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?

A Lover's Complaint

If I can be said to have a favorite kind of column, it's one in which I can bring to your attention an exciting literary development—one whose importance has not received the notice it deserves outside the ivory tower—and then tell you what to think about it.

Or, to put it more gently, interactively, Webbily: suggest what questions you might want to ask about it. It's true some don't find this approach gentle. I began badgering Dmitri Nabokov back in 2005 to make a decision about publishing The Original of Laura (his father Vladimir's final unfinished work, which V.N. had asked his heirs to destroy) and renewed my pressure in two recentSlate columns. When Dmitri finally gave in and announced he would save the manuscript, he attributed his decision to make a decision at least in part to that "impatient writer, Ron Rosenbaum."

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OK, I'm not generally known as a patient sort, but here's an important literary development—a Shakespearean controversy—that I've patiently waited for someone outside academia to make a fuss over for more than a year! I've been holding back because of my peripheral personal involvement in the matter. But now I think the time has come to get you—the educated reading public—involved.

I'm speaking of the decision by the Royal Shakespeare Company's publishing wing, in its recent edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, to subtract, delete, erase one long-standing four-century-old fixture of the Shakespearean canon: a 329-line poem called "A Lover's Complaint."

And its decision to attribute to Shakespeare a relatively recent discovery, an 18-line dedicatory poem called "To the Queen."

These changes are no small matter: Casting a poem as long as the "Complaint" out of the canon means redefining the artistic identity of our greatest poet and dramatist in a small, subtle but significant way. It should not be—it was not—done casually. But the move has attracted only casual attention here in America.

When I speak of my being inhibited by my "peripheral involvement," what I mean is that I am listed in the RSC Complete Works edition (published here by Random House, which also published my book The Shakespeare Wars) as a member of the RSC's "advisory board." Most of my (unpaid) work in that capacity consisted of reading and commenting on the brief introductory essays to the plays by chief editor Jonathan Bate, whose work I've admired since his landmark London Times Literary Supplement article (one of the great conjectures in intellectual history) linking the work the Cambridge quantum physicists were doing on the uncertainty principle in the '20s and '30s with the work Cambridge literary critics, such as the peerless William Empson, were doing on ambiguity at the same time.

As it turned out, I had little to add to Bate's introductions, which I found to be remarkably smart compressions of scholarship and close reading.

More importantly, I took no part in the decisions Bate and his co-editor Eric Rasmussen made to take one poem away from Shakespeare and add another to his credit. But I do think both decisions are significant and daring, and deserving of debate. Both decisions bear upon a question I examined in The Shakespeare Wars: What do we mean when we say something is "Shakespearean," and how can we tell whether something is Shakespearean or not? Can we define that quality? And what does our effort to define it tell us about what we choose to value in literature and drama?

In my book, published before the "Lover's Complaint" debate was revived, I devote a chapter to the controversy over another attempt to alter the canon, by adding the wretched Shakespearean imposter poem known as the "Funeral Elegy": some 600 lines of unbearably pious tedium whose clumsy witlessness, lack of irony, and paucity of poetic felicity raised questions in the mind of anyone who has an ear for Shakespeare. The poem had been incorporated, albeit somewhat equivocally, into three recent Complete Works editions of Shakespeare, all largely on the basis of a self-promoting professor's claim that he had "proved" its authenticity with the use of—hushed awe please—a computerized database he called "SHAXICON."

Hilarious, I know, but the bogus attribution and the brain-numbing "Elegy" survived five years of my ridicule. And might have survived 400 years more had it not finally been discredited so decisively by the French scholar Giles Monsarrat and the British scholar Brian Vickers that its champion admitted he was dead wrong and the publishers announced plans to excise the embarrassment from their next editions.

The exorcism of the "Funeral Elegy" impostor raised an important question, one further advanced by Bate's bold decision to strike "A Lover's Complaint" from the canon: Is there something indefinably Shakespearean about even the bad poetry written by Shakespeare, something that distinguishes it from bad poetry written by others that's merely imitative of Shakespeare? "The Funeral Elegy" is so palpably bad that I doubt even a severely brain-injured Shakespeare could have written it. The debate over "A Lover's Complaint" is in large part a debate over whether it's bad in a Shakespearean way.

I agree with the critic Frank Kermode, who has contended in print and in an interview with me that it is important to believe Shakespeare wrote badly at times if we want to make claims for his greatness at other times. Certainly much of Shakespeare's early work (the Henry VI plays, for instance) was less aesthetically sophisticated than his later work, and not everything in his later work partook of perfection. Some of it, early and late, was bad. If we're unable to believe he was capable of being bad—or better or worse, at times—then we are just "bardolators," worshipping with blind piety every word he wrote.

But how bad does something have to be to cross the threshold from being bad in a Shakespearean way to being bad in an ordinary way?

"A Lover's Complaint" is mostly bad, sometimes pitifully so, sorry to say, but it really presses on the distinction between ordinary and Shakespearean badness.

For a long time, it's been protected from skepticism (and there has been some) by the fact that it was published in the same pamphlet-sized book as Shakespeare's sonnets—the so-called "1609 Quarto" version—as a kind of long narrative poem appendage that followed immediately upon the last, 154th sonnet. So, it has the claim of being published under Shakespeare's byline. (And it was not uncommon for a sonnet sequence to be followed by a longer poem reprising its themes.)