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Shakespeare Quarterly 53.4 (2002) 437-459

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Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint and Early Modern Criminal Confession

Katharine A. Craik


A lover's complaint is a compressed poem detailing the predicament of an abandoned female lover who laments her undoing at the hands of an unscrupulous male seducer. It was first printed at the end of Shake-speares Sonnets, published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, where it is preceded by a separate heading and a further ascription to Shakespeare. The poem has long presented something of an enigma to scholars and has for centuries been overlooked and undervalued. Readers are often frustrated by the poem's complex syntax, which occasionally verges on impenetrability; more significantly, the poem's reception history is characterized by uncertainty about its attribution to Shakespeare and doubts over whether its 1609 appearance was authorized. Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza recently revived the authorship debate, arguing on the basis of computer-assisted textual analysis that both A Lover's Complaint and A Funeral Elegy "fail too many Shakespeare tests to look much like Shakespeare." 1 Other scholars have concluded to the contrary that the poem can confidently be attributed to Shakespeare and, further, that it was written at some point between 1602 and 1605. Ilona Bell has confirmed the insistent thematic links between A Lover's Complaint and the Sonnets, arguing that the longer poem functions as both a "commentary on and reader's guide to the drama enacted by and concealed within the Sonnets." 2 [End Page 437] Previously, John Kerrigan argued that the 1609 volume was conceived as a whole, despite its disjointed appearance to the modern reader, pointing out that female-voiced plaints frequently trailed early modern sonnet sequences such as Samuel Daniel's Delia (1592) and Thomas Lodge's Phillis (1593). 3 This essay agrees with those who argue that Shakespeare is the most likely author but suggests that most recent readings of the poem have neglected to take into account the variety and conditions of early modern complaint.

The genesis of early modern complaint can be traced through courtly lyrics and popular ballads of the early and late Middle Ages back to the laments of Virgil, Ovid, and Theocritus. In the sixteenth century these various strands merged in an outpouring of petitions and mock-petitions articulating social distress or political injustice, as well as complaints in the voices of aggrieved lovers (both women and men) which echoed medieval chansons d'aventure. 4 Although much early modern plangent verse was published in broadside, the genre known as "female complaint" nevertheless still tends to invite interpretation in an aristocratic or courtly context because of its association since Ovid's Heroides and The Mirror for Magistrates with the fall of princes. This essay disturbs complaint's continuing association with court culture and argues that the mode of confession which we recognize from amatory laments such as Shakespeare's is evident in "popular" complaints, often from urban locations outside London. Imaginatively reconstructed confessions of female criminals flourished in ballad form at the turn of the century. Some dealt with murder, treason, and witchcraft; others with the breakdown in domestic order occasioned by crimes such as infanticide, adultery, or violence against husbands. Considered alongside these texts, A Lover's Complaint reveals how Shakespeare imagined the experimental genre of male-authored, female-voiced lament as inseparable from the unruliness of female confession. The readings that emerge have important implications for our understanding of gender and authorship at the beginning of the seventeenth century, for, as we will see, to reconstruct the broader spectrum of complaint is to begin to hear the difference between women's voices and ventriloquized voices in early modern poetry and drama. [End Page 438]

Shakespeare's plays have long been acknowledged to include elements of marginal culture and contemporary social disorder, but his poems have largely resisted such analysis. I hope to contribute to the recent debate concerning the links between Shakespeare's Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint by showing how both works are interested in...