The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0358  Sunday, 15 June 2008

From:       Al Magary <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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 
literary development."

Are Those Shakespeare's "Balls"?: Should "A Lover's Complaint" be kicked out of 
the canon?
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."

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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