Venus Reconsidered: The Goddess of Love in Venus and Adonis
A. D. Cousins, Macquarie University
The how and what of Venus' presentation have been studied from mainly two angles. Sometimes she has been looked at as if a character in a play—appropriate enough given that her creator was a playwright and that he gave her speech after speech. As a result, the consistencies, fluctuations and contradictions in her characterization have been often discussed, with a good deal of agreement but by no means with unanimity.1 Sometimes she has been studied in connection with particular aspects of Renaissance symbolism or thinking about ancient myths. Critical commentary adopting that angle of approach has occasionally interpreted Venus as a simple, symbolic figure but, more usually, as an evocatively allegorical one (especially, of course, in the context of some Renaissance interpretations of the Venus and Adonis story).2 Here, employing both well established ways of approach, I want to offer a new account of Venus' presentation in the poem. First it will be argued that the characterization of Venus, although often acknowledged to be various, is in fact far more diverse than has been recognized. Most of the manifold aspects of her, it will be suggested at the same time, accord with (maybe derive from, partly or wholly) ancient representations of her that were still known and studied in Shakespeare's time, as can be seen from a range of contemporary books about the meanings of ancient myths.3 The main points of that first argument will be: that even if most of the different aspects of Venus' characterization seem conventional, frequently they are treated ironically—their conventionality is subverted; that, in presenting the goddess of love as having a great variety of aspects, Shakespeare's narrator implies not merely love's many-sidedness but its often incongruous multiplicity. The second argument put forward will be that one of the more important aspects of Venus' characterization is her discovering the familiar, human experience of loving another in vain.4 It will be suggested that her experiencing the misery of unrequited human love has significance for a couple of reasons. She comes to know something of not only the unhappiness to be found in human love but, as well, of how love can usurp control over a human consciousness. 5 Therefore the goddess of love comes experientially to know—to a degree—a phenomenon that she has necessarily seen yet never felt. For her, the experience of loving Adonis both in vain and obsessively is a new, alien experience: ultimately, the experience of love as otherness. The third and last major argument proposed in what follows will be that Venus, herself partly transformed by her unrequited love for Adonis, offers him her love as a means for his achieving self-transformation. To be more specific, it will be argued that, in offering Adonis her love, Venus simultaneously offers him metamorphosis, a redefined subjectivity, in which self-perfection and safety will be supposedly gained but a loss of self will be inevitable.
Venus had been seen since ancient times as having a wide range of aspects; there were, as various writers had demonstrated, many Venuses. Early in her initial wooing of Adonis (lines 7-12), Venus uses a tactically considered, schematic language of sexual seduction, and it characterizes her as a goddess of physical desire, wise in the techniques of enticement. That characterization is developed when she goes on to say:
"Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed,
And rein his proud head to the saddle-bow;
If thou wilt deign this favour, for thy meed
A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know.
Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses,
And being set, I'll smother thee with kisses.
"And yet not cloy thy lips with loath'd satiety,
But rather famish them amid their plenty,
Making them red, and pale, with fresh variety:
Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty.
A summer's day will seem an hour but short,
Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport."
The rest of Venus' opening speech suggests both the mingling of imagination with sensuality in her attempt to seduce Adonis and how intensely, almost boundlessly physical her desire for him is. The speech as a whole, then, shows, the goddess of love to be skilled in the deceptive language/rhetoric of seduction and obsessive in her desire, in effect seeking infinite physical enjoyment of Adonis who, in his physicality, is finite.
Yet while Venus' opening speech vigorously characterizes her, it does so in accord with two ancient versions of the goddess which were still current in the sixteenth century. Insofar as she is the calculating rhetorician of love, Shakespeare's Venus recalls the Venus Mechanitis of the ancient world, the Venus practised in love's verbal and other artifices.6 Insofar as she is the goddess of virtually limitless physical desire, she recalls Venus Vulgaris, the ancient representation of Venus as the goddess of wholly sensual love.7 Venus' opening speech at once forcefully presents her and offers what can be seen as a conventional representation of her. It seems clear, however, that whether Shakespeare's Venus merely harmonizes with or actually derives from convention, the conventional elements in her characterization are treated ironically and thus subverted. For a start, Venus fails as a rhetorician of love. Her language and tactics of seduction are problematic because some of their main images for praising Adonis' exceptional beauty also highlight its transience and (or) vulnerability ("flower," "doves," "roses"). But a far more important problem is that in trying to seduce Adonis she uses the wrong language—the wrong language and rhetoric for her particular audience.8 Maybe Venus does not fully recognize that Adonis is not only very young and inexperienced but very reluctant as well; it seems likelier, though, that in her urgency she just pays too little attention to those things. Whatever the case, her speech implies that she is both a connoisseur of the erotic ("A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know") and smothering ("I'll smother thee with kisses"), greedy (see lines 19-24, passim) in her passion. Adonis, clearly enough, has no wish to be smothered by Venus' greedy passion, something the introductory stanza has indicated and that the rest of the poem makes explicit. Therefore her words of love repel him—and failing to express her desire persuasively in words, she gets no chance to express it physically to her satisfaction. In effect, she fails as Venus Mechanitis and so is frustrated as Venus Vulgaris. It could be suggested that her opening speech even has the result of turning her into a parodic Venus Verticordia, the Venus who promotes chastity in women (and Adonis is described as having some female attributes).
