The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0358 Sunday, 15 June 2008
From: Al Magary <
Date: Friday, 13 Jun 2008 23:21:24 -0700
Subject: Rosenbaum on "Should 'A Lover's Complaint' Be Kicked Out of the Canon?"
Ron Rosenbaum, author of _The Shakespeare Wars_ and member of SHAKSPER, wrote an
essay for the online journal SLATE in which he brings attention to "an exciting
Are Those Shakespeare's "Balls"?: Should "A Lover's Complaint" be kicked out of
By Ron Rosenbaum
Slate, Thursday, June 12, 2008, at 3:15 PM ET
If I can be said to have a favorite kind of column, it's one in which I can
bring to your attention an exciting literary development-one whose importance
has not received the notice it deserves outside the ivory tower-and then tell
you what to think about it.
[ . . . ]
I'm speaking of the decision by the Royal Shakespeare Company's publishing wing,
in its recent edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, to subtract, delete,
erase one long-standing four-century-old fixture of the Shakespearean canon: a
329-line poem called "A Lover's Complaint."
And its decision to attribute to Shakespeare a relatively recent discovery, an
18-line dedicatory poem called "To the Queen."
These changes are no small matter: Casting a poem as long as the "Complaint" out
of the canon means redefining the artistic identity of our greatest poet and
dramatist in a small, subtle but significant way. It should not be-it was
not-done casually. But the move has attracted only casual attention here in America.
When I speak of my being inhibited by my "peripheral involvement," what I mean
is that I am listed in the RSC Complete Works edition (published here by Random
House, which also published my book The Shakespeare Wars
as a member of the RSC's "advisory board." Most of my (unpaid) work in that
capacity consisted of reading and commenting on the brief introductory essays to
the plays by chief editor Jonathan Bate, whose work I've admired since his
landmark London Times Literary Supplement article (one of the great conjectures
in intellectual history) linking the work the Cambridge quantum physicists were
doing on the uncertainty principle in the '20s and '30s with the work Cambridge
literary critics, such as the peerless William Empson, were doing on ambiguity
at the same time.
As it turned out, I had little to add to Bate's introductions, which I found to
be remarkably smart compressions of scholarship and close reading.
More importantly, I took no part in the decisions Bate and his co-editor Eric
Rasmussen made to take one poem away from Shakespeare and add another to his
credit. But I do think both decisions are significant and daring, and deserving
of debate. Both decisions bear upon a question I examined in The Shakespeare
Wars: What do we mean when we say something is "Shakespearean," and how can we
tell whether something is Shakespearean or not? Can we define that quality? And
what does our effort to define it tell us about what we choose to value in
literature and drama?
[ . . . ]
"A Lover's Complaint" is mostly bad, sometimes pitifully so, sorry to say, but
it really presses on the distinction between ordinary and Shakespearean badness.
For a long time, it's been protected from skepticism (and there has been some)
by the fact that it was published in the same pamphlet-sized book as
Shakespeare's sonnets -- the so-called "1609 Quarto" version -- as a kind of
long narrative poem appendage that followed immediately upon the last, 154th
sonnet. So, it has the claim of being published under Shakespeare's byline.
(And it was not uncommon for a sonnet sequence to be followed by a longer poem
reprising its themes.)
But for those appalled by the poem's badness, there has always been a slight
opening: It's never been resolved whether the "1609 Quarto," the pamphlet that
was the first to publish all 154 sonnets, was authorized or approved of by
Shakespeare. There are dark mutterings that it may have been published against
his wishes, due to the scandalously erotic subject matter and language. If that
were true, the printer could have thrown in "A Lover's Complaint" to fill out
the slim volume. (This is unlikely, though, since the printer had been a
longtime associate of Shakespeare.)
This debate has surfaced occasionally in the past, but in 2007 Brian Vickers --
one of the scholars who definitively demolished the attribution of the awful
"Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare -- published a powerful case against "A Lover's
Complaint" called "William Shakespeare, 'A Lover's Complaint,' and John Davies
of Hereford." Vickers argued that the latter gentleman, a minor poet,
contemporary, and admirer of Shakespeare, was the author of the "Complaint."
While Vickers uses the entire scholarly armentarium of "stylometrics," parallel
passages, and scrupulous literary history to make his case, I know that I
initially applauded Bate's decision to omit the "Complaint" (a decision strongly
influenced by Vickers' work) primarily because the poem's badness was deeply
embarrassing. At times, you almost wondered whether it was a deliberately bad
parody of bad Elizabethan poetry.
I must admit I've always found it hard to get beyond the fourth verse without
laughing out loud.
[ . . . ]
Now to the poem Bate has added to the Shakespearean canon in his RSC edition:
"To the Queen." Here, with all due respect, I think his apparent certainty is
[ . . . ]
I just don't feel there is enough internal or external evidence of Shakespearean
authorship to warrant taking the radical step of adding an unsigned poem to the
Shakespearean canon, especially while removing a poem that was bound in to the
quarto titled "Shakespeare's Sonnets" 400 years ago.
I think "To the Queen" will share the fate of another now-widely regarded
misattribution (by Gary Taylor) of a very bad doggerel verse that begins "Shall
I die?/ Shall I fly?" once included in the Oxford edition of the Complete Works,
now a poetic pariah.
I feel more conflicted about Bate's "Complaint" decision. On the one hand,
should others follow his lead, the poem risks being cast into the "iniquity of
oblivion" (Sir Thomas Browne's phrase, from "Hydrotaphia"). On the other hand,
it was pretty close to oblivion, anyway. When was the last time you had a
spirited discussion about "The Lover's Complaint"?
And yet now, I hope Bate's decision to evict the poem from his RSC edition may
enshrine it more deeply in other editions, or at least make it a subject for
debate and give it the kind of notoriety, if not immortality, it wouldn't
otherwise have. Perhaps Bate's decision will get people to read what may be the
single least-read work attributed to Shakespeare, and consider again what we
mean when we say something is -- or isn't --"Shakespearean."
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