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A Lover's Complaint

Connections and Projections

In their original Quarto printing of 1609, Shakespeare's Sonnets are followed by a poem which bears the title, A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare. To a first-time reader of the Quarto this extra material comes as a surprise. No content beyond the sonnets is suggested either by the title of the book or by the foreword of its publisher, Thomas Thorpe. His unheralded appendation of ALC shows all the hallmarks of a piece regarded as of minor significance and seemingly tacked on to the Sonnets as if by afterthought.

Such disregard seems strange. The poetry, after all, is (to say the least) competent. Its "rhyme royal" structure (ababbcc) is similar to that of Daniel's The Complaint of Rosamond (printed in 1592 as part of his Delia collection), although, unlike that Complaint, it is not based on an earlier tragic story and it is much shorter.

Some commentators have seen significance in this combination in the Quarto of sonnets and a "Complaint". The mix, they suggest, is the result of an intention to follow a convention established by Daniel's Delia/Rosamond collection. By extension, goes the argument, such imitation in the Quarto points to an author who must have polished his own collection with a view to publication in the approved format.

However, this theory is undermined by several contrary indicators.

First, there is nothing to suggest the primacy of any such convention. Although the Delia/Rosamond collection was followed over a few years by three or four author publications of an approximately similar mix (generally including sonnets, odes and a long poem on an older tragic story), there were many more poetry publications of that period which included a sequence of sonnets and which did not follow this pattern. The Quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets, itself, contains no odes or equivalent matter. Its sonnets are presented in a sustained structure of verse, ordered into one numerical sequence, belying arguments that Delia-style counterpoints may have been intended within that sequence.

Second, when assessed with dispassionate eyes, ALC is a light piece. Its length is only a fraction of that of Rosamond and other published Complaints or tragic poems of the time. Its theme, ostensibly sombre, is actually amusing, given the improbable circumstances described (of which more later). The only characteristics which it shares with Rosamond are its verse structure and the word “Complaint” in its title. It is hardly likely to have been selected for Delia/Rosamond-style presentation (and consequent inevitable comparison) by any accomplished author.

Third, the relevant published poetry collections of that time are each presented as a coherently authored package, beginning with a title which indicates that it is such a package. Additional indications of the author's control and integration of content appear as a matter of course in a foreword and (sometimes) in connective narrative within the body of the works. By contrast, the inclusion in Shakespeare's Sonnets of ALC, with its disjointed by-line and unheralded presence, suggests a disparate combination created by someone other than the author.

Fourth, the glaring absence of any acknowledgment from Shakespeare (contrary to his own practice in his previous poetry publications) strongly negates the notion of an author proactive in the preparation of a collection for publication. Most poetry collections of the time carried the author's expressed hopes of his work's prospects, in the form of a dedication or introduction. Those which lack such benediction - a practice far more firmly entrenched than any supposed proforma of layout – have generally been shown to have been published without the approval of the author.

On the balance of evidence, then, the content of the 1609 Quarto contradicts the notion of a publication sponsored by its author – and we are obliged to speculate on other reasons for the presence therein of ALC.

As it happens, plausible speculation is prompted by the high probability of autobiography in the Sonnets (signposted here). The inferred biography shows that Shakespeare had an intimate and complex relationship of friendship and patronage with Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, for whom he composed poetry designed to reflect or further that relationship. Some of this poetry was published under statements of dedication to the Earl. The remainder, including most of the Sonnets, remained private - at least for many years.

Let us explore how the presence in the Quarto of ALC coheres with the process of publication suggested in the biography of the Sonnets. In that scenario, Southampton's spirited and relatively youthful step-father (and one-time battle comrade), William Hervey, inherits the private poems some years after their composition. Antagonized by continuation of the Earl's well-documented scorn of him, he decides to retaliate by publishing the Sonnets (with their discomfiting portrayals of his step-son's misspent youth). He takes these to Thomas Thorpe, who, with some caveats, welcomes the prospect of a new and unusual Shakespearean publication. We can now reasonably develop the scenario, as follows, to take account of the Quarto's unique combination of peculiarities.

