation of false desire’ (139). Wood reads the false Florimell as a ‘false metaphor’ or ‘dead metaphor’. The Petrarchan vehicles have ceased to represent their human tenor as they become highly conventionalized. Grogan argues that the false Florimell acts as a ‘structure of knowing’ through which to understand her double, ‘the Petrarchan mistress’ (131). Through the false Florimell, Spenser critiques Petrarchanism as an idolatrous way of imagining social relations. Borris argues for an epistemological reading of the Florimells within a Platonic framework. The two represent true and apparent beauty, and the knights’ reactions to them demonstrate ‘the esthetic and epistemological poverties of the mind’ (250). Using Wittgenstein to frame his argument, Tate reads the false Florimell as a social construct that men foist upon women, albeit unconsciously.

[8] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (New York: Longman, 2001), III.vii.7. All references to the poem will be from this edition.

[9] Judith Anderson cites the false Florimell as an example of allegory’s deadening effect, a critical conversation emanating from Benjamin’s writing about trauerspeil. Judith H. Anderson, Translating Investments: Metaphor and the Dynamic of Cultural Change in Tudor-Stuart England (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 120.

[10] For the false Florimell as an alternative version of poetic and material creation, see Debapriya Sarkar, ‘Dilated Materiality and Formal Restraint in The Faerie Queene’, Spenser Studies 31/32 (2018): 137–66. For Sarkar, the false Florimell represents a corrupt image of Nature’s ‘slow process of formal perfection’ (154). For the false Florimell as a man-made artifact that provokes wonder, see Michael West, ‘Wonder, Artifacts, and the Human in The Faerie Queene’, Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 369–91.

[11] Oxford English Dictionary. s. v. ‘automaton’.

[12] Maik Goth, Monsters and the Poetic Imagination in The Faerie Queene: ‘Most Ugly Shapes, and Horrible Aspects’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 181–87.

[13] The Florimell and false Florimell plots are adapted from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Susannah McMurphy argues that Angelica’s narrative is divided among the three characters of the Florimells and Belphoebe, each representing a facet of Angelica’s character. Susannah Jane McMurphy, Spenser’s Use of Ariosto for Allegory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1924), 36–42.

[14] Unlike the formel eagle in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, however, the false Florimell must choose one of the knights. Self-sovereignty is not an option.

[15] Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum, ed. Mary Dewar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 57.

[16] Cf. Aristotle, Aristotles Politiques, or Discourses of Gouernment, 1598, 2. In the English translation of Louis Le Roy’s French edition of the Politics, consent is the grounds on which all civil life is built. Leroy glosses Aristotle’s claim that “every companie is ordained for some good’, by defining ‘good’ in terms of consent: ‘A companie, societie, or fellowship, is a knitting of many persons togither in consent tending to some good or to some euill, carrying an outward shew or resemblance of good’.

[17] Smith, De Republica Anglorum, 57.

[18] Smith, 57.

[19] This difference between the Florimells has generally been overlooked. James Nohrnberg suggests that ‘there is the feeling that the fantasy Florimell can do what the true one cannot’. James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 573.

[20] The failure of consent is further emphasized by the knights’ reactions to the false Florimell’s selection of mate. When she chooses Braggadochio, they immediate forget their previous agreement and consider how to take the automaton by force (IV.v.27).

[21] Jonathan Sawday, ‘“Forms Such as Never Were in Nature”: The Renaissance Cyborg,” in At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies, and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period, ed. Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert, and Susan Wiseman (London: Palgrave, 1999), 171–95.

[22] Steven Swarbrick, “The Life Aquatic: Liquid Poetics and the Discourse of Friendship in The Faerie Queene,” Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 249. Contra my argument, Swarbrick contends that the poem revises human exceptionalist thought by depicting the shared corporeality of humans and nonhumans. Bodies are humorally porous and human experience is mutually constituted through our shared life with everything else. See also, Joseph Campana, The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). Campana argues that the first three books of the poem ground the subject in the vulnerability of the human body. Shared receptivity to pain constitutes the ethical basis of affective community.

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49.1.2

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Jeffrey B. Griswold, "The False Florimell and Nonhuman Consent," Spenser Review 49.1.2 (Winter 2019). Accessed February 19th, 2019.
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