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“Swords, ropes, poison, fire”: The Dark Materials of Spenser’s Objectification of Despair-Assisted Suicide, with Notes on Skelton and Shakespeare

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image of Explorations in Renaissance Culture

In the Despair episode in Spenser’s Faerie Queene I.ix, the provocative material means for self-slaughter are emblematically doubled with the psychological inducements, particularly on the models of predecessor texts in Skelton’s Magnyfycence and the Cordela story in The Mirrour for Magistrates. The pairing of means and causes is part of a tradition. So also is the despair of a Christian believer over his own sinfulness, in the face of God’s law, as voiced by a conspiratorial evil conscience, leading to a sinful “unbelief and despair of God” (Luther) and likewise unbelief in salvation—and to an unconquerable self-accusation, which doubles the sinner with tormentors, or a diabolic Accuser, and tempts him or her to cut his/her losses, relieve his/her pain, sorrows, and world-weariness, and take his/her life. Other suicidal types in The Faerie Queene and elsewhere, who are not theologically confirmed in their wanhope or assisted by it to their end, such as Phedon or Malbecco, can nonetheless illuminate the projections, temptations, demons, and motions of the Christian despair-er, and his or her adversity, depression, distress, impatience, furor, world-weariness, melancholia, and driven-ness. The despair-er’s condition, as found in Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death, can be further illustrated, diagnosed, and ministered to, by means of a variety of early modern and medieval moralizing and homiletic texts. And while the death of Shakespeare’s Cordelia by hanging conforms to Spenser’s account ( FQ II.x.32), her suicidal despair is only a slander bruited by the character Edmund. Rather, it is her would-be rescuer Lear who is the picture of misery and despair.

Affiliations: 1: University of Virginia,


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