Shakespeare’s ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ rewritten in plain English by Jeremy Punter (2016)

From off of a hill, echoed loudly by the cave within,
came an unhappy story from a nearby vale.
My attention naturally settled on this double voice
and so I laid down to listen to the sad sounds
before spotting a flighty, pale young woman
who was tearing paper, breaking rings into pieces
and huffing and puffing in a sorrowful storm.

On her head was fixed a creation of woven straw
which she wore to protect her face from the sun.
At a glance you might think you saw someone
whose beauty had all faded but actually the
years hadn’t taken away all the radiance of her
youth; despite nature trying its best much
charm could still be seen through the aged lattice.

Often she would dab her eyes with a hanky
(one embroidered with interesting characters);
she would wash the thing in salty water
which her long-held misery had shaped into tears
and would look for answers in the sodden cloth.
Just as often she would call out in her sadness
giving all manner of cries both high and low.

Sometimes her eyes, when settled, sat in her face
looking as though they intended to commit battery against
the spheres! Sometimes, when diverted, her eyes were glued
to the ground. At other times they extended their gaze
into the middle distance; then after that they would gaze
everywhere at once without fixing on anything
with both her mind and her sight in equal distraction.

Her hair, worn not loose nor in a formal plait,
projected in her an air of careless pride;
a few strands, having come untucked
hung down against her sad cheek.
The rest of it though stayed in place beneath her hat
and, adhering to its bindings, would not drop
even though it was only very loosely held.

She was taking tokens of love out of a basket – of
amber, crystal, shiny black beads – which, one by one,
she threw into the river as she knelt firmly on its bank.
She was like a moneylender giving tear-covered gems
to a tear-made river, or as a king not wanting to drop
the treasure in his hands because the voice of want
says, ‘keep some’ while the voice of excess says, ‘keep all!’

She had in her hands many proposals from suitors
which she perused, sighed at, tore up then covered in tears;
she cracked to pieces many inscribed rings of gold and bone
letting them fall to their graves in the mud.
She found yet more letters – this time written in blood
with rough untwisted silk fibres, gracefully and lovingly
wrapped up and sealed with an air of secrecy.

These notes she read repeatedly with her changeable eyes,
often kissed them, and would then start to tear them,
crying out, ‘Oh false blood, you teller of lies!
What unproven things you say! Black ink
would have told it straight and damned me!’
This said, in a massive rage she ripped up
the lines, her discontentment destroying their content.

A reverend man who grazed his cattle nearby,
a bumbler that the perturb girl knew well,
he once of the court and city but whom now let
the swift hours of life pass by as he watched them,
headed hastily towards this afflicted girl
and, knowing he had the wisdom of age to offer,
desired to know what had made her so upset.

He enthusiastically slid down his walking stick
and, at a suitable distance, seated himself next to her.
As he sat there he desired to know her grievance
so that by hearing it he could remove it.
If there was anything that from himself might be
applied to ease her ecstatic suffering it was in the
wisdom his long life had afforded him, he told her.

‘Father,’ she said, ‘although you see before you
someone who’s been injured by many attacking hours,
do not think that it has made me old.
It’s not age but sorrow that has power over me.
I might have been a spreading flower
endowing myself with freshness if I had given
love to myself instead of giving it away to others.

‘Oh woe is me! Too early in my life did I devote myself
to a youthful admirer – to gain his favour and respect,
one whom nature made so attractive that all the girls
couldn’t stop looking at his face. Venus, goddess of love,
wanted something to focus on and so she chose him;
and when in his best parts this girl had settled herself
she found she had a home – and was made a goddess.

‘His brown locks of hair hung in crooked curls –
every sprightly gust of the passing wind
hurled them against his lips like bundles of silk.
Mischief will always discover a thing that’s sweet to do
and thus every eye that saw this boy was enchanted,
as on his face by way of just a few features
was seen the wonders paradise might offer.

‘Not much sign of manliness was on his chin;
his beard was like a hatchling’s down just appearing;
it was merely rough velvet on blank skin,
although his manner was that of someone much older.
All of this made his face seem more rare and
meant people’s affections wavered, doubting whether
his face looked best with or without the beard.

‘His character traits were as beautiful as his form,
for he was of a young tongue and was therefore free;
yet if men moved him he became a storm
like those so often experienced in April and May
when the wind blows both sweetly and also boisterously.
Being young he also allowed himself to be rude
and spout little lies with a complete air of truth.

‘He could ride a horse well, and often men would say,
“That horse gets its bravery from its rider:
It’s proud to be ridden on, moves in a noble way;
what ability to run, bound, navigate then stop it has!”
All this threw up a question of controversy:
Was it the horse under him following his orders,
or him being ordered by the well-doing horse?

