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 any promising avenue of analysis.
The poem certainly contains allegorical dimensions; but Venus and Adonis is not an allegory. Among other things, Adonis' death and metamorphosis frustrate all allegorical readings. The poem is not a glorification of sexual love; the ironies of the episode of the horses and of Adonis' textbook rejection of love undermine the praise of the senses, and if Shakespeare had wished to endorse such a view unequivocally, why did he not follow Ovid's version more exactly? Shakespeare's Adonis perishes at the tusks of the boar without having reaped the delights Venus offers, a curious conclusion if sex is what the poet is praising. Nor can we conclude that "desire is death,"2 since Adonis is reluctant and dies anyway. If Adonis is right in rejecting Venus, then the poem is a warning against lust; but in that case poetic justice is inverted since the virtuous boy no sooner refrains than he is paid off in death. For Hereward T. Price, the poem is a savage indictment of the evil which destroys good, a conclusion arrived at through a curious identification of Venus and the boar, who represents "Venus in her most terrible aspect." Don Cameron Allen identifies Adonis' pursuit of the boar with "the hard hunt, the proper education of the sacred hunter," in opposition to the "soft hunt" of love; but why then should Adonis find death in pursuing a spiritually "heroic life?"3
What, then, is the poem "about"? The opposition of the protagonists obviously does constitute the central "action" of the poem. Each manipulates a different kind of rhetoric: Venus uses the conventional persuasions to love, Adonis rejects her with arguments from his moral "text." A third voice is added by the narrator who modulates the "action" through the ironic and often cynical rhetoric of Ovidian detachment. Behind these rhetorics and the incredible embellishments of the poem, however, lie rather simple motives: Venus wants to love, Adonis to hunt the boar. If the means are rather more complex than the ends, this simplicity suggests that Venus and Adonis are more "dispositions" than "characters" and that the traditional analysis of the passions in terms of concupiscence and irascibility—an analysis which modern critics, especially Spenser's, have shown was still alive in the 1590's—may be relevant to the contrarieties presented in Venus and Adonis. In suggesting that the true polarities of the poem are not lust and reason but what medieval and Renaissance theorists of the passions would call appetitus concupiscibilis and appetitus irascibilis, I am aware that these terms are too philosophical to be strictly applied to Shakespeare's playful seriousness; they do, nevertheless, help to clarify what is going on in the poem.
In broad outline, the hierarchical division of the soul received a rather uniform treatment from Plato through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and into the Renaissance. In this view, the tripartite soul ideally functioned through orderly vertical governance, the lower faculties obeying the higher. What causes the opposition of Venus and Adonis are the contrary aspects of the sensible soul: concupiscence and irascibility, each a constellation of passions, although desire (concupiscentia) and anger (ira) are at their respective centers. These are descriptive categories, morally and theologically neutral. The passions of the concupiscible appetitus are love, pleasure, and desire; those of the irascible are courage, hope, and anger. Venus is forward, sensual, and aggressive in her pursuit of pleasure; Adonis is peevish, ill-natured, and irate with his Courser. Having put away the notion that Adonis is a lifeless statue, we can see that anger is his most recurrent emotion. The irascible was often defined by positing for its goal the achievement of the arduous,4 a definition which further supports linking Adonis and irascibility: he hunts the boar and not the fugaces—the hares and the foxes.
One thing that brings out the value of seeing the poem in these terms (at least as I am using them, provisionally and heuristically) is Venus' long allusion to her affair with Mars. The union of Venus and Mars was commonly allegorized as the "healthy functioning and harmonious balancing of the concupiscent and irascible powers."5 Veronese's Mars and Venus illustrates this interpretation, whose principle the following passage from Leone Ebreo explains: " … concupiscent Venus will be enamoured of ardent Mars:—wherefore astrologers suppose a very great amity between these two planets, saying that Venus tempers with her benign aspect all the warlikeness of Mars."6 However, Venus certainly does not draw this conclusion: she sees her amor with Mars as an enslavement, as a victory for her, as women's sovereignty over men. Mars is led "prisoner in a red-rose chain" (110), and his servility is a distortion of the image of harmony into one of inequality. Here, concupiscence rules. The passage suggests another traditional reading of the Mars-Venus myth, the admonitory exemplum against adultery. Robert P. Miller seems to imply that the passage indicates the ethical didacticism of the poem as a warning against lust:
The Venus-Mars story illustrates the essential conflict of Christian life—the tempting allurements of the flesh against the rational "manliness" of the spirit—a conflict described in the Pauline epistles as "the Christian warfare," and epitomized in Gal. v. 17: "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that you cannot do the things that ye would." … Reason battles against sensuality: the spiritual strength of the inner man struggles with the powers of carnal concupiscence; the spirit contends with the flesh for the soul of man.7
