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.)

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."

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.

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.)

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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