In Book I of The Faerie Queene, the wicked Duessa is compared to a male Crocodile as she shows outward grief over Redcrosse Knight’s wounds:
As when a wearie traueiler that strayes
By muddy shore of broad seuen-mouthed Nile,
Vnweeting of the perilous wandring wayes,
Doth meete a cruell craftie Crocodile,
Which in false griefe hyding his harmefull guile,
Doth weepe full sore, and sheddeth tender teares. (I.v.18, lines 1-6)
Duessa’s excess of tears reflects the Renaissance idea that women are leaky vessels, which propagated the patriarchal notion that women are the weaker sex. Gail Kern Paster recognises women’s inferiority by arguing that ‘the female body’s material expressiveness – its production of fluids’ is deemed ‘excessive, [and] hence either disturbing or shameful’ (Paster 25). Duessa’s tears, emphasised by the comparison to a Crocodile’s, symbolises what Paster identifies as early modern misogyny.
The woman’s visible ‘production of fluids’ that indicates a ‘shameful’ sexuality represents the early modern period’s mistrust of women that is translated into phallic control. The Renaissance lady should be silent, chaste and confined to the home. In 1591, Henry Smith hyperbolically links a woman’s openmouth to the body’s other apertures: ‘As the open vessels were counted vncleane; so account that the open mouth hath much vncleannes’ (Smith 40). According to Smith, what emanates from the woman’s open mouth is harmful to the patriarchal ear. Karen Newman interprets Smith’s statement to signify that ‘[a]n open mouth and immodest speech are tantamount to open genitals and immodest acts’ (Newman 11). The woman’s immorality is betrayed by her body’s synecdochic apertures that, although hidden, are always open and producing harmful substances.
The conflation of garrulousness and promiscuity is demonstrated by Duessa’s seductive tears in that a woman who is not chaste, silent and obedient is subject to ‘patriarchal punishment – perpetual leaking’ (Paster 47). A woman who is ‘open’ because of her leaking is likely to trick and manipulate men, which constitutes their masochistic phantasy. Yet Duessa’s ‘false grief’ does not construct her as the patriarchal fantasy of being the leaky vessel that needs containing, but as a more substantial threat to Redcrosse by being constructed as the monstrous ‘other’ or Crocodile. The Crocodile displays ‘false griefe’ before devouring his victim, which metaphorically describes the peril Redcrosse Knight is in by trusting Duessa.
Newman, Karen. Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama. London & Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early modern England. Ithaca & New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Smith, Henry. A preparatiue to marriage. London: Thomas Orwin, 1591.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. 1590 & 1596. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.