Although Miller himself is somewhat reticent about applying his assembled documentation of this passage to a reading of the entire poem, the implications are quite clear—and unacceptable. These polarities do not correspond to those in the poem; as a representative of Reason and Spirit, Adonis would cut a rather poor figure. Mars' manliness is that of the warrior, not that of the Christian knight; and Adonis' irascibility that of the hunter. The less value-laden polarities of concupiscence (without the Augustinian-Pauline accretions) and irascibility are more applicable than those of reason and lust, spirit and flesh. Each appetitus or orexis involves a variety of contraries based upon whether the object of passion is to be sought or to be avoided and upon the motivation of such seeking and avoiding. The concupiscent passions are necessary because they evoke the desires for food and sex which are indispensable to the sustenance and procreation of life. Venus' rhetoric plays upon the naturalness and necessity of these passions, and for the horses they are natural and necessary without qualification. Similarly, the irascible passions insure the preservation of life by prompting man to overcome or to flee threatening evils. Even Adonis' opposition to Venus' persuasions might be placed on the level of pars animae appetitiva: as Aquinas explains, "Jerome locates the hatred of vice in the spirited orexis (appetitus irascibilis), not because of the hatred aspect—that of course belongs to the affective orexis (appetitus concupiscibilis)—but because of the element of combativeness that it involves; and this belongs to the spirited orexis."8
Each sensible soul, of course, contains both sets of passions; but in the Middle Ages and Renaissance the concupiscible passions are often presented as feminine, the irascible as masculine. Although Shakespeare's thematic patterning ultimately owes something to this traditional iconography, he manipulates the characterizations ironically to complicate the dichotomies. In Venus the concupiscible rules the irascible, in Adonis the irascible the concupiscible. The result is the frustration of the harmony adumbrated in the positive reading of the Mars-Venus union. Discussion of "manliness" is not entirely out of place here, for the overpowering of irascibility by concupiscence leads to effeminacy.9 The allusions to the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus strengthen this interpretation of the references to the Mars and Venus myth. Of the several allusions to the Salmacis-Hermaphroditus myth, the most interesting is the "sweet embrace" forced upon Adonis: "Incorporate they seem; face grows to face; / Till breathless he disjoined" (540-1),10 the narrator reports. The hermaphrodite image is meant to evoke not the Donnean conceit of the one body of sexual lovers but the analogous threat to Adonis' masculinity.
Venus and Adonis are both excessive in their various passions, and in the realm of the sensible appetitūs reason and will play secondary roles. Venus' excessiveness is easy enough to see; in fact, when the early allusions to Venus and Adonis go beyond praising its wit and "rich conceit," they almost always refer to the early part of the poem and especially to Venus' rhetoric. A number of early seventeenth-century playwrights mock the pretensions of a would-be courtier who uses Venus' arguments as a handbook of seduction.11 For these early borrowers, Venus' rhetoric was transparent, and appropriating it could only enhance the satire and irony of their plays.12 Studying Venus' rhetoric will yield almost every conventional topos in the Renaissance rhetoric of seduction; her literary descent, at least indirectly, is from that line of sensual women who take a cynical view of love and who unintentionally reveal the limitations of their outlook: Ovid's Dipsas, Jean de Meun's La Vieille, Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Shakespeare's Venus. The family resemblances should be obvious: each is a "praeceptrix amoris" whose approach to love as deceit and warfare is presented with discernible ironies through the poet's fashioning of her speeches. In Marlowe's translation of the Amores, for example, Dipsas recommends using the persuasions of time's swiftness and beauty's use:
Time flying slides hence closely, and deceives
And with swift horses the swift year soon
Brass shines with use; good garments would
Houses not dwelt in are with filth forlorn.
Beauty not exercis'd with age is spent.…
And, like Dipsas' student, a chaste young girl, Adonis blushes and stares at the ground. Shakespeare need not have remembered either Ovid or Marlowe; this kind of rhetoric of seduction had long been commonplace, and Venus' use of it is self-incriminating in its lack of reserve, its transparent Machiavellism, and its tone—so hyperbolic that it is comic. Shakespeare uses the ironic self-revelation superbly to generate comic irony and moral ambivalence so that the equivocal nature of love Venus and Adonis suggests is reinforced by the internalization of some of love's complications within Venus' rhetoric. Although sharing an unromantic, un-idealistic conception of love with Dipsas and Chaucer's Wife, Venus is neither quite as coarse—she is after all a goddess—nor as openly cynical. My point is that the rhetoric of Venus is transparent and that it is a means to her end, her concupiscent desire to love Adonis.
Although Adonis' irascibility seems less pronounced than Venus' concupiscence, most of the traditional attributes of irascibility are present in his opposition to Venus' suasoriae. He sees her as a threat to his masculinity and identifies her aggressiveness in love as warfare:
"Remove your siege from my unyielding
To love's alarms it will not ope the gate."
Besides elaborating upon the besieged city or Petrarchan fortress image, he takes up Venus' praise of his "mermaid's voice" (429) and her offer to "enchant thine ear" (145) and realigns the imagery: Venus becomes the voice of the Sirens calling Ulysses from his tasks to sensual pleasures and should "know, my heart stands armed in my ear / And will not let a false sound enter there" (779-80). That the heroic and the masculine are threatened by the concupiscible is a traditional theme—the lover's malady of heroes—and one often used as a source of comedy. Ironically, Venus' comparison of Adonis with Mars challenges Adonis' sense of his own virility (a possible approach to the young hunter's vanity), but the comparison soon evolves into a fully imagined scene of Venus triumphans and Mars emasculated (101-12). Venus follows this with a couplet which seems to mean the opposite of what it says:
"O, be not proud, nor brag not of thy might,
For mast'ring her that foiled the god of fight!"
