Shakespeare's Sonnets Essay - The Generic Complexities of A Lover's Complaint and Its Relationship to the Sonnets in Shakespeare's 1609 Volume

William Shakespeare

The Generic Complexities of A Lover's Complaint and Its Relationship to the Sonnets in Shakespeare's 1609 Volume

Jennifer Laws, University of Otago

From being largely ignored by early readers and critics, Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint has in recent years attracted some attention. Questions of authorship and approximate dating may have been exhaustively worked through, but many other problems remain, not the least being the poem's generic status and its relationship (if any) to the sonnets in the 1609 volume.1 These last two aspects are, I believe, intimately connected, for an appreciation of the generic complexities inherent in the narrative poem can illuminate its function within the volume as a whole.

The importance of genre in the interpretation of texts has became a commonplace of Renaissance literary criticism. Many scholars have pointed out that in all periods the various genres are distinguished from one another not only by form and subject matter but by the values and attitudes that accrue to specific groupings; and so the choice of genre and the way it is handled can become a potent contribution to the meaning of the text.2 In the Renaissance, however, genre became a particularly significant concept, for writers looked back to classical models and based much of their 'imitation' on the various 'kinds', as Sidney and Puttenham testify.3 Not that generic theory necessarily constrained them; rather, the most creative poets extended or challenged generic conventions and frequently mixed two or more kinds in the one text. This occurred not only in large works, such as Sidney's New Arcadia and Spenser's The Faerie Queene, with their blending of romance and epic and their inclusion of many other kinds, but also in smaller texts. A recent collection of essays by various scholars explores this propensity to play with genre and emphasises, in the words of the editor, the 'mixture of genres and the transformations of kinds' that occurred in many different sorts of poems, including pastoral and complaint.4

Much has been written on Shakespeare's proclivity to experiment with genre. Rosalie Colie explains the mingling of the sal, acetum, or even fel epigram with the mel sonnet in Shakespeare's sequence, with the result that the poet is able to 'preserve the mixed bitter and sweet experience of loving, in a solution entirely his own' (pp. 68-75);5 and Heather Dubrow suggests that Shakespeare both adopts and criticises Petrarch's genre, for 'in using Petrarchan conceits to describe behavior that hardly conforms to Petrarchan codes, he [Shakespeare] raises the disturbing possibility that perhaps even poets who write more conventional sonnets are lying about the nature of love.'6 Dubrow also discusses at length the way Shakespeare both extends and subverts generic traditions in his narrative poems. She links Venus and Adonis to the problem comedies, for it raises 'ethical issues that trouble the reader because they do not admit of clear solutions, and, again like those comedies, it calls many of the assumptions of its own genre into question.'7 Similarly, Dubrow argues that The Rape of Lucrece can be seen as a 'complaint against the complaint' largely because, unlike other poems in that genre, it explores character and motive behind the action and, in particular, renders 'the concept of guilt problematical'.8 While some of what both these critics say can be considered open to debate,9 the main conclusion that Shakespeare extends or subverts generic expectations seems incontrovertible.

Given this sophisticated playing with genre, we might well expect Shakespeare to show equal skill in manipulating different traditions in A Lover's Complaint, a poem written several years after The Rape when he was a more experienced writer. But recent criticism has failed to appreciate the fact that the poem might not be all that its title proclaims. Two editors have placed the poem firmly within the woman's complaint tradition: John Kerrigan argues for the similarity of A Lover's Complaint to Daniel's Rosamond, 'which, more than any other in the kind, was to prompt Shakespeare to emulation'; and John Roe, while rightly pointing to some of the differences between Shakespeare's narrative poem and Daniel's, still sees A Lover's Complaint primarily within the woman's complaint tradition.10

My contention in this essay is that, although Shakespeare's poem clearly owes something to the woman's complaint tradition, it differs fundamentally from other narratives written in that genre at the end of the sixteenth century. In the way that it raises questions about female sexuality and guilt and presents convincing human behaviour, A Lover's Complaint may be seen as following in the footsteps of its predecessor, The Rape of Lucrece; but it also differs greatly from that poem in that it combines complaint not with Ovidian narrative but with pastoral lyric, especially of the kind found in Englands Helicon, though once again there are considerable differences.11 These two genres of complaint and pastoral lyric do, of course, have something in common, for many of the lyrics take the form of a woman lamenting her fate; but, while they may share this topos, their attitudes and values do not coincide. A consideration of the two traditions, with particular attention to the women and the way they are presented, will show that A Lover's Complaint does not belong wholly to either of them, but forms a hybrid genre of its own which enables Shakespeare implicitly to criticise the values of both these kinds, substituting a much more realistic view of human life than either complaint or pastoral lyric usually allows. Furthermore, I shall argue in the last section of this essay that, looked at in this light, the poem is able to provide a fitting end to The Sonnets, a function that is denied it if we persist in seeing it solely in the tradition of Rosamond.

. . . . .

