Johns Hopkins University Press

Irregular ode; English sonnet; free verse; heroic couplet. As with many taxonomies, the way we label formal poetic structures can betray our critical preoccupations, even values. In the case of William Shakespeare's two first published poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the stanzaic labels "Venus and Adonis stanza" and "rhyme royal" reveal literary history's investment in origins and the way it institutionalizes certain stanza forms: "Venus and Adonis stanza" represents the sixain as Shakespeare's invention and "rhyme royal" suggests a particular connection with regal, or at least noble, subject matter.1 Far from being aesthetically removed from sociopolitical concerns, poetic form is profoundly implicated in canon-making.

Excavating the origins and effects of the labels of certain poetic forms raises further questions. If we think about style in Jeff Dolven's terms as what makes writers unique and yet also what is imitable about them, then what do authors' choices of stanza forms tell us about their style?2 If an author is associated with a particular stanza form, do we always read subsequent usage as some kind of allusion, whether parody or homage? And more broadly, how do certain stanza forms attract, or become associated with, certain genres and with certain rhetorical tropes? In her influential work, Caroline Levine has adopted from design theory the term "affordances," meaning "potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs," and deployed it for literary forms.3 In these terms, we might explore the affordances of a certain stanza form and whether these change in relation to, for example, the gender of the writer or (in the case of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece) the speaker.

This essay investigates how the stanza forms of Shakespeare's first two published poems (and the first to be sold with his name on them) were theorized in the early modern period, how they were used by Shakespeare himself, and how they have since been invested with meaning. The history and cultural associations of these stanza forms are more multiple and branching than the myths of origins suggested by labels such as the "Venus and Adonis stanza" or "rhyme royal." This article will present microhistories of these two forms which [End Page 1] reveal entirely different legacies, showing the extent of Shakespeare's borrowing from his peers and predecessors on a formal as well as thematic level. The naming of the VA stanza (we will use the abbreviation "VA stanza" except when explicitly commenting on the label) implies it was distinctive to him, but close examination of the mechanics of these stanzas in practice suggests far more wide-reaching connections to his peers. Another of Dolven's definitions of style is the way a poem asks the reader to imagine the process of making it.4 In his idiosyncratic yet often revealing theory of poetry, George Puttenham developed a threefold sense of form: rhetorical style ("ornament"), genre ("kind"), and stanza ("proportion").5 By calling on Puttenham's definition we can get closer to Dolven's stylistic question "how," closer to understanding Shakespeare's craft in terms of his borrowing and adaptation (rather than invention) of forms.6 Puttenham's "proportion" encompasses rhyme and rhyme scheme, metre, stanzaic composition and shape.7 It is a critical element of what we now consider poetic "form," but its importance to the meaning of Shakespeare's poems has been neglected relative to their rhetoric and imagery (Puttenham's "ornament"), genre (Puttenham's "kind"), and their politics. In both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, Shakespeare reflects upon female articulation and on whether these stanza forms afford female speakers a particular kind of articulation. Embedded in both poems are complaints by each protagonist, Venus and Lucrece. Shakespeare's deft manipulation of female complaint draws upon the specific (and currently unrecognized) connotations of the VA stanza and the (better-known) connotations of rhyme royal. It is exactly the interplay of each stanza form's associations, built up by previous usage, and Shakespeare's own innovations, that creates the affective force of these poems.

Despite its name associating the stanza with Shakespeare's poem, many poets used the VA stanza before the publication of that poem. This essay will first investigate the claim that the stanza became strongly associated with Shakespeare after he used it. An equally influential countertradition exists in the poetry of Robert Southwell. Turning to the rhyme royal stanza of Shakespeare's Lucrece, the essay will explore Thomas Churchyard's Shores Wife from the Mirror for Magistrates alongside Shakespeare's development of the rhyme royal stanza for female, legal complaint. Scrutiny of Shakespeare's borrowings, as ever, reveals his innovations. This goes without saying in his plays but has become obscured in much discussion of the longer poems, especially because the VA stanza is named after his own work. Excavating the wider, less currently canonical, cultural associations of these stanzas also demonstrates the value of a history of poetic forms more broadly. [End Page 2]

When did the "Venus and Adonis stanza" become the "Venus and Adonis stanza"? According to many scholars, the association extends back to the publication of Shakespeare's poem in 1593. Although the stanza was used by earlier writers, including Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney, we are commonly told that "Shakespeare's virtuosity was so widely recognized that it has henceforth been known in English not by its Italian name, sesta rima, but as the 'Venus and Adonis stanza.'"8 Other terms exist (sixain as well as sesta rima), but the form is popularly known by this term.9

So how evident is the influence of Shakespeare's poem in the decades after its publication, and did poets and readers immediately associate the stanza form itself with Shakespeare's poem? The impact of Venus and Adonis, and its eponymous stanza, is glimpsed in the university drama of the period. Shakespeare's poetry is invoked in The Return from Parnassus, part 1, where the tone is one of imitation and mockery. Gullio recites almost verbatim Venus's opening speech from stanza 2.10 This stanza is dropped in among couplets and prose, drawing attention to this appropriation from Shakespeare's poem.11 William Jaggard's 1599 collection The Passionate Pilgrim, a work marketed on its Shakespearean style, includes poems that are about the characters Venus and Adonis as well as four which seem to have been inserted on the basis of being in the VA stanza.12 These poems suggest a connection being made between Shakespeare and the sixain stanza: if you were trying to imitate Shakespeare, you chose to write in these sixains.

One further example, published half a century after Venus and Adonis, suggests the enduring hold of Shakespeare on the sixain stanza. John Suckling's "Supplement" to Lucrece was published posthumously in 1646 as part of his literary fragments. It consists of a stanza from Lucrece followed by three further verses. What is striking about Suckling's poem is that it is not in the seven-line rhyme royal of Shakespeare's Lucrece, but the six-line pentameters of Venus and Adonis.13

Roland Mushat Frye has argued that this is evidence that Suckling had access to an earlier draft of Shakespeare's poem, and that Shakespeare originally composed Lucrece in the sixains of Venus and Adonis.14 As Colin Burrow suggests, however, it is more likely that for Suckling "Shakespearian" verse meant verse in the VA stanza, and that he rewrote the section from Lucrece accordingly.15 A Lucrece in the VA stanza, in other words, seemed more Shakespearean than the Lucrece Shakespeare actually wrote. While The Return from Parnassus [End Page 3]

Figure 1. Shakespeare's Lucrece with the same passage from John Suckling's 'A Supplement of an imperfect Copy of Verses of Mr Wil. Shakespears, By the Author'.
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Figure 1.

Shakespeare's Lucrece with the same passage from John Suckling's 'A Supplement of an imperfect Copy of Verses of Mr Wil. Shakespears, By the Author'.

and The Passionate Pilgrim show the association of the VA stanza with the poem itself in the decade after its publication, Suckling's supplement shows that the sixain stanza was still seen as characteristically Shakespearean some four decades after the publication of Shakespeare's narrative poems.