She implies: "Be proud! If you master me, you can boast you are greater than Mars!"; yet stressing the effeminate nature of love ironically is hardly persuasive. Elizabethans would have seen Mars imprisoned as comic; Sidney uses the analogous myth of Hercules and Omphale to define comedy:
So in Hercules, painted with his great beard, and furious countenance, in a womans attyre, spinning, at Omphales commaundement, it breedes both delight and laughter: for the representing of so straunge a power in Love, procureth delight, and the scornefulnesse of the action, stirreth laughter.14
The reversal of roles was emblematic of the "scorneful" dominance of concupiscence, the effeminizing effects of sensual indulgence.
Venus' "'Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone'" (211) does not accurately describe Adonis' response to her wooing. On the contrary, he responds very emotionally: he is intimidated, embarrassed, disdainful, exasperated, and finally enraged by Venus' tactics in love. Introduced in the first stanza by the narrator as loving hunting "but love he laughed to scorn" (4), Adonis is not a sophisticated scoffer like Berowne or Benedick, although he is aware of the courtier's rhetoric. He blushes and pouts "in a dull disdain" (33), turns "red for shame" (35), frowns and "'gins to chide" (46), and "lours and frets" (75). His shame is repeated several times (49, 69, 76) and his anger intensifies—from the anger "ashy-pale" (76) to the "heavy, dark, disliking eye" (182) to the rage ("swol'n with chafing"—325) at his Courser's disobedience.
Adonis' irascibility is certainly not as excessive as, for example, is Pyrochles' in Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book II,15 yet it is nevertheless central to his characterization. The analogy with Spenser can be taken further, for in that episode Phaedria successfully tempts Cymochles into concupiscence by using many of the same lures and arguments which Venus tries on Adonis: the offers of sensual pleasures, pastoral otium, freedom from care, toil, and fear. For Venus and Phaedria, who both use the image of Mars subdued to claim more honor for love than for heroism, the irascible passions are obstacles to the dominance of sensuality. Unlike Cymochles, of course, Adonis rejects the pleasures of the self-enclosed world of the pastoral banquet of the senses and goes off to hunt the boar. Shakespeare is not writing Spenser's kind of allegory, though, and if Venus and Adonis see themselves as unalterably opposed, the perspective of each character is repeatedly undermined and revealed as partial, both in its consistency to itself and to the situation.
However disdainful, Adonis is not totally unresponsive to Venus' charms. The emotions aroused seem to belie his complete disinterestedness; he too is ambivalent, as is suggested by the wide range of his responses and by his partial submission to her temptations. The ambiguity of
Forc'd to content, but never to obey,
Panting he lies and breatheth in her face
seems deliberate equivocation on the poet's part, as does Adonis' "awed resistance" (69). Adonis alternates between coyness and smiling disdain and louring rage and bashful fretting; he coyly winks and turns away (like a divedapper) from the kiss he had promised Venus and smiles in disdain at her park-and-deer image. After his horse has run off and Venus is returning to her courtship, the narrator gives us this portrait of Adonis:
He sees her coming and begins to glow
Even as a dying coal revives with wind,
And with his bonnet hides his angry brow,
Looks on the dull earth with disturbed mind,
Taking no notice that she is so nigh,
For all askance he holds her in his eye.
The reviving ember, the "disturbed mind," and the pretense of ignoring Venus' return suggest that he is not amorously dispassionate. The "war of looks" which follows ends in direct confrontation:
His eyes saw her eyes as they had not seen
Her eyes wooed still, his eyes disdained the
Though Adonis still disdains love, his disdain now seems more repression of desire than disinterested rejection; the narrator describes Venus as "wilful" and Adonis as "unwilling," not as "unwilful" (365).16
Not to see Adonis as a complex and comic figure unjustly restricts the range of the poem's meaning. Adonis' reviving the fainting goddess is obviously comic, and comic not merely through visual incongruity and verbal patterning. What persuasion cannot do, Venus' collapse does; Adonis' reason rejects Venus' idle themes, but his emotions transform his rage into compassion, and "a thousand ways he seeks / To mend the hurt that his unkindness marred" (477-8). He rejoices at Venus' reviving and freely offers her a goodnight kiss. Venus, of course, takes advantage of the offer, and Adonis' obedience to her desires now is not entirely "forced." The goddess' aggressiveness has worn down Adonis' combativeness; in amatory matters perseverance is necessary:
Hot, faint and weary with her hard embracing,
Like a wild bird being tamed with too much
Or as the fleet-foot roe that's tired with
Or like the froward infant stilled with
He now obeys and now no more resisteth,
While she takes all she can, not all she
What wax so frozen but dissolves with
And yields at last to every light impression?
Things out of hope are compassed oft with
Chiefly in love, whose leave exceeds
Affection faints not like a pale-faced
But then woos best when most his choice
Adonis' submission, if not totally voluntary, nevertheless furthers this element of comic ambiguity in our response to the poem.
If Venus and Adonis is perceived as a clash of polar opposites, then clearly it is a failure. "It will not do," remarked C. S. Lewis, who found it ineffective either as a warning against lust or as an endorsement of the senses.17 Shakespeare's poem does not present the reader with such a simple choice of absolutes: hot/cold, lust/love, sense/spirit, desire/lack of desire, experience/innocence, will/reason. The contrarieties of the concupiscible and the irascible better describe the tensions inherent in the nature of the passions, because neither can be taken as providing an absolute choice. The complexity of the passionate dispositions generates much of the comic irony of the poem as well as many of our difficulties in interpreting it.