As a cautious and experienced publisher, Thorpe requires proof that the manuscript sonnets were indeed written by Shakespeare. The quality of the poetry, the explanation of their route into Hervey's legitimate possession, the history of Shakespeare's patronage by Southampton and the earlier publication of versions of Sonnets 138 and 144 provide much comfort - but fall short of the assurance he wants (given the power and/or standing of the two persons likely to be most offended by the proposed publication). Faced with such wariness, Hervey points out that he has the necessary evidence in the form of another poem which came into his possession with the sonnets. This poem - ALC - is written in the same hand as that of the sonnets and carries a covering address to Southampton by Shakespeare.

In this scenario Thorpe is convinced by the incremental evidence in ALC (which he retains in manuscript). He arranges the printing of the Sonnets (having numbered and ordered them to reflect the sequence and categorization of the manuscript versions - either with the guidance of Hervey or as preserved from Southampton's original storage practices). At some point, after the title page and his enigmatic dedication (the latter a compromise of wording designed to balance conflicting objectives, as described here) have passed printing, he decides or realizes that – provided he continues to "protect" Southampton by excluding Shakespeare's covering address – he can also include ALC in the remainder of the Quarto to be printed.

None of this extrapolation is intended to represent proof of the biography inferred from the Sonnets, which is solidly underpinned by other evidence. However, it provides an explanation for the publication of ALC which fits all the facts better (I suggest) than any other speculation to date. Moreover, it (together with that biography) credibly points the way to other fascinating developments, including the reasons for the piece's composition and its relationship to two other poems which feature strongly in the book – Venus & Adonis by Shakespeare and Hero & Leander by Marlowe.

As brought out in Hidden Life, each of these two poems was directed at securing benefits from the model for its hero, the young Southampton. The historian, A.L.Rowse, pointed to similarities in phrasing of the two works, which, he suggested, showed that each author was aware of the other's and had adapted his content accordingly. Other commentators have suggested that Shakespeare imitated Marlowe. In the following scenario, however, I propose that V&A preceded H&L, enabling Marlowe to take advantage in his rivalry with Shakespeare. In turn, I suggest, this development influenced the latter in his construction of ALC.

Given the timing of its publication, Shakespeare must have conceived his V&A strategy around mid-1592. At this stage, as depicted in Hidden Life, its theme would have appeared apt. On the evidence, the young Earl was then uninterested in women. Nevertheless, he would have been stung by his recent insulting depiction in Clapham's Narcissus. He could be expected to respond gratefully to a more flattering projection as Adonis - a beautiful young man more interested in hunting and other manly activities than in the blandishments of the love goddess,Venus (rejection of the latter being a major variation by Shakespeare from the source story).

Ironically, however, given his own involvement in Southampton's first enjoyment of a woman, Shakespeare's strategy was overtaken by events. Suddenly, the Earl could regard himself as more rounded in matters of sexual activity. Indeed, there is evidence that within a year or so he was, of his own volition, pursuing women (though men were not, thereafter, neglected). Now, in early 1593, as V&A was being completed, he would have felt much less flattered by his implied depiction as an immature adolescent, sulkily rebuffing the charms of the beautiful, naked and panting goddess of love.

I suggest that Marlowe, coming into Southampton's orbit around this time, took full advantage of these developments to enhance his own flattery of the Earl through the recreation of the Hero and Leander story. In the resulting poem, Leander, like Adonis, is a beautiful, pale-skinned, effeminate-looking young man, attractive to both men and women. Like Adonis he is sexually accosted by a deity (an incident absent from the original story and invented by Marlowe), but his motive for resistance is more flattering: he makes it clear that he is a man for women and - in particular – for the priestess, Hero.

Mischievously, it seems, Marlowe invites comparison of his poem with Shakespeare's. In Hero's opening scene Marlowe invents her dress, whose sleeve he has carrying a depiction of the naked Venus attempting to seduce a "disdainful" Adonis (this disdain, being, as mentioned above, a key feature in Shakespeare's poem, absent from the source material). Marlowe goes on to describe Adonis as “rose-cheeked” - the description given to him in the first verse of Shakespeare's poem, absent from the source story.

