Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

A Lover's Complaint Revisited

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

A Lover's Complaint Revisited

Article excerpt

I

A LOVER'S COMPLAINT was first published in 1609 at the end of Thomas Thorpe's famous quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Until the early 1960s this narrative poem of 329 iambic pentameter lines had been neglected by Shakespeareans, who tended to reject it as spurious or disdain it as an unsatisfactory product of Shakespeare's youth. Then Kenneth Muir and MacD. P. Jackson independently argued in favor of the poem's authenticity and a seventeenth-century composition date. (1) Most editors have accepted their case, which has been supplemented by other scholars. (2)

Muir and Jackson overlooked one signficant point. Samuel Daniel's sonnet sequence Delia (1592), an obvious influence on Shakespeare, had closed with The Complaint of Rosamund, and before Shakespeare's Sonnets appeared a convention of completing a book of sonnets with a long poem had been firmly established. Scholars such as John Kerrigan and Katherine Duncan-Jones have regarded A Lover's Complaint as an integral part of Thorpe's volume. (3) Recent commentators have sought to show not only that the quarto preserves Shakespeare's own arrangement of his sonnets, but that he intended A Lover's Complaint to be the third movement in a sonata-like structure preceded by the sections devoted to Fair Friend and Dark Lady, and helping to resolve their contradictions, or at least to put the experience embodied in them into a new perspective. (4) The status of A Lover's Complaint--whether it is Shakespearean or non-Shakespearean--is thus directly related to the question of the authority of the 1609 quarto's text and the order in which sonnets are presented and numbered. A spurious A Lover's Complaint would undermine trust in Thorpe's volume; a Shakespearean A Lover's Complaint tends to authenticate it.

However, even as criticism has been discovering a rationale for the authorial inclusion of A Lover's Complaint within Shakespeare's Sonnets, research by the Claremont-McKenna Shakespeare Clinic, run by Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, has been casting fresh doubts on Shakespeare's responsibility for the poem. (5) Elliott and Valenza evolved a variety of tests for Shakespearean authorship, starting with his undisputed plays and establishing, for each of the linguistic phenomena counted, a range within which rates of occurrence for any authentic play should fall. Works generally accepted as wholly Shakespeare's exhibited Shakespearean rates on all but a very few tests, whereas suspect, collaborative, and apocryphal works failed large numbers of tests. Elliott and Valenza found that fourteen of the tests thus validated on plays were also usable on poems, and that when the poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Sonnets) were broken into approximately 3000-word blocks, none of the fourteen undisputed Shakespearean blocks failed more than two tests and most failed none, but that A Lover's Complaint failed six. The same Claremont-McKenna methodology that emphatically, and rightly, rejected Donald Foster's ascription of A Funeral Elegy to Shakespeare also questions the authenticity of A Lover's Complaint. (6)

Elliott and Valenza are sensibly cautious about their findings, conceding that the new methods they and other computer users have adopted are so experimental that "it is foolish to expect any of them to be the last word on the subject at this stage." (7) It is a pity that none of the six "blocks" of sonnets tested comprises the last twenty-five or so of those to the Fair Friend: from the number of iambic pentameter lines given for each block, it appears that Block 4 consists of Sonnets 85-112 and Block 5 of Sonnets 113-140, so that the sonnets that can most plausibly be assigned to the seventeenth century and were thus most likely to have been roughly contemporary with A Lover's Complaint (approximately numbers 100-126) are mixed with much earlier ones. (8) However, even Shakespeare's last-written group of sonnets might display a rather different profile from a 329-line complaint written in rhyme royal. …

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