Several times the reader may indeed feel that the poem is presenting him with a norm for interpretation, with a resolution of the ambivalence and ironies of the rhetoric and the "action." In isolation from the rest of the poem, for example, Adonis' response to Venus' final rhetorical sally could be taken as presenting an ethical norm. Adonis says that he is armed against Venus' bewitching persuasions which he compares to "wanton mermaid's songs" (777); he knows the counter-arguments:
"What have you urged that I cannot reprove?
The path is smooth that leadeth on to danger.
I hate not love, but your device in love,
That lends embracements unto every stranger.
You do it for increase. O strange excuse,
When reason is the bawd to lust's abuse!
"Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled
Since sweating Lust on earth usurped his
Under whose simple semblance he hath fed
Upon fresh beauty, blotting it with blame;
Which the hot tyrant stains and soon
As caterpillars do the tender leaves.
"Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust's effect is tempest after sun,
Love's gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust's winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies."
Seeing himself as a type of Ulysses tempted by the Sirens, Adonis finds the blandishments of Venus' rhetoric a "deceiving harmony" and accuses her of lust; yet quite clearly he addresses the goddess of Love and not a personification of Lust.18 His reply, too obviously an oversimplification of the situation, is based, as he admits (quite unaware of the irony), on textbook logic. Adonis' text, however, lacks appropriateness to the context: his rhetoric is as false as Venus'. Whether his "text" is a moralized Ovid, Christian ethics, or a Platonic tract on the two Venuses, it fits neither speaker nor situation. The narrator—and the poem itself—insists that "she's Love, she loves, and yet she is not loved" (610). Adonis speaks from a conventional ethical norm, not from experience, and, in effect, contradicts what he had earlier admitted—"'I know not love,' quoth he, 'nor will not know it'" (409)—and also what the narrator had said in the first stanza—"Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn." Adonis had also said, '"My love to love is love but to disgrace it'" (412); now he admits no enmity toward love, only toward Venus: '"I hate not love, but your device in love'" (789).
The discrepancy between sophisticated rhetorical argument and naïveté about the experience that rhetoric describes is exploited for comic effect rather than for moral perspective. (One might compare the similar gap between the rhetoric of Leander's speech against virginity and his inexperience in the amorous rites of the erotic in Marlowe's mythological narrative; a major source of Ovidian wit lies precisely in constructing such incongruities.) By placing the moral content in an inappropriate speaker, Shakespeare creates the comic irony which dissolves the authority of the morality. The same process is at work in the extended digression of the horses, another episode which, if considered in isolation, might be taken as presenting an ethical norm. Since this episode also involves a dramatization of the passions, a fuller discussion should help in clarifying the playful seriousness with which the poem handles contrarieties.
One of the most important elements which link the horses and the characters is the implied inadequacies of the Petrarchan treatment of amorous experience. Instead of the love-sick courtier and the disdainful mistress, Venus and Adonis presents a willful goddess and an unwilling boy. The reversal of the roles of Petrarchan Frauendienst in the aggressive female-passive male pattern mocks current fashions: coming at the height of the vogue in sonnets, this must have been thought marvellously witty in itself. The poem very obviously exploits a number of conceits usually identified with Petrarchanism: besides the many persuasions to love, the lovers' exchange of hearts, the blazon, and other topoi such as the gradus amoris which become wittily ironic because Venus has to anatomize her own beauties. The poem strongly implies that Petrarchanism is very limited in its approach to love: the ritual of petitioning lover and disdainful mistress has a narrow range of applicability to human passion. Desire is not so easily channelled into conventional roles, and such behavioral patterns themselves are the arbitrary artifices and affectations of society and literature, seldom the natural expressions of Eros. Venus' ruthless and transparent confiscations of the conventions of the sonnet also suggest an ulterior motive behind Petrarchan rhetoric: for all the sonneteer's professions of loyalty, service, and sincerity, his aim is physical seduction.
The episode of the horses (259-324) illustrates very clearly the inadequacy of Petrarchan norms. The Courser prances, curvets, and trots, presenting a proud image of himself, yet he is still somewhat lacking in perfection:
Look what a horse should have he did not
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.
The traditional Platonic image implies that reason has failed to tame and subdue the lower nature—the passions. The Courser's breaking the reins at the beginning of the episode, his breaking "asunder" the "woven girths" (266), his crushing the "iron bit" between "his teeth/Controlling what he was controlled with" (270), and his conscious appeal to "the eye/Of the fair breeder" (282), all insist upon an interpretation along the lines of "reason overruled by passion." Yet appetite is channelled into a ritual of courtship:
He looks upon his love and neighs to her;
She answers him, as if she knew his mind,
Being proud as females are, to see him woo
She puts on outward strangeness, seems
Spurns at his love and scorns the heat he
Beating the kind embracements with her
Then like a melancholy malcontent,
He vails his tail, that, like a falling plume,
Cool shadow to his melting buttock lent;
He stamps, and bites the poor flies in his
His love, perceiving he was enraged,
Grew kinder, and his fury was assuaged.
When Adonis tries to stop the courtship, the "unbacked breeder" runs off into the forest, followed by the Courser, leaving Adonis angrily cursing "his unruly beast" (326).