Marlowe proves adroit in other areas as well. He omits any counterpart of the arguments by Venus that Adonis should reproduce – a slightly jarring theme in context, and one which is unlikely to have been appealing to Southampton. It seems to have been introduced by Shakespeare in line with the strategy of his contemporaneous Sonnets 1-17, also addressed to the Earl. And, where Venus lectures Adonis on the danger of ending up like Narcissus – here almost condoning Clapham's unpleasant snipe at Southampton – Marlowe invites favourable comparison by praising the beauty of Leander's features, which, he asserts, outstrips even that of Narcissus'. He also trumps Shakespeare's introduction of Adonis' feisty stallion, which in its lusty pursuit and servicing of a mare can be seen as showing up his master's reticence. By contrast, Leander is compared to a “hot proud horse” which resists any shackling.

However, most importantly, and in stark contrast to Adonis, Leander is shown to be a successful lover of women. In fact, so charming is he in his beauty and the seductiveness of his speech that he persuades a nun, Hero, to renounce the vows to her deity and to surrender her virginity!

It would be of no surprise that his projection as Leander pleased the Earl more than his echo in Adonis. All this tallies with the story brought out in Hidden Song, including Shakespeare's desperation at his upstaging by Marlowe's “great verse”. And Shakespeare – no fool – would have taken note. By now, he would have embarked on his second major work for the Earl – The Rape of Lucrece – and he would have been anxious to avoid the pitfalls of V&A.

At this point, against the earlier-described background of Delia/Rosamond and the poetry fashions of the time, we must pause in double-take. For here, in The Rape of Lucrece, is the true counterpart of The Complaint of Rosamond in Shakespeare's works. It is of similar length. It is based on an older tragic story. It has the same rhyme-royal structure (ababbcc). And it, undeniably, has the gravitas of any of the other published Complaints or tragedies. If Shakespeare had, indeed, wanted to emulate Daniel, here is the very work! It thereby represents the final nail in the coffin of the theory that the Sonnets Quarto was intended by Shakespeare to imitate a Delia/Rosamond proforma.

At one level, Shakespeare's selection of the Lucrece theme and the gravitas of the poem would have well suited his continued cultivation of Southampton. The Earl was sure to be pleased by his association, via dedication, with such a serious and accomplished work. At another level, however, it was inadequate. As Shakespeare knew, and as Marlowe had demonstrated to his cost, the young Earl was indeed a Narcissus. He responded primarily to fawning praise.

Given these considerations, what better way to repair the lack of such adulation in Lucrece than by providing a private accompaniment in the form of a Complaint of flattery - its complementary nature emphasized by the continuation of the Lucrece verse structure? However – typical of the proud poet unveiled in Hidden Life - it appears that Shakespeare decided to combine a demonstration of Marlovian-style flattery with some subtle mockery of what he saw as its excesses and its addressee's susceptibility to such flummery. Accordingly, he conceived of a poem without a prior model, whose hero would, improbably, show all the attributes and more of Leander.

In ALC, the unnamed hero shares all the charming characteristics of Adonis, Leander and an idealized Southampton. He is beautiful, young, effeminate-looking, long-haired and attractive to both men and women. He is a master of horses. However, he outdoes even Leander, in his silken oratory and sexual conquests. His identical seduction of a nun from both vows and virginity is small beer! She is but one of a countless list of females who have fallen for the magnetism of an accomplished serial seducer. And the tearful complainant of the poem, sceptical in advance, and now a bereft and fallen maid, asserts that she would succumb again, notwithstanding her knowledge of his charms!

Seen in this light, ALC emerges from its largely unregarded backwater to become a more typical example of Shakepeare's wit. As depicted in Hidden Life, Shakespeare did temporarily restore his standing with Southampton, albeit with a few storms on the way. Much of this success can reasonably be attributed to the death of Marlowe, the public successes of V&A and Lucrece, as well as private cultivation, in person and through the continued supply of poems. Included in the latter, almost certainly, was ALC - a hybrid extrapolation of Marlovian flattery and Rosamondian structure, subsequently published in otherwise mysterious circumstances.

Ian Steere, from November 2010


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