The immediate predecessor of the woman's complaint genre which became so popular in the 1590s is the collection of tales published first in 1559 under the title of The Mirror for Magistrates. In later editions of this work, two complaints in the voice of women were added, one spoken by Jane Shore and the other by Eleanor Cobham. There is little to distinguish these two stories from the rest of the tragedies in the volume, the women's demise merely serving to illustrate how Fortune deals with the excessively ambitious.12 However, Shore's Wife in particular proved an inspiration to later writers who began to stress not the blind workings of Fortune in the story but retribution for unchastity—a theme which barely exists in the original. By the 1590s the woman's complaint had developed into a recognisable genre of its own, characterised by a very narrow range of topics and attitudes towards sexuality. The writers of these poems were conscious of working within a well-defined tradition, as they often refer to previous examples: Daniel's Rosamond mentions 'Shores wife' (1. 25); and Drayton's Matilda compares herself favourably in the first few stanzas to Rosamond, Lucrece, Shore's wife, and Lodge's Elstred.13

Hallett Smith in his account of this group of poems points to Daniel's Rosamond as the prototype of the new woman's complaint, which brought a 'softening and sweetening of the effects of the old warning against pride and other sins of princes'.14 But such a statement needs carefully qualifying. It is true that Rosamond in Daniel's complaint stresses the need for pity—from the poet himself, who should be moved by a 'wofull womans case' as his happiness depends on 'a womans grace' (41-2) and from his Delia so that her sighs might bring the wretched Rosamond to 'sweet Elisean rest' (9), for in one night she found herself 'unparadis'd' (449). But as the poem proceeds, we find that judgement rather than pity is being passed on Rosamond. In place of the tirades against Fate in the more political complaints, we are shown no less graphically the horrors of unchastity; and this is in spite of the fact that Rosamond can hardly be held accountable for her transgressions. The poem shows a strange inconsistency about apportioning blame. On the one hand, everything and everybody conspires to almost force Rosamond into fornicating with the king: she is sent to court ill-prepared for the sophistication of that life and badly advised by an older woman, as well as being harrassed by the king himself; and she herself at one point sees the hand of Fate in her downfall: 'for that must hap decreed by heavenly powers / Who work our fall, yet make the fault still ours' (412-3). On the other hand, for the most part she accepts that the 'fault' lies with herself and her own lack of moral strength. She fails to take account of the dreadful examples of lost maidenhood on the casket, and so declares:

I sawe the sinne wherein my foote was entring,
I sawe how that dishonour did attend it
I sawe the shame whereon my flesh was ventring,
Yet had I not the powre for to defende it;
So weake is sence when error hath condemn'd it:
We see what's good, and thereto we consent us;
But yet we choose the worst, and soone repent us.


She, as the woman, must take all the blame. The throwaway line, "Tis shame that men should use poore maydens so' (385), spoken when she is contemplating the exploits of Jupiter with Amymone and Io, is not applied to herself. In fact, all our sympathy at the end is directed towards the king, who is, after all, the cause of her predicament. For several stanzas we are regaled with a description of his grief and suffering as he embraces his dead mistress (617-700), whereas Rosamond herself is despatched quite quickly and, it should be noted, forced to administer her own poison, as a sort of poetic justice:

Those handes that beauties ministers had bin,
Must now gyve death, that me adorn'd of late:
That mouth that newly gave consent to sin,
Must now receive destruction in there-at.
That body which my lusts did violate,
Must sacrifice it seife t'appease the wrong,
So short is pleasure, glory lasts not long,


As if the original 1592 version did not make her guilt abundantly clear, 20 stanzas were added in the 1594 edition, all on the theme of Rosamond's sin and the sin of wicked women who aid and abet such behaviour.

Exactly what 'pleasure' Rosamond experiences is never revealed, as she seems to suffer from the day she loses her virtue and she certainly never enjoys any sexual pleasure. In line 600 she refers to her 'lusts', but in the light of the rest of the poem these seem to be general desires rather than anything sexual. The king himself is unattractive and old; in fact, there is an insistence that her first experience with him is distasteful, and she comes merely to tolerate his love-making: 'For nature checks a new offence with lothing: / But use of sinne doth make it seeme as nothing' (454-5). Sin here is allowing her body to be used in order to gain worldly riches (but even this, of course, she is denied as she is immured in a labyrinth). It is as though the poet is so set on showing us the awful fate attendant on unchastity that no hint of pleasure for the woman is allowed, even though she is blamed for 'sin'.

In Lodge's Elstred, we find the same insistence on the sins of the woman. In spite of all the moans and tears calling for our sympathy (with water literally dripping off the bodies of mother and daughter as they rise from their river grave to tell their story), the heroine excuses 'Fortune fickle', and places the blame for her downfall squarely on herself:15

It was not thou, my conscience doth excuse thee,
It was my sinne that wrought myne overturning.
It was but justice, from the heavens inflicted
On lustfull life, defamed and convicted.

(pp. 74-5)

Even Cassandra, in her lament at the end of Barnfield's narrative poem, sees her own guilty relationship with Agamemnon as the prime cause of her unhappy fate, cautioning all young maids to 'example take by me, / To keepe their oathes, and spotlesse chastity', and claiming that happiness is dying at birth before being able to sin.16

In other complaints the situation is reversed, and we are treated to extravagant praise for the woman's defence of her chastity. The insufferable Matilda defies all bounds of modesty by proclaiming that her 'Vertue made beauty more angelicali' (line 91); and in the face of the most extreme temptations and threats, finally takes her own life to avoid King John's dishonourable intentions, rejoicing in her martyrdom:

My glorious life, my spotlesse Chastity,
Now at this hower bee all the joyes I have,
These be the wings by which my name shall flye,
In memorie, these shall my Name engrave;
These, from oblivion shall mine honour save.
With Laurell, these my browes shall coronize,
And make mee live to all posterities.

