Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Shakespeare

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8,753 words.)