A man of hell, that cals himselfe Despaire
(Faerie Queene, I, ix, 28)
Penser's moving description of the Redcrosse Knight's encounter with Despaire in Book One of The Faerie Queene is the culmination of a long and rich movement of thought and imagery. Here, as so often in his great Renaissance epic, Spenser looks back to the middle ages, drawing on a still-vital tradition to present the ugly, sinister figure with its knives and ropes and its soulpiercing arguments.
In spite of the tides of secularism, despair in its theological sense—loss of hope of salvation—figures significantly in Renaissance literature. Examining England alone, one notes its place in the traditional morality play pattern as the turning point of the hero's downward movement: Skelton's Magnyfycence is a prominent example. Despair episodes have a somewhat similar place in the prodigal son dramas which were popular during the middle decades of the sixteenth century, such plays as Lusty Juventus, Misogonus, and Nice Wanton.