(11. 925-31)

Under happier circumstances, the humble innkeeper's wife defends her honour in Willobie His Avisa, where page after page celebrates the inviolable virtue of the heroine.17

The point I wish to establish is that, although these complaints are in the voice of the female victim, they are not sympathetic towards the woman and there is little attempt to understand her viewpoint. Her 'sins' are stressed and yet she is denied any sexual pleasure. Moreover, her character becomes unnecessarily limited as she projects herself in one dimension only—chaste or unchaste—the only other quality she possesses being the predictable one of beauty. The poems are unremittingly moralistic and didactic, with ruin and death for the woman as the inevitable outcome of failing to guard her chastity or at least preferable to losing that virtue.

Such is not the case with Shakespeare's maid. She may be in a state of deep distress, but she is not a totally ruined woman who returns as a ghost to tell her story. In fact, she is very much alive and retains some of her good looks:

Time had not scythed all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit, but spite of heaven's fell rage
Some beauty peeped through lattice of seared age.



She still presents a charming spectacle as she sits under her bonnet with her hair slightly dishevelled, symbolic of a life that has not been properly restrained, but which yet retains some semblance of order:

Her hair, nor loose nor tied in formal plat,
Proclaimed in her a careless hand of pride:
For some, untucked, descended her sheaved hat,
Hanging her pale and pinèd cheek beside;
Some in her threaden fillet still did bide,
And, true to bondage, would not break from thence,
Though slackly braided in loose negligence.


The phrase 'careless hand of pride' is particularly revealing. We can read it as 'the hand that does not care about pride in appearance'; but we can also interpret it as 'the hand of pride that does not care about appearances'.19 In both interpretations there is a sense of defiance, a lack of concern for the opinion of others, which is quite contrary to the abject penitence expected of a fallen woman. 'Pride' and 'loose' also carry sexual connotations; the maid, it seems, is not just a victim.

This 'pride' of flesh and spirit is reflected in the movement of her eyes: they are not fixed submissively to the earth all the time, but sometimes raised to the heavens or even allowed to 'extend their view right on' (24). In fact, unlike the usual wretched complaint lady, her fury is turned not upon herself,,but upon her heartless seducer. First she is seen in a fit of anger throwing away his gifts and then we hear her denouncing his 'false blood' and 'lies', while she tears up his letters in 'top of rage' (52-56).

The sorrow she expresses has more to do with giving away her affections than losing her virginity:

I might as yet have been a spreading flower,
Fresh to myself, if I had self-applied
Love to myself, and to no love beside.


The word 'flower' hints at her lost maidenhood, but it is 'love' she is chiefly regretting. Later she uses the same image of a flower to denote the 'affections' she gave to the young man before she yielded to him, reserving for herself just the 'stalk' (146-7). And when she is finally conned into taking off her 'white stole of chastity', she is hurt most by the fact that her honest giving has not been matched by his, that she has exposed her nakedness, while he has remained 'veiled' (312), covering his duplicity with 'the garment of a grace' (316). Most telling of all, the final lines of the poem end not with the expected warning to other young women, but with a frank acknowledgement that she would probably act in exactly the same way again, and that the charms of the young man 'Would yet again betray the fore-betrayed, / And new pervert a reconcilèd maid.' Many a complaint lady has compounded her guilt by not taking any notice of the dire warnings of others, as we saw with Rosamond, but at least in the end she upholds the claims of chastity. Not so the maid, who realises that her own feelings will always have priority.

The maid's feelings include a response to the sensuous appeal of the young man. We feel the lure that the young man has for her in the descriptions of his beauty which call on the sense of touch as well as sight:

His browny locks did hang in crookèd curls,
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.


As Kęrrigan notes, the young man is given just the same irresistible charm usually accorded by a lover to his lady when he sees her containing all the attributes of love, for 'Love (82).20 In fact, lacked as the a dwelling title of and poem made him her place' the implies, the lady here is the 'lover';21 she has become not just the passive recipient of another's love or lust, but the very active participant in a relationship.

In spite of the maid's complicity in her seduction, the blame is felt to lie almost entirely on the young man, for he is the one who deceives and betrays his lover. He damns himself out of his own mouth as he relates the cold and callous way he has treated his former mistresses, seeming to think that a lack of affection for his victims excuses his behaviour. Whatever the effect of these declarations on the maid, we cannot miss the irony in his statement, 'Harm have I done to them, but ne'er was harmèd' (194). His avowed lack of love appears to be morally far worse than the too loving, if misguided, passion of the maid and the other female victims.

Thus, although Shakespeare follows the complaint tradition in his choice of the basic situation with a male seducer and a female victim, the maid is very far from a typical lamenting lady: her privileging of love over chastity, her frank recognition of her own sexuality, her pride and assertiveness, with the consequent refusal to blame herself, and her exemption from the narrator's censure place her outside the generic conventions. And yet, if she defies one set of expectations, there is something very familiar about the maid sitting on the hillside under her straw bonnet telling the world about her lost love. We are reminded of the forlorn shepherdess of pastoral poetry, or even the maiden of a folk-song heard singing in the valley below, Ό don't deceive me, O never leave me,/How could you use a poor maiden so?'

