ABSTRACT

Because it is such a compressed poem, and so short compared with other examples of its genre, A Lover's Complaint has sometimes been considered to be unfinished. On the other hand, the maid's despairing self-reflection at the end of the poem as we have it seems to bring her sad reminiscences full circle, and we may claim therefore that the poem is complete even if brief and rather stark. At a little over three hundred lines the poem is much shorter than other poems which belong, roughly or precisely, to the same 'complaint' genre, such as Daniel's Complaint of Rosamond or (in certain aspects) Shakespeare's own Rape of Lucrece. It may be that Shakespeare only borrows the complaint form to give a convenient structure to a poem that is meant to be nothing more than an extended lament. The uncertain circumstances of its publication, along with the Sonnets in that teasing quarto of 1609, give further rise to conjectures that Shakespeare was not really finished with it when it went to press. (I assume that the poem is by Shakespeare, and I am persuaded largely by the detailed, sensitive analysis of MacDonald P. Jackson. However, its authority has again been challenged, recently by a computer study). 1 I am here less concerned with its own formal composition than with the question of associations, or links, that may be found with other of Shakespeare's works. The Sonnets are the obvious connection, and this subject has of course received no small amount of speculation in recent years; 2 but in my estimate the more fascinating interconnection lies not with another poem but with a drama, that of Hamlet. In that play, the figure of Hamlet is naturally heroic, and he is seen appropriately as an opponent of evil and the victim-martyr of a vile design. The phrase 'naturally heroic' may raise a few eyebrows, for much recent criticism has expressed as much skepticism regarding Hamlet's bona fides, and whether he is a good or admirable man, as Hamlet entertains for those around him. 3 However, I think it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare wishes us to see his hero as sympathetic, and even noble, although his nobility is one that has been forced to accommodate an unprecedented degree of complex consciousness. Notwithstanding, his treatment of Ophelia gives rise to alarm, and has to be explained away on the grounds of agitation or temporary instability caused by unbearable pressures. 4 Suspicions linger as to Hamlet's attitude towards Ophelia (to what degree did he make her suck 'the honey of his music vows' [III.i. 150]?), 5 and though these are finally eclipsed by the play's tragic denouement, we wonder if they have really settled themselves in the dramatist's mind. Is 110 A Lover's Complaint a means of giving them extra life, while at the same time allowing 'Ophelia' a more extended hearing?