Printer Friendly

The preternatural ecology of "A Lover's Complaint".

EARLY MODERN ECOLOGICAL STUDIES recognize the difficulty of defining nature. While often intended to signify the physical environment, "nature" is also always a cultural construct. Historicist approaches reacquaint us with antiquated cultural notions that informed an early modern understanding of nature, such as humeral theory or the great chain of being. Politically invested readings give voice to the often marginalized presence of non-human subjects, putting flora and fauna at the center and challenging our anthropomorphic inclinations. But even when animals speak in ecological studies, nature remains disenchanted. Critics may lament the death of nature, yet few would deny that static backgrounds and inanimate environments prove less resistant to analysis. But any understanding of an animate early modern natural world must encompass what lies just beyond nature--the preternatural realm. Demons, spirits, and hidden, active effluvia comprised the invisible technology of nature's marvels. These preternatural forces were known to influence the behavior of organic and inorganic entities. Often hidden from modern readers, preternature emerges in early modern literature when we suspend our disbelief. In this essay I explore how Shakespeare's poem, "A Lover's Complaint," encapsulates in lyric form a preternatural ecology of vibrant inorganic matter, humans, and demonic spirits.

In the midst of "A Lover's Complaint" the forsaken woman reveals that her seducer persuaded her with recycled gifts: an array of precious gems he received from other lovers. Accompanying the stones were sonnets, penned by his admirers, which focused not on the man's beauty but on the jewels' occult virtues. In Brian Vickers' view, "the seducer ... quite unnecessarily at this point in the narrative, as if he (or the poet) were trying to show off his knowledge" provides details "on the qualities of these precious stones." (1) In his haste to dismiss the "grotesque" episode, Vickers neglects to note that the youth seems to be reciting knowledge transcribed by the (assumedly) female lovers who wrote the explanatory sonnets:"
   The Diamond? why twas beautifull and hard,
   Whereto his inuis'd properties did tend,
   The deepe greene Emrald in whose flesh regard,
   Weake sights their sickly radience do amend.
   The heauen hewd Saphir and the Opall blend
   With obiects manyfold; each seuerall stone,
   With wit well blazond smil'd or made some mone.

   (211-17) (3)

For Vickers, the poem's investment in the gems' "inuis'd properties" has little to do with the lovers' story, and the seeming uselessness of these details strikes him as a literary flaw (which contributes to his argument that the work is non-Shakespearean). Other readers have treated the multitude of precious stones as symbolic signifiers, objective correlatives to the descriptive blazon, or as bawdy referents to conquered maidenheads or the sexual organs of either sex. (4) The few critics who acknowledge the gems' more fantastic qualities (attributes detailed in classical, medieval, and early modern lapidaries) rarely consider how their effects might direct human relations. But even skeptics may discern that Shakespeare's poem establishes the vibrancy of nonorganic matter, asserting an ecology that encompasses powerful things. Each love token is imbued with its own passionate story, and the exchange of these tokens establishes the seducer, the maid, and the abandoned women as Latourian assemblages of stones, beads, and other supposedly inert things. (5) But it is a peculiarly early modern view of nature, represented by the poem's vital stones and invisible properties, which provides a materialist basis for the unstable borders between things and humans. Aware of this instability, the seventeenth-century natural philosophers who probed nature's secrets made some effort to circumscribe the powers of nonhuman matter. Not to advance scientific rationality, as a modern might suppose, but to secure a boundary between demonic and nondemonic activities.

Gabriel Egan concludes Green Shakespeare with the observation that two views of nature compete in Shakespeare's writing: an older view that encompasses the "system of correspondences" and an emergent view that envisions the world in mechanistic terms. In particular, he notes, "we have seen how things that appear magical or organic are really mundane or inorganic." (6) These revelations, Egan suggests, point us to the transition from medieval to modern. Egan echoes Carolyn Merchant's landmark work The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, which argues that it was in the sixteenth century that characterizations of Nature as organic, animate, and female were systematically undermined by the emergence of modern science and its conception of nature as dead, inert matter. (7) Citing the history of mining for metals and gems, which were dug out of the Earth's entrails, Merchant demonstrates that early modern writers invested in the commercial and societal benefits of mining were compelled to represent the Earth as passive and lifeless. She sees this rhetorical move as a first step towards modern science's mechanization of nature. While these bifurcated views of nature construct a clear divide between what is premodern and modern, they fail to explain the peculiar recognition in this period of non-magical, preternatural objects that appear to be organic and inorganic, animate and inert.