These three examples might suggest that the stanza was thought of as a "Venus and Adonis stanza" almost immediately after Shakespeare's use, but the evidence proves to be much more ambivalent than the popular label implies. This six-line stanza in fact enjoyed complex and widespread use prior to Shakespeare's poem. Between 1476 and 1603, some 2445 poems were written entirely or partly in this stanza (7.5% of the total poems published or transcribed in the period), confirming it as one of the most popular English verse forms.16 The Passionate Pilgrim, claiming Shakespearean flavor and authorship, might be a good source of what readers thought of as characteristically Shakespearean and thus the inclusion of poems in the Venus and Adonis stanza [End Page 4] further evidence of its association with Shakespeare. But the sixain poems in this collection all have three stanzas, and this eighteen-line form was in fact a popular one in its own right, albeit composed of VA stanzas.17 This eighteen-line form has an overlapping but distinct history from the six-line stanza of which it is composed and choosing to write in this elongated sonnet-like form was not necessarily to emulate Shakespeare's poem. If the influence of Shakespeare on the form is harder to trace than has been assumed, the claim that after the publication of Shakespeare's poem the label was used "henceforth" has been positively overstated.18

The "Venus and Adonis stanza" actually seems to be a late-nineteenth century invention. The earliest reference we have found to this term appears almost three hundred years after Shakespeare's poem, in an 1883 article, later incorporated into the Encyclopedia Britannica.19 It should not be surprising that "Venus and Adonis stanza" emerges as a label in the late nineteenth century. Not only was the study of verse history burgeoning, but the project of a national history of prosody also acquired new urgency. Scholars used meter and verse form to negotiate questions of national identity, class, education, and the development of English literature as a discipline. At stake in these discussions were competing histories of Englishness, as they became debates about whether the nation's literary origins lay in Shakespeare and John Milton, or in an Anglo-Saxon and Old-English tradition set against the foreignness of classical verse forms.20

The nineteenth century saw many stanzaic forms labelled according to particular, canonical, early modern practitioners, including "Shakespearian," "Spenserian," and "Miltonic" sonnets.21 The "Venus and Adonis stanza" emerged as a label within this author-based and canonizing taxonomy of poetic form. By contrast, sixteenth-century theorists had often characterised the pentameter sixain by its ubiquitousness: James VI described it as "Commoun verse" (while acknowledging its frequent use for "materis of loue"); Puttenham notes the "sixain or six verses … is … most usual" (as well as "very pleasant to the ear"); George Gascoigne refers to it as a "ballad" stanza.22 For nineteenth-century scholars, this stanza must have seemed ripe for reinscription as a canonical verse form.

Like the "Shakespearean sonnet," the label "Venus and Adonis stanza" identifies Shakespeare as the most prominent user, if not the originator, of the stanza form. These two eponymous forms are often connected, with the VA stanza seen as a precursor to the Shakespearean sonnet. It is therefore presented as an early stage in both Shakespeare's [End Page 5] artistic development and in a larger history of English versification.23 Although recent scholarship has challenged these grand narratives, their impact on our understanding of verse form remains far-reaching. They reinforce a narrative of Shakespeare's career in which Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are seen as immature (rhetorically excessive, conventional in form), mere milestones on the way to the sonnet. They also suggest a narrative of the history of poetry in which Shakespeare originated the most prominent forms of the period.24

When scholars do investigate the history of the VA stanza they tend to focus on the poem's identifiable sources and imitations, rather than the wider cultural associations of this form and their often different origins. Critics have long recognized its use in Ovidian verse narratives during the 1590s, including Thomas Lodge's Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589), often regarded as Shakespeare's chief stylistic model for Venus and Adonis, as well as John Marston's Metamorphosis of Pygmalion's Image (1598).25 But this association of the form with Venus and Adonis continues to obscure its earlier history, to which we will now turn.


What were the wider associations of this form in early modern culture? The various uses of the VA stanza can be glimpsed in popular print miscellanies such as The Paradyse of Daynty Deuises. Here the stanza is used often for poems in the complaint mode and expressing amatory (or religious) distress. In a poem called "Findyng no relief, he complaineth thus," the speaker describes the physiological as well as poetic outpourings of extreme emotion ("A shower of teares, my watrishe eye doeth raine") and deploys conventionally Petrarchan terms: hyperboles of life and death, paradoxes of heat and cold ("I hope, I feare I burne, I chill in froste").26 The cause is not even specified; it is the very experience of distress which is this poem's subject. Its speaker relishes the excesses of emotion and its self-consuming metaphors: "My self am with my self at mortall strife."27 Another poem in what would come to be called the VA stanza features Venus as a representative of romantic love, in a series of questions about man's autonomy:

        But who can leaue, to looke on Uenus face?Or yeldeth not, to Iunos high estate:What witt so wise, as giues not Pallas place,These vertues rare, eche Godds did yelde amate.Saue her alone, who yet on earth doeth reigne,Whose beauties stryng, no Gods can well destraine.28 [End Page 6]

The quatrain asks questions and the couplet answers them. Here, as in other poems of the period, conclusion is reached by invoking the Queen, "who yet on earth doeth reigne." Repeated questions are a common feature of the stanza's use in this period, and these take a more extreme form in other complaint poems in the VA stanza:

What harte so fixt? but some enclines to change,What moode so milde? that neuer moued debate:What faithe so strong? but lightly likes to range,What loue so true? that neuer learnde to hate.What life so pure? that lasts, without offence,What worldly mynde? but moues with ill pretence.29

Poems in this six-line stanza often use figures of repetition such as anaphora, as well as rhetorical questions, to articulate their turmoil. Here the interrogative at the caesura allows the latter half of each line to proffer a response, while in other poems each line of the stanza is a self-contained question, which often remains unanswered in order to demonstrate the extent of their grief or doubt.

Looking at the complaints in The Paradyse of Daynty Deuises, we can better appreciate how Shakespeare adapts these formal associations in Venus and Adonis:

Hard fauourd tyrant, ougly, meagre, leane,Hatefull diuorce of loue, (thus chides she death)Grim-grinning ghost, earths-worme what dost thou meane?To stifle beautie, and to steale his breath?        Who when he liu'd, his breath and beautie set        Glosse on the rose, smell to the violet.30

As we have seen, critics have long connected the sixain stanza with Shakespeare's sonnets; in her introduction to the Norton edition of Venus and Adonis, Katharine Eisaman Maus describes the stanza as "a sort of abbreviated sonnet" noting that "in Shakespeare's hands [the stanza] tends to proffer a snatch of narrative in the quatrain, followed by a summarizing or reflective couplet."31 This passage, however, taken from Venus's response to Adonis's death, resembles an abbreviated complaint rather than a sonnet. As in the examples from Paradyse, here Shakespeare uses the stanza to dramatize a passionate utterance, employing questions to introduce an agonized exclamation that is extended rather than resolved in the couplet. Sentence structure and verse form are in tension here: the first quarto text, quoted above, features question marks after the third and fourth lines. This quirk of punctuation underscores the intensity of Venus's speech, [End Page 7] while registering uncertainty about how this relates to the conventional division of quatrain and couplet: does Venus answer her first question with another in line four, or does the second question mark signal an exclamatory response?32 To complicate matters further, the grammar of these questions could extend into lines five and six, which reaffirm the lost beauty of Adonis. Following this reading, the Arden and Norton editors punctuate the entire stanza as a single question, presenting a more sustained outpouring of grief reminiscent of the complaints seen above.33

We have seen that the interplay of quatrain and couplet in this stanza is often used to support a rhetorical strategy of question and answer (as in Paradyse of Daynty Deuises, "What witt so wise, as giues not Pallas place / […] / Saue her alone, who yet on earth doeth reigne"). Shakespeare exploits this pre-existing dynamic to dramatize faulty reasoning in Venus's complaint:

Dost thou drink tears, that thou prouok'st such weeping,What may a heauie grone aduantage thee?Why hast thou cast into eternall sleeping,Those eyes that taught all other eyes to see?        Now nature cares not for thy mortall vigour,        Since her best worke is ruin'd with thy rigour.34

Here, heaping up rhetorical questions in the quatrain creates an impassioned utterance. Instead of then providing reflection or resolution, the couplet offers yet more woe, undercutting Venus's reasoning. Her questions gesture at a reasoned argument, but Venus's rhetorical flourish leads into a hyperbolic expression of despair. This point may be reinforced by the sequence of feminine rhymes in this stanza and throughout this section of the poem, the additional syllable furnishing a formal allegory for the excessive grief in Venus's speech.

