Queen Elizabeth I named her favourites after animals – the Earl of Leicester is her sweet Robin, Sir Christopher Hatton her mouton or sheep and Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford her boar (Taylor 42). She recalls the beast fables of the Medieval tradition in which animals personify human traits. For instance, the French, German and Dutch medieval poetry focus on Renard the Fox who personifies ‘human skill, intelligence, and ruthless greed’ (Oram 329). Elizabeth’s fondness for pet names is also ripe for satire.
One possible satirical attack on Queen Elizabeth’s likeness for nicknames is found in Edmund Spenser’s poetry collection Complaints (1591), which contains a long poem called Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale . The poem is believed to have been withdrawn from circulation in manuscript form as early as 1580. In the satire the Fox as a courtier is interpreted as representing Lord William Cecil Burghley, and the Ape is believed to refer to the Duke of Alençon’s envoy Jean Simier who in 1579 negotiated the prospect of marriage between the Duke and the Queen. William Oram notes that Elizabeth gave Simier ‘the pet name of “my monkey”’ (Oram 329). The Ape could even be a monstrous Simier/Alençon hybrid (329). Yet I propose in this short study that Spenser’s use of animals does not allude to specific people. Instead, he uses figurative language to challenge the concept of personification or prosopopoia as being a suitable vehicle for representing human traits that may refer to a particular person(s).
The framing narrative of Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale immediately warns the readeragainst finding a double meaning in the poem. It starts with the narrator lamenting how the world has been plunged into ‘plague, pestilence, and death’ (8). The survivors are infected with ‘a wicked maladie’ that has deprived them ‘of sense and ordinarie reason’ (9 & 11). His friends attempt to cheer him with romance stories, but it is Mother Hubberd’s tale about ‘the Foxe and th’Ape’ (38) set in an equally fallen world that eases his ‘heavie and diseased’ (40) spirit . What is immediately striking is that Mother Hubberd is a matriarchal figure in which her beast fable is seen as being cathartic in itself, a harmless diversion from the narrator’s anxieties, rather than trying to derive its entertainment by alluding to a world full of misery.
Mother Hubberd begins her tale by hinting at the inadequacy of personification when the Fox and Ape decide ‘to seeke/Their fortunes farre abroad'(47-8). Like the narrator who has introduced the tale, the Fox and Ape both dislike their present ‘evill/And hard estate’ (46-7) or lot in life. However, they have insufficient figurative substance to create a meaningful allegorical identity. They are simply described as travelling ‘lyeke with his lyeke’ (48) to mirror each other as ‘craftie and unhappie witted’ (49) beasts. The Ape, though, has more potential as a human caricature. In their first adventure ‘farre abroad’, he is able to pass as a soldier because of his ‘manly semblance, and small skill in warre’ (200). The Fox, on the other hand, will ‘my selfe fit for the same…fashion’ (202) only if circumstances prevail presumably because he looks less convincing.
However, the poem begins to openly question prosopopoia as a literary device when the Fox and the Ape stumble upon the following discovery:
Whilst through the forest rechlesse they did goe,
Lo where they spide, how in a gloomy glade,
The Lyon sleeping lay in secret shade,
His Crowne and Scepter lying him beside,
And having doft for heate his dreadfull hide:
Which when they sawe, the Ape was sore afrayde,
And would have fled with terror all dismayde.
But him the Foxe with hardy words did stay,
And bad him put all cowardize away:
For now was time (if ever they would hope)
To ayme their counsels to the fairest scope,
And them for ever highly to advaunce,
In case the good which their owne happie chaunce
Them freely offred, they would wisely take. (950-963)
The first impression of the above passage is the Ape’s sheer terror. He recognises the Lion’s authority as the king of the jungle, and his fearful power. What is more interesting is the Fox’s reaction. He only sees the ‘Crowne and Scepter’ or the tools that symbolise the Lion’s power. The idea that power is conveyed by symbols rather than the Lion himself reveals the poem’s underlying concern about prosopopoia. In other words, the human traits that a particular animal personifies, the beast itself and the person that they are supposed to represent are not read as a fluid whole, but are subject to a hierarchy of meaning. This leads to misinterpretation.