In a thorough discussion of the "courtly overtones" and "refinements" of this scene, Robert P. Miller concludes that "the courtly activity of the romantic ritual is a rich caparison for lust." He notes that Shakespeare "treats the entire episode with ironic humor, exposing the pretensions in the ritual of romantic courtship as it is acted out by the horses. By indicating their sensual motivation, he stresses the artificiality of romantic conventions."19 The scene also reveals sexual appetite unrestrained by the reins of the noble rider of Reason and comments upon the nature of Venus' persuasions to love; the analogy of Venus' and the Courser's desire is obvious. But Venus uses the episode as an exemplum to support her contention that "sweet desire" has no bounds and "must be cooled" (386-9) and to illustrate the heroic nobility of passion:
"How like a jade he stood, tied to the tree,
Servilely mastered with a leathern rein;
But when he saw his love, his youth's fair
He held such petty bondage in disdain,
Throwing the base thong from his
Enfranchising his mouth, his back, his
"Who sees 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?
Who is so faint that dares not be so bold
To touch the fire, the weather being cold?" (391-402)
"The lesson is but plain," Venus remarks (407); but it is not so to Adonis, nor is it without ambivalence for the reader.
The inversion of the Reason-ruling-Passion hierarchy suits Venus' general inversion of orthodox morality. From this angle, the horses present an image of incontinence; there seems to be little doubt that Shakespeare meant the image to be taken in any but the standard way: as a radical image of amor ferinus. In his elegy, "L'Adonis" (which Shakespeare might very well have read20), Pierre Ronsard introduces the natural desires of animals to underline the nature of Venus' and here a willing Adonis' amor. Through the rather stark contrast of the following passage, Ronsard implicates his lovers in the animal passions of the pastoral flock:
Pourveu qu'elle ait tousjours sa bouche
sur tes levres,
Elle ne craint l'odeur de tes puantes Chevres:
Et pendue a ton col, ne veut point refuser
Le nuict desur la terre a tes flancs reposer,
S'endormir pres de toy sur les herbes relantes,
Et t'embrasser au bruit de tes brebis bellantes,
Et de tes grans taureaux qui jusqu'au poinct
Font (comme tu luy fais) aux genices
Edgar Wind has made us familiar with Achille Bocchi's "The Taming of the Passions" (Fig. 1),22 and others have made Plato's image at the beginning of the Phaedrus visual; Nicolas Reusner's emblem, for example (Fig. 2), emphasizes what happens when the passions are not tamed: "Ratio praesit: appetitus obtemperet," he counsels; but if the blind will (caeca voluntas) throws off the rule of reason, the poesy reminds us, the frenzied horses will savagely throw their rider into the sea.23 Sambucus' emblem (Fig. 3) illustrates another aspect of the episode in Venus and Adonis: here the "unbacked breeder" is mounted by the Courser, and the motto tells us that "Virtus non splendor commendat."24 The poesy explains that outward appearances are deceiving: the effeminate seem more interested in the adornments of high fashion than in the attractions of virtue and will turn to the unworthy allurements of lust at the first opportunity. Though relevant, I think, to Shakespeare's variation on this popular motif (this Platonic image also turns up in Marlowe's Hero and Leander, in Spenser, and in the beginning of Sidney's Defense of Poesy), Ronsard and the emblematists are far less complicated.
Several ironies undermine the traditional interpretation of the motif as Reason ruling Passion. The moral implications and the broader context of the whole poem lead us to see Venus' conclusion as ironic: that man's indulgence of the senses is therefore natural is quickly shuffled into her rhetoric of seduction to add force to her arguments. Second, the behavior of the horses contributes to the ambivalence of the human-bestial comparison. The horses act like human beings in their courtship and like animals in satisfying their appetites; man's rhetoric and rituals, the episode implies, mask a similar motive. Undeniably, there is a natural energy here, an elemental sexuality which has positive value and attraction and a passionate nobility which has valid claims on the imagination; the episode of the horses is not unequivocally a revelation of the "conventional Renaissance morality of Venus and Adonis," as Miller suggests.25 Third, although it might seem that Adonis once again resists the excesses of sensuality by refraining from spending the night with Venus and going off after the boar, the poem itself does not exactly suggest that. He does not really control himself but instead pouts and rages, and it is he, after all, who is the unmounted rider, he who cannot control his horse. Unlike the effeminate man in Sambucus' emblem's poesy, he turns away from the allurements of the flesh but seeks the boar, not the attractions of virtue.
For the horses, the pursuit of concupiscent pleasures is natural and the ritual of courtship part of a kind of sexual foreplay. The fact that Venus immediately exploits the naturalness of the horses' desire for her own rhetoric of seduction does suggest the excess to which she invites the young hunter; but the parody of Petrarchan courtship and the comic pouting of Adonis over the disappearance of his Courser help diffuse whatever moral implications the episode might have had. Moreover, Adonis' final refusal of the pleasures of sense is never presented as an act of controlling his concupiscible emotions; rather, it expresses a preference for exercising his irascible emotions: Venus wants to love, Adonis to hunt the boar. The passions resist restraint, sublimation, and subordination; whatever the artificialities of the Petrarchan, the Platonic, or the moral, they will always reassert themselves.
