“A Lover’s Complaint” first appeared in 1609, around the time Shakespeare was composing late plays “Pericles” (1608), “Cymbeline” (1609) and “The Winter’s Tale” (1610). The poem was published in that year by Thomas Thorpe as a coda or post-script to the Sonnets. Like other poems by Shakespeare – “Venus and Adonis” (1593) for example, and “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594) – “A Lover’s Complaint” is written in Rhyme Royal, with a metrical pattern of iambic pentameters.
The question of authorship has been much disputed, and remains a matter of contention to this day. One critic has recently devoted a book to establishing that the poem is actually the work of a poet called John Davies of Hereford. What can be said with confidence is that the publisher was a practised dissembler, and that his decision to print the poem alongside the sonnets is the only evidence we have that Shakespeare is its author.
Much analytical time has been spent examining the nuances of style that connect this poem with the mainstream of Shakespeare’s work. There are inconsistencies of syntax and lexis here that add fuel to this fire because they differ from Shakespeare’s usual practice. There again, Shakespeare’s genius lies in many ways in his ability to innovate and invent, and besides there is plenty here to evoke the style of his Romances as well as his other explorations of narrative verse.
Structurally, “A Lover’s Complaint” breaks down into four parts: lines 1 – 70, spoken by the unidentified narrator, describing the scene by the river; lines 71 – 175, in which the “fickle maid” describes her attraction to the young man; lines 176 – 280, in which the seductive speeches of the young man are reported, and lines 281 – 329, in which she reprises her attraction, and her failure to learn a lesson.
Lines 1 – 70
The unknown and unidentified speaker relaxes in the fields (“down I laid”) to watch a melancholy scene he will now describe. A “fickle maid” – still young, though evidently ravaged by grief – is standing by the riverside, taking from her basket (or “maund”) various letters and pieces of jewellery to throw into the water. As she does so, an old gentleman that “grazed his cattle nigh” asks why the young woman is so upset.
Lines 71 – 175
The young woman tells the story of her seduction by the youth who has hurt her so deeply. She was ready to fall in love, she recalls, and his attraction was physical. But equally (line 99) he had a beguiling voice and a certain persuasive quality (125 – 6). The young woman recalls that she was a free agent and “did in freedom stand” (143), but she failed to listen to wise advice and began to learn of his philandering (171).
Lines 176 – 280
The young woman now summarises the seducer’s story. He has had affairs, he admits, but these encounters were purely physical (“acture”, 185). He has received plenty of love tokens from his female lovers – jewels (198), locks of hair (204) and love poems (209) – but these he offers to the young woman (222). His previous admirers even included a nun (232) who abandoned her calling, craving what she couldn’t have (240). All these lovers now envy the young woman and enviously wish she would end her “batt’ry” (277) of the seducer’s heart.
Lines 281 – 329
The young woman describes the seducer’s deceiving tears before recounting how she abandoned her “chastity” (297) and gave herself to him. Now his powers of deception become clear (306), his ability to dissemble (314 – 5). She regrets her weakness but questions whether, faced with the same situation again, she wouldn’t make the same mistake (328).
Stage by Stage
Stage One: Lines 1 – 70
1 – 7: the narrator describes a “fickle maid” tearfully ripping up papers and destroying jewellery.
8 – 14: beneath her straw hat her face was still beautiful despite evident signs of sadness.
15 – 21: in her grief she repeatedly wept into her handkerchief as she wailed.
22 – 28: at times she gazed at the skies, at others distractedly into the middle distance in her grief.
29 – 35: she looked unkempt – her hair for example was partly tied up, partly loose and free.
36 – 42: she throws various love tokens into the river – to which she adds her own tears.
43 – 49: first she throws in letters; next “many a ring” is discarded; then yet more letters.
50 – 56: she would kiss these letters, then tear them, denouncing the contents as lies.
57 – 63: an old man grazing his cattle in a nearby field approached her to ask why she is upset.
64 – 70: he comes and sits next to her and asks about her unhappiness and whether he can help.
Stage Two: Lines 71 – 175
71 – 77: the young woman replies that her ravaged appearance is the result of an unhappy love.
78 – 84: she explains that she fell in love with a handsome youth, largely for his looks.
85 – 91: his brown hair hung in curls, she remembers, and everyone who saw him fell for him.
92 – 98: he was young – hardly old enough to shave – and beautiful both with beard and without.
99 – 105: also he had a sweet voice, and his passionate style made him seem the more trustworthy.
106 – 112: furthermore, he was an excellent rider, bringing out the best in himself and his mount.