In Englands Helicon, first published at about the same time as A Lover's Complaint was composed, there are several complaints in the voice of a woman.22 They are, of course much shorter than Shakespeare's poem, but one in particular strikes a familiar chord. An excellent Pastoral Dittie (pp. 66-7) begins with a 'nimph' speaking here to another woman, bemoaning her abandoned state and the general miseries of love with its 'guilefull promises'. The narrative frame which gives rise to the woman's lament is clearly analogous to the situation in Shakespeare's poem when the old man comes to listen to the maid in silent sympathy. A lack of particularity is also another characteristic which both poems have in common and which they share with other pastoral lyrics, for unlike lamenting ladies, who are usually identifiable historical persons associated with life at court,23 nymphs and shepherds either remain anonymous or are given traditional rustic names which distinguish them little as individuals.24 The maid and nymph are both unnamed country girls telling their troubles to an unnamed listener in an unspecified place. They thus become not so much egregious examples, but representatives of humanity with whom we can sympathise or identify.

Equally cogent in establishing a parallel between Shakespeare's poem and those in Englands Helicon are the attitudes and values expressed. In the first place, there is no emphasis on lost chastity and therefore no didactic message with dire consequences for the woman. An excellent Pastoral Dittie is about lost love and the 'nimph' is no more ruined than Shakespeare's maid, when in the last lines she says farewell to love and all its pains and even to weeping as she 'can wail no more'. She may lack the fire and energy of the maid's fury, but she does not seem destined for an early death like the lamenting ladies who return from the grave to tell their stories. Instead, the song appears to act as some kind of catharsis and the implication is that life will continue. Secondly, the woman is a self-confessed lover, not the passive recipient of another's desire, as the last but one stanza reveals:

My life was light, my blood did spirt and spring,
my body quicke, my hart began to leape:
And every thornie thought did prick and sting,
the fruite of my desired joyes to reape.

Shakespeare's maid has obviously much more in common with this young woman than with Daniel's reluctant Rosamond.

But, if A Lover's Complaint demonstrates similarities with the pastoral lyric tradition, it does not fit wholly into that kind. One important difference is that in pastoral the physical manifestation of love is largely ignored. We might infer from An excellent Pastorall Dittie that sexual desire was present in the nymph, for she wanted the 'fruite' of her 'desired joyes', but such joy would seem to be a vision for the future and there is no mention of lost virginity. This is typical of other shepherdesses; in fact, most leave out any reference to their sexuality. In all the poems with a female speaking persona in Englands Helicon, not one mentions chastity or improper sexual behaviour. They may moan at the torments of love, like Rosalind (p. 139); or mock their lover, like Cardenia (p. 156); or simply mourn for past love, like Lycoris (p. 163); but they never suggest that they have been taken advantage of sexually.25 On the other hand, we are in no doubt about the sexual experience of Shakespeare's maid. She may stress the primacy of love, but she has unquestionably been seduced. This lends a more serious and tragic note to the poem, which contrasts with the often trivial and sentimental nature of much pastoral verse apparent even in such title words as 'dittie'.

The other main difference between A Lover's Complaint and the poems in Englands Helicon is that it is not pastoral in the restricted sense established by Theocritus and Virgil who depicted in idealistic terms the lives of shepherds and shepherdesses. The maid is just a country girl who apparently is not looking after sheep and the young man with his 'silken' locks (87) and his riding skills (106-12) would seem to belong more to the aristocracy than the peasant class. Even the animals that the old man is grazing are cattle (57) and there is not a sheep in sight. In contrast Englands Helicon deals almost exclusively with shepherds and shepherdesses (or nymphs, as they are frequently called). So concerned was the editor or publisher to establish the pastoral character of the volume that slight changes were made to a few poems that were not specifically pastoral to bring them into line.26 The failure of A Lover's Complaint to join this popular cult might seem a trifling matter but, in the light of recent scholarship, it gains considerable significance. Louis Montrose offers a nice explanation for the extraordinary popularity of classical pastoral in Elizabethan times by suggesting that its artificial rural life was a way of reaffirming the values of the privileged classes: even to write pastoral poetry was to make a bid for belonging to an inner coterie. This sociopolitical reading of pastoral depends, as Montrose says, upon the activity of shepherding: georgic with its emphasis on husbandry and hard work is excluded; only the depiction of the gentlemanly pursuit of sitting under the trees with time for love and poetry, while ostensibly 'working' at looking after sheep, yields itself to this kind of interpretation.27A Lover's Complaint clearly resists this kind of reading, just as it resists any political reading based on classical pastoral with the kind of Virgilian echoes that Annabel Patterson convincingly investigates in such poems as the Shepheardes Calender.28 By refusing the form of classical pastoral, A Lover's Complaint signals that its interest does not lie in sociopolitical matters, that it is not the kind of poetry which, in Puttenham's words, sets out

. . . under the vaile of homely persons and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort, which may be perceived by the Eglogues of Virgili, in which are treated by figure matters of greater importance then the loves of Titirus and Corydon.29

In other words, Shakespeare is not writing allegorically of rural life but asking us to take seriously the literal surface of the poem; the 'greater matters' he is considering are no less than those of the human heart.

