Regardless of whether the goat is identified with Queen Elizabeth or George Buchanan, the claim that the fable of the fox and the kid in the May eclogue of the The Shepheardes Calendar is an allegory of specific events at the Scottish court is not particularly convincing. A generalized reading of the fable as an anti-Catholic allegory seems more credible.
E.K.'s Gloss of the Fable as a Warning Against Catholics
The Shepheardes Calendar was published in December 1579. It included a prefatory epistle by one E.K., who has not yet been conclusively identified. The epistle is addressed to Spenser's friend and fellow-poet Gabriel Harvey. E.K. also provided explanatory notes to the poem. In the May eclogue, a goat has had to leave her kid alone at home. Disregarding her advice, the kid opens the door to a sweet-talking fox, with predictable results. E.K. explains the moral of the story as follows:
By the Kidde may be vnderstoode the simple sorte of the faythfull and true Christians. By hys dame Christe, that hath alreadie with carefull watchewords (as heere doth the gote) warned his little ones, to beware of such doubling deceit. By the Foxe, the false and faithlesse Papistes, to whom is no credit to be giuen, nor felowshippe to be vsed. (Maye)
Thomas Cain points out that E.K.'s notes are not always reliable:
These should aim to assist the reader, but often seem to confuse, mislead, or misinform. Some arguments ... take up sides in debates which he poems themselves are at pains to keep unresolved, while others summarize with fair accuracy. (p. 6)
Even keeping Cain's statement in mind, though, this fable does lend itself to being read as a warning against Catholic influence. Mary Parmenter's and Paul E. McLane's readings tie this danger of Catholic influence to the specific situation of James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots and heir presumptive to the English throne after Elizabeth.
The Situation in Scotland—and England
A synoptic view of that situation might be helpful. James was baptized Catholic, but raised Protestant. His tutor, George Buchanan, was himself a convert from Catholicism to Calvinism, and took great pains to inculcate in James the outlook and virtues appropriate to a Protestant monarch. In September 1579, shortly after James assumed full powers as king of Scotland, his father's first cousin Esmé Stuart, Duke of Aubigny, paid him a visit. James fell under the spell of the handsome and charismatic Aubigny. As Michael Young has argued, the evidence is strong that the 37 year old duke and the 13 year old king were lovers.
Aubigny's influence over James alarmed the Scottish as well as English courts. Aubigny's Catholicism stoked fears that James might forgo his Protestant upbringing. His being French also raised the possibility that Scotland would fall under that nation's influence. Adding fuel to the fire, Elizabeth herself was at this same time seriously considering marrying another French Catholic, François, Duc d'Alençon, the younger brother of King Henry III. The idea that both England and Scotland would come under the ascendancy of France and Rome was anathema not just to those with political influence, but also to the people at large.
Mary Parmenter: The Goat is Elizabeth
Parmenter connects the May eclogue to the situation at the Scottish court only in passing, in an article that otherwise focuses on how individual eclogues fit into the overall structure of the Calendar:
The boy king of Scotland who, in March, 1578, had emerged from the dour tutelage of Buchanan to assume full powers at the age of twelve, had just fallen an easy victim to a Papist "Fox"-his French cousin, Esme Stuart, Duc D'Aubigny, who completely captivated him before the eyes of the indignant "English" or Protestant party in Edinburgh, in the autumn of 1579. It is tempting to see young James as the "Kiddie" whose "wrethed hornes gan newly sprout," and who was so entranced with the novel joys of the peddler's pack that he let himself get "popt in." The Queen herself, or her policy of careful "Motherliness" so constantly maintained throughout the 1570's, is the woeful "Gate"; anyone familiar with the records can see how pertinent and how irrestibly [sic] amusing the whole application is. But it is one which would take too much space to work out here. (p. 205)
Elizabeth was James's godmother, and took what pains she could to ensure his political security and spiritual well-being. However, as monarch of England, her influence over Scottish politics was limited. As such, Parmenter's identification of the queen as the goat who has to leave her kid untended, with the consequence that the kid falls prey to the fox's blandishments, seems to fit. Parmenter, however, does not work out the allegory in any detail.
