Analysis of A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare

A Lover's Complaint

The poems and plays considered so far were chosen to demonstrate how deliberately Shakespeare had based his works on the philosophy published in the Sonnets of 1609 or QVenus and AdonisLucrece, and The Phoenix and the Turtle, only make sense in the light of the Sonnet logic. Love’s Labour’s Lost, as the only play with no known source and with a degree of difficulty that has only recently seen it performed regularly, represents a deliberate attempt to present the philosophy on stage. The plot ofMeasure for
Measure, while sourced from previous versions, is adapted to the Sonnet philosophy and demonstrates its utility for critiquing the inconsistencies in traditional biblical beliefs and Platonic idealism. 
Complete Template <i>Sonnet</i> Numbers
      The next work to be considered, A Lover’s Complaint, was specifically included by Shakespeare inQ as an example of the philosophy in practice. It provides a link from the philosophy articulated in theSonnets to its application in all his other works. While the poem is short by comparison with the plays, it contains the logical pattern on which they are based. 
      Volume 1 noted a number of thematic and numerological features of A Lover’s Complaint that relate it to the Sonnets in Q. The features it shares with the Sonnets confirm its role as a vehicle for the philosophy. This commentary will show that the content of A Lover’s Complaint is consistent with the philosophy. It will correct the misinterpretation and denigration the poem has suffered at the hands of those who have wished to convert Shakespeare to illogical biblical or Platonic beliefs.

Analysis of A Lover's Complaint

The first three lines of A Lover’s Complaint establish the logical pre-conditions for writing mythic poetry. To appreciate the significance of the opening words it is necessary to remember that in the logic of theSonnets Nature is the basis from which sexual division leads to increase and thence to the possibility of truth and beauty. And the Poet of the Sonnets is the one who appreciates that poetry is conditional on Nature and increase. So, when the poet of A Lover’s Complaint begins his tale, the first words he hears, echoing from off a hill, acknowledge the priority of Nature over language.
From off a hill whose concave womb reworded,
plaintful story from a sistring vale
My spirits t’attend this double voice accorded, (1-3)
      In the logic of the Sonnets, the ‘hill’ represents Nature. The poet calls it a ‘concave womb’ identifying it with Nature and the source of the female and male. From the hill or concave womb, with its implied sexual dynamic, is reflected the ‘reworded’ story. Because the dynamic of truth and beauty derives logically from the sexual dynamic in Nature, the poet recognises that his ‘story’, or any story, is a reflection of the sexual dynamic. The reflection of the reworded story from the concave womb expresses the erotic logic of the poet’s verse. 
      Just as Shakespeare establishes the logical relation of increase to truth and beauty and thence to writing in the first 19 sonnets, he begins A Lover’s Complaint by stating the logical conditions for writing poetry. The words that form the poem are logically related back to their basis in Nature and the sexual dynamic, rewording or reflecting the reality of Nature. The sexual dynamic of life gives rise to the erotic expression of the poem. Having articulated the logical conditions for any mythic expression in the Sonnets, Shakespeare begins his sample poem by encapsulating those conditions in the first line. 
      If the first line provides the logical foundation for the Lover of the title, the second line addresses the idea of a Complaint. From off the hill/womb comes the ‘plaintful story’. The complaint of the maid in A Lover’s Complaint is a lament that accompanies her transition from adolescent virgin to mature woman. Shakespeare takes the traditional conceit of a psychological complaint, typical of poetic ‘Complaints’written by his contemporaries, and gives it a philosophic twist. In his hands it becomes a rite of passage away from the psychology of idealism (whether biblical or Platonic) that notoriously complains about the natural logic of life. The maid’s realisation, at the end of the poem, that her sexual experience was not dire, allows her to anticipate a pleasurable repeat. 
      To ensure his logical correction of idealistic fatalism is not missed, Shakespeare has his poet hear the maid’s ‘plaint’ issue from a ‘sistring’ vale. The reference to a ‘sistring vale’, a page after the erotic evocations of valleys and wells in sonnets 153 and 154, leaves no doubt that the maid’s voice arises from a cloistered or virginal condition. The allusion anticipates lines 232- 8, where the maid’s lover recounts the sexual arousal his idealised beauty induces in a nun. So, consistent with Sonnet logic, the poet first hears the maid as she emerges from the idealised celibacy analogous to that of a religious ‘sister’. 
      The third line bears this out. The poet’s ‘spirits’, or his imaginative soul, attend to the ‘double voice’ from off the ‘hill’. The ‘voice’ issues both from the sexual orifice of the sister/maid and, from her mouth. The double nature of the logical relationship gives language its capacity to represent the world. 
      So, within the first three lines, Shakespeare presents a scenario that incorporates the basic elements of his philosophy. The poet’s account in the poem begins after the physical act of sex between the maid and the youth. In a poem that expresses a mythic level of understanding, the first three lines acknowledge the transition from Nature and the sexual dynamic to the erotic dynamic of voices and words. The poem opens with a statement of the Sonnet logic that incorporates the function of the 5 poetry and increase sonnets, 15 to 19. 
      The poet, having set the scene for the poem by evoking the logical conditions for poetry, lies down to listen to the ‘sad tun’d tale’ of the maid. Because he is aware of the natural logic of life and thought, he anticipates the nature of the maid’s complaint. As he makes himself comfortable, with an air of resignation, he sights her ‘fickle’ form rounding the hill. Her expressions of sorrow are equated to the fickleness of the weather, like ‘wind and rain’.
And down I laid to list the sad tun’d tale,
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale
Tearing of papers breaking rings a twain,
Storming her world with sorrows, wind and rain. (4-7)
      Editors, not understanding the philosophy articulated in the 70 pages of sonnets preceding theComplaint, question the meaning of ‘fickle’ and remove the comma after ‘sorrows’. They struggle to find another meaning for ‘fickle’ other than its usual meaning of ‘capricious’ (as it is used throughout Shakespeare and OED entries). They are unable to accept the logical inevitability of the maid’s sexual awakening. When they remove the comma from line 7, they kill the irony in the poet’s observation of the maid’s sincerity. 
