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In scene xi of the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III (printed in 1594), the disgraced Mistress Shore appears as a beggar suing to her previous clients for relief. The most interesting exchange occurs with the courtier Lodowicke, who recognizes her and reflects to himself:
A gods name what is this world, and how vncertaine are riches? Is this she that was in such credit with the King? Nay more, that could command a King indeed? I cannot deny but my lands she restored me, but shall I by releeuing of her hurt my selfe, no: for straight proclamation is made that none shall succour her, therefore for feare I should be seene talke with her, I will shun her company and get me to my chamber, and there set downe in heroicall verse, the shamefull end of a Kings concubin, which is no doubt as wonderfull as the desolation of a kingdome.(1)
Since the True Tragedy survives only in a fragmentary form, it is hard to assess the precise tone of this speech. At one level Lodowicke points the orthodox patriarchal moral which almost every writer who deals with Shore's wife adopts: her fall illustrates 'the shamefull end of a Kings concubin' - as a loose woman, she has had this 'end' coming for some time. Yet as a moral agent himself, Lodowicke is dramatically implicated in Mistress Shore's condition: as he notes, 'I cannot deny but my lands she restored me' - he himself has profited from her patronage, as the audience has seen earlier in the play. Hence his resolution simultaneously to 'shun her company' and to 'set downe' her fate 'in heroicall verse' is for the reader of other Elizabethan Shore texts nicely ironic. Lodowicke wants both to avoid the danger of consorting with a political outcast and to profit artistically from her fall. In admitting to this, he becomes a staged representation of all the (male) writers who retell the Shore narrative and of the shadowy dramatist of the True Tragedy itself. Indeed as a modern scholar writing on Elizabethan representations of Mistress Shore, I retrospectively participate in Lodowicke's literary appropriation of her fall. One woman's fall is another man's literary bacon.
I begin with Lodowicke because he exhibits in dramatic form the availability of 'Shores Wife' to Elizabethan writers as a sexually and politically loaded subject.(2) As a woman of humble origins about whom little was known other than that she was - crucially - 'a Kings concubin', she constituted (to borrow a metaphor from Drayton's Rosamond) a sexualized 'scribled paper' which Elizabethan writers reinscribed at will.(3) In this article I examine this process of inscription through three texts - More's Richard III, Churchyard's Shores Wife, and Heywood's Edward IV. Lodowicke is useful also because although he comically typifies the unfortunate Mistress Shore's fair-weather friends, he also articulates an important rhetorical response to the political contingent. His final sentence balances 'the shamefull end of a Kings concubin' directly with 'the desolation of a kingdome'. Mistress Shore's 'wonderfull' fall illustrates the political upheavals of Richard III's rise to power, to which the intellectual Lodowicke can only respond with quietism and - most interestingly - the 'heroic' verse of complaint, the ideal poetic vehicle for the frightened observer of the times. Though the True Tragedy does not record Lodowicke's text, like Churchyard's and Chute's actual poems, it would surely have used Mistress Shore as a way of reflecting at a safe distance disquiet at Richard's and indeed Edward's political brutalism.
In partial response to John Kerrigan's Motives of Woe anthology, I want to observe how male-authored 'Female Complaint' represents its feminine subject. The Shore narrative provides More's Elizabethan inheritors with an ideal scenario for complaint, as Lodowicke recognizes. But my interest is more precise than simply cataloguing different Elizabethan Shore texts.(4) As the True Tragedy shows, the Shore narrative moves from the static discourses of historical narrative and historicized complaint into the mobile arena of Elizabethan drama. To examine the development of this figure is, then, to engage with my central interest: how verse complaint is dramatized. Despite Kerrigan's anthology, the relationship between Elizabethan verse complaint and dramatic complaint remains relatively unexplored. I contend that complaint is crucial to the political ambivalences which emerge in Heywood's Edward IV; it is also a central element of other more celebrated plays.