This does not mean, however, that Shakespeare's poem falls into the category of primitive pastoral which Puttenham contrasts with the classical eclogue and which he sees as just reflecting 'the rusticall manners of loves and communication'. For, by drawing on the archetypal characteristics and images associated with pastoral, Shakespeare makes complex use of the rural background to further his ideas on human love and sexuality. On the one hand, the poem sets up the notion of the innocence of the countryside as opposed to a harsher life elswhere: we hear of the old man who in past days had been 'a blusterer that the ruffle knew/Of court, of city' (58-9), but who now is described as 'reverend' or worthy of respect (57), while his courteous behaviour reflects the simple goodness attributed to rural living; in addition, the maid, as we have already seen, reminds us of many an innocent country girl of folk-tale or pastoral. On the other hand, from the very beginning, this idyllic way of life is compromised. In the first stanza, we are offered not only a 'plaintful story' but one that, with more sinister overtones, is told in a double voice' and which shatters the peace of the hillside 'storming' the maid's world 'with sorrow's wind and rain'. Even the maid herself is described ambiguously as 'fickle', a word which in the context can be read as 'agitated' or in a 'changeable' mood, but which inevitably carries connotations of inconstancy.30 As the story unfolds we learn that the treachery which invades this retired place is not limited to the young man, but involves the maid as well; for, although she is not the one to be unfaithful in love, she rebels against her own better judgement, admitting in the last lines of the poem that she would succumb again and allow the young man to 'yet again betray the fore-betrayed, / And new pervert a reconcilèd maid.' The innocence of the pastoral world has been evoked only to be subverted: nowhere, however humble or retired, can escape the deception that threatens us not just from the outside but from deep within ourselves.

The particular images used to describe the landscape also serve to enhance the sense of the all-pervasiveness of treachery. In the first few lines we hear the story reverberating through the hills as it comes in a 'double voice' from a 'sist'ring vale'; 'double', as we have seen, may appropriately evoke the idea of duplicity but, like 'sist'ring', it also suggests the notion of repetition. Moreover, the story echoes through time as well as space; it is as old as life itself, for the sound comes from a 'concave womb'. The river, too, with its 'weeping margin' (39) seems to mourn for the maid as she throws the remnants of her past life into it. All creation from the beginning of time is implicated in the 'sad-tuned tale'.

Thus, by a complex intermingling of complaint and pastoral lyric, Shakespeare creates a poem that treats without didactic moralising the plight of a betrayed woman and accepts without flinching the existence of female desire; in addition, by rejecting the classical form of pastoral while using its archetypal symbols, he is able to widen the significance of his love story to indicate that all life, however innocent it seems, is subject to betrayal and deception. It is precisely these characteristics that make A Lover's Complaint a fitting tail-piece to the sonnets; for, whereas the traditional sonnet sequence and the traditional complaint fit well together—as two sides of the same coin, both concerned with chastity—Shakespeare's sonnets, as we shall see, demand quite a different sort of companion poem.

. . . . .

In some senses, it must be admitted, the narrative poem appears to be just tacked on as an afterthought for, in contrast to Daniel's 1592 volume, there is no reference to the complaint on the main title page of Shakespeare's volume and no reference back to the sonnets within the narrative poem. Certainly any attempt to make the emotional situation of the complaint into an exact parallel or contrast with that in the sonnets breaks down very quickly, in spite of Kerrigan's declaration that 'there are two emotional triangles, and the poet is in both.'31 The fact is that there is no 'emotional triangle' in the complaint, for the poet/narrator is not emotionally involved. Instead, he is remarkably distanced from the story, merely overhearing what is being narrated for the benefit of the old man (and he too is equally silent and uninvolved). The only emotion is between the victim and her seducer.

However, rejecting a relationship built on plot or bibliographical detail does not mean rejecting any connection between the two parts of the volume; nor does it mean limiting the relationship to the sort of 'echoes and resemblances' which, as Roe reminds us, exist throughout all Shakespeare's work.32 Instead, although I dispute the particular relationship he proposes, I believe Kerrigan is right in assuming there is likely to be some connection between the sonnets and the complaint. The chief reason given for this is the structure of the 1609 volume, which follows an expected tripartite pattern. So far I have only mentioned the two main parts of Shakespeare's sequence, but in fact it can be divided into three, if we take the last two anacreontic sonnets (153 and 154) as a unit on their own.33 Seen as a collection of sonnets, followed by anacreontics and then a longer poem, Shakespeare's 1609 volume begins to look remarkably like other contemporary sequences so that, in Kerrigan's words, 'Shakespeare's audience had a framework for reading it'.34 Such a common external structure does not, of course, prove that there is a significant connection between the parts, but the likelihood of its being a volume that is deliberately, rather than haphazardly, put together is convincing; and, as the parts of other sequences are frequently closely linked, the likelihood of a significant relationship between the parts in Shakespeare's volume cannot be dismissed. The way in which the sonnets and the longer poem are linked in other sequences varies greatly; clearly the relationship of Daniel's Rosamond to his Delia is entirely different from Spenser's Epithalamion to his Amoretti. Thus, while largely conforming to contemporary expectations in its structure, the opportunity is there for Shakespeare to experiment further by creating a volume with its own internal patterning.