      The poet describes the maid as a young woman who exhibits early signs of aging. She is not adolescent but more like a thirty-something who is aware of the onset of age. If she was still a virgin before encountering the youth then, as the poem reveals, she was not unwilling to sacrifice her chastity. Her ‘fickle’ nature is a consequence of the dogmas imposed on her sexuality by idealistic constraints or fears
Upon her head a platted hive of straw,
Which fortified her visage from the Sun.
Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw
The carcass of a beauty spent and done,
Time had not scythed all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit, but spite of heaven’s fell rage,
Some beauty peeped, through lattice of fear’d age. (8-14)
      Consistent with the Sonnet logic, after the allusion to Nature and the sexual dynamic in the first stanza, the second stanza introduces the dynamic of truth and beauty. Truth (logically the dynamic of saying or thinking) is characterised as a process that adds thought to thought consequent on the sensation of seeing or the logic of beauty. The maid’s youthful beauty is subject to time’s decay, making the sensation of beauty a less precise gauge of what is best and worst (sonnet 137). Because her ‘rage’ is generated by the ‘heavenly’ attitude toward virginity, she does not appear as beautiful as she might 
      In the first two stanzas, A Lover’s Complaint unmistakably follows the logic of the Sonnets. It has been possible, without invention, to observe the progress from Nature, through the sexual possibility, to the logic of increase and on to the dynamic of truth and beauty. The two stanzas outline the structure of the whole set of Sonnets and the 14 increase sonnets. It introduces the mythic role of the poet and then brings the dynamic of truth and beauty to bear upon the maid. It should not surprise then that the next two stanzas focus on the role of the eyes, which are pivotal to the logic of truth and beauty in sonnet 14. 
      If the maid is still under the influence of ‘heaven’s fell rage’, then the Sonnet logic predicts that her eyes will be blinded to truth and beauty. This is confirmed in line 28 where her ‘sight’ and ‘mind’ are ‘distractedly commixed’. The piteous attitude toward the world, typical of idealistic faiths, has ‘pelleted…conceited characters’ on her Napkin. Her tears launder the ‘silken figures’, but each time she reads the content of their doom she shrieks ‘undistinguished woe’. Her ‘clamours’, like all undifferentiated sounds or sensations, are the same ‘size’ whether heavenly or earthly.
Oft did she heave her Napkin to her eyne,
Which on it had conceited characters:
Laund’ring the silken figures in the brine,
That seasoned woe had pelleted in tears,
And often reading what contents it bears:
As often shrieking undistinguished woe,
In clamours of all size both high and low. (15-21)
      Wherever the maid looks, whether to the stars or the earth, she cannot fix her gaze. Her previous certainties based in ‘heavenly’ hope are now gone but, as yet, she has not discovered the logic that will reconcile her eyes and mind, or beauty and truth.
Some-times her leveled eyes their carriage ride,
As they did batt’ry to the spheres intend:
Sometime diverted their poor balls are tied,
To th’orbed earth; sometimes they do extend,
Their view right on, anon their gazes lend,
To every place at once and no where fixed,
The mind and sight distractedly commixed. (16-28)
      Then, to provide a measure of the maid’s ‘pride’, the poet describes her hair as ‘nor loose nor tied’. The impression given is of a woman not in ‘bondage’ to how she is viewed by others. The description fits her characterisation as a not unwilling partner in sex.
Her hair nor loose nor tied in formal plat, Proclaimed in her a careless hand of pride;
For some untuck’d descended her sheaved hat.
Hanging her pale and pined cheek beside,
Some in her threaden fillet still did bide,
And true to bondage would not break from thence,
Though slackly braided in loose negligence. (29-35)
      The erotic suggestiveness in the words ‘hair’ and ‘cheek’ relates the condition of her pride to her sexual encounter with the youth. In the Sonnets and in the plays there is frequent association between the cheeks of the face and the cheeks of the body, the most infamous occurring in sonnet 116.
      The maid then throws all the artifacts associated with her previous condition of denial into a nearby river. The emptying of her ‘maund’ or basket expresses the logical significance of her sexual awakening. In a flood of tears, she washes away the mementoes of her virginal state. In keeping with the Sonnet logic, she needs to free herself from the influence of ‘Monarch’s hands’, ‘Sepulchers’, and ‘false blood’ so that she can recover her natural relation to increase and truth and beauty.
A thousand favours from a maund she drew,
Of amber crystal and of beaded Jet,
Which one by one she in a river threw,
Upon whose weeping margent she was set,
Like usury applying wet to wet,
Or Monarch’s hands that lets not bounty fall,
Where want cries some; but where excess begs all.Of folded schedules had she many a one,
Which she perused, sighed, tore and gave the flood,
Cracked many a ring of Posied gold and bone,
Bidding them find their Sepulchers in mud,
Found yet mo letters sadly penned in blood,
With sleided silk, feat and affectedly
Unswathed and sealed to curious secrecy.
These often bath’d she in her fluxive eyes.
And often kissed, and often gave to tear,
Cried O false blood thou register of lies.
What unapproved witness dost thou bear!
Ink would have seem’d more black and dammed here!
This said in top of rage the lines she rents,
Big discontent, so breaking their contents. (36-56)
      Her ‘letters’ are the last to go. Their ‘lies’, which previously drew her ‘tears’ and her ‘kisses’, are about to be superceded by the tale she will tell of the pleasures of sex. She ‘rents’ or tears the ‘lines’ in a rage, expressing a ‘big discontent’ by ‘breaking’ their inadequate ‘contents’.
      Shakespeare then, with a blatant irony, has the maid meet with ‘a reverend man’, a man whom she calls ‘Father’ in lines 71 and 288. It is fitting that a priest or clergyman should have to listen to the story of a maid who has recovered her natural logic. She is about to recount her liberation from the indoctrination of anti-sexual religious idealists. Shakespeare characterises the ‘reverend man’ as a ‘blusterer’ whose ‘charity’ is no ‘charity’ because the maid’s ‘suffering ecstasy’ should have been ‘assuaged’ at the appropriate ‘age’.
