Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), two of William Shakespeare’s most famous nondramatic works, were probably composed during the period between June, 1592, and May, 1594, while the theaters were temporarily closed because of the plague. Venus and Adonis, the earlier of the two poems, was entered at the Stationers’ Register on April 18, 1593, and was printed shortly thereafter by Richard Field, who, incidentally, had originally come from Stratford-on-Avon. Venus and Adonis was the first work of Shakespeare ever to be printed.
It should not be supposed from the date of composition that Venus and Adonis was merely a way of passing time while the theaters were closed. All indications are that Shakespeare thought of this poem as the public commencement of his serious literary work as distinct from his quotidian employment as a dramatist. Indeed, Shakespeare never bothered to see his plays into print, a fact that has proved the bane of editors ever since. Venus and Adonis, however, was handsomely printed with an ornate dedication to the earl of Southampton in which Shakespeare speaks of the poem as his first serious literary effort. In subject and style, it is a kind of poetry that occupied most of Shakespeare’s serious contemporaries.
Although the poem has been transmitted in only a few manuscripts, there is ample evidence that it was extremely popular in its own day. By 1600, it had become one of the most frequently quoted poems of the period, and many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries referred to it with admiration. Even Gabriel Harvey, fellow of Cambridge and stern arbiter of critical taste, noted the great fame that the poem enjoyed among undergraduates, although he did add reservations about the erotic nature of the poem. In that eroticism, Venus and Adonis reflected a vogue for such poetry, which appeared in profusion in the 1590’s. Like Shakespeare’s, these narrative or reflective poems generally drew on classical or pseudoclassical sources.
Shakespeare derived the story of Venus and Adonis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), the main difference being that in his poem Adonis...
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