Reason and will are subordinate to the pursuit of the object of desire: the rhetoric of seduction serves Venus' concupiscible passion, the rhetoric of rejection preserves Adonis' freedom to go off after the boar. The understanding of the contrarieties of the poem, of the passionate dispositions of Venus and Adonis which I have been suggesting points in several directions. First, it is related to the critical attitude toward social and literary conventions of amorous behavior. As Miller suggests, "The dissolution of 'manliness' into 'effeminacy' is described as the acquisition of the 'graces' of the romantic lover—qualities more proper to a 'man' in Venus' eyes."26 The Petrarchan norms had, in fact, inverted one medieval system of feminine-and-masculine characteristics: the lover suffers, wails, sickens, moans, and displays other "affections" clearly unmanly in the sense that they disclosed and harped upon the unheroic and irrational aspects of love. Emblematists, dramatists, and other observers pointed out the effeminacy of Petrarchan conventions and rebuked those who would imitate "Italianate" customs of elegant dress, affected manners, and sophisticated worldliness which were often linked with the fashion for sonneteering. Shakespeare reinverts the Petrarchan norms, disclosing the absurdity and the ulterior motives of its amatory rhetoric. Similarly, his poem indirectly criticizes the fine theorizing of the Platonists who had worked the senses into their ladders of love without accounting for the violence, irrationality, and deceit involved in erotic experience. Ovid, as Frank Kermode has pointed out, provided Renaissance poets with a kind of counter-Plato and an alternate approach to Eros.27
These categories, then, of concupiscence and irascibility suggest a rough approximation of the assumptions behind Shakespeare's creation of Venus and Adonis. These contrarieties of traditional analysis of the passions offer the poet only a point of departure, one which he complicates and plays with; they by no means provide materials for a complete interpretation of the poem. However, Venus and Adonis exist more as "psychological" dispositions than as dramatic characters; what makes them credible to the reader is not so much any realistic three-dimensionality as it is the appropriateness to these dispositions of their rhetorics of persuasion and "begging off." As we see through their rhetorics and as the third voice or rhetoric of the Ovidian narrator adds his ironic perspective, the poem grows more and more complex and rich in its comedy. Since we are accustomed to attributing such qualities to dexterity in characterization, imagery, and other elements of drama, we neglect their true bases in the rhetorical nature of verse narrative.
Second, as I have been insisting, the categories of concupiscence and irascibility are only shorthand for aspects of the sensible soul, dispositions toward appetitive goals. Though certainly the critic cannot strip away the moral implications of these terms or of the poem itself, in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare overrides them by using passionate contrariety as the major source of comic conflict: both figures are guilty of excess, but it is the excess of comedy rather than morality. As the polarities of the sensible appetitūs, the concupiscible and the irascible are extremes, and extremes are always readily subjected to comic exaggeration.
Excess and exaggeration describe the poem rather well, but neither the excessiveness of the poet's striving for artistic virtuosity nor the exaggerated pursuit of Venus and Adonis toward the gratification of their appetites asks for purging. While both Venus and Adonis subordinate logic, rhetoric, and image-making—aspects of faculties which are higher than the appetites—to their dispositions, the poem itself does not invoke the entire hierarchy of an Aristotelian-Thomistic world of order. On the contrary, the physical and rhetorical agon takes place within the typically Ovidian plot which ends in metamorphosis and within the typically Ovidian narrative commentary which emphasizes the comic disorder of passions at odds with one another. The passions or sensible appetites operate on their own level, the level of disposition or desire; they are by definition non-rational, and Shakespeare throughout his poems and plays often insists upon this fact. In Venus and Adonis the resolution of the Ovidian plot underscores the ambiguities of passion through the mock-pathos of Adonis' death and Venus' lament. The poem remains comic and raises more metaphysical than moral issues; specifically, it is the question of order (or cosmic justice) which the poem asks us to examine.
The world Venus and Adonis inhabit is one of elemental strife and sexuality. Here perhaps Shakespeare is closer to Ovid than any other Elizabethan. The episode of the horses brings out the energy and elemental passion of the animal world; the narrator's comparisons stress the conflict in Nature which is analogous to the agon of goddess and mortal. Like Venus, the narrator refers to love as strife, as a "beauteous combat," as a "war of looks" (65, 355), but the narrator is more openly Ovidian in his references to the manhandling of Adonis. His most striking images compare Venus to birds of prey and develop the idea of her forceful imprisonment of the unwilling victim. Venus "murders with a kiss" (54), he comments; even as an eagle tears apart his prey and gorges himelf, "devouring all in haste," so Venus greedily banquets herself with Adonis (55-60). She feeds on his breath "as on a prey" (63), an image repeated in the comparison of Adonis to a "divedapper" as potential victim if not quick enough to avoid his foe (85-90). Complementing images of Venus as the "glutton-like" predator are images of Adonis the victim: he is caught like a bird "tangled in a net" (67) and tamed like a wild bird (560); Venus' "arms infold him like a band" (225) or "yoke" him about the neck (592); and even less violent images suggest imprisonment (see 361-4). His comparisons of Adonis to victimized animals illustrate the warring elements of Nature, and the hunting of "poor Wat" involves man in this strife within Nature: man too is implicated in the brutalities of this world, as his clamorous hounds and the doomed "prospect" of the "purblind hare" make clear.28
Each of these factors in the poem foreshadows the death of Adonis. Venus herself feels intimations of his mortality rather early in the poem:
Once more the ruby-colored portal opened
Which to his speech did honey passage yield;
Like a red morn that ever yet betokened
Wrack to the seaman, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdmen and to
Till ill presage advisedly she marketh:
Even as the wind is hushed before it raineth,
Or as the wolf doth grin before he barketh,
Or as the berry breaks before it staineth,
Or like the deadly bullet of the gun,
His meaning struck her ere his words
Later, she herself argues that beauty is transient and therefore Adonis should "beget" in all haste:
"And therefore hath she [Cynthia] bribed the
To cross the curious workmanship of Nature,
To mingle beauty with infirmities
And pure perfection with impure defeature,
Making it subject to the tyranny
Of mad mischances and much misery;
"As burning fevers, agues pale and faint,
Life-poisoning pestilence, and frenzies wood,
The marrow-eating sickness whose attaint
Disorder breeds by heating of the blood,
Surfeits, imposthumes, grief, and damned
Swear Nature's death for framing thee so
"And not the least of all these maladies
But in one minute's fight brings beauty under;
Both favor, savor, hue, and qualities,
Whereat th'impartial gazer late did wonder,
Are on the sudden wasted, thawed, and
As mountain snow melts with the midday
In this apparent earthly paradise, the elements, the animals, and the passions are beyond control; Venus is fully aware of the wildness of Nature's strife and the elemental sexuality of this world, but Adonis irascibly challenges it.