A reverend man that graz’d his cattle nigh,
Sometime a blusterer that the ruffle knew
Of Court of City, and had let go by
The swiftest hours observed as they flew,
Towards this afflicted fancy fastly drew:
And priviledg’d by age desires to know
In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.So slides he down upon his grained bat;
And comely distant sits by her side,
When he again desires her, being sat,
Her grievance with his hearing to divide:
If that from him there may be ought applied
Which may her suffering ecstasy assuage
’Tis promised in the charity of age. (57-70)
      When the maid addresses the ‘reverend Father’, she asks him to withhold his ‘Judgment’, because her present condition is due to sorrow and not age. She then characterises her previous state in terms more suited to the selfish celibacy of the priest. She recognises that her state of mind before her sexual encounter was one of ‘love to my self ’.
Father she says, though in me you behold
The injury of many a blasting hour:
Let it not tell your Judgment I am old,
Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power;
I might as yet have been a spreading flower
Fresh to my self, if I had self applied
Love to my self, and to no Love beside
. (71-7)
      The self-love of celibacy, which inverts the priorities of natural logic, is the condition argued against in the increase argument of the first 14 sonnets. The criticism of the Master Mistress’s self-love is a criticism of belief systems that give the eroticism of the mind priority over the sexuality of the body. Editors, not willing to accept the obvious criticism of the clergy, suggest the reference to a ‘reverend man’ and ‘Father’ are not to a priest or clergyman, but merely indicate the virtuousness of the maid’s elderly confidant. Their prejudice prevents them from appreciating the logic of Shakespeare’s critique of religious idealism.
      The maid reports that when she first encountered the youth she was captivated by ‘nature’s outwards’. In him ‘Love’or Venus had made a dwelling so that she was ‘newly Deified’. The logical shift from the selfish love and charity of the ‘reverend Father’ to the recognition of the priority of the female, symbolised by the Goddess of Love, Venus, constitutes a ‘new’order in which the ‘Deified’ female goddess reestablishes her priority over the male God of religious belief. The recovery of natural logic argued for in this poem reiterates the argument of Venus in Venus and Adonis.
But woe is me, too early I attended
A youthful suit it was to gain my grace;
O one by natures outwards so commended,
That maidens’ eyes stuck over all his face,
Love lacked a dwelling and made him her place.
And when in his fair parts she did abide,
She was new lodg’d and newly Deified. (78-84)
      In the next three stanzas, as the maid describes the youth, Shakespeare incorporates in her description a burgeoning sense of the dynamic of beauty and truth. Her thoughts are consistent with the presentation of the logical relationship of truth and beauty a few pages back in the Mistress sequence. Because the female is the logical source of the male, and hence of beauty and truth, she is able to articulate her concerns consistent with its logic when faced with the immediacy of her relation to the male. The erotic suggestiveness of the maid’s description conveys her liberation from the straits of virginity.
His browny locks did hang in crooked curls,
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls,
What’s sweet to do, to do will aptly find,
Each eye that saw him did enchant the maid:
For on his visage was in little drawn,
What largeness thinks in paradise was sawn. (85-91)
      Shakespeare correctly identifies the ideal qualities evident in the youth as the source of what ‘largeness’, or the overblown conceit of a heavenly God, ‘thinks’ it sees in the fantasy of a paradise. The word paradise is generic and does not refer solely to the biblical Paradise. Editors unwilling to acknowledge Shakespeare’s critique of religious idealism remove the capital D from ‘Deified’ in line 84, but give paradise a capital P. The irony of the references to a ‘reverend man’, ‘Father’ and ‘Deified’, with the priest having to listen to an account of the recovery of natural logic, is lessened by the removal of the D and the addition of P.
Small show of man was yet upon his chin,
His phoenix down began but to appear
Like unshorn velvet, on that termless skin
Whose bare out-bragg’d the web it seem’d to wear.
Yet showed his visage by that cost more dear,
And nice affections wavering stood in doubt
If best were as it was, or best without
. (92-8)
      By characterising the youth as partway between male and female Shakespeare emphasises, as he does in his description of the Master Mistress in the sonnet 20, the origin of the male from the female in Nature. The youth’s transformation toward a fully functioning male is heralded by the appearance of his ‘phoenix down’. His ‘unshorn velvet’ begins the process of the development of male driven idealism whose ‘cost more dear’ recalls the ‘dear religious love’ in sonnet 31. The ‘wavering’ of ‘nice affections’, or the logic of beauty, stands in ‘doubt’ when it a becomes the dynamic of ‘saying’ that something is ‘best as it was’ or ‘best without’ (sonnet 137).
His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden tongu’d he was and thereof free;
Yet if men mov’d him, was he such a storm
As oft twixt May and April is to see,
When winds breath sweet, unruly though they be.
His rudeness so with his authoris’d youth,
|Did livery falseness in a pride of truth
. (99-105)
      The youth’s ‘beauteous qualities’, like his form or body, are ‘maiden tongu’d’ or derived sexually from the female. And, because he makes use of his maiden given tongue or penis, he is ‘free’ of the worse consequences of male beauty. By comparison, if ‘men’ moved him, or he was moved by his own maleness, then he would be like a storm whose ‘winds breathe sweet’. He would have disguised his ‘unruly’ qualities or ‘falseness’ in the selfish pride of the ideal and called it ‘truth’. His ‘authorised youth’ would become idealised like Christ of the ‘authorised’ Bible. In the Sonnets, truth is the dynamic in language that determines right and wrong. It cannot be the ideal, as the ideal is part of the dynamic of sensations, and any form of sensation in the Sonnets is called beauty.
      Then, in an equine metaphor also used in Venus and Adonis, where the courser and jennet do what Adonis is loath to do, the maid describes the youth’s lovemaking in terms of a rider and a horse. From the metaphor of male and female engaged in seamless intercourse, Shakespeare develops a deeper sense of the genesis of language. ‘Controversy’ and ‘question’ arise from the sexual dynamic as an erotic manifestation of their lovemaking.