This patterning is one of parallelism and difference. The parallels are most obvious in the common thematic concerns; for, although the sonnets range widely over many topics, such as the effects of time and the various ways of defeating its ravages, they also foreshadow the attitudes to love which we have already noticed in A Lover's Complaint. One of these is the irresistible power of beauty and love. This can be a source of pleasure: numerous sonnets in the first part of the sequence tell of the happiness that comes from even thinking of the beloved friend or looking at his picture (for instance, 29 and 30, 46 and 47), just as the maid revels at first in the beauty of her young man. But in both sonnets and complaint, love becomes tainted with treachery and turns into a source of anguish; and yet its power remains undiminished. Even in her extreme anger and hurt, the maid declares at the end that she would act in the same way again; and in the sonnets we witness a growing awareness of the friend's faults and yet a continual return to declarations of love. The poet fears he must live 'Like a deceivèd husband', still bound to the relationship by the 'sweet love' of the friend's face, suspecting, but never sure of deception (93). In the sonnets to the dark lady, the lover's sense of powerlessness is even more extreme: the poet is 'frantic-mad' and suffering as though in a fever, but he can do nothing to escape his emotional entrapment, continuing to feed 'on that which doth preserve the ill' (147). On another occasion, in an image that is both pathetic and absurd, he is reduced to a crying baby begging for the attention of its mother, who is busy chasing after an escaped chicken (143). All reason and self-respect have deserted him.

It is this sense of degradation with the consequent loss of the poet's true self that seems to be the greatest cause of anguish, at least in the sonnets to the dark lady: 'In things right true my heart and eyes have erred' (137), he exclaims; and although in the following sonnet there is an apparently more lighthearted approach to the question of telling lies, there is a chilling irony in the statement that 'love's best habit is in seeming trust', especially when we have already learnt from past sonnets that a pun on 'lies' (with others as well as the poet) is justified. The full force of the poet's self-disgust, however, is felt in the last two sonnets before the anacreontics. Here love is acknowledged, and there is clearly an element of tenderness in the 'gentle cheater' and the sweet self, but the overwhelming tone is one of bitter self-accusation: 'For, thou betraying me, I do betray / My nobler part to my gross body's treason' (151). This bitterness becomes even more intense in 152 when he sees himself as his own greatest betrayer; for, in believing the false lady to be true, he is 'perjured most' and becomes the 'more perjured eye,/To swear against the truth so foul a lie'. This same sense of self-betrayal also permeates A Lover's Complaint. From the very beginning the maid was aware of the young man's reputation and knew 'the patterns of his foul beguiling' (170), but her own desires betrayed her as much as her lover's pleadings. As she herself exclaims:

O appetite, from judgement stand aloof!
The one a palate hath that needs will taste,
Though Reason weep, and cry 'It is thy last!


And, of course, she recognises at the end of the poem that she would still be quite unable to resist any further temptation of a similar kind. The fate of the nun also illustrates how love can make us betray our most determined intentions; for she enters a convent to escape secular love only to leave the religious life for the young man, 'All vows and consecrations giving place' (263).

But what links the sonnets and complaint together even more closely is their extraordinary lack of any focus on chastity. We have already seen how the maid escapes the usual tirades against unchaste behaviour that are heaped on all other fallen lamenting ladies. The sonnets, too, elude generic expectations; for, unlike the usual Petrarchan poet/lover bemoaning the cruel chastity of his lady, Shakespeare's narrator seeks the friendship and love of a male friend and rails against the treachery of his mistress, with whom he already has a sexual relationship. In spite of the homoerotic and deeply emotional tone of the sonnets to or about the young man, any overt sexual behaviour is explicitly denied in Sonnet 20 and nowhere is there even the suggestion of the usual sonnet kiss, so that the issue of chastity does not arise in that relationship. In the last part of the sequence, the dark lady's promiscuity and lack of faithfulness is scorned—she is indeed 'the wide world's common place' (137)—but sexual behaviour in itself is not castigated. Similarly, the relationship between the friend and the lady is bitterly resented, but for reasons of broken trust and the unworthiness of the lady rather than any ideological notion of the need for sexual purity. Just as the poet blames himself for his own treachery in loving what is not worthy, so he berates his friend for allowing himself to be deceived and for acting against his better judgement: 'But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest / By wilful taste of what thyself refusest' (40). Throughout the whole sequence, chastity is not an issue, except as it forms a part of the wider interests of love and loyalty. Instead, the concerns that bind sonnets and complaint together are those of the human heart: what it means to be in love with someone not worthy of that love, to suffer the anguish of betrayal and of a divided self that is powerless to resist.

But as well as these thematic similarities between the sonnets and the complaint, there is one obvious difference, which concerns gender; for the complaint challenges the misogynistic attitude in the sonnets by removing the chief blame for treachery from the female sex to the male. Although the whole question of gender is extremely complex in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence and difficult to untangle (partly because of the androgynous nature of the young man), it is clear that there is a misogynistic streak not only in the poems to the dark lady but also at times in references to the friend. The young man may share some good female qualities—beauty and a 'gentle heart'—but he is also praised for lacking women's deceit; he has an eye 'less false in rolling' (20) and he is no 'painted beauty' (21). When his more sinister characteristics are acknowledged, then he is linked to the archetypal deceptive woman, for his beauty grows like 'Eve's apple' (93). Moreover, in spite of the fact that both friend and lady act treacherously towards the poet, making love behind his back, it is the lady who attracts all the blame. The poet constantly excuses his male friend, seeking for reconciliation and pleading that they 'must not be foes' (40); the friend remains a 'better angel', whereas the lady is the 'worser spirit' (144), and upon her head fall bitter accusations not only for her 'foul faults' (148) but for the poet's own lack of integrity, his 'perjured' self (152). This gender bias is inverted in the complaint, the prime blame being now placed on the man, while the maid, like the poet of the sonnets, becomes the victim. The effect of this is to extend the sense of treachery in love to all humanity, both male and female sharing the tendency to deceive and be deceived.