As Lorraine Daston explains, many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific inquiries distinguished themselves from an Aristotelian tradition of science (made up of regularities in nature) by focusing on the strange, unusual, and rare. While it was an initial response of wonder that determined what objects belonged to the category of preternature, the new philosophers who examined "the occult properties of certain animals, plants, and minerals" were insistent naturalizers. (8) Supernatural phenomena were ascribed to God, but the merely marvelous was preternatural. While it was understood that demons knew most thoroughly the "properties and powers of all the elements, metals, stones, herbs [and] plants," preternatural philosophers kept their focus on the secret workings of nature by sidelining demonic forces in their inquiries. (9) Despite its "unflinching commitment" to natural explanations, "preternatural philosophy looked distinctly unnatural from the standpoints of the natural philosophies that had both preceded and would succeed it" (Daston, 18). By the eighteenth century, as wonder gave way to a new scientific "sobriety," preternatural objects were no longer a "coherent category of scientific investigation" (38). Rather than providing an explanation for many anomalous and strange phenomena, the Enlightenment natural philosophers tended simply to ignore marvelous objects (40).

Although seventeenth-century scientist Robert Boyle anticipated the Enlightenment's discomfort with admiring "corporeal things, how noble and precious soever they be, as stars and gems," he also joins his contemporaries in viewing preternatural mysteries as appropriate scientific objects (Daston, 38). He was the "last wellknown natural philosopher to concern himself with the hidden properties of gemstones" (Daston, 40), but he was also careful to draw a crucial distinction between the "True and Medical Virtues that belong to Gems; and that, as to those Magical and other Extravagant properties, that either notoriously fabulous, or other credulous Writers have made bold to deliver." (10) While moderns will assume that Boyle offers a rationalist perspective here, it is more accurate to say he is establishing boundaries. He is anxious to distinguish the proper use of gemstones from what Francis Bacon terms the "tacite operation of malign Spirits."" Making the argument that gems gained their medical virtues when in liquid form, before they hardened in the earth, Boyle speculates that an "Analogie there may be between some Juices in the Body, and some of the Mineral substances that impregnate Gems with their Virtues" (Boyle, 107). Once they are solid and inert, precious stones have the capacity, he suggests, to emit unseen but material effluvia that act on nearby bodies.

Charting the representation of stones, beads, and gems in "A Lover's Complaint" suggests that these objects function as preternatural phenomena: they reportedly generate marvelous effects, but their most powerful occult properties initially appear confined to medicinal virtues. But the sonnets' accounts of "The heauen hewd Saphir and the Opall" and their capacity to "blend / With obiects manyfold," also intimate an exchange of properties between the precious stones and other objects. The stones smile and moan with human affect. Much like Boyle's impregnated and emanating minerals, they collect and distribute the virtues and passions of humans and nonhumans.

As Katherine Rowe has observed, Shakespeare's poem repeatedly demonstrates how Renaissance emotions were conceived as "transactions between the body and its social and material environment" (153). In the first stanza, the speaker hears a "plainteful story from a sistring vale" (2) reworded by the "concaue wombe" of the nearby hill" (1). Nature appears to respond to the complainant's misery with female sympathy. (12) But when Shakespeare first refers to the precious stones in the maid's possession, the scene hints at dissonance between the complainant and Nature. As she cries,
   A thousand fauours from a maund she drew,
   Of amber, christall and of bedded Iet,
   Which one by one she in a riuer threw,
   Vpon whose weeping margent she was set,
   Like vsery applying wet to wet
   Or Monarches hands that lets not bounty fall,
   Where want cries some; but where excesse begs all.


While the "weeping margent" of the river looks sympathetic, the maid's excessive application of wet to wet also suggests superfluity and waste. The implicit analogy between her tears and the beads of amber, crystal, and jet may allude to Ovid's myth of amber's origins, which tells how mournful tears lapidified into stone. In The Metamorphoses, when Mother Earth begs Jove to save her from Phaeton's destructive chariot ride, the god's intervention results in the boy's death. Phaeton's grieving sisters metamorphose into trees:
   From these cleere dropping trees, tears yearly flow:
   They, hardned by the Snnne, to Amber grow;
   Which, on the moysture-giuing Riuer spent,
   To Roman Ladies, as his gift, is sent. (13)

In the Ovidian ecology, where people become trees and tears become stones, human grief proves organic and generative. In Shakespeare's stanza, by contrast, the analogy between beads and tears raises the specters of usury (the breeding of dead metal) and greed, thus associating the stones with unnatural and exploitive economic practices. And while the girl ignores the stones' commercial value, we soon discover that she aims to erase painful memories of the young man and her dishonor by treating the "fauours" as dead things, "[b]idding them find their Sepulchers in mud" (46). In just a few stanzas, we move from a sensitive, womb-like hill to a scene that conjures up the alienating misuse of the Earth's bounty, mimicking in miniature the disenchantment narrative that Merchant and others have discerned in the history of science.