Well could he ride, and often men would say
That horse his mettle from his rider takes
Proud of subjection, noble by the sway,
What rounds, what bounds, what course what stop he makes
And controversy hence a question takes,
Whether the horse by him became his deed,
Or he his mannad’g, by’th well doing Steed. (106-12)
      The ‘verdict’ is that the youth was ‘accomplished in himself ’ and did not depend on his ‘case’ or body with its ‘ornaments’. He could accept ‘additions’ but he ‘graced’ them, and not them him. The youth, already described as ‘maiden tongued’, has a balance between his feminine and masculine personae that enables him to be himself without the excessive ‘livery of pride’ that characterises the idealised self-regard typical of sectarian religious beliefs.
But quickly on this side the verdict went,
His real habitude gave life and grace
To appertainings and to ornament,
Accomplished in him-self not in his case:
All aids them-selves made fairer by their place,
Can for additions, yet their purpos’d trim
Piec’d not his grace but were all grac’d by him. (113-9)
      Consequently, because his appreciation that the priority of the female and the logic of truth and beauty were in ‘their place’, he had replies to ‘all kind of argument and question deep’. His ‘reasons’ were ‘strong’, and his humour could bring tears to the eyes, and his ‘dialect and craft of skill’ caught all the ‘passions’ in the ‘craft of will’. Shakespeare indicates the youth’s appreciation of natural logic with the pun on ‘will’, which unites the sexual and the erotic or the dynamic of understanding. (Sonnets 135 and 136 have a ball with their interplay between the will and Will.)
So on the tip of his subduing tongue
All kind of arguments and question deep,
All replication prompt, and reason strong,
For his advantage still did wake and sleep,
To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep:
He had the dialect and different skill,
Catching all passions in his craft of will. (120-6)
      The attributes of the youth come close to those of Shakespeare’s Sonnet Poet. The youth’s role in leading the maid to the logic of increase and the dynamic of truth and beauty gives the youth some of the qualities of the Poet of the Sonnets. His understanding is extolled, in the next stanza, for its universality and its ability to empower the will of others and make them responsive to the youth’s own rational willing.
That he did in the general bosom reign
Of young, of old, and sexes both enchanted, To dwell with him in thoughts, or to remain
In personal duty, following where he haunted,
Consent’s bewitch’d, ere he desire have granted,
And dialogu’d for him what he would say,
Ask’d their own wills and made their wills obey. (127-33)
      The maid distinguishes between her own reasons for eventually agreeing to the suit of the youth and the responses of many other women who respond to a desire generated in their imaginations. The ‘picture’ of the youth has ‘put in their minds’ the imaginary objects of ‘lands and mansions’ beyond their realistic expectations. In the context of the poem, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s persistent critique of religious fantasies, the ‘gouty Land-lord’ is God.
Many there were that did his picture get
To serve their eyes, and in it put their mind,
Like fools that in th’imagination set
The goodly objects which abroad they find
Of lands and mansions. Theirs in thought assign’d,
And labouring in more pleasures to bestow them,
Then the true gouty Land-lord which doth owe them. (134-40)
      The delusion of ‘many’ maids, although they ‘never touched his hand’, makes them suppose they are the ‘mistress of his heart’. But, despite the maid’s sense of ‘freedom’ and self-possession (‘fee simple’), the youth’s ‘art’ charmed her, leading her to give him ‘all my flower’.
So many have that never touched his hand
Sweetly suppos’d them mistress of his heart:
My woeful self that did in freedom stand,
And was my own fee simple (not in part)
What with his art in youth and youth in art
Threw my affections in his charmed power,
Reserv’d the stalk and gave him all my flower. (141-7)
      Again, the maid distinguishes between her response to the youth and that of others, who demand their desires be satisfied. Her initial reaction was to ‘shield’ her ‘honour’. Instead, she has learnt through ‘experience’ and through religious indoctrination that a ‘false Jewel’ like the youth will ‘spoil’ a maid’s reputation.
Yet did I not as some my equals did
Demand of him, nor being desired yielded,
Finding my self in honour so forbid,
With safest distance I mine honour shielded,
Experience for me many bulwarks builded
Of proofs new bleeding which remained the foil
Of this false Jewel, and his amorous spoil. (148-54)
      But ‘precedent’ is never sufficient reason to shun a ‘destined ill’ which ‘must’ be tested by experience. ‘Forced examples’ of religious indoctrination which put ‘past perils’ in the maid’s way can never prevail against ‘her own content’. In the Sonnets, the word ‘content’ refers to the natural logic of the Poet’s philosophy that is inherent in the Mistress and needs to be recovered by the Master Mistress. While ‘counsel’ may ‘stem’ what ‘will not stay’, advice will only make ‘our wits more keen’ or increase the sexual appetite.
But ah who ever shunn’d by precedent,
The destin’d ill she must her self assay,
Or forc’d examples gainst her own content
To put the by-past perils in her way?
Counsel may stop a while what will not stay:
For when we rage, advice is often seen
By blunting us to make our wits more keen. (155-61)
      Shakespeare employs the maid’s argument throughout the Sonnets and the plays. To curb satisfaction on the basis of ‘others’ proof ’, and to be ‘forbid the sweets that seems so good’ by preaching ‘on our behalf ’ leads to illogical consequences. The maid determines that ‘appetite’ should stand ‘aloof from judgment’, particularly the mythological doctrines associated with the biblical Judgment Day. The natural sexual ‘palette’ has ‘needs’ to fulfill, although ‘reason’ might ‘weep and cry’ if tasting such forbidden sweets will lead to a ‘last’ judgment.
Nor gives it satisfaction to our blood,
That we must curb it upon others’ proof,
To be forbid the sweets that seems so good,
For fear of harms that preach in our behoof;
appetite from judgment stand aloof!
The one a palette hath that needs will taste,
Though reason weep and cry it is thy last. (162-8)
      On the basis of the reasons that have been ‘preached on her behalf ’, the maid ‘could say this man’s untrue’ because she ‘knew the patterns of his foul beguiling’. She had heard of his sexual exploits and broken vows, and that his words were the ‘bastards’ of his ‘adulterate heart’. At first she resisted the advances of the youth because of the residual fears instilled in her by religious preaching and then more coyly through her recovered sense of her natural worth.
