Did Shakespeare really write "A Lover's Complaint"?

Scrutinizing culture.
June 12 2008 3:15 PM

Are Those Shakespeare's "Balls"?

Should "A Lover's Complaint" be kicked out of the canon?

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But for those appalled by the poem's badness, there has always been a slight opening: It's never been resolved whether the "1609 Quarto," the pamphlet that was the first to publish all 154 sonnets, was authorized or approved of by Shakespeare. There are dark mutterings that it may have been published against his wishes, due to the scandalously erotic subject matter and language. If that were true, the printer could have thrown in "A Lover's Complaint" to fill out the slim volume. (This is unlikely, though, since the printer had been a longtime associate of Shakespeare.)

This debate has surfaced occasionally in the past, but in 2007 Brian Vickers—one of the scholars who definitively demolished the attribution of the awful "Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare—published a powerful case against "A Lover's Complaint" called "William Shakespeare, 'A Lover's Complaint,' and John Davies of Hereford." Vickers argued that the latter gentleman, a minor poet, contemporary, and admirer of Shakespeare, was the author of the "Complaint."

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While Vickers uses the entire scholarly armentarium of "stylometrics," parallel passages, and scrupulous literary history to make his case, I know that I initially applauded Bate's decision to omit the "Complaint" (a decision strongly influenced by Vickers' work) primarily because the poem's badness was deeply embarrassing. At times, you almost wondered whether it was a deliberately bad parody of bad Elizabethan poetry.

I must admit I've always found it hard to get beyond the fourth verse without laughing out loud.

The setting is the woodlands, where an older man overhears a younger woman bewailing her sad fate: She has given her love to a young man who turns out to have deceived and jilted her. Here's the poet (please, not Shakespeare) describing her wild eyes:

Sometimes her leveled eyes their carriage ride
As they did batt'ry to the spheres intend:
Sometimes diverted, their poor balls are tied
To th' orbèd earth; sometimes they do extend
Their view right on, anon their gazes lend
To every place at once and, nowhere fixed,
The mind and sight distractedly commixed.

"Balls ... tied/ To the orbèd earth"? As a way of saying she was looking at the ground? That's painfully funny. It's almost a signal, isn't it, that this long, windy pastiche of Spenserian, baroque, archaic stiltedness was designed to evoke laughter? (For you pedants out there, it's true: Shakespeare did pun on "balls" elsewhere in his work. He does so in Henry V, for instance, though far more skillfully.)  And if you're looking for more evidence of deliberate parody or self-parody, consider another use of eyeballs which can't help calling attention to the obscene infelicity of the poet's fixation on them: The treacherous male suitor is so attractive "that maidens' eyes stuck all over his face." Try to picture it: the eyeballs like monstrous boils (eyeboils?) on the face.

Who will defend that line, or come away from it saying it could have been written by Shakespeare? Yes, he can be baroque in his courtly rhetoric at times, and he can be hilarious in his imitations of bad poetry, as in his Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But in "A Lover's Complaint," the badness doesn't seem to be intentional. (Although nothing tops the "balls" references, which verge so ineptly on slapstick.)

On the other hand, there are flashes, gleams, here and there. Contributors to the SHAKSPER listserv have sent in passages from the "Complaint" they feel are Shakespearean in a beautiful, nonparodic way.

Consider:

O father, what a hell of witchcraft lies
In the small orb of one particular tear.

This, to me, is fairly breathtaking and deserves comparison with the exquisite verse to be found in the very early (1593) narrative poem "Venus and Adonis."

On the whole, I'd have to say the imbecilic "balls tied to the earth"- and the eyeballs "stuck on the face"-type figures of speech in "Complaint" far outnumber the gems on par with "the small orb of one particular tear." But do we dare lose "the small orb of one particular tear" if other editors follow Bate and Vickers and excise the "Complaint" from the canon? I'd shed a particular tear for the loss of that line.

Bate's decision has been opposed on other grounds. Katherine Duncan-Jones, the author of Ungentle Shakespeare (one of the few interesting Shakespearean biographies) and the editor of the Arden editions of the sonnets and of Shakespeare's longer, "narrative" poems, includes the "Complaint" in her edition, and wrote a letter to the London TLS last July summing up her case for keeping it:

Sir, I'm sorry that the excellent textual scholar Harold Love is willing to countenance Brian Vickers's de-attribution (July 6). "A Lover's Complaint" was explicitly attributed to Shakespeare in the 1609 Sonnets volume, and Vickers raises no doubts about Shakespeare's authorship of the Sonnets themselves. … If someone other than Shakespeare penned the "Complaint", how did that person come to be deeply familiar with the as-yet-unpublished Sonnets, with which the "Complaint" has numerous thematic and verbal links? At this time Thomas Thorpe was doing careful [publishing] work for the notoriously exacting Ben Jonson. What possible motive could he have had for appending an inauthentic item to Shakespeare's long-awaited Sonnets, a collection already of sufficient length? Why should he risk the wrath of the pre-eminent player-poet-playwright? ... And to dally momentarily with unnecessary surmise, why should John Davies of Hereford have penned such a poem? Though prolific, Davies was not celebrated for the genre of "female complaint." Shakespeare was, both in his dramatic and non-dramatic writings. And even though Davies's cultural networks were extensive, they do not appear to have included Thomas Thorpe.

Vickers doesn't like "A Lover's Complaint." In his book he calls it "mediocre," and in his riposte to Love (Letters, July 13) he describes its rhymes as "banal." He should be enough of a logician to see that personal distaste is a risky basis for de-attribution.

Duncan-Jones goes on to argue that Shakespeare's late work is often "odd in diction, clotted in style, [and] at times affectedly obscure," and concludes that "Complaint" "belongs with Shakespeare's post-1600 writings."

Here, I'd disagree with both Duncan-Jones and Bate and say if it's Shakespeare, it's very early Shakespeare or perhaps even Shakespeare learning how to write (or how not to write) poetry by imitating one of his inept poetic forebears. I say this because the "difficulty" of late Shakespeare is its intensely compressed intellectualism. Whereas the "difficulty" of "A Lover's Complaint" is a kind of youthful overstraining at fancy writing. Something he might have written but was embarrassed by.

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