By incorporating Venus's complaint within a larger narrative, Shakespeare's poem creates a framework that encourages critical reflection on the mode's assumptions and values. The narrator also comments on Venus's complaint, playfully alluding to the role of stanzaic structure in producing her extreme emotion:

Here ouercome as one full of despaire,She vaild her eye-lids, who like sluces stoptThe christall tide, that from her two cheeks faire,In the sweet channell of her bosome dropt.        But through the floud gates breaks the siluer rain,        And with his strong course opens them againe. [End Page 8] O how her eyes, and teares, did lend, and borrow,Her eye seene in the teares, teares in her eye,Both christals, where they viewd ech others sorrow:Sorrow, that friendly sighs sought still to drye,        But like a stormie day, now wind, now raine,        Sighs drie her cheeks, tears make them wet againe.35

In these stanzas Shakespeare adopts the conventional Petrarchan tropes of contraries ("now wind, now raine"), chiasmus ("Her eye seene in the teares, teares in her eye"), anadiplosis ("ech others sorrow: / Sorrow, that"), and imagery of eyes and tears. By amplifying these tropes he creates an expression of grief that is both excessive and narcissistic. The interplay of stanzaic form and rhetorical patterning is highly mimetic and self-conscious: the enjambment in lines 2–3 of the first stanza underscores an outpouring of grief that runs through line endings (ironically underscored by "stopt" in line 2) as well as Venus's eyelids. While the couplet might be expected to provide a sense of conclusion or a means of progression (as we saw in Paradyse), here it emphasizes repetition and emotional entrapment, a point underscored by the repeated couplet rhyme ("raine" / "againe", "raine" / "againe").

This playful, highly self-conscious interrogation of the mode and its dominant tropes is characteristic of Shakespeare's virtuosity. Yet it can only be appreciated by understanding the parallel uses by his precursors and peers. Shakespeare's use of this particular stanza coincided with a resurgent interest in this form rather than creating that resurgence.36 As we shall see, Shakespeare was not the only writer investigating the relationship between stanzaic form and the complaint tradition in the 1590s.


The tears poetry of Jesuit and Catholic martyr Robert Southwell provides a useful case study for interrogating our current genealogy of the sixain. Earlier scholarship assumed that Southwell adopted the stanza as a rebuke to Shakespeare, rededicating it to sacred subjects.37 In a prefatory poem to St Peter's Complaint, written in this stanza, Southwell complained "Christes Thorne is sharpe, no head his Garland weares: / Still finest wits are stilling Venus Rose."38 The editors of the Shakspere Allusion Book see a reference to Shakespeare's poem here, but in fact Southwell had been imprisoned for over a year (in solitary confinement and probably without pen and ink) when Venus and Adonis was published so it is extremely unlikely he had read the poem when [End Page 9] he wrote these words.39 Instead, Southwell and Shakespeare appear to have worked in parallel, using the sixain to interrogate the values and dominant tropes of the complaint tradition. Both wrote major works in the stanza but it seems unlikely that either was able to read the other's work. So their use of the stanza was in close parallel and, as we will see, each poet helped to energize, if not establish, competing poetic traditions in this form.40

Southwell had probably encountered the six-line stanza in collections such as Richard Tottel's Miscellany (1557) and The Paradyse of Daynty Deuises.41 By selecting a popular stanza, associated with what James VI had called "materis of loue," and using it for sacred subjects, he challenged contemporary poets, announcing his intention "to weaue a new webbe in their owne loome."42 In Saint Peters Complaint, the stanza becomes a form for interrogating the values of the complaint tradition. In this example, Peter inveighs against his betrayal of Christ, asking a series of questions that go unanswered, even in the final couplet:

Ah tongue, that didst his praise and Godhead sound,How wert thou stain'd with such detesting wordsThat euery word was to his hart a wound,And launst him deeper then a thousand swordes?What rage of man, yea what infernall spirite,Could haue disgorg'd more loathsome dregs of spite?43

Like Shakespeare, Southwell interrogates the act of complaint by adapting its dominant tropes; the extended questioning here follows the example of several amatory complaints in The Paradyse of Daynty Deuises. Yet these lines characterize a countertradition of devotional verse in this stanza. Southwell employs questions to dramatize a process of self-examination which was essential for Catholic readers who lacked access to a priest for catechism or confession. At the same time, though, the questions Southwell uses are often rhetorical rather than catechistical. These rhetorical questions are hard by design, disquieting those who had turned from or were tempted to deny their faith.44 The six-line stanza facilitates both kinds of questioning: the interplay of quatrain and couplet can dramatize a process of reasoning through question and answer, it can also express grief and self-excoriation that resists closure. Rather than provide a pithy moral for the stanza, the concluding couplet (which may employ consonance instead of full-rhyme, depending on changes in pronunciation) is used here to underscore Peter's agonized sense of his own sinfulness. [End Page 10]

In this way, Southwell uses the six-line stanza to dramatize problems of self-examination. As in Venus and Adonis, the act of complaining is presented as potentially excessive and narcissistic. The poem invites readers to participate in Peter's penitential experience, but it also challenges them to distinguish between what Peter calls the "circkling griefes" of self-rebuke and the selfish passions of sin itself.45 In the following stanza, Peter presents himself as the epitome of religious sorrow, but his self-presentation verges on despair:

How can I liue that thus my life deni'd?What can I hope, that lost my hope in feare?What trust to one, that truth it selfe defi'de?What good in him, that did his God forsweare?O sinne, of sinnes, of euils, the very worst:O matchlesse wretch: O caitiffe most accurst.46

The stanza builds to a crescendo with its tropes of repetition, including anaphora, alliteration, ploce, polyptoton, and isocolon, as Peter asks a series of unanswered questions that culminate in the exclamations of the couplet. Here, too, the affective qualities of poetic language do not serve a straightforwardly didactic purpose. The barrage of questions attempt self-examination, a form of catechism or confession, but this process is left incomplete in the poem. Instead, Southwell presents Peter's "circkling griefes" in the circling rhymes of the stanza; rather than using the couplet for progress, moving towards hope in Christ's grace and forgiveness, the affective momentum of the quatrain leads Peter into hyperboles of despair. Southwell invites readers to set Peter's faulty reasoning against a larger scriptural narrative. His poem uses the six-line stanza to interrogate the values of the complaint tradition and encourage a mode of critically-aware devotional reading that could stimulate more effective acts of self-examination and confession.