Paul McLane: The Goat is Buchanan
Paul McLane largely accepts and greatly expands Parmenter's reading, but identifies James's tutor Buchanan rather than Elizabeth as the goat. He points to Buchanan's close connection with the Sidney-Leicester circle of which Spenser was also a member. He also notes that Buchanan's major treatise on government, De Jure Regni apud Scotus (The Law of Kingship among the Scots) was published in Edinburgh in January 1579, and a London edition was being prepared later in the year. McLane argues that the goat's enforced absence from home, resulting in the kid's being alone
might be a cryptic reference to Buchanan's temporary relinquishing of his duties as tutor in 1579 in order to see the De Jure Regni through the press. (p. 89)
McLane buttresses this reading of the allegory with additional points of connection. For example:
- In one line, Spenser uses the Scottish gate for goat, alerting the reader that he is referring to Scotland (l. 177)
- The fox claims to be a relative of the kid; Aubigny was James's first cousin once removed (l. 269)
- Commenting on the kid's fatherlessness, the goat calls him an "orphane" (l. 191), which E.K. glosses as "A youngling or pupill, that needeth a Tutour and gouernour." This is a reference to Buchanan as James's tutor.
While McLane's argument is interesting, one major flaw makes it less than completely convincing. The same flaw applies to Parmenter's reading as well. Aubigny arrived in Scotland in September, and alarms about his hold over James began circulating in October. E.K.'s prefatory letter is dated April, and The Shepheardes Calendar was published in December. This timeline does not seem to permit a reference to the events in the Scottish court.
McLane argues that Spenser would have known about those events because Buchanan would have sent letters about them to the Leicester-Sidney circle. He also claims, ingeniously, that the April date is a red herring:
There is, of course, the April 10, 1579, date attached to E.K.'s Epistle to Harvey. This date was probably a fiction designed to protect Spenser from the wrath of the Queen for his allegorical portrayal of more recent events. (p. 9)
As this explanation demonstrates, McLane's reading depends on our accepting a number of probabilities with scant evidence:
- The April date is probably a fiction
- Spenser probably knew about events in Scotland more or less in real time due to hypothetical letters written by Buchanan to his intimates in the Sidney-Leicester circle
- During September–October 1879, Buchanan was probably neglectful of James while getting his own treatise published.
These claims do not seem well-founded to me. That the May eclogue could have been written entirely in October and November of 1879, such that The Shepheardes Calendar could have been printed in December, seems dubious. Spenser is known to be a slow and careful poet; the apparently effortless sheen of his poetic surfaces is the result of hard work. The long gestation of The Faerie Queene exemplifies the care Spenser took over his work. A 1580 letter from Gabriel Harvey to Edmund Spenser references the epic:
But see how I haue the Arte MEMORATIUE at commaundement. In good faith I had once again nigh forgotten your FAERIE QUEENE: howbeit, by good chaunce, I haue nowe sent hir home at the laste, neither in better nor worse case than I founde hir.
Yet Spenser did not submit the first three books of that epic for publication until 1589, nearly a decade later. While an epic arguably requires more care than a series of pastoral eclogues, it still is hard to believe that Spenser, who worked on The Faerie Queene from 1580 until his death in 1599, would want or even be able to push through the May eclogue in a couple of months in response to rapid developments in Scotland.
Further, there is a contradiction in McLane's argument that Buchanan was, on the one hand, neglectful of James's welfare due to the pressures of getting De Jure Regni published, and on the other, providing detailed accounts of the situation at court via letter to correspondents at Leicester House. These two claims are incompatible with each other. Due to such inconsistencies, the idea that Buchanan was the goat who had perforce to leave her kid unattended stretches credulity.
McLane himself points to another weakness of his argument. If Spenser's aim was to depict the danger of the closeness between James and Aubigny, he could have made his allegory much clearer without running the risk of angering any power at the English court:
Why the mystery? Surely every true Englishman of the period would be fearful of and condemn Aubigny's influence over the youthful James. Elizabeth, Burghley, Sussex, Leicester, Walsingham, all would be of one mind regarding this development. True enough.