For further I could say this man’s untrue,
And knew the patterns of his foul beguiling,
Heard where his plants in others Orchards grew,
Saw how deceits were guilded in his smiling,
Knew vows, were ever brokers to defiling,
Thought Characters and words merely but art,
And bastards of his foul adulterate heart. (169-75)
      Then, to further explain her reasons for becoming the youth’s lover, the maid reports the arguments he made against her predetermined judgments. In recognition of the validity of the youth’s case, the maid, who took nearly 100 lines to state her complaint, provides the youth equal space.
      Consistent with the Sonnet logic, which prioritises the female over the male and locates the logic of beauty and truth in the female, it is the maid who reports the youth’s argument. His argument draws not only on the Sonnet logic propounded in the adjacent pages of Q, it also recalls the relationship between the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure. If the Duke was once a philanderer, his first encounter with Isabella had a profound effect on him. But not until she recovers her capacity to articulate her understanding consistent with the logic of truth and beauty do they fall deeply in love with each other. The mutual recognition of their love allows the Duke to suggest a union at the end of the play.
      The youth begins by assuring the maid that he has never made vows to any one in his ‘feasts of love’. Some editors change ‘vow’ to ‘woo’ in line 182, destroying the point of the youth’s disclaimer.
And long upon these terms I held my City,
Till thus he gan besiege me: Gentle maid
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity
And not of my holy vows afraid,
That’s to ye sworn to none was ever said,
For feasts of love I have been call’d unto
Till now did nere invite nor never vow. (176-82)
      The youth explains that his previous ‘offences’were ‘errors of the blood none of the mind’. There was no love in his actions only ‘shame’ and ‘reproach’.
All my offences that abroad you see
Are errors of the blood none of the mind:
Love made them not, with acture they may be,
Where neither Party is nor true nor kind,
They sought their shame that so their shame did find,
And so much less of shame in me remains,
By how much of me their reproach contains, (183-9)
      Despite his conquests, the youth has not had his heart ‘warmed’ by his many flames. He did them harm because of their expectations but, because of his selfish ‘monarchy’, felt no harm himself.
Among the many that mine eyes have seen,
Not one whose flame my heart so much as warmed,
Or my affection put to th’smallest teen,
Or any of my leisures ever Charmed,
Harm have I done to them but nere was harmed,
Kept hearts in liveries, but mine own was free,
And reigned commanding in his monarchy. (190-6)
      The youth compares the attitude of the other women to ‘white’ and ‘red’. In Venus and Adonis, in theSonnets (sonnet 99) and in the plays (as in Henry VI Part 1), Shakespeare uses white as a symbol for virginity or purity, and red for sensual awareness. The transition of the other maids from ‘pallid pearl’ to ‘ruby red’ expresses the ‘terror’ and ‘dear (costly) modesty’ that they attempt to conceal in their hearts.
Look here what tributes wounded fancies sent me,
Of pallid pearls and rubies red as blood:
Figuring that they their passions likewise lent me
Of grief and blushes, aptly understood
In bloodless white, and the encrimson’d mood,
Effects of terror and dear modesty,
Encamped in hearts but fighting outwardly. (197-203)
      In the next three stanzas the youth characterises the maid as an exception to the maids he has previously known. Each of the other maids is memorised by the ‘talents of their heir’ or their sexual propensities inherited from their innate personalities. The ‘metal’, ‘gems’ and ‘sonnets’ they betoken each represent the variety of sexual experience provided by the various ‘fairs’. The ‘metal’ is amorously empeached’ or sexually engaged, and with the sonnets they are ‘weepingly beseeched’, amplifying each stone’s expensive or ‘dear Nature’.
And Lo behold these talents of their heir,
With twisted metal amorously empeached
I have receiv’d from many a several fair,
Their kind acceptance, weepingly beseeched,
With th’annexions of fair gems inriched,
And deep brain’d sonnets that did amplify
Each stones dear Nature, worth and quality. (204-10)
      The ‘Diamond’maid was ‘beautiful and hard’, and the ‘Emerald’ one had a ‘fresh regard’, and ‘each several stone’ with ‘wit…smiled or moaned’.
The Diamond? Why ’twas beautiful and hard,
Whereto his invit’d properties did tend,
The deep green Emerald in whose fresh regard,
Weak sights their sickly radiance do amend,
The heaven hewd Sapphire and the Opal blend
With objects manifold; each several stone,
With wit well blazoned smil’d or made some moan. (211-7)
      The ‘trophies’ represent ‘affections hot’ or ‘pensive and subdued desires’. But ‘Nature’ has charged the youth not to hoard them but yield them up ‘where I my self must render’. The passage recalls the Master Mistress sequence of the Sonnets where Nature, the sovereign mistress, tells the idealistic youth that he will be rendered if he fails to acknowledge the logic of increase. The evocation of the maids’ favours as precious gems characterises the youth as a jewel encrusted altar to which they paid obeisance. Shakespeare critiques the tendency to bedeck an idealised youth as if he was the object of singular reverence.
Lo all these trophies of affections hot,
Of pensiv’d and subdued desires the tender,
Nature hath charged me that I hoard them not,
But yield them up where I my self must render:
That is to you my origin and ender:
For these of force must your oblations be,
Since I their Altar, you enpatron me. (218-24)
      But for the first time the youth recognises in the maid as the woman or Mistress who is his ‘origin and ender’. He sees in the maid qualities he has failed to see before, because the other maids have played to his self regard, or idealistic self love. The youth realises that he cannot be a bejeweled ‘Altar’ for her. As the maid has natural priority over his male self interest, he can be an Altar only for her ‘patronage’ or the force of her oblations based on natural logic.
      The recognition by the youth of the maid’s natural qualities evokes from him a passage that combines her physical attributes with the power of words. Her ‘phraseless hand’ is a measure of the unity he perceives between her body and mind. All ‘these similes’ are at her command because the sighs from her ‘lungs’ evoke the ‘hollow’ of her body. (Editors emend ‘hollowed’ to ‘hallowed’ destroying with a Christian sentiment the logic of the relation of body and mind.) The youth is a ‘minister’ or servant to the maid, and comes in ‘distract parcels’ to receive her ‘audit’. The relation back to the ‘quietus’ of the Master Mistress at the hand of the sovereign mistress in sonnet 126 is reinforced by the use of the term audit. Both ‘render’ and ‘audit’ confirm the priority of the maid over the youth.