113 – 119: overall, he was excellent in himself, and whatever he touched was improved by contact.
120 – 126: in conversation he was equally powerful, proving versatile, persuasive and compelling.
127 – 133: everyone, young and old, male and female, was enchanted by him and drawn to him.
134 – 140: many people dreamt he was theirs much as one might imagine owning a house one rents.
141 – 147: many dreamt he loved them – and though free, emotionally she too gave him everything.
148 – 154: but physically she was cautious, and though desired, she “mine honour shielded”.
155 – 161: but she was drawn to what she should avoid, and good advice did not deter her.
162 – 168: the advice and experiences of others did not put her off, and her curiosity won out.
169 – 175: she knew he had other lovers, and that to him words were merely lies.
Stage 3: 176 – 280
176 – 182: she reports his promise that she alone was the real recipient of his amorous advances.
183 – 189: his previous encounters (she reports) were physical only on both sides, never emotional.
190 – 196: I was never emotionally involved, the youth says, though others may have been with me.
197 – 203: the youth reveals the many jewels his girlfriends have given him, tokens of their love.
204 – 210: along with the jewels, locks of hair and “deep-brained” poems to accompany the jewels.
211 – 217: diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and opals came his way to accompany the sonnets.
218 – 224: and all these love tokens, says the young woman, the handsome youth gave her in turn.
225 – 231: so open your hand (he says) to receive these tokens in turn, since you are my mistress.
232 – 238: this “device” was given me (says the youth) by a nun who was able to resist rich courtiers.
239 – 245: but it is easy to resist what you don’t want, he says, to run way from what tempts you.
246 – 252: the youth boasts the nun found him irresistible and developed a religious passion for him.
253 – 259: you must be so “mighty”, she records him saying, to be loved by one loved by so many.
260 – 266: the nun gave up her discipline for me but you (he tells her) have no restrictions or limits.
267 – 273: love is free of past influences, and liberates from negative feelings and experiences.
274 – 280: all these past lovers are desperate for you to abandon (he tells her) your desire for me.
Stage 4: 281 – 329
281 – 287: his speech completed, the young woman reports that the youth bursts into tears.
288 – 294: the young woman observes how the youth’s tears are hard to resist but leave her angry.
295 – 301: his deceiving tears made her weep too, leaving him stronger and her weaker.
302 – 308: the youth is able to confect tears (“cautels” = deceptions) as occasion requires.
309 – 315: anyone who came within his range would be hurt by his deceptions.
316 – 322: with his good looks she was easily deceived, she says. But she might do the same again.
323 – 329: for his tears, his complexion, his health, his breath – she would fall for him once more.
The story is narrated by the first-person speaker (“down I laid”, line 4) whose presence in the poem is gradually buried beneath two further layers of voices – the lover herself, whose monologue he retails, and the handsome youth, whose speeches the young woman narrates. Other characters in the story include the gentleman shepherd to whom the lover retails the whole story and the nun who fell for the youth. All five characters are nameless.
A wide range of metaphors inform the writing, including a striking image drawn from the female body to describe a hill (a “concave womb”, line 1) and an apparently incongruous military field early in the poem (“pelleted”, line 18, “batt’ry”, line 23). The image of battering returns in line 277, when the handsome youth accuses the young woman of launching a “batt’ry … ‘gainst mine” – in other words, an assault on his emotions. A further military figure appears in lines 309 – 10, which sees flirtation as a weapon, perhaps a musket: “not a heart which in his level came / Could ‘scape the hail of his all-hurting aim”. Technologically, at any rate, a step up from Cupid.
A more familiar field of images is drawn from nature, including in line 75 the young woman’s feeling that “I might as yet have been a spreading flower” – blooming, one imagines, or blossoming. The same vehicle reappears in line 147 (though with a different tenor), where she regrets succumbing to the youth’s charms as she recalls how she “gave him all my flower”. Though it is tempting to see this metaphor as indicating a loss of virginity, the verse that follows (lines 148 – 154) disallows this interpretation. A similar images appears at the end of “All’s Well that Ends Well,” when the King of France tells Diana “If thou be’st, yet a fresh uncropped flower, / Choose thou thy husband and I’ll pay thy dower” (3.5).
The “reverend” old gentleman grazing his sheep who comes to hear her story is the third character (after the poet himself and the young woman) to participate in the narrative. He has a background in the court and in the city – potentially engaging details, though in fact they play no further part in the story, and this gentleman now effectively disappears from the narrative. “Reverend” in this context means “respectable”. (Incidentally, it my be worth mentioning that Shakespeare’s own story was one “that the ruffle knew / Of court, of city” before he, like the shepherd, settled for the greener fields of home.)