‘Quickly, and to his advantage, the following verdict
was passed: His real way of behaving gave life and
grace to common possessions and ornaments,
accomplished as he was in himself, if not his social situation.
Many others, themselves more important because of their
station, came to him for debate. Yet their intent to demolish
him demolished nothing; they were graced by him.

‘It was thus: on the tip of his subduing tongue
all kinds of arguments and deep questions,
quotations of others and strong reasonings
did both wake and sleep to his advantage.
With different dialects and different skills he was
able to make the weeper laugh and the laugher weep,
encompassing all passions with his cleverness

‘so that not only did the young take him to their hearts
but also the old; also both sexes were enchanted by him
either aligning their thoughts with his or remaining with
him in personal duty following everywhere he went.
People bewitched by him (as he desired) have acted
and spoken for him, doing whatever he would say,
subduing their owns wills so as to obey his.

‘There were many who managed to see his portrait
with their eyes and then plant the image in their minds –
just like those fools who put into their imaginations
the strange objects they come across from
distant lands and estates; they then spend
more leisure time memorising and cherishing them
than the actual gouty owners of the objects.

‘Although having never touched his hand many
sweetly thought they were the mistress of his heart.
My sorrowful self, who was never free
and was my own whole landed estate, not just a part,
I knew the art of his youth and that there’s youth in
art so gave over all my affections to his charms
and reserved him, the stalk, for myself, the flower head.

‘However I didn’t, unlike others, demand further
things of him; nor when he desired me did I easily yield.
I had an honourable reputation and so forbid him;
I shielded my honour by keeping a safe distance.
Past experience meant I had built defences against
any apparent “bleeding heart”, which constantly frustrated
this false jewel of a boy and his amorous desire.

‘But ah, what girl ever ignored, as a rule, the
unspoken deed she knows she’s destined for,
or forced herself to follow examples of propriety at odds
with her will so as to keep such age-old dangers about her?
Friends’ advice might for a while stop things that otherwise
might not stop but when we rage such talk often, by
stifling our progress, has the effect of strengthening our will.

‘It does in no way satisfy the blood
to be told by others to calm down,
to be told you can’t have what you want because
such things appearing beneficial actually harm us.
Oh appetite, please, keep your distance from reason!
Appetite instigates our need to taste and makes
reason weep, crying out, “Ok, but it’s your last time”.

‘I could go on saying how untrue this man is
and how I’ve known the patterns of his charms,
the rumours of him planting his seed in others,
and how each of his shining smiles is in fact deceitful,
how his promises were just ways to get girls into bed,
how he thought writing and words were simply “art”,
unconscious outpourings from his polluted heart.

‘Knowing this I, a girl like a city, thus guarded her walls.
However he then began his siege. He said: “Gentle maid,
take pity on me, I’m a foolish youth who suffers;
do not be afraid of the sincerity in my promises.
What I swear to you I’ve never sworn to anyone
else because until now those I chased were not
affairs of love; they neither invited nor wooed me.

‘“All my sexual exploits elsewhere that you’ve heard
of, they were due to my hot blood, not my mind;
they were not acts of love but merely acts where both
parties involved were neither true nor kind to each other.
They all looked for shame and duly found it,
and so actually much less shame remains in me
compared to how much they say I’m to blame.

‘“Among all those that my eyes looked upon
my heart warmed not a single flame of them,
nor did my affection move them by the smallest amount,
nor any of my various interests charm them.
I may have done them harm, but I was not harmed myself –
they kept their hearts dressed up and disguised but mine ran
free and reigned where it wanted, commanding me.

‘“Look at these tributes my abandoned lovers have
given: pale pearls and rubies as red as blood,
all symbols of the passions they similarly gave:
griefs and blushes quite easily understood
one minute in bloodless white and then in deep red
flushes of fear and modesty, colours brewed in
the heart but which are seen to fight on the surface.

‘“And look, these locks of hair they’ve given
to me entwined lovingly with little bits of metal;
many of them have presented several,
pleading with tears that I accept them,
some with the addition of beautiful gems
or thoughtfully written sonnets to support
their jewels’ natures, their worth and qualities.

‘“The diamond? It was beautiful and hard,
with invisible properties to readily perceive;
the deep-green emerald by whose freshness
dull-looking eyes are reenergised, the heaven-
made sapphire and opal blended with numerous
objects – each of these stones accompanied by
witticisms smiled at me, or made a moan.

‘“But listen, all these tokens representing hot affection
as well as more contemplative and subdued desires,
nature says I should not hold on to them but
give them to the place where I must give myself,
that is, you, my destined beginning and end. And
so I’ll force these things onto you like gifts to a god
since you’re my patron and have made me your altar.