In the Metamorphoses the calm retreat of the pastoral landscape is recurrently fractured by the violence of sexual pursuits which often end in transformations. Through the reversal of literary conventions, Hugh Parry points out, Ovid undermines the idealistic attitude of bucolic pastoralism.29 Charles Paul Segal further explains that though Ovid's landscapes have a "sensuousness and stylized charm," they are also the background for "potential horror … the sudden turnabout from the idyllic to the nightmarish":
It is inevitable that the isolation of such pastoral places should be emphasized. Because Ovid's landscape is (at least in part) a symbolic landscape, entrance into it constitutes a separation from the familiar, from the sheltered world of civilization and society, and brings a meeting with the unknown and unpredictable, an encounter with the violent instincts and passions laid bare and unchecked by the usual restraints.… The final form of this loss of orientation is, of course, metamorphosis itself wherein the character loses his familiar relation not only with the outside world, but even with his own person.30
The value of this generalization is readily apparent; one need only think, for example, of Daphne, Actaeon, Callisto, and Hermaphroditus.
Shakespeare's fictional world recreates an Ovidian order of Nature: violence, strife, cruelty, desire, suffering, transformation—and within a very stylized pastoral landscape. Though foreshadowed by the portents and implications, Adonis' death is a "sudden turn-about," abrupt and arbitrary. It is perhaps, then, a mistake to insist upon a causal connection between Adonis' rejection of Venus and his death. In the terms I have suggested, Adonis falls before the boar's assault because his physical strength and venatic skill are unequal to his irascible pursuit of the arduous: he is only a youth, and has not the full manliness needed to back his irascibility. Adonis' inability to control his Courser or to extract himself from Venus' embraces would support such an interpretation of his death. The difficulty would seem to be more a matter of manly strength than of his passions themselves, which are more dispositions toward valued objects than actual heroic qualities.
Adonis' death is much more easily explained in other versions of the myth. In Ronsard's "L'Adonis," Mars' jealousy is the cause. Piqued by Venus' preference for a mortal "berger," Mars complains to Diana. She owes Mars a favor for his rescuing her from Orion's attempted rape and so returns the favor by sending a boar to finish off Mars' rival. In Spenser's Garden of Adonis, Adonis becomes the father of all forms, the boar is safely imprisoned, and the myth is turned into a philosophical excursion on "eterne in mutabilitie" (Faerie Queene, III,vi.47). Ovid's commentators and other mythographers have several other ways to explain the myth. But Shakespeare leaves Adonis' death the arbitrary and senseless event that it is in Ovid's story. Prematurely thinking Adonis dead, Venus stresses the randomness of Death's taking him:
"If he be dead—O no, it cannot be,
Seeing his beauty, thou shouldst strike at it!
O yes, it may; thou hast no eyes to see,
But hatefully at random thou dost hit;
Thy mark is feeble age, but thy false dart
Mistakes that aim, and cleaves an infant's
"Hadst thou but bid beware, then he had
And hearing him, thy power had lost his
The Destinies will curse thee for this stroke:
They bid thee crop a weed; thou pluck'st a
Love's golden arrow at him should have
And not Death's ebon dart to strike him
The element of chance, even of error, involved in Adonis' death is underscored by Death's blindness and by the allusion to the commonplace motif of Cupid's and Death's mistaken exchange of quivers. The powers that be—Venus, the Destinies, Death—are at odds, and Adonis is caught in the strife. Emphasizing this "sense of elemental tragedy" in the narrative poems, J. W. Lever suggests that in "all Shakespeare's writing, 'Nature with herself at strife' was the deepest apprehension, that no received concept of world order, no Platonic or Christian idealism, could altogether dispel."31 The warring emotions within Venus mirror the strife of Nature and illustrate the helplessness of the goddess to influence the course of events.