McLane goes on to say that the reason Spenser kept the allegory ambiguous is that he was arguing not just against Aubigny in particular, but French Catholicism in general:
Spenser was, I think, slyly adverting to other things also. The French Catholic Aubigny could not be trusted, but neither could any other French Catholic—and this meant Alençon also, the French duke Elizabeth was so determined to marry in late 1879. (p. 89)
Since opposing the marriage openly would have landed Spenser in trouble, McLane says, Spenser kept his allegory ambiguous:
E.K. was hitting home and meant to include Alençon when he wrote that the Fox represented "the false and faithlesse Papistes, to whom is no credit to be given, nor fellowshippe to be used." ... E.K. was proceeding safely, attaching Catholicism in general rather than Alençon in particular. Spenser did not wish to be too specific in pointing to Aubigny, nor did he wish to take any unnecessary risks in making an open attack on Alençon. (pp. 89–90)
But the very lack of specifics that allow the allegory to refer to Alençon as well as Aubigny call into question the specific reference to the latter that McLane posits. The case for Alençon as the intended target of the allegory is more convincing than that for Aubigny.
Alençon as the Fox
For many reasons, Alençon is a likelier candidate for the fox than Aubigny. The Alençon courtship had been avidly discussed since late 1596, and his envoy had visited the English court in January 1597 with full powers to negotiate the terms of the marriage. This would have given Spenser an entire year to work on the political allegory of the May eclogue, rather than just a couple of months. The prospect of Elizabeth's marriage to Alençon was a more pressing concern than the intrigues at the Scottish court. Were Elizabeth to marry, James would no longer be her presumed successor on the English throne, rendering the Aubigny affair practically irrelevant to the English. Besides, Spenser's employer, the duke of Leicester, was bitterly opposed to the marriage. Spenser's writing an allegorical fable against it would fit in with his role in the Sidney-Leicester circle. Within a month of the publication of The Shepheardes Calendar, Spenser's friend Philip Sidney wrote a letter to Elizabeth arguing against the match; he was excluded from the royal presence for a while as a punishment. If the fable of the fox and the kid is to be read as a specific political allegory, then, the longer timeline from January to December the more immediate relevance of the situation to England, and the views of Spenser's own circle make Alençon a likelier candidate for the fox. This would make Elizabeth the kid. Unfortunately, this brings us back to our initial problem: who is the goat?
Conclusion: A Generalized Anti-Catholic Allegory
One might of course speculate that the goat's leaving the kid by itself reflects the fact that Elizabeth as monarch was not subject to guidance from anybody. But the difficulty of finding a suitable candidate represented by the goat exemplifies the limitations of allegorical readings that assume a one-one correspondence between the fable and historical personages. There is never a perfect fit. Rather than try to read the May eclogue as a fable à clef, then, perhaps it is best to read it as E.K. suggests, a generalized warning against succumbing to Catholic influence. In this reading, Aubigny, Avignon, and other Catholics are particular instances illustrating a general allegory, rather than being specific targets of an allegory directed against them.
- Cain, Thomas H. "Introduction" to The Shepheardes Calendar. Pp. 1–10 in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
- Harvey, Gabriel. "Letter IV, Spenser-Harvey Correspondence: Letters on Reformed Versifying, &c. 1579–80." Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. by G. Gregory Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904. Bartleby.com, 2012. Accessed March 25, 2021.
- McLane, Paul E. Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar: A Study in Elizabethan Allegory. Notre Dame, IN: U Notre Dame P, 1961. Archive.org. Accessed March 25, 2021.
- Parmenter, Mary. "Spenser *Twelve Aeglogves Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes*. ELH, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Sep. 1936), pp. 190-217. JSTOR. Accessed March 25, 2021.
- Sidney, Philip. "Sir Philip Sidney to Queen Elizabeth, Anno 1580, Dissuading Her from Marrying the Duke of Anjou." Ed. Anniina Jokinen. Luminarium, March 2007. Accessed March 25, 2021.
- Spenser, Edmund. The Shepheardes Calendar. 1579. Ed. Risa S. Bear. Renascence Editions, U of Oregon, May 1996. Accessed March 25, 2021.
- Young, Michael B. “James VI and I: Time for a Reconsideration?” Journal of British Studies, vol. 51, no. 3, 2012, pp. 540–567. JSTOR. Accessed March 25, 2021.