Although published as Shakespeare's work, the poem's authorship has become a matter of critical debate. The majority opinion is that it is by Shakespeare, though of inferior quality to his other works.
The poem consists of forty-seven seven-line stanzas written in the rhyme royal (with the rhyme scheme ababbcc), a metre and structure identical to that of Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece. After a scene-setting introduction, the poem takes the form of a lengthy speech by an abandoned young woman, including a speech within her speech, as she recounts the words by which she was seduced.
The poem begins with the speaker describing seeing a young woman weeping at the edge of a river, into which she throws torn-up letters, rings, and other tokens of love. An old man nearby approaches the woman and asks the reason for her sorrow. She responds by telling him of a former lover who pursued, seduced, and finally abandoned her. She recounts in detail the speech her lover gave to her which seduced her. She concludes her story by conceding that she would fall for the young man's false charms again:
O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glowed,
O, that forc'd thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spungy lungs bestowed,
O, all that borrowed motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray'd,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!
Despite its appearance in the published collection of the sonnets, critics have often doubted attribution to Shakespeare. "A Lover's Complaint" contains many words and forms not found elsewhere in Shakespeare, including several archaisms and Latinisms, and is sometimes regarded as rhythmically and structurally awkward. Conversely, other critics have a high regard for the poem's quality – Edmond Malone called it "beautiful", and suggested that Shakespeare may have been trying to compete with Edmund Spenser. Critics have seen thematic parallels to situations in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. According to John Kerrigan in Motives of Woe, the poem be regarded as an appropriate coda to the sonnets, with its narrative triangle of young woman, elderly man, and seductive suitor paralleling a similar triangle in the sonnets themselves. Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson note that:
It was not unusual for sonnets to be followed by longer poems. Late sixteenth-century readers developed a taste for them and would not have been surprised to find complaints at the end of sonnet collections. Samuel Daniel's Delia is followed by The Complaint of Rosamund (1592), Thomas Lodge's Phillis is followed by The Complaint of Elstred (1593), Richard Barnfield's Cassandra succeeds Cynthia, with Certain Sonnets (1595).
John Mackinnon Robertson published a study in 1917 claiming that George Chapman wrote the poem, as well as originating Timon of Athens. However, a scholarly consensus emerged in the 20th century that the poem was Shakespeare's, in particular in notable studies by Kenneth Muir, Eliot Slater and MacDonald P. Jackson.
An article by Marina Tarlinskaja "Who Did NOT Write A Lover's Complaint" in Shakespeare Yearbook 15, 2005, argues that the author of "A Lover's Complaint" was a still anonymous early Elizabethan poet, a follower of Spenser.
In 2007 Brian Vickers, in his monograph, Shakespeare, "A Lover's Complaint", and John Davies of Hereford, attributes the Complaint to John Davies. He details arguments for the non-Shakespearean nature of the poem and lists numerous verbal parallels between the "Complaint" and the known works of Davies: – such as 'What brest so cold that is not warmed heare' and 'What heart's so cold that is not set on fire'. On this evidence it was omitted from the 2007 RSC Complete Works, a decision that MacDonald P. Jackson calls a "mistake" in his RES review of Vickers's book, arguing, among other reservations, that "Evidence that, in poems undoubtedly his, Davies exhibits an intimacy with Shakespeare's works equal to that of the author of 'A Lover's Complaint' is very meagre." He rejoins also:
Had Vickers keyed in "spongy", "outwardly", and "physic"—trying the various possible original spellings and selecting instances of "physic" as a verb—he would have found that in the whole of LION ["literature online" database], covering more than six centuries of English poetry, drama, and prose, four separate works contain all three words: Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Cymbeline, and "A Lover's Complaint".
Harold Love, in his TLS review, has similar questions:
Vickers was led to Davies by the number of words from the "Complaint" he found during a computer search of the invaluable LION archive; but any such investigation is bound to favour such a voluminous author against the less prolific or minimally preserved. In similar work on Restoration poets, I continually found parallels with the verse of Ned Ward for works that it was chronologically impossible for him to have written. The reasons were that, like Davies, he wrote a vast amount of verse and that his style had a chameleonlike quality that brought it close to the poetic mean of the time.