But the maid's desire to cast the gems into graves may also stem from her fear of their inherent vibrancy. As she explains it, her seducer possessed a charmed power, enchanting everyone around him. Women and men, old and young, found their "consent bewitched" in his presence. He was, she observes, a "false Iewell" (154) who overpowered others with his innate magnetism. But when she ventriloquizes her lover's seductive rhetoric, he persuades her to fall by offering recirculated love tokens. Many scholars balk at the young man's ploy, insisting it should not work. James Schiffer suggests that the youth brings up his former loves to make "an easy conquest as difficult as possible, for the sheer challenge of it." (14) Others draw on psychoanalytical theory to explain the strange capitulation of a maid who recognizes his deception but still chooses to submit. She must be masochistic, or narcissistic. (15)

But if the youth shares agency with the collective force of the precious stones gathered from his conquests, then the maid surrenders to a multitude of desires and hidden properties. Each former lover infused her gift with passionate "sighes that burning lunges did raise" (228), thus making their "combined summes" (231) a culmination of the heartbreak and longing felt by all. The "palyd pearles and rubies red as blood" (198), he argues, figured the passions "lent [him] / Of greefe and blushes" (200). As Rowe points out, "[g]rief and blushes are reduced to descriptive terms, vehicles for describing the gems rather than vice versa, as in conventional blazon" (155). We are led to imagine that grief, terror, and modesty now reside in the "bloodlesse white, and encrimson'd mood" (201) of the jewels themselves. In Catherine Bates's view, the sonnets and gems quantify the man's attractiveness, so that the girl desires him "not for himself but because he is desired of others." There is "no love for him," she insists, "that is not mediated by an existing relation with fellow rivals" (433). But, according to the youth's account, it is not humans that mediate love in this poem but the effervescent stones they exchange.

While the rubies and pearls may illustrate the red and white of the women's complexions, the other "faire gems" are accompanied by "deepe brain'd sonnets" (209), written (we presume) by the female lovers. Rather than praising the young man's beauty or charisma (as a typical love sonnet would), the poems "amplifie / Each stones deare Nature, worth and quallity" (210). Beyond their role as trophies, the gems may be subtle evidence of the women's efforts to control the relationship, to counter his bewitching charms with occult power, or to secure his affections. Annexed to amorously twisted hair (204-5), the gems function as personal keepsakes but also as potential instruments in a charm or love spell. Such practices were readily condemned as an invocation (even if unintended) of demonic forces, but the women's deep knowledge of each "stones deare Nature" hints at the possibility. If we stick only to the youth's story, the invisible properties of the diamond, emerald, opal, and sapphire (as amplified in the poems) are limited to non-demonic operations of nature. But with a thousand favors in his possession, such a brief catalog may only scratch the surface. While a preternatural philosopher such as Boyle confines his interest to the gems' medicinal virtues, many classical, medieval, and early modern lapidaries attribute a wide range of powers to precious stones.

In Camillus Leonardus's sixteenth-century survey The Mirror of Stones, for example, the preservation and restoration of health is centrally important: he describes many gems and stones that repel poison and instill strength. In Others cure specific ailments of the eyes, liver, bladder, stomach, skin, etc. As seventeenth-century midwife manuals make clear, several stones were also widely thought to affect reproduction by easing labor, hastening birth, preventing or causing abortions. Gemstones could increase lust or allay it. Some enhanced the possessor's charms, making her gracious and eloquent. Others proved virginity, revealed adultery, assuaged anger, or eased sorrow. Most of these marvelous effects could be understood as preternatural, if attributed to hidden effluvia acting on the body or the mind; however, any effects that implied the usurpation of an individual's will would raise questions of demonic influence. Showing none of Boyle's prudence, Leonardus lists a good many gemstones that play a role in enchantment, either providing protection against demons and witchcraft, or proving "great Service in magic Arts," as in the case of the sapphire (224). One stone, in particular, raises evil spirits.