Perhaps two other features of Venus' presentation here might be briefly considered before further aspects of her in the poem are discussed. When Venus tries to seduce Adonis she acts, according to the poem's introductory stanza, like an assertive, male lover. Some of the words she chooses and her tactics of persuasion distinctly suggest that. For example, her insistence that the beauty of her beloved is unique, though justified by its actually being so, is of course conventional in sixteenth-century English love verse written in imitation of Petrarch's, and by men to or about women. No less conventional in that love verse are celebrations of female beauty in terms of emphatic images of whiteness and redness, such as appear in Venus' praise of Adonis' beauty.9 Likewise, the male speakers in that love verse sometimes offer their ladies gifts in order to win their affections. To cite a pair of obvious instances, Marlowe's speaker in "Come live with me and be my love" offers gifts to his beloved; Damon, in Marvell's "Damon the Mower," tells of the gifts with which he has wooed his beloved Juliana.10 Venus, too, offers Adonis a gift, an elaborate enticement in order to bring him physically close to her ("A thousand honey secrets … "). As those examples reveal, Venus uses a predominantly male, assertive (Petrarchan) language and rhetoric of love. The outcome is, though, that when Venus acts "like a bold-fac'd suitor" in using such a language/rhetoric she uses it inappropriately (after the fashion described above) and appears comic. Shakespeare's Venus seems, as it were, to be a Venus Mechanitis who simultaneously fails and acts out a comedy of gender-reversal. And that doubly ironic presentation of her is immediately developed. Having misemployed language in her initial attempt to make Adonis love her, she then successfully persuades herself of his sexual inclinations by misreading the body language of his "sweating palm" (line 25). She cannot or will not read his "sweating palm" as signifying physical discomfort and (or) emotional distress. Moreover, the comedy of gender-reversal becomes almost grotesque when Venus subsequently "pluck[s]" (line 30) Adonis from his horse, tucks him under her arm (line 32) and finally "thrust[s]" (line 41) him to the ground. The comedy of gender-reversal is, nonetheless, more sophisticated than such an instance of it might indicate, and that more interesting dimension to it will be considered later in this discussion.
The final feature of Venus' presentation here that I wish to glance at is this: in her attempt to seduce Adonis she offers him a heightening of his beauty, to be achieved through transformation. Assuring Adonis that when "smother[ing him] with kisses" (line 18) she will "not cloy [his] lips with loath'd satiety" (line 19), Venus goes on to assert that in fact she will enhance their beauty, "[m]aking them red, and pale, with fresh variety" (line 21). She will add, that is, to the "white and red" (line 10) of Adonis' natural beauty—and specifically to the natural beauty of his (red) lips—through her art of sexuality, making his lips startlingly change in colour and thus into instances of the Renaissance aesthetic principle of varietà (connected with the principle, or ideal, of grazia—an elegance delightful to the observer/reader).11 To receive that heightening of his beauty, Adonis must allow himself to be transformed from an asexual to a sexual being. For his beauty to be transformed, in other words, he must allow himself to be metamorphosed. The "time-beguiling sport" (line 24) of sexual play will involve at once his superficial aesthetic transformation and a metamorphosis of his identity. Venus' offer of metamorphosis will be repeatedly made to Adonis throughout the poem. One of those offers, in particular, is both challenging and complex. The motif's introduction, however, occurs in her first speech; its initial, witty appearance suggests the aesthetic element in Venus' connoisseurship of the erotic and Adonis' presentation in the rest of the poem as an aesthetic/sexual object.
It seems reasonable to argue that the aspects of Venus so far discussed (Venus Mechanitis and Venus Vulgaris, to put it briefly) recur more often throughout Shakespeare's poem that do virtually any of the others contributing to her many-sided characterization, and hence their elaborate, foundational encoding has been examined in some detail. It is not necessary, I think, that the subsequent treatment of those aspects be completely traced since in that initial encoding their defining features seem to be indicated. Some of the modifications to them, nonetheless, do have to be looked at and now will be—in the context of an account of Venus' other guises in the poem.
Another major aspect of Venus in the poem is that of Venus Genetrix: the Venus, from ancient times to those of Shakespeare, associated with the generative power in nature, fertility and the desire to reproduce beauty through offspring (to take the most obvious illustration, the beauty of one's beloved). There has often been mention of Shakespeare's Venus in that role but the question remains as to how the role functions.12 Insofar as Shakespeare's Venus resembles Venus Genetrix, she does so problematically. When Adonis' stallion breaks away from where it has been tied and runs after "[a] breeding jennet" (line 260), it forcefully displays the generative impulse. Venus, turning the horse into an exemplum for its master, suggests that he too should do, with her, what comes naturally:
"Let me excuse thy courser, gentle boy,
And learn of him, I heartily beseech thee,
To take advantage on presented joy;
Though I were dumb, yet his proceedings teach
O learn to love …
But in fact Venus argues there that Adonis, in acting "naturally," should imitate merely animal desire: that his natural love for her should be solely of and for the body. Her love for him is certainly of that kind, what Pico called "Bestial … Love" as distinct from human or divine love.13 It is natural and obsessively physical, as the image of the "glutton eye" in her immediately preceding words makes startingly clear:
"Who see his true-love in her naked bed,
Teaching the sheets a whiter hue than white,
But when his glutton eye so full hath fed,
His other agents aim at like delight?
That "glutton eye" image, moreover, connects with other images in the poem that insistently imply Venus' devouring sexuality (see, for instances: lines 18-22, in her first speech, and especially lines 445-450, 543-552). And all those link with the images suggesting that her desire is predatory as well as natural, the best known of which are probably the simile of the "empty eagle … devouring all in haste, / Till either gorge be stuff'd or prey be gone" (lines 55-58, a comparison made by the narrator), and the metaphor likening her to the boar (lines 1117-1118, a comparison made by Venus herself). If she resembles Venus Genetrix, she is a parodic, brutally "natural" version of that divinity. That being granted, the problematics of Venus as Venus Genetrix do not, even so, end there.
The similarity between Shakespeare's Venus and Venus Genetrix also seems ironic in at least a couple of other ways. First, when Venus speaks in effect as Venus Genetrix—celebrating the generative impulse in nature, urging Adonis to reproduce his unique beauty through offspring (on his supposed duty to breed, see lines 163-174)—she speaks primarily to seduce him. What could be called the Venus Genetrix aspect of her characterization is sub-ordinate to the (de facto) Venus Mhanitis and Venus Vulgaris aspects.14 Second, when Venus searches desperately for Adonis after she has gone to hunt the boar, there occurs this description of nature impeding the preoccupied goddess:
And as she runs, the bushes in the way
Some catch her by the neck, some kiss her face,
Some twine about her thigh to make her
She wildly breaketh from their strict
Like a milch doe, whose swelling dugs do
Hasting to feed her fawn hid in some brake.
The elision of the sexual and the maternal in that description of Venus (lines 875-876) incongruously mingles her Vulgaris and Genetrix aspects. However it is ironic, too, that the goddess whose love almost smothered Adonis now finds herself almost imprisoned by a sexually assertive natural world with which, as Venus Genetrix, she is associated. She comes to experience something of what Adonis appears to have been undergoing throughout much of the poem, and "wildly breaketh" indicates her response.15 The final function of Venus as Venus Genetrix may, then, be twofold. First, in that particular role she seems to imply the natural brutality and reductiveness, rather than the natural, creative beneficence, of sexual desire. Second, in that role she seems also to help make problematic the nature of "nature" in Shakespeare's poem. In trying to seduce Adonis she appeals recurrently to "nature"; Adonis appeals to "nature" in rejecting her. But if she is, at least in part, a nature/fertility divinity, and incomplete as well as self-divided in being so, while Adonis' perception of "nature" differs in important respects from hers, her role as Venus Genetrix seems to emphasize the ambiguity of "nature" in her fictional world (and also in ours), its openness to appropriation for the justifying of quite opposite ends.
There are a great many further aspects to Shakespeare's Venus. For a start, she is also a deceiver. Just after telling Adonis that even Mars the god of war has wooed her (lines 97-102), she reassures him that, if he makes love to her, no one will find out and that therefore secrecy will preserve his honour (lines 121-126). She omits to tell Adonis that Vulcan, her husband, not only caught Mars and her in bed but added to their embarrassment by calling in the other gods to share his discovery, an omission all too obvious to the reader. In trying to trick Adonis—and she tries more than once in the course of the tale—she bears a clear likeness to the conventional Venus Apaturia (Venus the Deceiver).16 The poem reveals, though, that Venus has most success in unwittingly deceiving herself (as when, for example, she persuades herself that Adonis' "sweating palm" indicates his amorous disposition). Venus the deceived Deceiver is, additionally, a prophet. She uncertainly foresees Adonis' death at the hunt (lines 661-666). Soon after his death she deliberately and formally foretells what the experience of love will thenceforward be, always and everywhere (lines 1135-II 64). Again, an old convention seems to underlie this aspect of her characterization: that of Venus as Magistra Divinandi (Mistress of Instructor in Prophesying). 17 How-ever, Shakespeare's Venus again parodically refigures convention. Jealousy (line 657) prompts her first, accurate, hesitant foretelling. Her second is anachronistic, for—as the myths show—love had already and widely been what she announces it will become. Her wholly negative vision of love's future seems, moreover, open to query since the reader could object that its truth is incomplete. The mockexplanatory prophecy, that is to say, actually tells more about Venus' bitterness, and selfishness, than it does about the nature of love supposedly since Adonis' death.
Although other aspects of Shakespeare's Venus in relation to conventional representations of the goddess still remain to be examined, for example, the link between her and Venus Meretrix (Venus the Prostitute; see lines 511-522), there is space for study of only one more of her guises: her pervasive guise as Venus Victrix (Venus the Conqueror). The ancient title Venus the Conqueror referred, as is fairly well known, to Venus' overcoming of Mars, the god of war, through the power of her beauty and of his desire for her. In the sixteenth century that title was often interpreted as signifying Love's capacity to overcome Strife, even, Love's capacity to bind the conflicting elements of the universe into a harmonious discord.18 The connection between Shakespeare's Venus and Venus Victrix is made explicit in the poem. Venus boasts to Adonis:
"I have been woo'd as I entreat thee now,
Even by the stern and direful god of war,
Whose sinewy neck in battle ne'er did bow,
Who conquers where he comes in every jar;
Yet hath he been my captive and my slave,
And begg'd for that which thou unask'd
"Over my altars hath he hung his lance,
His batter'd shield, his uncontrolled crest;
And for my sake hath learn'd to sport and
To toy, to wanton, dally, smile and jest,
Scorning his churlish drum and ensign red,
Making my arms his field, his tent my bed.
"Thus he that overrul'd I oversway'd,
Leading him prisoner in a red rose chain:
Strong-temper'd steel his stronger strength
Yet was he servile to my coy disdain.
But of what kind is that connection? Shakespeare's Venus seems to be a failed Venus Victrix; more important, the Venus Victrix motif itself—as an emblem of Love's salutary power—seems to be dismantled throughout the poem.
When Venus has finished recounting her victory over Mars, she immediately says to Adonis: "O! be not proud, nor brag not of thy might, / For mastering her that foil'd the god of fight" (lines 113-114). Her point is, of course, that Adonis has made her love him (simply by being irresistible) and in doing so has conquered Venus the Conqueror, who overcame even the god of war. She consciously inverts the Venus Victrix motif and identifies herself as a now-failed, now-parodic Venus the Conqueror. Obviously enough, her admission is partly true because she has indeed been overcome by Adonis' beauty. Yet it is also disingenuous, flattery to seduce Adonis: she reveals herself as a failed/parodic Venus Victrix so that she can subsequently conquer him and re-enact her role as victor. At this moment of the poem, that is to say, she puts her role as Venus Victrix in the service of her roles as Venus Mechanitis and Venus Vulgaris so that, ultimately, the first and third of those roles can be fused. Her failure to seduce Adonis, however, means that she remains just the failed and parodic Venus Victrix she disingenuously claims to be.
Nonetheless Venus does have her moments of victory. She "pluck[s]" (line 30) Adonis from his horse, for example, walks off with him under her arm and then pushes him to the ground (lines 32-42). To take another example, she forces (cf. line 61) her kisses on him with the greed and dominance of an "empty eagle" (line 55) devouring its prey (lines 57-58). Again, Adonis when imprisoned "in her arms" (line 68) is as helpless as a "bird … tangled in a net" (line 67). Likewise, her hand imprisons his as "a gaol of snow" might "a lily" or as "an alabaster band" might a piece of "ivory" (lines 362-363). Her lips "conquer" (line 549) his and she preys on him like a "vulture" (line 551) or a plunderer (lines 553-558). Those are The indeed moments of victory but they are all flawed.19 The reader sees Venus as a ludicrous, bestial, predatory or, at the least, visually perfect yet wholly undesired Conqueror. The narrator's ironic imaging of her as a Victor seems relentless: as the examples above indicate, he subverts the Venus Victrix motif not only once in the poem but throughout it. The implication would appear to be that, in the world of the poem, the Venus Victrix motif cannot function as an emblem of Love's overcoming Strife, or of Love's making the universe into an harmonious discord. The motif, as a signifier of love's benignly invincible power, is pervasively, comically, vehemently dismantled.
Those aspects of Venus' characterization which seem to accord with, and often to refigure, conventional representations of her suggest love to be not one thing, nor merely a number of things, but a great range of things. They emphasize love's multiplicity—both within and outside the fictive world of Venus and Adonis—and imply how unstable, protean, how incongruous and dangerous love can be in its manifold variety. In doing so they seem as well to imply the inadequacy of a single definition to encompass love. Notably absent among them, and therefore foregrounded by its absence, is a connection between Shakespeare's Venus and the conventional Venus Urania, the Venus of Divine Love. Certainly it is true that Venus asserts: "Love is a spirit all compact of fire, / Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire" (lines 149-150). Even so, her description of love as a fiery "spirit" receives little, if any, confirmation in the rest of the poem, the "gross" physicality of her love for Adonis instead being stressed. And Adonis, just after he has associated her with Venus Vulgaris (line 790; in the next he associates her with Venus Genetrix), complains—accurately enough given his encounter with the goddess: "[L]ove to heaven is fled, / Since sweating lust on earth usurp'd his name" (lines 793-794). As far as the conventional/(often) refigured aspects of Shakespeare's Venus reveal, love in its manifold variety may be unstable, protean, incongruous and dangerous—insistent, self-demeaning and frequently comic, one could add—but it is not divine, although Venus is of course a goddess.
Although the different aspects of Shakespeare's Venus that are related, directly or otherwise, to the conventions of ancient religious practice or to those of mythography seem to form the major part of her characterization, there appears to be at least one further, important element in her portrayal: her personal discovery, as it were, of the way humans experience unrequited love—a greatly disorientating discovery for her, even though one necessarily limited by the fact that she is a goddess. That element of Venus' characterization often makes her look comic, adding to the ludic treatment of her throughout the tale. However the main point to be emphasized here is that, in partly discovering human experience of unrequited love, Venus also discovers, to a degree, the experience of love as otherness, as partly and disturbingly "outside the system of normality or convention to which [she] belongs [herself]."20
It was argued earlier in this discussion that Venus uses a predominantly male, in fact chiefly Petrarchan, language/ rhetoric of love in order to seduce Adonis. She is given that form of erotic speech, of course, to involve her in simple (human) gender-reversal—to make her sexual assertiveness look clearly and oddly like male sexual assertiveness. Yet there is arguably another reason as well, namely, to suggest that in trying to seduce Adonis she comes personally to know how humans experience loving in vain. Venus' speech between lines 187-216 provides brief, sample evidence of this. There Venus speaks to Adonis in what are obviously and mostly Petrarchan terms. "Thine eye darts forth the fire that burnetii me … ," she says early on (line 196), adding almost at once: "Art thou obdurate, flinty, hard as steel? / Nay more than flint, for stone at rain relenteth; / Art thou a woman's son and canst not feel / What 'tis to love, how want of love tormenteth?" (lines 199-202). Those words suggest that the predominantly male form of erotic speech Venus uses can function not just to show her incongruously resembling "a bold-fac'd [male] suitor" (line 6) in her sexual aggressiveness but also, and simultaneously, to stress how human is her whole experience of loving Adonis in vain. To be more exact, those words suggest this: the Petrarchan language and rhetoric used so recurrently by Venus are able to involve her in (human) gender-reversal which is not merely a matter of narrowly limited analogy, for they at times function to confer on her many features of a primarily male, human, love psychology. Predictably, those features include angry, bewildered frustration and loss of self-control—the case in the passage quoted above—vulnerability, anguish, self-division, and so on, in keeping with the usual descriptions of male lovers in Petrarch-derived verse. And Venus' climactic words at this moment of the text, like her early ones, reveal that distinctly. A series of Petrarchan paradoxes recalls anachronistically/anticipates a multitude of fictional, male lovers' complaints to their disdainful beloveds: "Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, / Well-painted idol, image dull and dead, / Statue contenting but the eye alone … " (lines 211-213). In short, the reader can see a more than superficial gender-reversal at work in some of Venus's speeches—but working to make her appear recognizably (if not completely) human, rather than specifically male, in her experience of unrequited love.
The same process can sometimes be seen when Venus the would-be seducer is described in Petrarchan terms, whether or not she herself uses them. For example, just after Adonis has failed to recover his horse and has sat angrily down, Venus softly approaches him. The narrator remarks: "O what a sight it was, wistly to view / How she came stealing to the wayward boy! / To note the fighting conflict of her hue, / How white and red each other did destroy!" (lines 343-346). The Petrarchan images of "white and red" imply Venus' alternating timidity and boldness or, as is also possible, bashfulness.21 That emotional conflict is often ascribed in Petrarchan love poems (by means either of those images or of ones closely related to them) to a male lover cautiously approaching his disdainful beloved, as readers then and now would readily perceive. Venus' recurrent sexual assertiveness seems here to be modified by her knowledge that Adonis does not return her love. Consequently she draws near to him as might a wary human lover. Now it may be that her apparent wariness is merely a ploy to conceal her hitherto unsuccessful aggressiveness: that it is, in fact, a reinscription of her aggressiveness. Whatever the case, in the speech by her looked at a moment ago she appears comically petulant in her human, sexual frustration; at this moment of the text, however, her human experience of unrequited love makes her appear comically hesitant but also pathetic (even if she may be falsely evoking pathos).
Much that is suggested by Venus' being repeatedly attributed with a Petrarchan love psychology seems to be summed up when the narrator compares her with Tantalus (see lines 91-94 and 599-600). Those comparisons imply that her personal discovery of how humans experience unrequited love, even though limited, puts her in hell: for Venus, in effect, to feel how mortals experience loving in vain is to enter a hell of obsessive, frustrated desire. Her love for Adonis can therefore be seen as involving her in a second and simultaneous personal discovery, that of love as a new and alien experience.22 The second discovery is limited because the first is also; nonetheless, it is significant because it means that, in loving Adonis, the goddess of love herself comes experientially to know something of love as otherness. She is led into human intensities of emotion: human yearning, frustration, misery and false hope.
A final point should be quickly added here. What might be called the Petrarchan humanizing of Venus contributes not only to the portrayal of her as would-be seducer but, as well, to the portrayal of her after Adonis has left (lines 811 ff.). In that latter part of the poem, however, it does not primarily indicate Venus' continued, personal discovery of how humans experience unrequited love; rather, it chiefly suggests her personal discovery of how humans experience separation from, and the death of a beloved.23 (Thus it also suggests development and intensification in her coming to know love as otherness). For example, just after mentioning Adonis' departure from Venus, the narrator indicates her confusion, anxiety and misery by a series of motifs that recur throughout Petrarchan love verse (the lamenting lover's grief being echoed by nature, and so on; see lines 823-846). Likewise, when he tells of her meeting with the boar (lines 901-912) he describes her horrified response to the creature in Petrarchan terms (a sequence of paradoxes suggests her self-division and paralysis; see lines 907-912). He accounts for her sudden change from belief to disbelief in Adonis' death by means of Petrarchan love psychology (there, too, the paradoxical is emphasized; see lines 985-990). He partly describes her grieving for the dead Adonis, moreover, in Petrarchan terms (again, a paradoxical rhetoric indicates her selfdivision—and confusion, and loss of self-control; see, for example, lines 1057-1074). Unsurprisingly enough, for it was the case earlier in the poem, pathos is interwoven with comedy in those presentations of Venus humanized. 24
A Venus humanized, even if only to a degree, is of course a Venus transformed. It was suggested above that self-transformation seems to be an enticement offered to Adonis when the goddess tries to seduce him. To repeat what was specifically suggested: in offering Adonis her love, Venus simultaneously offers him metamorphosis, a redefined subjectivity, in which self-perfection and safety will be supposedly gained but a loss of self will be inevitable. One instance of her putting that proposition to him has already been examined. In that particular instance, Venus implicitly promises Adonis self-perfection as a result of his sexual initiation. I want now to consider the most direct and elaborate offer of self-transformation that she makes to him (lines 229-240), an offer in which she ap-pears to envisage her own transformation.
At once embracing and imprisoning Adonis in her arms, Venus tells him: "Within the circuit of this ivory pale [the fence, as it were, of her white arms] / I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer: / Feed where thou wilt … " (lines 230-232). The goddess's serio-comic offer of transformation seems variously problematic. To begin with, her projection of her body as metamorphosed into a site for Adonis to inhabit and enjoy, in fact, into a type of the "ideal landscape," implies that to him she will be at once sentient and insentient, passive yet active, in her sexuality (active because, as she apparently sees it, she will in effect own Adonis: "my deer/[dear]" she hopefully calls him in lines 231-239).25 More important, her projection of Adonis as metamorphosed into her "deer/[dear]" offers him a comprehensively redefined subjectivity—a new and ambiguous personal identity. Venus' "deer" image suggests that, when sexually involved with her, he will be her beloved ("dear"); it also suggests, as she probably does not recognize, that in becoming her lover he will become less than human because primarily concupiscent. His former identity as someone committed to the active life will vanish. No longer a hunter, instead a captured creature of the hunt of love—the "deer" image of course connecting with the motif of Venus as a predator—he will be both a new person and a lost one, safe from the consequences of his planned boar hunt (about which Venus does not yet know) but himself a hunter's prize. Venus' fantastic, sophisticated offer of metamorphosis to Adonis indicates that her desire for him necessitates his loss of self, his gaining of a new, incongruously diminished identity. On the other hand, her imagined self-tranformation does not so much imply change to her as it does change to his perception of her. Venus' disregard for Adonis' independent selfhood, which pervades her offer(s) of metamorphosis to him and indeed all her attempt to seduce him, is emblematized at the poem's end by her plucking the flower sprung from his blood and carrying it away.
The intricate characterization of Shakespeare's Venus represents her as a diverse and unstable yet not as an incoherent identity. If the goddess of love appears to be, for example, tender and callous, compassionate and predatory, sophisticated and naive, pathetic and comic, alluring but also at times repellent, her almost infinite variety is nonetheless held together by the force of her self-centred sexual desire. One Renaissance view of love, mentioned above, was that love's power draws into coherence the various and conflicting elements of the world, compelling them into an harmonious discord, or discordia concors. It seems reasonable to suggest that in Venus and Adonis the reader sees the goddess of love, and so erotic love itself, as a discordia concors, centred upon desire's selfishness. Venus' characterization implies love's often incongruous multiplicity and its inability to be encompassed by a single defintion. Her experience of love as otherness, co-existent with her humanized experience of love's frustration, implies human love's extremes of misery and of obsession (as well, momentarily, of elation)—a Petrarchan humanizing of the goddess being Shakespeare's recreation of Ovid's anthropomorphic refashioning of his divinities. Her offer of metamorphosis to Adonis indicates love's capacity to transform the lover and, chiefly, the unresponsive beloved should he (she) become in turn a lover. That transformation, it appears to be suggested, may involve uncertain gain but will involve unavoidable loss of self. Yet, as has just been proposed, the insistent pulsing of egocentric desire within the many aspects of Shakespeare's Venus seems a sign of what remains constant amid her inconstancies and those of human passion.
1 All reference to the poem is from William Shakespeare, The Poems, ed. F. T. Prince (1960; rpt. London: Methuen, 1976). There has been general agreement, for example, about Venus' predatoriness, dishonesty, maternalism and so on—though with varying emphases. Among the commentaries on Venus and Adonis, see especially: D. N.
Beauregard, "Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare's Representation of the Passions," Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1975), 83-98; W. A. Rebhorn, "Mother Venus: Temptation in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, " Shakespeare Studies, 11(1978), 1-19; L.J. Daigle, "Venus and Adonis: Some Traditional Contexts," Shakespeare Studies, 13 (1980), 31-46; J. Doebler, "The Many Faces of Love: Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis," Shakespeare Studies, 16(1983), 33-43; H. Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 21-79; Gunnar Sorelius, Shakespeare's Early Comedies: Myth, Metamorphosis, Mannerism (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell Intern., 1993), pp. 111-117. I am indebted to Heather Dubrow for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
2 See, for example: T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakespeare's Poems and Sonnets (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950), pp. 1-93; D. C. Allen, Image and Meaning: Metaphoric Traditions in Renaissance Poetry (1960; rpt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), pp. 42-57; W. Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1977), pp. 52-84; C. Hulse, Metamorphic Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 141-175.
3 The mythographers drawn on in this discussion are chiefly Natalis Comes and Vincenzo Cartari, respectively in their Mythologiae (Venice, 1567) and Le Imagini … Degli Dei (Venice, 1571)—both in the Garland reprints of 1976, introduced by S. Orgel.
4 Whether or not other myths or tales depict or suggest that as having happened to the goddess prior to her loving Adonis, the discovery seems new to her in Shakespeare's narrative—as she indicates in her speech about Mars. See lines 91-114. But were this not, in fact, her personal discovery, it would still be so forceful an experience of love as otherness that it almost completely disorientates the goddess of love herself.
5 Even if Venus has been previously obsessed with love for another divinity, love between immortals cannot be equated with love between mortals; hence the humanized experience of obsessive love she seems newly to undergo in this tale would have to be qualitatively different from any other experience she may have had of Love's power to preoccupy the consciousness.
6 See Cartari, Le Imagini … , p. 543.
7 On Venus Vulgaris, see: Comes, Mythologiae, 120(a); Pico, Commento sopra una canzona de amore … trans. Thomas Stanley, A Platonick Discourse upon Love, in The Poems and Translations, ed. G. M. Crump (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 2, 7-22. Filarete, Treatise on Architecture, trans J. R. Spencer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965), Bk 18, fol. 148v. Venus as Venus Vulgaris thus aptly perceives Adonis as her "banquet of sense."
8 Heather Dubrow, in Captive Victors, notes that "Venus and Adonis is concerned with faulty or failed communication … " (p. 38), and I would wholly agree; however, her reading of Venus' opening speech and of its context differs significantly from my own (see pp. 31-37 of her study). My main point here is that Venus' speech subverts her role as Venus Mechanitis.
9 The images have immediately Petrarchan associations, though in fact they can be traced much further back. Cf. T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics … , pp. 9-10.
10 On parody of this in "Damon the Mower," see my "Marvell's; 'Upon Appleton House to my Lord Fairfax' and the Regaining of Paradise," in The Political Identity of Andrew Marvell, edited by C. Conden and myself (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1990), 53-84, at p. 73.
11 On varietà and its link to grazia, see David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 82, 166, 172.
12 On Venus Genetrix see: Comes, Mythologiae, 122(a); Cartari, Le Imagini … , p. 530; Ficino, commentary on the Symposium, 1,5.
13 Pico, Commento, trans. Stanley, 2, 20, 323. Ficino, in his Commentary on the Symposium, of course also calls such love "bestial love" ("amor ferinus").
14 That is, Venus' celebration of the generative impulse and her urging Adonis to breed are merely ploys in an attempt at seduction.
15 For further discussion of Venus' maternalism, see Rebhorn, "Mother Venus … ," cited in note 1.
16 On Venus Apaturia, see Comes' allusion in Mythologiae, 121(a). The goddess's role of Venus Apaturia naturally links to her role as Venus Mechanitis.
17 On Venus as Magistra Divinandi, see Comes, Mythologiae, 121(a).
18 Here I follow Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. edn (1958; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), pp. 91-96. Clark Hulse also discusses the motif, though differently. See his Metamorphic Verse, pp. 166-173.
19 There seems no need to give further examples, as they clearly tend the same way. It could be added, however, that if the Venus Victrix motif is dismantled, so too is that of Venus Basilea (Queen of Love).
20 Jeremy Hawthorne, A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory (London: Arnold, 1992), p. 124.
21 Cf. Ficino, Commentary, 1, 6.
22 Again, seemingly new and alien within the confines of the tale.
23 Of course, secondarily it is continued experience for Venus of how humans may experience unrequited love.
24 As regards the comic: exaggeration generates it—but then Venus actually is larger than human life, and Adonis, likewise, is perfect; the Petrarchan comedy, as it were, contributes to other comic elements—such as Venus' questioning the dogs and scolding the boar. As regards the pathetic: Venus' disorientation and misery are, despite all their comic features, nonetheless recognizably and familiarly human, evoking sympathy.
25 On the "ideal landscape" See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953; rpt. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 183-202. Her self-description seems a recreation of Claudian's famous set-piece in his Epithalamium de Nuptis Honorii Augusti, lines 49-96.
Source: "Venus Reconsidered: The Goddess of Love in Venus and Adonis" in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. LXVI, 1994, pp. 197-207.