A Lover's Complaint, however, does more than endorse and extend the thematic concerns of love and betrayal in the sonnets; for it presents a very different perspective on these issues. In the sonnets, the single, uninterrupted voice of the poet draws us inexorably into his world so that we share the ecstasies and degradations of his plight; the bizarre triangular situation may be unique, but we identify closely with the states of mind experienced by the speaker. As we have seen, the opposite is true of the complaint, for the situation here is not unique: the maid is the unnamed, archetypal abandoned woman heard so often before in folksong or lyric, lamenting her lost love against a timeless pastoral background—her story is, as we say, as old as the hills; and even within this poem, we soon learn that she is just the most recent in a long line of seductions by the young man. Moreover, although we feel a certain sympathy for the weeping woman, we are encouraged to view her plight objectively by the narrative technique. First there is an elaborate frame to the lament, for the story begins by inviting us to view the maid from the outside through the eyes of the poet (who may or may not be the same as the poet of the sonnets); and then we become doubly distanced from her, for she talks to the old man so that the poet merely overhears the tale; and even then what he hears is further removed because it is an echo of the original, bouncing off a nearby hillside. Later the maid incorporates the voice of her seducer in her narrative so that we never become exclusively drawn into her consciousness. Sorry as we are for her, there is nothing approaching the intense experience of reading the sonnets. In fact, we might find ourselves giving a wry smile at the last stanza with its exclamatory Ό' at the beginning of each line as the maid remembers her lover's irresistible charms, followed by the anti-climactic declaration that she would do it all again.

This change of perspective affects our response not only to the maid's story, but also to the sonnets. After their personal anguish, the relative calm and detached viewpoint of the complaint acts like the conclusion to a play, helping us to come to terms with the previous suffering. The poet's experience in the sonnets is not invalidated, but it is put in a wider context: love and the betrayal of love come to be seen as a part of a never-ending cycle which we have to learn to live with.

In one sense the 1609 volume can be read as a bleak indictment of humanity—the irredeemable propensity for treachery and weakness in both male and female, with the implication in A Lover's Complaint that this is a universal phenomenon to be constantly repeated. The maid would fall again, and there is nothing for the old man to say, for if she cannot learn from experience, she would not benefit from advice. In another sense, however, the peculiar qualities of Shakespeare's complaint give some hope or at least relief from this gloomy picture. The very lack of closure or moral judgement suggests a tolerance of human weakness that is rare in itself but all the more remarkable when the weakness in question is female unchastity, a sin calculated to arouse the fiercest condemnation in any literature of the period, but particularly in the woman's complaint genre.35 In place of the expected didactic moralising, we have a kindly humanity expressed in the courtesy of the old man as he sits down at a 'comely distance' (65) to listen in silent sympathy to the maid's story. He himself has been acquainted with the 'ruffle' of life (58) and now in the 'charity of age' he offers to try to help her 'suffering ecstasy' (69-70). Such kindness is a small glimmer of light in a benighted world and darkness soon overwhelms it as the maid reveals the treachery of her seducer and her own inability to withstand him. Nevertheless, the old man's courtesy at the beginning of the poem, together with the absence of any harsh judgement on the maid at the end, is a plea, however muted, for understanding and love in its widest sense. If erotic love so frequently fails us, charity remains. From,this vantage-point, we can look back at the sonnets and see not only their anguish but the possibility of some amelioration. A Lover's Complaint, as well as adding to the sense of treachery in the world, indicates that not all human existence is irrevocably bleak.


1 It is now generally accepted that A Lover's Complaint is by Shakespeare and that, although the exact date of composition is not known, it was written around the turn of the century. For a summary of the linguistic scholarship dealing with authenticity and dating, see William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint, edited by John Kerrigan (Harmolndsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 389-90. For a defence of Thorpe as a reliable publisher, see Katherine Duncan-Jones, 'Was the 1609 Shakespeares Sonnets Really Unauthorised?', Review of English Studies, New Series, 34 (May 1983), pp. 151-71.

2 See, for instance, Heather Dubrow, Genre, The Critical Idiom (London: Methuen, 1982); and Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

3 Sidney divides literature into many 'kindes', but acknowledges that they may be mixed, 'for, if severed they be good, the conjunction cannot be hurtfull'. See Sir Philip Sidney, 'An Apologie for Poetrie', in Elizabethan Critical Essays, edited with an Introduction by G. Gregory Smith, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1904), pp. 150-207 (p. 175); and in Book 1 of 'The Arte of English Poesie', George Puttenham devotes Chapters xi-xxx to the various poetic 'formes' (Elizabethan Critical Essays, Vol. 11, pp. 3-193).

4 Barbara K. Lewalski, editor, Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History and Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 7.

5 See Rosalie Colie, The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance, edited by Barbara K. Lewalski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 68-75.

6 Heather Dubrow, Genres, p. 15.

7 Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 78.

8 Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors, pp. 143 and 146.

9 See, for instance, my paper, 'Paradoxes of Possession in Shakespeare's Lucrece', Parergon, New Series, 13: 1 (July 1995), pp. 53-68, in which I argue for a much more sympathetic treatment of Lucrece by the narrator and for a more confused concept of chastity within the mind of the narrator, not just within the mind of Lucrece.