‘“So hold out that hand of yours – the one beyond words
which heavily unbalances the scales of praise with its
whiteness. Control these similes of mine, sighed out
like prayers because my lungs burn, in whatever way
you wish. Whatever it is that I, as your priest, obey
shall work under you; in your accounting books these
separate parts of me shall combine like completed sums.

‘“Look, this love token was sent to me by a nun!
(or some kind of extremely holy sister) whom
previously rejected admirers when she served at court,
whose unusual beauty made men weak at the knees.
She was chased by blokes in the smartest coats
but she kept her distance before removing herself
completely and pledging herself to God alone.

‘“But oh, my sweetheart, what an effort it is to leave
alone something unaccomplished and unmastered,
trying to woo someone who has never accepted anyone,
eternally being patient in unfettered free time!
When such a woman, who engineers her fame,
flees, no scars from love’s battles are formed; thus it’s
her absence that’s courageous rather than her strength.

‘“Excuse me when I say my boast is true!
When I was accidentally brought to her attention
this blessed sister was overwhelmed and so
she wished to abandon her life in the cloister.
Holy human love thus pokes religious love in the eye.
So as not to be tempted by men she shut herself up
but now, so as to tempt all, she’s chosen freedom again.

‘“And so, how mighty you are; hear me tell everyone!
The hearts that have been broken because of me
have emptied all their love like fountains into mine,
and now I pour all into yours: a well emptied to an ocean.
Like the power I had over them you have over me
and must, if you want to win, squash the two of us
into a compound of love to warm your cold chest.

‘“My beauty had the power to charm a holy nun,
who, living a disciplined life under the grace of God,
nevertheless believed her earthly eyes when I began to woo
her and discarded all her holy promises and blessings.
Oh most potential love, know that no vow, bond nor
heaven can punish you, knot you up, nor imprison you
because you are everything, and everything is in you.

‘“Knowing your impression, what are the world’s
laws but stale and useless? With the excitement of
you how cold all our conventions of society seem –
wealth, family directives, the law, close friends and fame!
The arms of love appease with peace all rules, sense, shame
and sweeten even with the suffering they bring
the medicine to cure all forces, shocks and fears.

‘“Today, as my heart breaks, all those hearts of others
that depend on it waste away with bleeding groans
and submit their sighs to you being the winner.
They understand the assault you make against my heart;
they become a soft audience watching me watch you;
they become trustful witnesses to my firm oath
that from now on I’ll commit myself only to truth.”

‘This said, the boy lowered his watery eyes,
those that had till then been fixed on my face;
each of his cheeks was a river running from a fountain,
a salty stream of water flowing downwards fast.
And oh, how those channels triggered my stream!
My eyes glazed over like crystal to see the glowing roses
of his cheeks flame beneath the tears that they coloured.

‘Oh father, what hellish witchcraft lies in
the little rounded drop of a tear! But then,
seeing eyes so completely inundated, what other
rock-hard heart would not be worn by such water?
What cold breast would not be warmed? It’s a double
effect! Being modest and cold, being angry and hot –
these states are both fire and cold extinguishment.

‘Do listen: His passion, albeit crafted well,
there and then dissolved my reason into tears.
I decided to give up my holy, well-guarded chastity, let my
guard down and give up my concerns about respectability,
appearing to him as he was appearing before me: that
is, a melting thing. Although our tears were different, as
his worked their ways on me, mine restored his constitution.

‘In him there was such an abundance of subtle matter
transmitted in a variety of strange forms: it was applied
to his tricks, his burning blushes, his weeping water
and his acts of fainting with paleness. And he could utilise
each of these forms depending on how he needed to deceive –
whether he needed to blush at exuberant speeches, weep at
woes, or turn white and swoon while watching tragic plays.

‘No heart that encountered this boy could
escape the bullets of his all-hurting aim whereby
he displayed nature’s kindness and tameness
and, under these veils, won over she whom he hurt.
He would shout against the very thing he sought
then, when he got it, this thing that his heart desired,
would go about preaching chastity and decency.

‘And so, while his naked, fiendish phallus
was concealed beneath the cover of virtue,
yours truly, the inexperienced, allowed sex to occur
which like some heavenly form hovered over us. Who,
when young and simple, would resist being loved in such
a way? And so, yes, I fell from grace, but I ask, what
else would I do if faced with the same situation again?

‘Oh those emotion-laden tears of his eyes,
oh that wicked deceitful fire glowing in his cheek,
oh that thunder forcing its way out of his heart,
oh those sorrowful sighs emanating from his lungs,
oh that emotive acting borrowed from others – all this
would again allow him to take advantage of his sweethearts
and once again corrupt this now accommodating young woman.’

[NOTE: Shakespeare quite probably based the opening conceit of his ‘Complaint’ on the
first two stanzas of Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Ruins of Time’ from his book Complaints.]

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