If Southwell and Shakespeare use the sixain to forge competing responses to the complaint tradition, it is tempting to conclude that Shakespeare won. Yet this judgement accepts the distortions of a literary history with a canonizing approach to poetic form. The resurgent interest in the six-line stanza during the 1590s offers some evidence for the success of Venus and Adonis, but writers such as Southwell also provided an important catalyst for its use, forging a significant but neglected countertradition of devotional verse written in this form. The point here is not to replace the label "Venus and Adonis stanza" with a "Southwellian stanza," revealing Southwell as the stylistic model for Shakespeare's poem or crediting him with the [End Page 11] spread of the form in this period; rather, the aim is to consider what each author's work contributes to contemporary conceptions of this form.47 Like Shakespeare, Southwell is interested in the relationship between the six-line stanza and rhetorical excess in the complaint tradition. Although it is unlikely that either writer had the opportunity to respond directly to the other's poetry, it seems plausible that early readers saw theirs as competing voices in a larger discussion about the object and efficacy of complaint, as well as the appropriate literary forms for presenting such passionate utterances.48

While Southwell's poem exposes Peter's self-indulgence, Shakespeare's similarly underscores the excesses of female complaint. Shakespeare's interest in the efficacy of female complaint continued. The following year saw the publication of Lucrece, a poem in which Shakespeare would deploy a stanza one line longer and with multiple different rhetorical and formal possibilities, to represent Lucrece's more profoundly tragic voice.


While the six-line stanza of Venus and Adonis was thus subject to competing uses and associations in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, thought of as "common" and "usual", the rhyme royal used in Lucrece was already a canonical verse form.49 When Shakespeare turned to it for his second narrative poem, he chose a form that was not so ubiquitous as the VA stanza, and one that had particular and well-established meanings in early modern culture. Although rhyme royal was popular in the Elizabethan period (with around one thousand usages), it was only about half as popular as the sixain used in Venus and Adonis (with two and a half thousand).50 Rhyme royal furnishes an even earlier example of how stanzaic patterns become freighted with certain meanings by literary history, in this case before Shakespeare's usage, and also how other traditions can become obscured.

In his Certain Notes of Instruction, George Gascoigne defined "rhythme royal" as "a royal kind of verse, serving best for grave discourses."51 James VI referred to the stanza as "Troilus verse," because of its use by Geoffrey Chaucer, noting it should be employed for "tragicall materis, complaintis, or testamentis."52 The form was indeed often employed for narrative verse, especially history, as well as for elegies and complaint poetry.53 Rhyme royal's association with nobility is evident, though still vexed: in one of the only critical treatments of the stanza's history, Martin Stevens challenges the widely [End Page 12] accepted belief that the stanza took its name from usage in James I of Scotland's Kings Quair.54

In the preface to Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare promises that his next work will be "some graver labour," usually thought to anticipate the weightier Lucrece.55 The "grave" here of course refers to the (even) darker subject matter of his second poem, and also suggests the Latin gravior used by classical poets in mapping out careers.56 A third reference might be to the choice of stanza form itself: "some graver labour" resonates with the characterisation of rhyme royal as "grave" by Gascoigne and Puttenham. Moving from sixains to rhyme royal thus provides a formal allegory for the ambitions Shakespeare suggested in the preface to his first published poem.57 Puttenham stresses the form's longevity, and its Chaucerian origins. He describes the seven-line stanza as "the chief of our ancient proportions used by any rhymer writing any thing of historical or grave poem, as ye may see in Chaucer and John Lydgate, the one writing the loves of Troilus and Cresseida, the other of the fall of princes."58 The choice of rhyme royal can be seen as part of a narrative of artistic development, with Shakespeare calling upon its associations to present himself as a more serious poet embarking on a literary career. The association of rhyme royal with Chaucer, like Puttenham's anglicizing of rhetorical terminology, anticipates the concerns of nineteenth-century prosodists. As it theorizes and defends vernacular versification, criticism becomes implicated in emergent nationalism.

Beyond its associations of gravity, nobility, and female voice, though, the rhyme royal stanza has a further connotation which this essay will explore and which is crucial to Lucrece's embedded complaint: legal argumentation. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the importance of law and legal rhetoric to Shakespeare across his works, but it has largely focused on his plays. The genre of complaint poetry in fact has legal connotations foregrounded in its very name; alongside its literary meaning, a complaint was also "a statement of injury or grievance laid before a court … a formal accusation or charge."59 From the fourteenth century, writers including Chaucer used the term in both its poetic and legal senses. As Jonathan Kerrigan puts it, "complaint" was the term applied to "many sorts of articulate dissatisfaction."60 These connotations were sustained in complaint poetry by "the use of legal terminology and the adoption of postures of accusation, defence and self-exculpation, which were constitutive features of this 'genre.'"61 Rhyme royal was popularly associated with such quasi-legal pleading, as suggested by James VI's reference to the stanza's suitability for [End Page 13] "complaintis, or testamentis." The complaints featured in successive editions of The Mirror for Magistrates exemplify this tradition. Thomas Churchyard's Shores Wife from The Mirror for Magistrates provides a final case study for illuminating how Shakespeare exploits the interaction of style and stanzaic form to question the values of the complaint genre. While Shakespeare, like Southwell, used the sixain to challenge the appropriateness and proportionality of grief in Venus and Adonis, rhyme royal becomes a tool for questioning the efficacy of female complaint in Lucrece. At stake is not simply whether Lucrece's grief is proportionate, but whether her articulation will work.


With six significant editions between 1559 and 1610, and numerous reissues for a further decade, The Mirror for Magistrates was another Elizabethan bestseller, and a major contributor to the production of historical verse tragedy and complaint poetry in rhyme royal, accounting for 10% of longer poems in that form.62 Adopting the seven-line stanza as its dominant form, the Mirror signalled its status as a continuation of Lydgate's Fall of Princes, a work which, as Puttenham's commentary suggests, became closely associated with rhyme royal, alongside Troilus and Criseyde.63 There has been some discussion of the Mirror as a source and analogue for Shakespeare's drama, though relatively little on its influence upon his poetry.64

Looking at Thomas Churchyard's Shores Wife helps us understand how rhyme royal was used in the Mirror in the service of legal complaint, and illuminates Shakespeare's more radical construction of forensic argument in Lucrece.65 The ghost of Jane Shore seeks to free herself from "slaunderous snare," inviting readers to consider whether she is to blame for becoming Edward IV's mistress:

Yet geve me leave to pleade my case at large,Yf that the horse do runne beyond his race,Or any thing that kepers have in chargeDo breake theyr course, where rulers may take place,Or meat be set before the hungryes face,Who is in fault? the offendour yea or no,Or they that are the cause of all this wo?