10 See Kerrigan, p. 13; and John Roe, editor, Shakespeare: The Poems, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 62-5. In Roe's edition A Lover's Complaint is published alongside Shakespeare's other poems but not with the sonnets. While Roe questions the likelihood of any significant relationship between sonnets and complaint, he admits the case is 'far from being closed' (p. 64).

11 A. C. Partridge, A Substantive Grammar of Shakespeare's Nondramatic Texts (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1976), categorises the poem as a 'belated experiment in Spenserian pastoral' (p. 176). While this comes close to my emphasis on the pastoral element in the poem, it differs from my perspective in that it looks to the more specific literary influence of Spenser, rather than to the genre of pastoral.

12 In Shore's Wife, the woman prospers for some time after her loss of chastity. She becomes the power behind the throne, and we are told a great deal about her just use of authority (11. 197-210). Her sufferings only begin after the death of King Edward and are not seen as a direct result of her unchastity. The reference here is from The Mirror for Magistrates, edited by Lily B. Campbell (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960).

13 All quotations from and references to Daniel's Rosamond are from Samuel Daniel: Poems and A Defence of Ryme, edited by Arthur Colby Sprague (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1930). References to and quotations from Drayton's Matilda are from The Works of Michael Drayton, edited by J. William Hebel, 5 vols (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1931-3), Vol. I.

14 Hallett Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 106.

15 The quotations from Elstred are taken from The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, revised edition, 4 vols (New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), Vol. II.

16The Poems of Richard Barnfield, edited by The Rev. Montague Summers, limited edition (London: The Fortune Press, 1936), p. 84.

17 For the text of this poem, see The Queen Declined: An Interpretation of 'Willobie His Avisa ', edited by B. N. De Luna (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970).

18 Quotations from and references to Shakespeare's 1609 volume, both sonnets and complaint, are from the edition by John Kerrigan (see note 1 above).

19 See Kerrigan's note to line 30 (p. 399) for these two interpretations.

20 See Kerrigan's note to line 82 (p. 405).

21 See Roe's note to the title of the poem, in which he states that 'in the sixteenth century, 'lover', in the erotic sense, more often than not denoted a woman' (p. 264). I argue that the term is unexpected here in that it is collocated with 'complaint', most complaint ladies being solely victims of love, rather than lovers.

22 All quotations from and references to this collection are to Englands Helicon, edited by Hugh MacDonald (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949).

23Willobie His Avisa (1594) is one of the first complaints to have a countrywoman as the heroine. It illus trates, as Hallet Smith points out, 'the process of democratization of the complaint form' (p. 121-2). Shake speare's poem can be seen as part of this process, although the effect of Avisa's humble birth is quite different from that of Shakespeare's maid; for Avisa's poor status is used to contrast with the high-born treachery of her would-be seducers to show that virtue is more likely to exist amongst the unpretentious, whereas Shakespeare's point is the ubiquity of treachery.

24 Peter V. Marinelli, Pastoral (London: Methuen, 1971) draws attention to the universal quality inherent in pre-Romantic pastoral, in which 'the shepherd remains first and foremost an emblem of humanity, a general rather than a specific type, and his afflictions and joys are universal' (p. 6).

25 It may be noted that, even in the poems with a male speaking persona, chastity is seldom mentioned. The poem The Sheepheard Delicius his Dittie (p. 125) stands out as an exception with its emphasis on the 'cruell chastitie' of the beloved. Hallett Smith notes the tendency in English pastoral literature 'to subdue the sexual element and make the love scenes romantic and innocent' (p. 16).

26 See Hallett Smith, p. 25.

27 Louis Adrian Montrose. 'Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form,' ELH, 50 (1983), pp. 415-59, especially pp. 415-33.

28 Annabel Patterson, Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valéry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). For a discussion of the Shepheardes Calender, see pp. 118-31.

29Elizabethan Critical Essays, Vol. II, p. 40.

30 For a discussion of the meanings of the word 'fickle' and the possibility of it being a mistranscription of 'fitful', see Roe, p. 264. I see no reason to doubt the authenticity of 'fickle' as its ambiguity continues the moral doubt already established by the use of the word 'double'.

31 Kerrigan, p. 17.

32 Roe, p. 63.

33 There are good reasons for considering the last two sonnets (153 and 154) as a separate unit, for they show a change in tone and subject matter, turning from the bitter personal experience of the preceding sonnets to the mythic antics of Cupid. The poet is still present in the Τ of both 153 and 154, but the emotion is given a general significance: all love now is seen as past cure, unable to be cooled by water. Thus, thematically, these anacreontic sonnets look back to the previous sonnets and forward to A Lover's Complaint, providing a kind of bridge between the two but maintaining a distinct character of their own.

34 For a discussion of various tripartite volumes containing sonnets, lyrics and a long poem, see Kerrigan, pp. 13-14.

35 Joan Rees, 'Sidney and A Lover' s Complaint', Review of English Studies, New Series, 42 (May 1991), pp. 157-67, has drawn attention to the moral ambiguities of Shakespeare's complaint compared to the greater moral certainties in Sidney's story of Dido in the New Arcadia and in Daniel's Rosamond. She argues that, in spite of Sidney's 'capacity to enter sympathetically into female experience', both he and Daniel 'give a defined end to their stories and clarify the moral issues. Shakespeare does neither' (p. 166).

Source: "The Generic Complexities of A Lover's Complaint and its Relationship to the Sonnets in Shakespeare's 1609 Volume," in AUMLA, No. 89, May, 1998, pp. 79-97.