Commentary

A Lover's Complaint appeared at the end of Shakespeare's sonnets, published in 1609. For this poem Shakespeare drew on a long tradition of complaints by abandoned lovers, beginning with Dido in Vergil's Aeneid (19 B.c.)and Ovid's Heroides (before A.D. 8) and continuing through Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate's The Fall of Princes (1431-1438). The third edition of A Mirror for Magistrates (1563) included Thomas Churchyard's poem about Jane Shore, who was mistress to Edward IV and whom Richard III "despoiled of all her goodes, and forced to do open penance." In 1578 the complaint of Elianor Cobham was added to the collection. 

Samuel Daniel's "Complaint of Rosamond" echoes Jane Shore's lament; it tells of the seduction and eventual death of Rosamond Clifford, mistress to Henry II. Daniel's poem is written in rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza in iambic pentameter rhyming ababbcc, and it appears at the end of his "Delia" sonnets. Thomas Lodge published "The Complaint of Elstred" with his sonnet sequence Philis the following year. Edmund Spenser's The Ruines of Rome (c. 1591), another complaint of this period in rhyme royal, opens with a woman wailing by a stream and may have suggested the setting for Shakespeare's poem. Michael Drayton's 1594 Matilda and Thomas Middleton's The Ghost of Lucrece (1600) also use rhyme royal for their laments, as Shakespeare did for The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Thus the rhyme royal form of A Lover's Complaint and its publication at the end of a sonnet sequence are both conventional. Even the title may be borrowed from two poems in The Arbor of Amorous Devices (1597), bearing the same designation as Shakespeare's. 

The language of A Lover's Complaint bears affinities with Cymbeline (c. 1609), suggesting that Shakespeare revised the poem shortly before publication. In language, character, situation, and theme, however, A Lover's Complaint is closer to All's Well That Ends Well (c. 1602) and Measure for Measure (1604). The opening of the poem and the first scene of All's Well That Ends Well are virtually identical. In the play Helena laments the departure of Bertram, whom she loves, though she has not yielded to him. Her audience, Parolles, is not silent, but Helena and he use the same kind of military metaphors as the lady in the poem to discuss virginity and its loss. Despite the harsh treatment Helena and the lady of the poem suffer, the former pursues and marries Bertram, and the lady would yield to her lover again. The lady of the poem also suggests Mariana in Measure for Measure, to whom Angelo plighted his troth but then "left her in her tears" (Act III, scene i, line 225). She continues to weep, but Angelo remains obdurate until the end of the play, when the duke forces Angelo to marry her. 

The young man in the poem closely resembles Bertram. Both are young and lascivious, and each abandons a woman who loves him. Late in All's Well That Ends Well, Bertram thinks he seduces and then abandons Diana. The lady in the poem describes her lover as having "phoenix down" on his chin; Helena calls Bertram a phoenix. Both men have curly hair. The woman praises the young man's horsemanship, and Bertram in Italy becomes a cavalry general. The young man of the poem also bears a resemblance to Angelo, who appears to be just and chaste, punishing illicit fornication with death, yet seeks to sleep with Isabella. In the poem the lady says of her betrayer, "Where he most burnt in heart-wish'd luxury,/ He preach'd pure maid, and prais'd cold chastity."  In the two plays the men retain the love of the women they mistreat, and these works end in marriage. In A Lover's Complaint all does not end well; redemption through love does not occur. Here the mood is closer to that of the sonnets, in which again a Fair Youth repeatedly deceives and abuses the speaker, who continues to love him In the later sonnets (after 126) a similar situation exists, though now the speaker is deceived by the Dark Lady. Helena, Mariana, the lady of A Lover s Complaint, and the speaker in the sonnets all demonstrate that true love does not alter "when it alteration finds" (Sonnet 116). In the plays this love triumphs; in the poems it remains unrequited. 

Another possible connection among All's Well That Ends Well, the sonnets, and A Lover's Complaint is the model for the deceiving youth in each case: the third Earl of Southampton. Regarded by many scholars as the subject of the first 126 sonnets he was lascivious, and he seduced and then abandoned Elizabeth Vernon a maid of honor in Elizabeth's court. The speaker in A Lover's Complaint is several times called a maid, perhaps suggesting Elizabeth Yemen's post. Bertram and Southampton are both wards of the court, both refuse marriages proposed by their guardians, and both leave the country to become generals of cavalry. At last, like Bertram, Southampton married the woman he had abandoned. In A Lover's Complaint the seducer has not returned, but the poem is a psychological study, not a completed drama. John Roe, in his 1992 Cambridge University Press edition of the poems, wrote that A Lover's Complaint shows the woman's inability to resist and the man's inability to desist. The poem also examines the consequences of that inability. How would Elizabeth Vernon have felt in the absence of Southampton? How do Helena and Mariana feel when their lovers reject them? In line 133 of A Lover's Complaint William Shakespeare may be punning on his own name, as he does in the sonnets: "Asked their own wills, and made their wills obey." Perhaps Shakespeare, too, is expressing his own sense of betrayal by the Fair Youth and Dark Lady. As Troilus and Cressida, another work of the early 1600's, illustrates, such sentiments are not the exclusive domain ot women The dark world of A Lover's Complaint is that of Troilus and Cressida and of The Phoenix and the Turtle, where "Truth may seem, but cannot be;/ Beauty brag, but 'tis not she:/ Truth and Beauty buried be" (The Phoenix and the Turtle,lines62-64)

 

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