Oh then advance (of yours) that phraseless hand,
Whose white weighs down the airy scale of praise,
Take all these similes to your own command,
Hollowed with sighs that burning lungs did raise:
What me your minister for you obeys
Works under you, and to for your audit comes
Their distract parcels, in combined sums. (225-31)
      The theme of a dissolute idealistic youth who recovers his logical relationship to women is the major concern of the Sonnets. The theme of a young woman who overly identifies with her masculine idealism is also implicit in the critique of the youth of the Sonnets (and is made explicit in the drama of Measure for Measure and more so in the completely masculinised Lady Macbeth). The qualities exhibited by the maid evince from the youth a regard he has had for none of his other conquests.
      With the maid recalling the Mistress of the Sonnets, Shakespeare then unites the themes of Measure and Measure and the Sonnets by introducing into A Lover’s Complaint Isabella’s equivalent, a nun. The ‘Nun’ in the poem is described in a way that makes her indistinguishable from Isabella. Both escape from suitors in courtly life to ‘spend’ or devote their lives in the ‘cold distance’ of ‘eternal love’.
Lo this device was sent me from a Nun,
Which late her noble suit in court did shun,
Whose rarest havings made the blossoms dote,
For she was sought by spirits of richest coat,
But kept cold distance, and did thence remove,
To spend her living in eternal love. (232-8)
      The youth characterises the Nun’s ‘flight’ as a ‘valiant absence’ rather than a ‘might’. He depicts her escape into the nunnery in erotic terms. The Nun leaves her ‘labour’ or potential for increase, for the ‘thing’ or penis she cannot have. Instead she is ‘playing the Place’ or plays with herself in ‘patient sport’ making herself the object of her sexual denials. Editors emend ‘playing’ to the nonsense ‘paling’ destroying the sense of masturbation in spiritual solitude (which Bernini captures brilliantly in his Ecstasy of St Teresa).
But oh my sweet what labour is’t to leave,
The thing we have not, mastring what not strives,
Playing the Place which did no form receive,
Playing patient sports in unconstrained gyves,
She that her same so to her self contrives,
The scars of battle scapeth by the flight,
And makes her absence valiant, not her might. (239-45)
      But a chance sighting of the youth by the ‘Nun’ led her to fly her ‘caged cloister’. The illogicality of ‘religious love’ when compared with life in the world puts ‘out religion’s eye’. Like the ‘Mistress’ eye’ of sonnet 153, Shakespeare identifies religious life as an abuse of the sexual eye. Again, editors interfere with the meaning by emending ‘inured’to immured’ (251). The couplet argues that previously she could not be tempted to accept sexual activity, but now she would do anything she could to gain her liberty to do so. The emendation kills the intended meaning.
Oh pardon me in that my boast is true,
The accident which brought me to her eye,
Upon the moment did her force subdue,
And now she would the caged cloister fly:
Religious love put out religion’s eye:
Not to be tempted would she be enur’d,
And now to tempt all liberty procure. (246-52)
      Having experienced the effect of his ideal form on a Nun, the youth proclaims the maid to be ‘mightier’ because she resists his charms. She forms an ‘Ocean’ compared with the ‘fountains’ of other women. He was ‘strong’ over them, but she is ‘strong’ over him. Her ‘victory’ unites them all into a ‘compound love’ to remedy her ‘cold breast’. The stanza recalls the numerological relationship of the Master Mistress and the Mistress of the Sonnets. The 9 parts of the youth need to be reconciled to the unity or the 1 of the Mistress.
How mighty then you are, Oh hear me tell,
The broken bosoms that to me belong,
Have emptied all their fountains in my well:
And mine I power your Ocean all among:
I strong o’er them and you o’er me being strong,
Must for your victory us all congest,
As compound love to physic your cold breast. (253-9)
      The youth had the ‘power’ to charm a ‘sacred Sun’ or a bride of Christ. Appropriately the idealistic selfish youth and Christ are one and the same. If Christ could tempt the Nun into celibacy, the youth could tempt her into a sexual liaison. Editors emend ‘Sun’ to ‘nun’ destroying the critique of biblical idealism. In the previous stanza, the maid had been identified with the Ocean. This is in keeping with the role of the Mistress as the lunar number 28. Shakespeare’s conflation of Christ and Apollo in the image of the Sun is too obvious to pass it off as a mistake by him or his compositors.
My parts had power to charm a sacred Sun,
Who disciplin’d I dieted in grace,
Believ’d her eyes, when they t’assail begun,
All vows and consecrations giving place:
O most potential love, vow, bond, nor space
In thee hath neither sting, knot, nor confine
For thou art all and all things else are thine. (260-6)
      The Nun’s ‘discipline’, or the rigour of her celibacy, becomes the sexual ‘diet’ of the youth. Again, the editors interfere by emending ‘I’ to ‘ay’. They turn a sharp meaning into nonsense. When the nun was assailed by the youth she came to believe in both her mind’s eye and sexual eye, with all her vows and consecrations falling away. (The passage recalls sonnet 152, which concludes the presentation of the logic of truth in the Mistress sequence.)
      But now, the maid’s ‘most potential love’ attracts the youth. She exhibits a liberty unclouded by previous vows or confinements, because she is ‘all’, and ‘all’ the world is hers. The connection to the Mistress of the Sonnets could not be stronger. As the logical representative of the female derived from Nature (the sovereign mistress), both of whom are a unity in the numerology of the Sonnets, she is the all within which the idealistic male finds his place.
      The maid who ‘impressest’ the youth, is worth more than all ‘precepts of stale example’, such as the religious dogmas of the credulous nun. The nun’s ‘cold impediments’ are contrasted with the maid’s ability to ‘inflame’. The ‘cold’ ‘impediments’ are the same as the youth’s idealism that creates a ‘fear’ of ‘filial’ generation, of law, and the fame or renown provided by kinship lines. The maid’s ‘love’ is the ‘peace’ against ‘rule, sense, and shame’. It sweetens ‘pangs’ and ‘fears’ used by biblical indoctrination to ensure subservience.