Note wel what stryfe this forced maryage makes,What lothed lyues do come where love doth lacke,What scratting bryers do growe vpon such brakes,What common weales by it are brought to wracke, [End Page 14] What heavy loade is put on pacientes backe,What straunge delyghtes this braunch of vice doth bredeAnd marke what graine sprynges out of such a seede.66

These stanzas are framed as pleas, enacting Shore's intention to "shewe her piteous case" as she invites readers to "trye my case" and seeks to "cleare my selfe" of blame.67 The words "case" and "cause," used at the beginning and end of the stanza, foreground multiple meanings, including motive, reason, and ground of action; the person who is to blame for misfortune; as well as a legal case, and side of a controversy. In doing so, Shores Wife illustrates how the complaints in the Mirror tradition develop the quasi-legal connotations of this mode. Many contributions are framed as "cases" and "causes," evoking the inheritance of the de casibus tradition, with its emphasis on misfortune and predicament; an interest in psychological and historical causation; as well as quasi-legal meanings including an action or suit, and a set of arguments in a controversy.68 This legal context is particularly evident in Churchyard's poem with Jane Shore presenting her "case" and challenging readers to judge whether she is an "exemplary moral failure" or "humble victim of royal power," as one critic puts it.69

Churchyard uses rhyme royal to frame this performance. The first stanza develops Shore's plea through a rhetorical question, offering supporting evidence in lines 1–5 and appealing to sympathetic judgement in the couplet. The following stanza sets out accusations against "forced maryage" which are extended and concluded in the couplet, using a series of metaphors to delineate the "cause," which modulates from a source of hatred and impediment to an agent of ruin and burden, before becoming the breeding ground for adultery.

Shakespeare reworks these tropes of quasi-legal pleading in Lucrece. Comparing this stanzaic form with the sixains of Venus and Adonis, critics have associated rhyme royal with a "meditative quality" that is consistent with the greater thoughtfulness and seriousness usually attributed to the poem.70 As Lorna Hutson has recently argued, however, the "meditation" of Lucrece is also a specific rhetorical practice, running through topics in order to rehearse the invention of arguments on either side of a forensic oration.71 Lucrece's apostrophes to Night, Opportunity, and Time are characteristic of complaint but they also prepare a legal defence highlighting the circumstances which forced her to act as she did.72 The following example, taken from Lucrece's apostrophe against Opportunity, resembles a "meditation" in this legal, strategic sense, and highlights how Shakespeare redeploys the rhyme royal stanza to this very different kind of rhetorical performance: [End Page 15]

Thou makest the vestall violate her oath,Thou blowest the fire when temperance is thawd,Thou smotherest honestie, thou murthrest troth,Thou fowle abbettor, thou notorious bawd,Thou plantest scandall, and displacest lawd.        Thou rauisher, thou traytor, thou false theefe,        Thy honie turnes to gall, thy joy to greefe.

Thy secret pleasure turnes to open shame,Thy priuate feasting to a publicke fast,Thy smoothing titles to a ragged name,Thy sugred tongue to bitter wormwood tast,Thy violent vanities can neuer last.        How comes it then, vile opportunity,        Being so bad, such numbers seeke for thee?73

Like Shore's wife, Lucrece anatomizes the circumstances that constrained her to act as she did, but there are instructive differences in their performance. While Shore seeks to repair her reputation after death, Lucrece has a more "urgent motive" of examining the temporal circumstances of her rape before retelling her story in the context of a forensic oration.74 Moreover, while Shore challenges readers to "trye my case" in order to "prove" her defence, Lucrece refers to the crime as "curelesse" (772) even as she ascribes "guilt" (876) to the circumstances which led to it.

Lucrece fears that the proof she is trying to articulate is in fact superfluous, and Shakespeare manipulates the rhyme royal stanza to emphasize this emotion as it overwhelms her argument. Like Shore's wife, Lucrece presents a series of metaphors exploring the qualities of Opportunity that occasioned her rape, but here the anaphora spills into the following verse. Shakespeare calls attention to his innovation. Gascoigne and others had prescribed the appropriate "terminations" in rhyme royal.75 But by shifting the repeated word from "Thou" to "Thy" in line 6 of the first stanza, Shakespeare creates a link across the two stanzas which defies these rules for using the stanza form. In Lucrece, the multiple possible "closes" afforded by rhyme royal are not a problem but an opportunity: Shakespeare seizes upon the mismatch between stanzaic and rhetorical structure to represent an idea "overflowing" and "proliferating" in an almost compulsive manner.76 Heather Dubrow has portrayed Lucrece as a "problem complaint" and Shakespeare's manipulation of the stanza form accentuates the problematic rhetoric which Dubrow identifies.77 [End Page 16]

Shakespeare exploits the interaction of rhetorical style and stanzaic form in order to question the rhetorical confidence of Lucrece's "cause." As Hutson observes, the effect of Lucrece's copious personifications of Opportunity is to "multiply causae, or motives, in an ambiguous and inclusive profusion" which "works against unequivocal proof of guilt or innocence."78 As she meditates on the power of opportunity to make "the vestall violate her oath," Lucrece's sense of her own volition is compromised by her analysis of circumstances.

Shakespeare's poem thus questions the efficacy of legal argument in complaint. It also challenges the gender dynamics of the genre by reassigning some of its tropes to male speakers, most notably cursing. Shakespeare had reflected on this aspect of the Mirror tradition while composing Richard III, which features numerous scenes of cursing.79 Bart van Es has commented on Shakespeare's common use of set structures in the early plays and poems, suggesting that the early works "bristle with imitative overlap."80 We can see the ostentatious reworking of familiar forms in Lucrece in Shakespeare's manipulation of rhyme royal as well as in the rhetorical modes of case and curse. Lucrece's speech transfers many features of complaint away from herself and on to Tarquin:

Let him haue time to teare his curled haire,Let him haue time against himselfe to raue,Let him haue time of times helpe to dispaire,Let him haue time to liue a lothed slaue,Let him haue time a beggers orts to craue,        And time to see one that by almes doth liue,        Disdaine to him disdained scraps to giue.

Let him haue time to see his friends his foes,And merrie fooles to mocke at him resort:Let him haue time to marke how slow time goesIn time of sorrow, and how swift and shortHis time of follie, and his time of sport.        And euer let his unrecalling crime        Haue time to waile th'abusing of his time.


The act of cursing constitutes the most elaborate example of anaphora in the poem, with the repetition of a four-word phrase creating a ritual of incantation.81 At the same time, the final couplet extends rather than concludes this performance ("And time to see […]"), and prepares for its continuation in the following verse, representing the proliferation of an impassioned speech act. Recalling the complaint of Shore's wife, [End Page 17] Lucrece apparently sets aside the rhetorical preparation for pleading her case to pursue the private justice of revenge. While her curses seem to assign Lucrece to the margins of political power, they also confer the same status on Tarquin; Lucrece condemns him to end his days in complaint, "rav[ing]", "despair[ing]" and "wail[ing]" at his downfall.82 She even supplies conventional topics for his lamentation, including poverty, loss of friends, and the remembrance of crimes (all of which feature in Churchyard's poem), as well as "extreames beyond extremitie / To make him curse this cursed crimefull night" (969–70).83

In making cursing and lamentation part of Tarquin's "rhetorical fortune," Shakespeare's poem reveals a skeptical awareness of how male-authored complaint represents its feminine subject.84 This problem becomes more urgent as Lucrece breaks off cursing to attack her own rhetorical resources. In a series of personifications she doubts the efficacy of her preparation for a forensic oration. Lucrece dismisses her "idle wordes" (1016) as "weake arbitrators" (1017) whose province is "skill contending schooles," declaring "my case is past the helpe of law" (1022). Reflecting on her "case"—a keyword from the complaints of the Mirror tradition—Lucrece acknowledges that a sense of complicity in her own violation undermines any attempt to defend herself:

In vaine I raile at oportunitie,At time, at TARQUIN, and vnchearfull night,In vaine I cauill with mine infamie,In vaine I spurne at my confirm'd despight,This helpelesse smoake of words doth me no right:        The remedie indeede to do me good,        Is to let forth my fowle defiled blood.


