- Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s “A Lover’s Complaint”: Suffering Ecstasy
A Lover's Complaint, the haunting poem printed at the end of the first quarto of Shakespeare's sonnets (1609), has always divided readers. Shirley Sharon-Zisser has indeed remarked in a previous essay that its story "'is as banal as it is heart-breaking'" (146).1 A young maiden has been abandoned by a treacherous male seducer, and confides in a "reverend man" (l. 57)2 whom she encounters on a hillside. The story may be simple, but the structure and narrative of A Lover's Complaint are troublingly difficult—or, depending on one's point of view, exhilaratingly sophisticated. The poem's extraordinary opening and seemingly irresolute ending ("the most baffling denouement in the canon" , according to contributor Patrick Cheney) continue to fascinate readers, including many contributors to the present volume. The nine essays collected here explore the historical, cultural, rhetorical, and psychological contexts of this "most neglected of Shakespeare's texts" (1), aiming to establish its central importance for the interpretation of the plays. [End Page 112]
The peculiarities of A Lover's Complaint have not been universally admired. The introduction by Sharon-Zisser and Stephen Whitworth makes clear that the history of the poem's reception has on the whole been one of neglect—partly because of recurring doubts since the early nineteenth century surrounding its ascription to Shakespeare. Even now, some readers remain unconvinced. Jonathan Crewe argues in his 1999 introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the narrative poems that A Lover's Complaint is remarkable partly for the resistance it offers to our desire "to resolve which poems are finally and definitively Shakespearean."3 The poem indeed resembles a case study in effacement, frustrating attempts not only to establish its authorship but also to determine the identities of the unnamed maiden and her seducer.
Despite these general reservations, A Lover's Complaint has attracted admirers over the centuries. Edmond Malone praised "'this beautiful poem'" in the commentary to his 1780 edition of Shakespeare's poetry, suggesting that Shakespeare here "'perhaps meant to break a lance with Spenser'" (38). Keats thought highly enough of A Lover's Complaint to copy his "Bright Star" sonnet alongside it in his copy of Shakespeare's poems (38). But many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editors omitted A Lover's Complaint altogether. "For a poem about seduction," James Schiffer remarks, "A Lover's Complaint seems often to have failed to seduce its readers" (145).
The poem's rhetorical and psychological complexity persuades the commentators represented here of Shakespeare's authorship. The approaches they pursue are, however, as varied as the quality of their essays. Two of the best find in A Lover's Complaint an unexpected defense of women's speech, where previous readers found only a desolate maiden with a modest, repentant, or guilty voice. Ilona Bell reads the poem alongside contemporary complaints, notably Sir Henry Lee's "Sitting Alone upon my Thought" and Anne Vasavour's "Though I Seem Strange," arguing that A Lover's Complaint resembles an exculpatory rather than a de casibus complaint. On this interpretation, Shakespeare challenges the misogynistic didacticism that often colors male-authored female complaints and defends instead both female desire and female passion. Heather Dubrow regards the poem as an exploration of "authorizers," or forms of communication that distribute power among speakers (121). The maiden gains authority by appropriating the voice of the young male seducer—memorably described as "the Bill Clinton of the early modern world" (129)—whose reported speech comprises nearly one-third of the poem. Shakespeare thus deals with the narrative problems posed by rival storytellers, and he raises questions of authorship and agency pertinent to our understanding of early modern culture at large. Like Dubrow, who argues that A Lover's Complaint problematizes any association of silence and powerlessness with femininity, Schiffer proposes in his essay on seduction that the poem stages a "double reversal of early modern gender roles...