That the stones could be associated with such illicit practices is implied by the anecdote the youth tells of the "Nun / Or Sister sanctified by holiest note" (232-33) who pursued him. Upon falling in love at first sight, she sends him a "device" (232). Several scholars gloss this gift as an emblematic item, but the term "device" also echoes the Reformist language used to denounce Catholic rituals as deceptive and idolatrous. Rosaries, in particular, were devices used to count one's prayers. For strict Reformist readers, the mere presence of prayer beads would suggest that the devil lurked nearby. Since prayer beads were commonly made of jet, amber, and crystal, they may have been the very first favors the maid throws away. If the nun did send prayer beads to the young man, the action encapsulates, on the surface, how the Reformation leached things of their spiritual meaning. But it also suggests a complex belief in the magical (mis)use of religious objects. Rosaries were often employed to perform love rites, counter witchcraft, and cure diseases. (17) That people did not necessarily disentangle the sacred and natural powers attributed to the stones is exemplified by a seventeenth-century virginity test that involves the ingestion of pulverized jet beads obtained from a rosary. (18)

Our intuition that the poems should praise the young man rather than the precious stones may be right, if we understand that the youth and the gems operate collectively. Like the diamond (which the speaker identifies as masculine), the young man is beautiful and hard. Like the emerald, he affects the eyes of those who see him, for "Each eye that saw him did inchaunt the minde" (89). And like the opal and sapphire, he "blend[s] / With objects manyfold." For he acquires properties (invisible and visible) from his lovers in the same way that the precious stones absorb the young women's passions (manifested in the blushing ruby and pale pearl). He emanates an occult force that subdues the wills of others. Once he gives the maid the "broken bosoms" (254), amassed in the gems and stones, he cries "Christall" tears that enclose the "glowing Roses" of his cheek in their glaze (286), recalling the lapidified tears of Phaeton's sisters. When the maiden asks, "Oh father, what a hell of witch-craft lies / In the small orb of one perticular teare?" (288-89), her question also applies to the gems she now possesses. At the moment of consummation, when they exchange their melting "drops" (300)--a synonym for gems--the interaction proves to be oddly medicinal, invoking the less perilous uses of precious stones: but the strange twist is that he poisons her, and she restores him (301). He has within him "a plenitude of subtle matter" where he "receives" all "straing formes ... Of burning blushes, or of weeping water, / Or sounding palenesse" (302-5). Most contemporary discussions of sexual intercourse emphasize the risk that men undergo: they expend their spirits without renewal. Instead, the youth's vampirism proves inhuman. The maid sees, at the moment of her fall, the "naked and concealed feind" (317).

While it is scientific rationalism that leads modern readers to dismiss the gems and stones in "A Lover's Complaint" as insignificant (unless they are understood as strictly emblematic), it is a fear of the inhuman that drives early modern thinkers to diminish the power of things. Preternatural philosophers did not doubt the existence of demons, but when they sought to understand what the devil knew, they veered into dangerous territory. Boyle insists on a line between science and magic, but he studies the same natural forces that the devil deploys to seduce his victims. Preternatural objects promised knowledge, and the natural philosophical focus on occult forces in the seventeenth century help to establish the boundaries for ensuing scientific inquiries. (19) And while philosophers may have kept the devil at bay in their experiments, the inexperienced unknowingly invited him in. Shakespeare's poem shows humans and nonhumans sharing agency in an early modern ecological system. But it also shows that inhumans don't like to share. In resurrecting an ecology that encompasses diabolical influences, we can see a system that effectively decenters humans, but we also catch glimpse of the human fears that hastened the death of Nature.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. Sylva Sylvarum, or a Natural History, in Ten Centuries. London, 1685.

Bates, Catherine, "The Enigma of 'A Lover's Complaint,'" A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Michael Schoenfeldt. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007, 426-40.

Bell, Ilona. "Shakespeare's Exculpatory Complaint." In Critical Essays on Shakespeare's "A Lover's Complaint": Suffering Ecstasy, edited by Shirley SharonZisser, 91-108. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006).

Boyle, Robert. Essay about the origine & virtues of gems. London, 1672.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Daston, Lorraine. "Preternatural Philosophy." Biographies of Scientific Objects. Ed. Lorraine Daston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, 15-41.

Egan, Gabriel. Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2006.