Misinterpreting allegory or reading into a double meaning when there is none is a particular concern for Spenser. It is important to understand that Spenser is writing in an age where a poet or playwright could have their hand severed from their wrist or worse for literary endeavours Queen Elizabeth considered libellous. In his ‘Letter to Sir Walter Ralegh’ appending the 1590 publication of The Faerie Queene, Spenser calls allegory ‘a darke conceit’ (Spenser 714). The adjective ‘darke’ hints at the unpalatable nature of allegory, and its ability to reveal an awkard truth. With reference to the letter, Christopher Burlinson argues:
What Spenser actually seems to be stressing in the letter is the separation of image and idea, a relation in which the images are rendered extraneous, and even on occasions superfluous, not an intrinsic part of an allegory that is moved beyond, or transcended in the movement towards meaning. (Burlinson 12)
Burlinson identifies a gap between the ‘image and idea’ of a Spenserian allegory. He states that for Spenser images are entertaining diversions, while allegory deals with more important matters. In an interesting addition, Burlinson also argues that ‘Allegory is always trying to bring together idea and object, to make them one, but they frequently fall apart’ (Burlinson 14). While ‘idea and object’ can be brought together by the reader in ways the poet did not intend to create a ‘darke conceit’, Burlinson’s statement on allegory is applicable to Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale. Upon discovery, the Lion as a representation of a king is found separated from his objects of the power – the crown and sceptre. By stealing these objects, the Ape becomes king of the jungle. Yet it is not long before ‘idea and object’ fall apart once more. The Roman God Jove ‘in whose almightie hand/The care of Kings, and power of Empires stand’ (1225-6) sends Mercury to wake the Lion and reclaim his Kingdom. The manner of punishment the Lion gives the pair of scoundrels challenges again the concept of prosopopoia, but with an intriguing parallel:
Then all the beasts he causd’ assembled bee
To heare their doome, and sad ensample see:
The Foxe, first Author of that treacherie,
He did uncase, and then away let flie.
But th’Apes long taile (which then he had) he quight
Cut off, and both eares pared of their hight;
Since which, all Apes but halfe their eares have left,
And of their tailes are utterlie bereft. (1377-1384)
While the loss of crown and sceptre strips the Ape of his royal authority, the loss of his long tail and ears seemingly brings him closer to the human(s) he supposedly impersonates. However, as Oram notes, the Ape’s punishment is only superficial (Oram 332). In fact, Spenser implies that humans a more bestial than the beasts themselves. In Book II of The Faerie Queene, Acrasia’s Circe-like transformation of men into beasts poses such a dilemma. Having destroyed Acrasia’s alluring Bower of Bliss, the Palmer (assistant to Guyon, the hero knight of Book II) sets about undoing Acrasia’s magic by turning the beasts back into men. He then comes across Grille, a man who had been transformed into hog, complaining that ‘from hoggish forme him brought to naturall'(II.vii.86.9). The complaint triggers Guyon into making a generalisation about ‘the mind of beastly man'(II.vii.87.1). He concludes by saying, ‘Let Gryll be Gryll, and haue his hoggish minde'(II.vii.87.8). The idea behind transforming men into beasts is one where the transformation implies finishing a process that has already begun in men’s minds. This reasoning does not become apparent until the beasts are returned to human form, so that their manly bodies now feel unnatural.
In the context of Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale, Spenser appears to state the obvious in that the idea of an ape being Simier is ridiculous. Yet what lies behind the obvious is a crucial understanding of Queen Elizabeth’s penchant for pet names. The Ape has to be first transformed into Simier then back again for the prosopopoia in Spenser’s poem to work. By giving favoured courtiers bestial epithets, the queen is creating an alternate Elizabethan court populated by animals. In order for ‘my monkey’ to be transformed back into Simier/Alençon, he has to earn the queen’s trust as her true subject rather than be a beast whose sole aim is to masquerade as England’s king.
Burlinson, Christopher. Allegory, Space and the Material World in the Writings of Edmund Spenser. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006.
Oram, William. “Introduction”. Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale, by Edmund Spenser. 1591. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Eds. William A. Oram et al. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989.
Spenser, Edmund. Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale. Complaints. 1591. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Eds. William A. Oram et al. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989.
—. The Faerie Queene. 1590. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.
—. ‘Letter to Ralegh’. 1590. The Faerie Queene. 1590. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.
Taylor, Marion A. Bottom, Thou Art Translated. Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Related Literature.Amsterdam: Rodopi NV, 1973.