Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #303 Stephens 1994 Into Other Arms: Amoret’s Evasion

Full citation: 

Stephens, Dorothy. 1994. “Into Other Arms: Amoret’s Evasion”” in Queering the Renaissance ed. by Jonathan Goldberg. Duke University Press, Durham and London. ISBN 0-8223-1381-2

Publication summary: 

This collection of articles takes a broad view of “queering”. The articles look at the ways in whch “humanism” failed to recognize the humanity of many popuations, specifically those who were not straight white men. The research here encourages examination of the relationship of race, gender, and sexuality to notions of colonialism and imperial expansion.

Stephens "Into Other Arms: Amoret’s Evasion "

* * *

This article examines several passages in Spencer’s Faerie Queene that suggest female homoerotic encounters, either in the context of homosocial affection or primed by gender disguise. Amoret, our damsel in distress, finds herself in the allegorical “Cave of Lust” and encounters another woman bewailing her similar fate there. “Lust” should not be taken as benign pleasure here, but more aligned with sexual assault. The two women exchange stories and bond over their harrowing escapes from lustful pursuit.

This episode occurs at an interesting shifting point in the narrative. The original, shorter version of the tale has ended slightly previous to this point with Amoret reunited with her (male) lover Scudamore. But in the expanded version of the work, that reunion is sidestepped as Amoret wanders off from her rescuer (the female knight Britomart) and falls into this peril while Scudamore has his own adventures elsewhere.

In the shorter version, the reunion of Amoret and Scudamore is depicted in terms of the classical hermaphrodite: the reunion of two halves into their original whole and single being. There is a discussion of how Plato’s hermaphrodite allegory represents an equal and reciprocal love, in contrast to the hierarchical relations that Greek men participated in (regardless of the gender of their partner). Reciprocal love as a concept is associated in Plato with women, and the concept is attributed to Diotima, Socrates’ teacher. But how much can we rely on male depictions of female romantic/erotic experience? Compare Plato’s allegory with Renaissance images of the perfect Petrarchian woman who serves as an inspiring muse but whose intellectual and philosophical authority has been projected on her by men who do not recognize women as having an existence apart from that relationship with the men they inspire.

We return to considering Amoret, who has previously been brainwashed by her captor into doubting the validity of her own desire--into seeing desire as something that is done to her, not something she experiences.

This article examines the narrative changes and reframing that were necessary when Spencer expanded the poem. The knight Britomart has still been sent by Scudamore to rescue Amoret, but now some ruse must be found to allow for continued adventures before the eventual reunion.

Britomart is taken for a man, due to the disguise of armor, when she challenges and defeats Amoret’s abductor. Both women are changed by this rescue as they travel on together. Amoret and Britomart’s compaionship gives Amoret more agency to have adventures, rather than being a hapless victim of every encounter. And Britomart is shifted from a repressed, sexless state to a desiring character who will have her own romantic adventures.

When Britomart rescues Amoret, Amoret--believing her rescuer to be a man--finds herself torn between the faithfulness she owes her original lover, Scudamore, and an eroticized gratitude she owes Britomart. Britomart doesn’t reveal her sex to Amoret, thinking to better protect them both, but this allows the imperatives of the chivalric script--in which a woman is required to love and reward a virtuous rescuer--to work on Amoret’s feelings about the knight.

Britomart teasingly courts her, supposedly to reinforce her disguise, but as Britomart’s flirtation is greater than any similar behavior she engages in with her own nominal (male) suitor, could it be that she retains her disguise rather for the very purpose of this flirtation?

When the two reach a castle that can be considered a safe space, Britomart removes her helmet (thus, by the rules of the genre, unmasking her sex). Amoret is then freed to show her affection for the knight. They share a bed that night and exchange histories in an intimate scene. While the content of their tête-a-tête is heterosexual, the situation in which it occurs is not. In fact, this is the only “happy” bedfellows scene in the entire poem.

The idyll is brief, and more hazardous adventures ensue, but theirs is one of the few supportive female friendships in the work. (Most relationships between women are uneasy at best, while men are allowed true friendship.) Britomart is at once friend and knightly protector, a combination not possible for a man.

The “true love” between Britomart and Amoret continues to be emphasized even when they are  being paired off with men, and Britomart’s gender is foregrounded as calming Scudamore’s jealousy when he thinks the “strange knight” protecting Amoret may have become her lover. This revelation and partial reunion brings us back full circle to where the article began. Amoret rises from sleeping with Britomart and wanders off, finding herself lost in the Cave of Lust, where she establishes yet another supportive female bond based on shared histories and struggles.

Within the context of an otherwise overwhelmingly heterosexual plot, these disruptions of gender roles offer a different angle on the “natural” reactions of female characters to a sexualized peril based on their vulnerability to male power.

Time period: 

Add new comment