In my earlier work, I argue that Spenser's Complaints constitute a self-conscious renovation of traditional complaint.(5) Within this apparently disparate collection of 'sundrie small Poemes', a subtle realignment takes place in which the literary energies of traditional complaint are directed away from the perception of the instability of the external world towards the recognition of the instability of poetry itself. So for example The Teares of the Muses exploits the tropes of a Mirror for Magistrates-style 'tragedie' to articulate not the slipperiness of worldly fortune but rather the uncertain valency of traditional poetry.(6) Yet Spenser was a highly idiosyncratic writer whose Complaints are fascinating precisely because of their self-conscious innovation of this most traditional of literary modes.(7) Though Kerrigan's anthology directs attention to the variety of what he, perhaps unfortunately, calls 'Female Complaint', there is still no compelling analysis of complaint tout court as a rhetorical practice in the 1590s and beyond.(8) As an important and durable literary mode, we need to explore complaint as a rhetorical practice: that is, as a related body of techniques which articulates a range of ideas from the quiescent to the innovatory. As we will see in the complaints of Mistress Shore, these contradictory impulses are often present within the same text.
The literary exploitation of Mistress Shore begins with Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III.(9) This includes a brilliant digression on her which is the major source for all the Elizabethan Shore writers through the chronicles of Grafton, Hall, Hardyng, and Holinshed, which incorporate More's History into their own texts.(10) More's account of Mistress Shore is itself a self-consciously staged counterpoint to his broader narrative. Alison Hanham sees it as a passage which bridges More's accounts of Hastings's execution and Edward IV's lechery: as the mistress of both men, Mistress Shore is a structurally useful hinge between two different phases in Richard's rise to power from the murder of Hastings to the discrediting of Edward's marriage.(11) But the central importance of More's portrait for his Elizabethan followers lies in its cocktail of contrastive ingredients: a political narrative laced with courtly satire centring on Mistress Shore as an object of both opprobrium and desire.
In the first place, Mistress Shore's status as a virtuous intermediary between suitors and the king offsets both her adultery and the corrupt court she inhabits. Even more than his Elizabethan imitators, More insists that she used Edward's 'fauour' positively: 'where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate & appease his mind: where men were out of fauour, she wold bring them in his grace' (Complete Works, ii. 56). Unlike the other major protagonists of the History, Mistress Shore is notable precisely because she does not use the power she has irresponsibly, or to further her own ambition.(12) More must 'saithe trouth' of her 'for sinne it wer to belie ye devil' (Complete Works, ii. 56) - even though she is an adulteress, her actions, paradoxically, are meritorious in a corrupt environment.(13) Hence Mistress Shore's discrete political virtue allows More to use her as a vehicle for moral satire. Her ultimate indigence is powerfully contrasted with the financial security of her former clients: 'For men vse, if they haue an euil turne, to write it in marble: & whoso doth vs a good tourne, we write it in duste which is not worst proved by her: for at this daye shee beggeth of many at this daye liuing, yt at this day had begged if she had not bene' (Complete Works, ii. 57). More's satire is already close to the manner of Elizabethan complaint in which present misery is shown in relief against past happiness. Churchyard's Mistress Shore, for example, succinctly contrasts her importance while Edward was alive - 'Who was but I? Who had such frendes at call?' - with her loss of status immediately after the king's death - 'His body was no sooner put in chest, | But wel was him that could procure my fall'.(14)
This rhetorical privileging of the fallen woman underlines Mistress Shore's value to More as a non-aristocrat, who can be written about because she isn't one of the amorphous courtly 'many' who elude identification. More signposts this in the anecdote about Edward's '.iii. concubines':
which in three diuers properties diuersly exceled. One the meriest, an other the wiliest, the thirde the holiest harlote in his realme, as one whom no man could get out of ye church lightly to any place, but it wer to his bed. The other two were somwhat greter parsonages, & Natheles of their humilitie content to be nameles, & to forbere the praise of those properties. But the meriest was this Shoris wife, in whom the king therfore toke speciall pleasure. (Complete Works, ii. 56)
Mistress Shore is simultaneously praised for her unpretentious joviality and slurred through More's identification of her which 'The other two' as 'somewhat greter parsonages' can avoid. In comparison with the mild titillation implicit in the portrayal of 'the holiest harlote' - an anonymous embodiment of male fantasy - Mistress Shore stands as a named woman with a particular appearance and definite social origins. However, at the moment of More's patriarchal naming of 'this Shoris wife', we must note she is well on the way to becoming a …