Lucrece rejects legal complaint. Its elaborate rhetoric, she says, "doth me no right"—it cannot help her obtain justice. Indeed, this stanza denies the efficacy of complaint, downgrading lamentation and quasi-legal pleas from "rail[ing]" (complaining vehemently) to "cauill[ing]" (objecting without good reason), before denying their agency altogether, leaving a "helplesse smoake of words." The use of anaphora here might suggest a ritualistic disavowal of her earlier apostrophes and curses. Or it might highlight Lucrece's struggle to escape the rhetoric and values of complaint. On this occasion, the use of anaphora seems to follow the expected pauses of the stanza, allowing Lucrece to conclude her reflection in line 5 before proposing a "remedie" in the final couplet. In doing so, the use of rhyme royal foregrounds rhetoric and suicide as competing modes of legal argument. The reader is challenged to [End Page 18] weigh the efficacy of bloodletting against Lucrece's copious case-making as means of securing justice.85

For this reason, Lucrece goes beyond the parody of complaint offered by Venus and Adonis. As we have seen, Shakespeare employed the six-line stanza to emphasise Venus's passion and her flawed reasoning, inviting a skeptical assessment of her hyperbolic utterances. In Lucrece, too, the use of rhyme royal highlights the rhetorical excess of complaint; unlike Venus, however, Lucrece reflects upon the limitations of the rhetorical resources available to her. While Venus's lamentation prompts the "comic pathos" associated with epyllia, Lucrece's suicide presents a troubling kind of justice, calling into question the adequacy of legal complaint as well as forensic oration to articulate her experience.86

Puttenham's term for stanza, "proportion," seems strikingly apt to these poems. Shakespeare draws on their existing connotations to find a fitting, proportionate mode for his poems. The stanza forms he chooses foreground the complaint component embedded within each poem, as both six- and seven-line stanzas were already associated with various forms of complaint, from amatory to devotional to legalistic. But "proportion" is also a major theme of these poems, and one which, arguably, their female complainants flout. Lucrece struggles to find a proportionate response to her assault, demanding that the night "[m]ake war against proportion'd course of time" (774), halting time in the face of her grief, while Churchyard had shown him how the excesses of anaphora could effectively overwhelm the various "terminations" of the rhyme royal stanza. The tears falling from Venus's sluice-like eyelids are disproportionately large in relation to the lover whose death she grieves (as Southwell uses similar sensuous, physiological excess in the very different context of confessional recusant tears poetry). Shakespeare uses the dynamics of these particular stanzas to reflect on excesses of emotion: in his hands, the VA stanza and rhyme royal become proportions of disproportion.


The complexity and innovation of Shakespeare's two narrative poems—as with so many of his works—lie in their simultaneous borrowing and challenging of existing traditions. Both poems embed complaints by their female protagonists. Shakespeare reflects upon both Venus's and Lucrece's grief through his intricate manipulation of their respective stanza forms: the Venus and Adonis stanza and rhyme royal.87 By the time Shakespeare deployed it, the VA stanza was [End Page 19] already widely used for erotic narratives and for devotional poetry in miscellanies such as The Paradyse of Daynty Deuises. For their poems of emotional excess, both Shakespeare and Robert Southwell drew on the devotional tradition of tears poetry. This stanzaic tradition has been obscured partly by the Shakespearean label "Venus and Adonis stanza"; it was Southwell—not Shakespeare—who would become the most prodigious and influential writer in the sixain form. The excesses of Paradyse and of tears poetry offered both authors a form to challenge; the grief of each of their respective speakers, Venus and Saint Peter, is shown to be both profoundly empathetic and decadently solipsistic.

Shakespeare reworks the female complaint still further in Lucrece, and here he picks up on the use of another stanza form (rhyme royal) through yet another neglected influence. While many critics refer to the stanza as Chaucerian (a dominant association evident in James VI's label "Troilus verse"), Shakespeare's use evokes another tradition, that of the Mirror for Magistrates. Again, Shakespeare manipulates the stanza form to reflect upon the efficacy of complaint itself; even as the poem deploys anaphora, the figurative language of "case" and "cause," and the forensic technique of the plaintiff, Lucrece questions the efficacy of her lament. Both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece critique the excesses of complaint traditions, from amatory to legalistic, and of their own female protagonists.

While critics have written richly on these poems in terms of rhetorical style and genre (Puttenham's "ornament" and "kind"), the stanza forms ("proportion") remain little understood. When critics do consider them, it is often only to mention one, presumed stable, connotation of the form: the gravity or nobility of rhyme royal, the erotic connotations of the VA stanza. It is the interplay of rhetoric, genre, and stanza form, though, that reveals Shakespeare's innovation through his borrowing: the excess of rhetoric qualified by anaphora, the overspill of emotion from quatrain to couplet, of curse and question between stanzas and across established boundaries. Douglas Bruster has argued that for Shakespeare, "form was not only materially efficacious, but, in its very efficacy, often a seemingly present, overdetermined 'thing' with identifiable dimensions, properties, and consequences."88 This article has shown that it is only by stripping away canonizing literary histories that we can understand the properties of a stanza form, as well as tracing its later influence, or "consequences." The "efficacy" of any form involves the interplay of rhetoric, stanza form and genre.

When stanzas are labelled for authors or their works ("Venus and Adonis stanza", "Troilus verse"), we can usually see a drive to define [End Page 20] and advocate English literature. The practice of identifying a form by its most famous user is widespread (we think of a Shakespearean sonnet, a Spenserian stanza) but it can distort the history of a form's actual usage. While it is sometimes the case (as with The Faerie Queene, for instance) that the most famous proponent of a stanzaic form has invented it, this is often not so. Terms like "Venus and Adonis stanza" obscure the complexities of a stanza's history; the use of a stanza form by a famous, nationally cherished, poet can mask important prior use by a poet whose reputation diminishes or more perniciously, in the case of Southwell, whose religious identity sets them at odds with nationalistic histories. Stanza names may be convenient ("Venus and Adonis stanza" is somewhat easier than "iambic pentameter sixain rhymed ababcc"), but they are founded on myths of origins which they in turn perpetuate. If we wish to understand poetic form historically, we must trace the multiple genealogies behind a stanza, revealing the other legacies that lie behind its most famous usage. In order fully to appreciate Shakespeare's manipulation of his stanzas, we need to let go of the idea that they are Shakespearean stanzas at all.

Elizabeth Scott-Baumann
King's College, London and Nottingham High School, Nottingham
Ben Burton
King's College, London and Nottingham High School, Nottingham


This article grew out of papers given at the Renaissance Society of America convention in 2013 in a panel on "Literary Form and Value" organized by Paul Stevens, and at the London Shakespeare Seminar in 2015. For invaluable discussion and advice, we would like to thank Rowan Boyson, Adelene Buckland, Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Lewis, Gordon McMullan, Lucy Munro, Jonathan Post, Sarah C. E. Ross, and Clare Whitehead.