When thou impressest what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou wilt inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth of filial fear, law, kindred fame,
Love’s arms are peace, gainst rule, gainst sense, gainst shame
And sweetens in the suffring pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks and fears. (267-73)
      The youth reveals that ‘all these hearts’, which have depended on him, ‘pine’ when they hear of the success of the maid’s ‘batt’ry’ against the defences they were unable to breach. With ‘sighs’, they accept the priority of her suit over theirs. They willingly provide a ‘soft audience’ to the youth’s ‘sweet design’, the natural bond of oath to the maid’s believable ‘soul’. They ‘prefer’ he undertake his ‘troth’, by accepting the maid’s offer of a mature relationship based in natural logic.
Now all these hearts that do on mine depend,
Feeling it break, with bleeding groans they pine,
And supplicant their sighs to you extend
To leave the batt’ry that you make gainst mine,
Lending soft audience, to my sweet design,
And credent soul, to that strong bonded oath,
That shall prefer and undertake my troth. (274-80)
      The maid’s complaint and her report of the youth’s argument are two parts of an erotic intercourse based on the natural logic of the sexual dynamic. The maid states her own case because she is female, but she is a female who is in the throes of mitigating her masculine-based idealism to recover her natural disposition. The youth has his case stated for him by the maid because she has priority over his maleness. He had been subjected to the idealised masculine expectations of other females so is pleasantly surprised when he encounters a maid on the verge of accepting her natural logic.
      The verbal intercourse between the maid and the youth is logically equivalent to their sexual intercourse. In keeping with the mythic basis of language, the maid describes the appearance of the youth’s face in a way that evokes the activity of sexual consummation. She describes how his ‘watery eyes…dismount’, after they were leveled at her ‘face’ making each cheek ‘a river running from a fount’ and the ‘glowing Roses that flame through water’. The images combine both sexual and erotic moments in a cascade of synchronised imagery. The effect of heat on water is anticipated in the last two sonnets of the Mistress sequence.
This said, his wat’ry eyes he did dismount,
Whose sights till then were leveled on my face,
Each cheek a river running from a fount,
With brinish current down-ward flowed a pace:
Oh how the channel to the stream gave grace!
Who glaz’d with Crystal gate the glowing Roses,
That flame through water which their hue incloses, (281-7)
      The maid’s use of the double dynamic of the sexual and the erotic, with its consummation in the stanza that follows her account of her own condition and her account of the youth’s condition, leads her to address the contradictions in her previous beliefs and expectations. Appropriately, she turns to the ‘father’ who is the representative of those contradictions. She challenges the superstitions of his faith by acknowledging the implications of the sexual dynamic for humankind. In contrast, the priesthood derives a ‘hell of witch craft’ on ‘one particular tear’, or the selfish masturbatory practices of idealised love. She compares the sexual dynamic to the ‘inundation of tears’, which represents the increase potential of humankind. Its naturalness recommends it against the ‘cold and ‘chill’ of false ‘modesty’.
Oh father, what a hell of witch-craft lies,
In the small orb of one particular tear?
But with the inundation of the eyes:
What rocky heart to water will not wear?
What breast so cold that is not warmed here,
Or cleft effect, cold modesty hot wrath:
Both fire from hence, and chill extincture hath. (288-94)
      The youth’s ‘passion’ turned the maid’s ‘reason into tears’ so that she was able to cast off her ‘stole of chastity’ (stolen from life) and become like him ‘all melting’. The difference between their sexual ‘drops’ was that the youth ‘poisoned’ her, because she had to absorb his male-based idealism back into her being, and hers ‘restored’ him, because he recovered his natural relationship to the female. The youthful Poet of the Sonnets undergoes a similar transformation by accepting the priority of the Mistress, but the vigilant Mistress continues to bridle at the residue of idealistic expectations of the mature Poet.
For lo his passion but an art of craft,
Even there resolv’d my reason into tears,
There my white stole of chastity I daft,
Shook off my sober guards, and civil fears,
Appear to him as he to me appears:
All melting, though our drops this difference bore,
His poison’d me, and mine did him restore. (295-301)
      The next stanza describes the effect of the awareness of the sexual dynamic on the youth. It explains how he generates an ability to use language (‘speeches’) to characterise what he wishes to say without the unnatural constraints of idealised thought. He can apply ‘a plenitude of subtle matter’ to tricky situations by transmuting his experience of ‘burning blushes’ or ‘weeping water’ so that he ‘takes and leaves’ either to respond aptly to speeches and drama. Not only do the maid and the youth find their natural relationship to the female and male restored, their appreciation of the logic of truth and beauty is recovered.
In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to Cautels, all strange forms receives,
Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,
Or sounding paleness: and he takes and leaves,
In either’s aptness as it best deceives:
To blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes
Or to turn white and sound at tragic shows. (302-8)
      The stanza captures in a few lines the logic of the relation between the increase argument and the dynamic of truth and beauty articulated in full in the Sonnets. By using ‘his level’ or his penis in combination with his words consistent with natural logic he avoids the contradictions of idealised thought and recovers the logical conditions of a ‘kind and tame’ Nature. Contrarily it seems he ‘won whom he would maim’. By seeming to exclaim against the thing he sought by preaching ‘pure maid’ and ‘cold chastity’ (like Isabella in Measure for Measure) he gained his ‘heart-wished luxury’.
That not a heart which in his level came,
Could scape the hail of his all hurting aim,
Showing fair Nature is both kind and tame:
And veiled in them did win whom he would maim
Against the thing he sought, he would exclaim,
When he most burnt in heart-wished luxury,
He preached pure maid, and prais’d cold chastity. (309-15)
      Because of the maid’s religiously indoctrinated sense of ‘grace’, courtesy of the priests in ‘garments’, the youth appears to have ‘covered’ what she had been taught to think of as his ‘naked and concealed fiend’. Her inexperience in matters sexual, which previously she thought of only in terms of naked ‘Cherubins’ on church ceilings, was allayed when she resolved to be his lover. And, to the blusterer of a priest she avows she would do it again to re-vivify the natural logic of her being.
This merely with the garment of a grace,
The naked and concealed fiend he covered,
That th’unexperient gave the tempter place,
Which like a Cherubin above them hovered,
Who young and simple would not be so lovered.
