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?

(Continued from Page 2)

Should we risk the posthumous "wrath" of Shakespeare, famous for having put a curse in his epitaph for anyone daring to move his bones? Or has he been suffering from four centuries of wrath at having the awful "Complaint" attributed to him? Would he have wanted it burned, like Vladimir Nabokov, if he'd had a chance? Is Jonathan Bate risking the curse or the blessing of the bard?

I don't think there's a way of answering this with certainty. Almost every method of analysis has its drawbacks. Vickers and Duncan-Jones rely on literary history and yet come to different conclusions. (I'm sure Vickers has an answer for each of Duncan-Jones' objections.) Nonetheless, I tend to believe that—at a certain point, having read and reread Shakespeare attentively for a good portion of my life—one can go by the aesthetic equivalent of a gut check. Those cartoonish "balls" did it for me. Unless, of course, the whole thing is parody, but it just feels too leaden for that. (Slate readers who want to conduct their own gut checks can go to the RSC Web site, where the poem is at least preserved in pixels, and decide for themselves.)

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It's sad though, isn't it, that so few American critics and academics have cared enough to weigh in? This reluctance may be another depressing consequence of the now-antiquated cult of Postmodern theory, in which actually reading Shakespeare was less important than making him an example of some largely discredited sophistry.

Now to the poem Bate has added to the Shakespearean canon in his RSC edition: "To the Queen." Here, with all due respect, I think his apparent certainty is puzzling.

The poem was found among some old papers, and apparently the work of professor James Shapiro—my fellow RSC advisory board member (with whom I've clashed in the past)—convinced Bate that the unsigned poem was "Shakespearean." Unfortunately, Shapiro has a dubious habit of attributing changes in Shakespeare's texts to Shakespeare himself, when there's no proof the alterations could not have been made by someone in his company. The same could be said of the following mediocre poem, which Bate and Shapiro believe was written by Shakespeare because it can be traced to a date when Shakespeare's company performed before the queen. But while Bate finds it deeply Shakespearean, I don't feel there's any solid reason for denying that it could have been written by some journeyman playwright or actor in Shakespeare's company who may have been influenced by his imagery:

TO THE QUEEN
As the dial hand tells o'er
The same hours it had before,
Still beginning in the ending,
Circular account still lending,
So, most mighty Queen we pray,
Like the dial day by day
You may lead the season on,
Making new when old are gone
That the babe which is now young
And hath no use of tongue
Many a Shrovetide here may bow
To the empress I do now,
That these children of these lords
Sitting at your council boards,
May be grave and aged seen
Of her that was their fathers' queen.
Once I wish this wish again,
Heaven subscribe it with Amen.

I don't know; the poem doesn't have the jagged badness of bad Shakespeare, nor does it have the hint of transcendence of good Shakespeare. The clock ticks, the seasons turn, time goes by. Shakespeare was not the only poet of his time to consider time as a theme.

Shapiro probably won't have to apologize for misleading Bate and the rest of us the way the "Elegy" promoter had to recant his original overreaching, because there seems to be no dispositive evidence one way or another. But that very fact argues against its unequivocal inclusion.

 I just don't feel there is enough internal or external evidence of Shakespearean authorship to warrant taking the radical step of adding an unsigned poem to the Shakespearean canon, especially while removing a poem that was bound in to the quarto titled "Shakespeare's Sonnets" 400 years ago.

I think "To the Queen" will share the fate of another now-widely regarded misattribution (by Gary Taylor) of a very bad doggerel verse that begins "Shall I die?/ Shall I fly?" once included in the Oxford edition of the Complete Works, now a poetic pariah.

I feel more conflicted about Bate's "Complaint" decision. On the one hand, should others follow his lead, the poem risks being cast into the "iniquity of oblivion" (Sir Thomas Browne's phrase, from "Hydrotaphia"). On the other hand, it was pretty close to oblivion, anyway. When was the last time you had a spirited discussion about "The Lover's Complaint"?

And yet now, I hope Bate's decision to evict the poem from his RSC edition may enshrine it more deeply in other editions, or at least make it a subject for debate and give it the kind of notoriety, if not immortality, it wouldn't otherwise have. Perhaps Bate's decision will get people to read what may be the single least-read work attributed to Shakespeare, and consider again what we mean when we say something is—or isn't—"Shakespearean."

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