1. See The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, and Paul F. Rouzer (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), 1193–94 ("Rhyme Royal") and 1506–07 ("Venus and Adonis Stanza"). See also note 9.

2. See Jeff Dolven, "Reading Wyatt for the Style," Modern Philology, 105 (2007): 65–86.

3. Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton Univ Press, 2015), 6.

4. See Jeff Dolven, Senses of Style: Poetry before Interpretation (Chicago: Chicago Univ Press, 2017), 180.

5. See "Of Ornament," in George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesy by George Puttenham: A Critical Edition, ed. Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 2007), 221–388, esp. 221; "Of Proportional Poetical", 153–219; and for references to the genre or "kind" of poetry, see for example 115; 151.

6. Dolven (2017), 180.

7. Puttenham, 154.

8. Katharine Eisman Maus, introduction to Venus and Adonis, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Gordon McMullan (London: W. W. Norton, 2016), 659.

9. See, for example, Princeton Encyclopedia, 1506–7; Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (Springfield: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1995), 1161; and J. A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (London: Penguin, 1999), 963.

10. See The Three Parnassus Plays, ed. J. B. Leishman (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1949), 184:

11. This quotation is noted in James Frederick Furnivall, C. M. Ingleby, and Lucy Toulmin Smith, The Shakspere allusion-book: a collection of allusions to Shakspere from 1591 to 1700, 2 vol. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1909), 2:67–68.

12. See The Passionate Pilgrim (London: W. Jaggard, 1599). Following the numbering in Complete Sonnets, ed. Colin Burrow (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), and Shakespeare's Poems, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and H. R. Woudhuysen (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2007), poems 7, 10, 13, and 14 are in VA stanzas while 4, 6, 9, and 11 are about Venus and Adonis.

13. See John Suckling, "A Supplement of an imperfect Copy of Verses of Mr Wil. Shakespears, By the Author," in Fragmenta Aurea (London: Humphry Moseley, 1646), 29–30.

14. See Roland Mushat Frye, "Shakespeare's Composition of Lucrece: New Evidence," Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965): 289–96.

15. Burrow, introduction to Complete Sonnets, 44. Another possibility mentioned is that Suckling found an inaccurate scribal version of the passage and worked it up, though no such version is known.

16. See William A. Ringler, Bibliography and Index of English Verse Printed 1476–1558 (London and New York: Mansell Publishing, 1988); and Steven W. May and William A. Ringler, Jr., Elizabethan Poetry: A Bibliography and First-line Index of English Verse, 1559–1603, 3 vol. (London and New York: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004), 3:2148–2150. See also Max Kaluza, A Short History of English Versification, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: G. Allen & Company, 1911), 355–58.

17. In the case of "Fair is my love, but not so fair as fickle," Katherine Duncan-Jones comments on similarities between this poem and earlier 18-line sonnets written by Sidney and Thomas Watson (see Shakespeare's Poems, 393–94). The Elizabethan Poetry index lists 459 examples written entirely or partly in this form, including 92 of the 100 poems in Watson's 1582 Hekatompathia (Elizabethan Poetry, 3:2148–2149).

18. Maus, 659.

19. The stanza is compared to a "Shakespearean sonnet" in The Sonnets of John Milton, ed. Mark Pattison," The Athenaeum 2914 (1883): 264, and in the entry on "Sonnet" for the Encyclopaedia Britannica 25 vol. (Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1875–9), 22:261–63.

20. See Meredith Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), 96.

21. See, for example, Nathan Drake, Shakespeare and his Times (London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1817), 2:57 ("Spenserian sonnet"); Capel Lofft, Laura: or An Anthology of Sonnets (London: R and A Taylor, 1814), 1:cxcvi ("Spenserian sonnet"); Letters of Anna Seward (Edinburgh: George Ramsay and Company, 1811), 3:13 ("Miltonic sonnet"); and "Poems, by Hartley Coleridge," unsigned review article in The Literary Gazette 1782 (1851): 198–199 ("Shakespearian sonnet").

22. "The Essayes of a Prentise," in King James VI and I: Selected Writings, ed. Neil Rhodes, Jennifer Richards, and Joseph Marshall (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 37; Puttenham, 155; and George Gascoigne, "Certayne notes of Instruction," in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, ed. G. W. Pigman III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 460.

23. Kerrigan, for instance, notes that Shakespeare's "virtuosic handling" of the sonnet grows out of his "experiments with the quatrain-plus-couplet stanza in Venus and Adonis" (John Kerrigan, "Shakespeare's Poems," in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001], 73).

24. Maus, 659. On dating, see Burrow, 105–6.

25. See Burrow, 15–40.

26. The Paradyse of Daynty Deuises (London: Henry Disle, 1576), 72. While it is beyond the remit of this article, the varying use of indentation in the formatting of stanzas may be important in its transmission so the formatting of the original printed editions has been retained as much as possible in quotation.

27. Paradyse, 72.

28. Paradyse, 74.

29. Paradyse, 41.

30. William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis (London: Richard Field, 1593), sig. [Fiv] v lines 931–36.

31. Maus, 659.

32. On the early modern confusion of question and exclamation marks, see David Crystal, "Think on my Words": Exploring Shakespeare's Language (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 72–78.

33. See Shakespeare's Poems, 210; and The Norton Shakespeare, 687.

34. Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, 949–54.

35. Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, 955–66.

36. See Lukas Erne and Tamsin Badcoe, "Shakespeare and the Popularity of Poetry Books in Print, 1583–1622," Review of English Studies 65 (2013): 33–57, esp. 47 and 52.

37. See, for example, Cambridge History of English Literature, ed. A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, 15 vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1912–1929), 4:128.

38. Robert Southwell, "The Author to the Reader," in Saint Peters Complaint, With other Poemes (London: John Wolfe, 1595), sig. A3v, lines 15–16.

39. See Shakspere Allusion Book, 1:16. See also Alison Shell, "Why didn't Shakespeare Write Religious Verse?," in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson: New Directions in Biography, ed. Takashi Kozuka and J. R. Mulryne (Farnham: Ashgate, 2006), 85–112, esp. 90. Critics have long speculated about links between Shakespeare and Southwell, and have noted their shared use of this stanza; see, for example, Christopher Devlin, The Life of Robert Southwell: Poet and Martyr (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956), 257–73; and Richard Wilson "A Bloody Question: The Politics of Venus and Adonis," Religion and the Arts 5.3 (2001): 297–316. See also Scott R. Pilarz, Robert Southwell and the Mission of Literature, 1561–1595: Writing Reconciliation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 254–65.

40. On Southwell's legacy, see Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 1999), 56–106, esp. 58–63. Southwell's verse rivaled Venus and Adonis in popularity; while Shakespeare's poem was reprinted 15 times before 1640, Saint Peters Complaint received 12 reprints in England and Scotland, with another two editions printed abroad (see Erne and Badcoe, 47). Southwell's appeal spanned the confessional spectrum, but many writers concealed their debt to him, emphasizing Reformed precedents even as they appropriated his poetry for their own purposes. While Shakespeare's verse provided a touchstone for literary and national origins, Southwell's legacy remains both pervasive and obscured.