Ay me I fell, and yet do question make,
What I should do again for such a sake
. (316-22)
      Then, in a litany of evocations of sexual delight, she recounts with a series of naughts the thrust of his moistened ‘eye’ in her vagina. Naughts are common in Shakespeare as the symbol of the female sexual organ. As the poem records her awakening, each line captures her feigned resistance to the pleasure of his penis/words. The ‘moisture of his eye’, the ‘fire in his cheek’, ‘his spongy lungs’ and the ‘borrowed motion’, all record her awareness of his penetration into her body and mind. Again she tells the hapless father that she would do it again, so that the youth could ‘new pervert’ against religious strictures a maid who is now reconciled to her place in Nature.
O that infected moisture of his eye,
O that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d:
O that forc’d thunder from his heart did fly,
O that sad breath his spongy lungs bestowed,
O all that borrowed motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betrayed,
And new pervert a reconciled Maid. (323-9)                                 FINIS
      Shakespeare’s personal participation in the publication of the Sonnets is evident in the numerous subsidiary features of Q he manipulated to conform to the Sonnet logic. Once it is appreciated that A Lover’s Complaint expresses the Sonnet philosophy with its tale of a maid and youth who discover in each other their natural logic, then the alteration of the poem’s title at the head of the last page to read ‘The Lovers’ must be Shakespeare’s doing. The change wittily captures the poignancy of the moment when the maid realises she would do it again. Editors have universally emended ‘The Lovers’ to ‘A Lover’s’ destroying the significance of Shakespeare’s wit.

The relation of A Lover’s Complaint to the Sonnet template

Shakespeare’s decision to publish A Lover’s Complaint in the same book as the Sonnets has been a source of mystery, controversy and denigration for over 400 years. Because commentators have not understood the Sonnet philosophy, they have been unable to read the poem on its own terms.
      Despite the traditional disquiet about the poem, textual analysis has confirmed Shakespeare’s authorship. And the common practice of including a complaint in Elizabethan sonnet sequences has added weight to the argument that the poem is Shakespeare’s. Such technical evidence has made it increasingly difficult to dismiss the poem because of a prejudice toward its content. And, despite the expectation that the poem should conform to Judeo/Christian proscription on the pleasure of sex, it is difficult to ignore the suggestion at the end that the maid enjoyed her encounter with the youth, and would do it again.
      The traditional reading fails to appreciate the way Shakespeare has taken the standard format for a sequence of sonnets and recast it as an expression of his philosophy. Even though his practice with every play and poem was to rework the source material into an expression of his philosophy, commentators’ ignorance of the Sonnet philosophy has left them bemused by their inability to understand its logic, and frequently willing to engineer interpretations to suit their beliefs.
      The argument in the above commentary, supported by the evidence presented in Volumes 1 and 2, is that A Lover’s Complaint is an allegorical expression of the Sonnet philosophy. Not only does the set ofSonnets articulate Shakespeare’s philosophy, Shakespeare turns the added elements of an epigrammatic poem and a complaint into demonstrations of the philosophy.
      Sonnets 153 and 154, which are based on a classical epigram, expand the original epigram to connect its erotic theme to the mythic logic of the Sonnets. They give the logical relation between the sexual and the erotic explicit expression.
      That which is true of the final two sonnets is equally true of A Lover’s Complaint. Shakespeare’sComplaint applies the philosophy expounded in the previous 70 pages of Q to the convention of a complaint. In the hands of his contemporaries the complaint addressed a psychological relationship between the poet and a lover. Shakespeare converts a psychological dilemma into a philosophic essay. Rather than present a psychological predicament, generated by an illogical attitude to life, he demonstrates how to resolve such an impasse by applying the natural logic of life.
      Whatever the merit of A Lover’s Complaint as literature, and despite attempts to read it as a maid’s salutary encounter with the evils of sex, the above commentary shows its consistency with the logical elements of the Sonnets. Nature forms the context for the maid’s account. The maid as female and the youth as male represent the logical places of Mistress and Master Mistress from the Sonnets. And the recovery of the logic of increase supercedes the self-regarding celibacy of the maid and the nun.
Complete Template <i>Sonnet</i> Numbers

Complete template (Sonnet numbers)

      The youth, because of his dissatisfaction with excessive idealisation, is ready to appreciate the natural logic of truth and beauty, (about which the Poet of the Sonnets attempts to educate the Master Mistress). The maid, conscious of her advancing biological clock, finds empathy with the youth’s arguments. As he overcomes her over-idealised expectations his growing awareness of the logic of beauty and truth appeals to her feminine sensibility, as it did for the nun.
      The poet, who listens to the tale of the maid related to the reverend man, corresponds to the Poet of the Sonnets. By contrast, the reverend man or Father is the equivalent of the rival poets of the Sonnets. He hears the maid’s confession as she recounts her story, but can offer no comment on its content because he is limited by his vows of celibacy. If he did comment it would be only to offer ritual formulas or ‘witchcraft’ in lieu of empathy. His role allies him with the rival poets who are brilliant at rhymes and meter but have no ‘content’.
      Shakespeare consciously generates a tale of mythic intensity by recounting the consequences of a sexual act that had occurred before the poem begins. The logic of increase out of Nature, forms the basis for eroticism of the poem. By basing his mythic understanding in natural logic Shakespeare corrects the inconsistency in traditional beliefs where the male is given priority over the female by allowing the female to speak first as well as speak on behalf of the male. The logic of the debate between female and male is expressed in the arguments that occupy the greater part of the poem.
      By locating the poet in the hills and valleys but without specifying his or her gender, Shakespeare conforms to the Sonnet logic where female or male have the potential to reconcile their feminine and masculine personae to write mythic verse. When the poem is read in terms of personae, it expresses the resolution that can be affected in the mind of any person. The double reading of the Sonnets in terms of persons and personae also applies to A Lover’s Complaint.
      Once A Lover’s Complaint is appreciated as a natural expression of the logic of the Sonnets, the difficulties experienced in traditional interpretations disappear. The poem can then be viewed as an expression of Shakespeare’s philosophy and so gain a consistency of interpretation it has long been denied.

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