ABSTRACT

It is possible to detect a certain plaintive tone even in contemporary critical scholarship on Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint that no longer seeks to oust the poem from the Shakespearean canon and takes seriously the task of explicating its complexities. Building on Katherine Duncan-Jones's convincing argument that the 1609 quarto in which A Lover's Complaint was first printed follows a Renaissance convention of concluding a sonnet sequence with a long poem, often a complaint, John Kerrigan argues that Shakespeare's poem is integral to his more highly esteemed sonnet sequence in its moral critique of epideictic rhetoric, but then finds himself puzzled by Shakespeare's unsettling failure to conclude it in the manner of Daniel's The Complaint of Rosamond and Spenser's Ruines of Time with the re-emergence of the poet-narrator whose presence at the beginning of the complaint puts a frame around the lament of the fallen maiden and at the end sums up for us how we are to respond to her complaint. Kerrigan's distress is aroused primarily by the final words of the poem, the maiden's seemingly contradictory statement that given the chance she would surrender her honor to the duplicitous and treacherous young man again. Kerrigan evidently would like Shakespeare to have left us in no doubt about the maiden's moral unreliability: 'If the poem starts in the territory of Spenser and Daniel, it ends, like the problem plays, with the incorrigibility of passion' (425) —an interpretation that assumes passion ought to be restrained.