Go, Kenji. "Samuel Daniel's 'The Complaint of Rosamond' and an Emblematic Reconsideration of 'A Lover's Complaint.'" Studies in Philology 104.1 (2007): 82-122.

Harris, Jonathan Gil. Shakespeare and Literary Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Henry, John. "The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic." History of Science 46.1 (2008): 1-48.

Kerrigan, John, ed. Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and the 'Female Complaint': A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Leonardus, Camillus. The mirror of stones: In which the nature, generation, properties, virtues and various species of more than 200 different jewels, precious and rare stones, are distinctly described. London, 1750.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Rowe, 1980.

Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished by G.S [George Sandys]. London, 1628.

Rowe, Katherine. "A Lover's Complaint." The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry. Ed. Patrick Cheney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 144-60.

Schiffer, James. "'Honey Words': 'A Lover's Complaint' and the Fine Art of Seduction." Critical Essays, 137-48.

Sharon-Zisser, Shirley. "'True to Bondage': The Rhetorical Forms of Female Masochism in 'A Lover's Complaint.'" Critical Essays, 179-90.

Vickers, Brian. "A Rum 'Do': The Likely Authorship of "A Lover's Complaint." The Times Literary Supplement (December 5, 2003): 13.

--. Shakespeare, A Lover's Complaint, and John Davies of Hereford. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Wecker, Johann Jacob. Eighteen books of the secrets of art & nature. London, 1660.

Wilson, Stephen. The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe London: Hambledon and London, 2000.


(1.) Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, A Lover's Complaint, and John Davies of Hereford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 235.

(2.) Brian Vickers, "A Rum 'Do': The Likely Authorship of 'A Lover's Complaint.'" The Times Literary Supplement (December 5, 2003): 13.

(3.) Lines from "A Lover's Complaint" are cited parenthetically and refer to John Kerrigan's edition of the poem, Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and the 'Female Complaint': A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

(4.) On the poem's use of the blazon, see Katherine Rowe, "A Lover's Complaint," The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry, ed. Patrick Cheney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 144-60. On the tokens' sexual implications, see Kenji Go, "Samuel Daniel's 'The Complaint of Rosamond' and an Emblematic Reconsideration of 'A Lover's Complaint,'" Studies in Philology 104.1 (2007): 82-122.

(5.) Jonathan Gil Harris notes that for Bruno Latour, "things are not simply individual physical objects (or facts) but also matters of concern that entangle numerous actors in larger networks, assemblages, or assemblies." Shakespeare and Literary Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.

(6.) Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Eeocriticism (London: Routledge, 2006), 174.

(7.) Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Rowe, 1980).

(8.) Lorraine Daston, "Preternatural Philosophy," Biographies of Scientific Objects, ed. Lorraine Daston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000): 15-41, esp. 17.

(9.) Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 162.

(10.) Robert Boyle, Essay about the origine & virtues of gems (London, 1672), 110.

(11.) Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum, or a Natural History, in Ten Centuries (London, 1685), 206.

(12.) Ilona Bell, "Shakespeare's Exculpatory Complaint," in Critical Essays on Shakespeare's "'A Lover's Complaint": Suffering Ecstasy, ed. Shirley Sharon-Zisser (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006), 91-108, esp. 92.

(13.) Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished by G.S [George Sandys] (London, 1628), 42.

(14.) James Schiffer, "'Honey Words': 'A Lover's Complaint' and the Fine Art of Seduction," Critical Essays, 137-48, esp. 139-40.

(15.) See Shirley Sharon-Zisser, "'True to Bondage': The Rhetorical Forms of Female Masochism in 'A Lover's Complaint,'" Critical Essays, 179-90; and Catherine Bates, "The Enigma of 'A Lover's Complaint,' "A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Michael Schoenfeldt (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 426-40.

(16.) The available English translation is an eighteenth-century edition: Camillus Leonardus, The mirror of stones (London, 1750).

(17.) Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London: Hambledon and London, 2000), 464-65.

(18.) Johann Jacob Wecker, Eighteen books of the secrets of art & nature (London, 1660), 104.

(19.) For this argument see John Henry, "The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic," History of Science 46.1 (2008): 1-48.
COPYRIGHT 2011 Associated University Presses
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FORUM: Shakespeare and Ecology
Author:Floyd-Wilson, Mary
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Previous Article:Economies of nature in Shakespeare.
Next Article:Shakespeare's globe and England's woods.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |