Venus and Adonis (Vol. 33)
Venus and Adonis
For further information on the critical history of Venus and Adonis, see SC, Volume 10.
Venus and Adonis, first published in 1593, was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. In his dedication, Shakespeare describes the poem as "the first heire of my inuention," a statement that has lead some scholars to suggest that the poem was Shakespeare's first literary endeavor. Most modern critics, however, have almost unanimously interpreted the statement as meaning that the work was either Shakespeare's first nondramatic piece, or at least his first published work. At any rate, the erotic tale of Venus and Adonis was immediately popular, as evidenced by as many as ten reprintings over the twenty-five years following its initial publication.
It is commonly agreed among modern scholars that the direct source of Venus and Adonis is Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Shakespeare's poem about the goddess and hunter, as noted by many critics, represents a revision of the Ovidian tale. As Gordon Williams (1983) notes, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis represents a "radical alteration" of Ovid's story. The major difference between the two versions, maintains Williams, is Adonis's failure to respond to Venus in Shakespeare's poem. Theodore L. Steinberg (1990) maintains that Shakespeare' s manipulation of Ovid was designed to comically treat the significance of Venus and her role in human existence.
While observing these deviations from Ovid, critics also underscore Shakespeare's adherence to Ovidian tradition, that is, the stylistic conventions which Ovid used in storytelling, in terms of setting, structure, tone, and use of rhetoric. Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in Venus and Adonis has received a great deal of attention by twentieth-century critics. As Lucy Gent (1974) points out, Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in this poem has been praised for being "very well done" although many agree that it is tedious, and not particularly relevant to a modern understanding of the poem. Gent explains that the poem's rhetoric illuminates several aspects of the poem, including its tone and characterization. Similarly, Pauline Kiernan (1995) explores the "self-conscious artistry and elaborate rhetoric" of Venus and Adonis in an attempt to pinpoint its purpose and significance. Kiernan argues that Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in the poem serves the larger purpose of aiding Shakespeare's examination of his poetic identity and of literary imitation.
In addition to Ovid's influence, scholars having observed that Edmund Spenser included the myth of Venus and Adonis in his The Faerie Queen (1590) and that Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Laender (1593) also contains reference to the goddess and hunter, have suggested that these works may have influenced Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis as well. Critics such as Ellen Aprili Harwood (1977) suggest that not only did Shakespeare use Spenser's poem a source for Venus and Adonis, but he also used Venus and Adonis as a means of critically evaluating Spenser's Garden of Adonis, his erotic philosophy as depicted in the Garden of Adonis, and Spenser's Ovidianism. Gent also notes that in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare participates in a rhetorical contest with Hero and Leander.
Venus and Adonis has also been examined by twentieth-century critics in terms of its allegorical characteristics and its structure of conflict and contradiction. Donald G. Watson (1978) argues that the poem's allegorical implications are confused by Adonis's death and transformation. Watson believes that using the Renaissance theory of passions to identify desire and anger, rather than lust and reason, as the true polarities of the poem can help clarify the poem's meaning. Wayne A. Rebhorn (1978) suggests that the relationship between Venus and Adonis is one of mother and child, not one which centers around the conflict between Venus's lust and desire for propagation and Adonis's "self-centered egotism." Lennet J. Daigle (1980) demonstrates that examining the actions of Venus and Adonis with respect to their traditional allegorical roles helps resolve many questions about the poem's meaning.
Donald G. Watson (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Contrarieties of Venus and Adonis," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 32-63.
[In the following essay, Watson argues that in Venus and Adonis, the allegorical implications are confused by the death and subsequent transformation of Adonis. Watson maintains that the poem is best understood by focusing on the opposition between "concupiscence" and "irascibility " rather than on focusing on the opposition between lust and reason.]
For years Venus and Adonis has charmed the poet and baffled the critic. Coleridge, for example, admired the poem but failed to understand its artistry and meaning, giving us instead a demonstration of the "promising genius" of Shakespeare the Dramatist. Richard Wilbur gave us the best description and appreciation of how the poem means but despaired of determining what it means; "one is aware," he writes, "that these recurrent motifs may indeed be driving at something," but he admits his inability to "resolve them into any structure."1 Many modern interpretations have proven dead ends rather than ways out of the labyrinth of the poem's difficulties; indeed, once beyond the glittering surfaces of the poem, like Wilbur, we are likely to feel lost in a maze of motifs, ironies, ambivalences and inclined to yield to the temptation to take...
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Ellen Aprili Harwood (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare's Critique of Spenser," in The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, June, 1977, pp. 44-60.
[In this essay, Harwood argues that Venus and Adonis represents Shakespeare's critical evaluation of the Garden of Adonis and its erotic philosophy as well as Edmund Spenser's Ovidianism as depicted in Spencer's The Faerie Queene.]
In writing Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare could not have ignored or been ignorant of The Faerie Queene. When Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis in 1593, The Shepheardes Calender (1581) had long since brought Spenser acclaim and renown; Sir Philip Sidney, for example, had singled it out for praise in The Defense of Poetry. In 1590, the first part of The Faerie Queene appeared and was enthusiastically received. Other writers—Nashe, Harrington, Daniel, Drayton, Lodge—heaped praise upon it: The printer's preface to a volume of Spenser's complaints published in 1591 describes the "favorable passage" The Faerie Queene won from the public.1
Recently, Donald Cheney has proposed that Shakespeare viewed "The Faerie Queene as his principal challenge as a poem to emulate and surpass" in Venus and Adonis.2 Because of the prominence of Spenser and his...
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Language And Imagery
Lucy Gent (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Venus and Adonis: The Triumph of Rhetoric," in Modern Language Review, Vol. 69, No. 4, October, 1974, pp. 721-29.
[In this essay, Gent argues that the use of rhetoric in Venus and Adonis illuminates the central issue in the poem: the relationship between hyperbole and reality.]
Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is usually thought of as remarkably plentiful, and very well done—but rather tedious, and not relevant to our understanding of the meaning of the poem. I should like to explore its prevalence and how, as a critical guide, it leads us to what is perhaps the central issue: the relation between hyperbole and reality. Indeed, it structures the poem in a number of ways; for Shakespeare engages in a rhetorical contest with Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and also makes Venus engage in what amounts to a rhetorical contest with Adonis. These rivalries, within and without the poem, throw light not only on many aspects of the poem—on things as varied as the characterization and Shakespeare's aims, both of which are puzzling—but also determine the highly distinctive tone. It is from the last of these that I would like to start.
The main problem, critically speaking, in reading Venus and Adonis is that the tone is so distinct as almost to constitute an identity, yet the implications of...
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Asals, Heather. "Venus and Adonis: The Education of the Goddess." Studies in English Literature 13, No. 1 (Winter 1973): 31-51.
Examines Venus's behavior in relation to Platonic doctrine and argues that Shakespeare's Venus progresses from a state of lust for Adonis to love for him. Asals goes on to analyze the type of death represented by the boar, as lust, and by Venus, as love.
Beauregard, David N. "Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare's Representation of the Passions." Shakespeare Studies VIII (1975): 83-98.
Maintains that the Renaissance concept of the "concupiscible" and "irascible" aspects of the human soul governs the action of the poem. Beauregard shows how concubiscibility gives rise to Venus's love, desire, and joy; and Adonis's hate, aversion, and sorrow, and how irascibility produces Venus's feelings of hope, despair, courage, fear, and anger after Adonis leaves her.
Belsey, Catherine. "Love as Trompe-l'oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis." Shakespeare Quarterly 46, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 257-76.
Argues that the text of Venus and Adonis is a kind of trompe-l'oeil, a text that tantalizes but witholds finality and closure. Belsey proposes that the poem marks a "specific moment in the cultural history of love." She traces the medieval and Renaissance history of literary depictions of love and lust and identifies...
(The entire section is 741 words.)