41. See Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale Univ Press, 1954), 180–83, 187–89, 191, 196–99.

42. Saint Peters Complaint, A2v.

43. Saint Peters Complaint, lines 133–38.

44. See Anne R. Sweeney, Robert Southwell. Snow in Arcadia: Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape, 1586–95 (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 2006), 28–29.

45. Saint Peters Complaint, line 678. See Brian Cummings, The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 352. For a different reading, see Gary Kuchar, The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 102–08.

46. Saint Peters Complaint, lines 55–60.

47. For parallel debates about the origins of the "Spenserian sonnet" and the more historically accurate label "Scottish sonnet," see Kate McClune, "The 'Spenserian Sonnet' in Sixteenth-Century Scotland," Notes and Queries 56 (2009): 533–36 (see especially McClune's references).

48. See Shell, "Why Didn't Shakespeare Write Religious Verse?," 85–112.

49. King James VI and I, 37; Puttenham, 155.

50. See Elizabethan Poetry, 3: 2148–2150, 2152–2153.

51. Gascoigne, 460.

52. "The Essayes of a Prentise," 36.

53. The Elizabethan Poetry index lists 170 poems of +100 lines written exclusively in rhyme royal; of these, 59 have subjects classified as historical, with 17 listed as complaints, and 15 as elegies. Its use for female complaint ranges from Chaucer's Compleynte of Annelida to Churchyard's Shores Wife, as well as Spenser's The Ruines of Time (1591) and Drayton's Matilda (1594). Shores Wife was published in 1563 in Mirror for Magistrates; revised in 1593 as The Tragedy of Shore's Wife. Shakespeare's sonnets were followed by the rhyme royal A Lover's Complaint in 1609, as Samuel Daniel had published The Complaint of Rosamund in rhyme royal together with his Delia sonnets in 1592.

54. See Martin Stevens, "The Royal Stanza in Early English Literature," PMLA 94 (1979): 62–76, esp. 73.

55. Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, sig. A2.

56. See Burrow, 173, n.

57. Raphael Lyne argues that Shakespeare's use of the term chimes with Puttenham's; see "Thinking in Stanzas: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece," in The Work of Form: Poetics and Materiality in Early Modern Culture, ed. Ben Burton and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), 88–103, esp. 98. On Chaucerian allusion through rhyme royal, see Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare's Literary Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 32.

58. Puttenham, 155.

59. OED, s.v. "complaint, n.4."

60. John Kerrigan, Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and 'female complaint' (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 7.

61. Jennifer Richards and Alison Thorne, "Introduction," in Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England, ed. Jennifer Richards and Alison Thorne (London: Routledge, 2007), 15.

62. 18 of the 175 poems in rhyme royal longer than 100 lines listed in Elizabethan Poetry.

63. On the Lydgatean Mirror tradition, see Nigel Mortimer, John Lydgate's 'Fall of Princes': Narrative Tragedy in its Literary and Political Contexts (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 266–72.

64. On drama, see Stuart Gillespie, Shakespeare's Books: A Dictionary of Sources (London: Continuum, 2004), 339–41. Heather Dubrow has considered Lucrece as part of a subgenre of complaints that respond to the Mirror tradition in their focus on the perils of praise and flattery, the moral ambiguities involved in persuasion, and the political implications of private pleasure and our analysis of the importance of the rhyme royal stanza in this subgenre builds on her rhetorical analysis (Dubrow, "'A Mirror for Complaints': Shakespeare's Lucrece and Generic Tradition," in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986], 399–417).

65. See Richard Danson Brown, "'A Talkatiue Wench (Whose Words a World Hath Delighted in)': Mistress Shore and Elizabethan Complaint," The Review of English Studies 49.196 (1998): 400–405. Shores Wife was influential in the complaint tradition, cited in Daniel's Complaint of Rosamond (1592) as well as Drayton's Matilda (1594), and inspiring Anthony Chute's Beawtie Dishonoured (1593) which in turn prompted Churchyard to revise his poem as part of Churchyard's Challenge (1593).

66. "Howe Shores wife, Edwarde the fowerthes concubine, was by king Richarde despoyled of all her goodes, and forced to do open penance," in A myrrour for magistrates (London: Thomas Marshe, [1563]), sig. C. lviiv, lines 113–26.

67. "Shores wife", lines 42, 146, 148.

68. On the connotations of "case" and "cause" in complaints, see Kerrigan, 28. See also OED, s.v. "case, n.1, 2c, 4, 5, 6b, 7a and b" and "cause, n. 2, 3 a-c, 7a, 11a."

69. Danson Brown, "'A Talkatiue Wench'," 403.

70. Lyne, 97. See also William Shakespeare, The Poems, ed. John Roe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2006), 151.

71. Hutson, Circumstantial Shakespeare, 88.

72. See William Weaver, "'O Teach Me How to Make Mine Own Excuse': Forensic Performance in 'Lucrece'," Shakespeare Quarterly 59 (2008): 421–49; and Hutson, Circumstantial Shakespeare, ch. 2. See also Skinner, 50–4, 124–30.

73. Lines 883–896 in Lucrece (London: Richard Field, 1594), sig. G2. Hereafter cited parenthetically by line number.

74. Weaver, 438.

75. Early modern commentators established fixed protocols of pause and enjambment within the stanza, with Gascoigne describing "terminations" to accompany the alternate rhymes in the first five lines, adding that "the last two do combine and shut up the sentence" (Gascoigne, 460). Michael Drayton similarly found that the two couplets within rhyme royal led to preemptive and therefore overly "soft" closure, preventing the final couplet from providing "full satisfaction to the eare" (Letter to the Reader, The Barrons Wars [London: N. Ling, 1603], sig. A3r); Puttenham too preferred 8 to 7-line stanzas because it "receives better band," deploying a craft metaphor to mean that which "hold[s] the work fast" "so as none fall out alone or uncoupled" (Puttenham, 155, 178). Critics have seen Drayton's decision to rewrite Mortimeriados into ottava rima as "marking the end of rhyme royal's dominance as the great heroic measure" (Whigham and Rebhorn, The Art of English Poesy, 405).

76. These terms are taken from Lyne, 102. See also Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), 163.

77. Dubrow argues that Lucrece associates the values and tropes of complaint with Lucrece herself, so that Lucrece's protracted, hyperbolic exclamations thus become "symptomatic of her temperament" and of the limitations of the genre itself ("A Mirror", 399–417, esp. 413, 414, 417).

78. Hutson, Circumstantial Shakespeare, 96.

79. See William Shakespeare, Richard III, ed. Anthony Hammond (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2002), 89.

80. Shakespeare in Company (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), 72.

81. Compare "Shores wife," lines 330–336.

82. Weaver, 440.

83. Compare "Shores wife', lines 496–97, 524–25, 538–39.

84. Weaver, 440.

85. Weaver, 445.

86. Dympna Callaghan, "Comedy and Epyllion in Post-Reformation England", Shakespeare Survey 56 (2003): 35.

87. For a parallel focus on material rather than stanzaic form, and "resonant female identities," see Douglas Bruster, "Shakespeare's Lady 8," Shakespeare Quarterly 66 (2015): 47–88, esp. 69.

88. Douglas Bruster, "The Materiality of Shakespearean Form," in Shakespeare and Historical Formalism, ed. Stephen Cohen (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 33.

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