In line 82, Love is personified, commanding three active and two passive verbs (“lacked … made … did abide … was new-lodged and newly deified”). Personification in “A Lover’s Complaint” is, however, significantly less common than in for example “Venus and Adonis”, where it is pervasive. Among other notable personifications in the poem, “His rudeness” stands out (line 103), as does “reason” (line 168), which plays a notable part in “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, also personified.
The metaphor of “city” for “virginity” (line 176) recalls a similar use of the image in Shakespeare’s long narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece”. In that poem, the victim is drawn to a painting of Troy, the city-state deceived and destroyed by the wooden horse, a physical embodiment of her experience. Here the image sits a touch incongruously with the natural background of the poem.
At line 177, the monologue of the young woman diversifies into the monologue of the handsome youth. But it is still, of course, the young woman who is speaking.
The young woman has a dispassionate and insightful sense of her own experience. Lines 155 – 168 for example reveal a thoughtful understanding of what she has allowed to happen (“For when we rage, advice is often seen / By blunting us to make our wits more keen” etc). By contrast, the handsome youth emerges fairly quickly as a practised dissembler: commenting on his past casual encounters, for example, he argues that “so much less of shame in me remains / By how much of me their reproach contains” (lines 188 – 9). The critic Katherine Duncan Jones describes this as “quasi-legal quibbling”.
The conundrum why the young woman is throwing apparently valuable jewels into the river to sink into the “mud” (line 46) is clarified in lies 225 – 231. Here she reports that the handsome youth passed on to her the jewels he had been given by his various mistresses and lovers.
In line 232 the poem’s fifth character appears, the “nun” or “sister sanctified” (not perhaps quite the same thing) who abandons her calling to pursue her passion for the handsome youth. He reports that she had previously “kept cold distance” from her admirers at court (237) but appears to have found him harder to resist, and “would the caged cloister fly” (249) to pursue him. Her sacrifice is dismissed: “what labour is’t to leave / The thing we have not …?” (239 – 40). Interestingly, the young woman has constructed a similar argument in lines 155 ff – that we crave what we don’t have.
Eventually the young woman surrenders to the handsome youth’s advances – “my white stole of chastity I daffed”, she remembers in line 297 – an image drawn from clothing of a kind that Shakespeare uses routinely in his work. Earlier in the poem (line 105) the young woman has recalled how the youth would “livery falseness in a pride of truth” – a reminder that clothing was of immense significance to Tudor and Jacobean audiences as a mark of wealth and status. A similar figure appears in line 316, in which his dissembling is said to be concealed behind “the garment of a grace”.
It is a striking feature of the final verse that the five features that seem most to enrage the young woman are revealed by the delayed main verb (“Would yet again betray”) as the very source of her attraction to the handsome youth.
- Name one of the “thousand favours” that the unhappy young woman throws into the river.
- What did the young woman do to the letters before she threw them in the river?
- Which adjective is used to describe the old shepherd who hears the story?
- When he comes to speak to the young woman, what does he bring?
- What colour was the hair of the handsome youth?
- Which particular physical skill did the handsome youth possess?
- What gifts apart from jewels and sonnets did his admirers give the youth?
- The courtiers flirting with the nun are described in terms of an item of clothing. Which?
- Where in the opinion of the young woman does “a hell of witchcraft” lie?
- How in the last line does the young woman reflect on the events she has described?
Shakespeare’s comedies typically end in a romantic meeting of hearts and minds, sending the faithful home from the theatre reassured that love has found a way. In plays like “All’s Well that Ends Well” and “As You Like It”, “Measure for Measure” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, boy meets girl, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Shakespeare’s narrative poems, however, are quite different in tone. In “Venus and Adonis” the beautiful male is gored to death by the wild boar he was hunting, his blood seeping into the soil in a vivid image. Similarly, in “The Rape of Lucrece”, the victim of the assault stabs herself in front of her husband and his peers, the blood once again pooling round her corpse in an image the poet captures vividly.
The sequence of events described in “Romeo and Juliet” indicates that Shakespeare’s view of love was more nuanced than his stage comedies sometimes suggest: “The path of true love,” as Lysander accepts in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “never did run smooth”. The paradox at the close of “A Lover’s Complaint” is that the conclusion is open-ended, in that the very characteristics which have so exasperated the young woman would (as she concedes) “yet again betray” her.
No wonder Reason, closing “The Phoenix and the Turtle” with his thoughts on love, is exasperated in his turn.