Venus' lament also emphasizes the abruptness of Adonis' death: before, sun and wind would "play with his locks" and "would strive who first should dry his tears"; lion, tiger, and wolf would obey his commands; fish would gild his shadow; birds would sing and bring him berries. Venus' images intensify the contrast of the idyllic and the brutal: Nature contains both even in this earthly paradise, which, like Spenser's, houses Time and Death. The attribution of innocence to the boar's attack—he only wanted a kiss—stresses the blind injustice, the arbitrariness of Adonis' death. The appropriate response is perhaps a "metaphysical shudder"; the momentary suspension of comedy certainly does not make the ending tragic. Segal's observation about the Metamorphoses seems appropriate too: "Because the settings draw upon and recall the ideality of bucolic landscape, the violence which in fact occurs comes with doubled force. When pastoral tranquillity is suddenly transformed to arbitrary suffering, the basis for security in such a world disappears."32Venus and Adonis, in its conception of man in Nature, is the most philosophically Ovidian of all Elizabethan poems.
The final irony is the poet's and helps to clarify the playful seriousness of Venus and Adonis. The last five stanzas of Venus' penultimate speech turn her lament into a curse, and the poet's ironies reverberate through the complex of issues the poem has raised. William Empson observes that Venus and Adonis relates a "myth of origin," and J. C. Maxwell pinpoints part of the irony: "It is, of course, part of the charm of Ovidian myth that we have a double vision: Venus is very much the frustrated lover within the myth which purports to explain how it first came about that love can be frustrated."33 Venus' prophecy, in effect, lays a curse upon love:
"Since thou art dead, lo here I prophesy,
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend,
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, and unsavory end,
Ne'er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love's pleasure shall not match
"It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud,
Bud, and be blasted, in a breathing while;
The bottom poison, and the top o'erstrawed
With sweets that shall the truest sight beguile.
The strongest body shall it make most
Strike the wisest dumb, and teach the fool
"It shall be sparing, and too full of riot,
Teaching decrepit age to treat the measures;
The staring ruffian shall keep in quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with
It shall be raging mad, and silly mild,
Make the young old, and old become a
"It shall be suspect where is no cause to fear;
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust;
It shall be merciful, and too severe,
And most deceiving when it seems most just;
Perverse it shall be where it shows most
Put fear to valor, courage to the coward.
"It shall be cause of war and dire events
And set dissension 'twixt the son and sire,
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustious matter is to fire.
Sith in his prime death doth my love
They that love best their loves shall not
Venus curses those who would serve her and dooms the servants of her rightful dominions to suffer the paradoxes and irrationalities of love's contrarieties. Apart from the fact that certainly this is not in her best interest, what has gone before exemplifies the imperfections of amorous experience.
Venus' first and last words encircle Shakespeare's recreation of the myth. She began her persuasions by praising Adonis' beauty: "'Thrice fairer than myself … / The field's chief flower'" (7-8). At the conclusion of the poem, she is left with "my sweet love's flower" (1188), the literal "purple flower sprung up, check'red with white" (1168) from Adonis' still body. Her plucking the flower recalls her plucking Adonis from his horse, and even the tragic notes sounding the vulnerability and mortality of beauty are not discordant with the comic irony and ambivalence of love's contrarieties.
If Shakespeare's wittiness has a serious side here, we can also suspect that in these last stanzas he intentionally turns away from the Ovidian implications of a capricious universe to stress the universality of his exhibition of the variety of approaches to passionate experience. As in Ovid or in Marlowe's Hero and Leander, the narrator invites the reader to smile at the rhetoric of the pathos of love, and the poet invites him to admire the virtuosity. The ending, nevertheless, as well as the rest of the poem, stresses the irrationality of passion, an irrationality behind the rhetoric which defines not merely the nature of human desire but also the workings of Nature, which from the animals to the mechanisms of the universe is a world of elemental strife.
Shakespeare's poem presents an intense dalliance which reverses the Petrarchan roles of male pursuit and female resistance, and it places that agon within the rhetorical world of Ovidian irony and plot. Venus' aggression and Adonis' rejection clearly exploit ironically inappropriate rhetorics, and the narrator's ironic voice and the Ovidian plot further help to locate their motivations in the concupiscible and irascible passions. Those passions, however, remain chaotic and destructive without the organizing and disciplining hierarchy of the traditional order which validates their existence. These passions are the motives of human desire, the poem implies, and are unruly and single-minded; and these passions are what run the universe, Ovid's world of elemental strife. Venus and Adonis are not characters in any traditional sense but rather passionate dispositions at the mercy of the rhetorics they try to manipulate and subject to the caprice of an arbitrary universe.
1Biographia Literaria, XV.4; see also
2 See, for example, John Dover Wilson (The Essential Shakespeare) [Cambridge, Mass., 1932], p. 55) and Douglas Bush (Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, rev. ed [New York, 1963], pp. 137-48) for interpretations of the poem as a plea for the delights of the body. "Decadent eroticism" is Edwin Haviland Miller's hostile term, The Professional Writer in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1959), p. 49. The Shakespearean phrase "Desire is death" (Sonnet 147, 1. 8) is cited by Geoffrey Bush in Shakespeare and the Natural Condition (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956), p. 25. Marion Bodwell Smith endorses Bush's conclusion, Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1966), p. 58. Similarly, Hereward T. Price sees the poem as a rejection of Venus' destructiveness; see note 3 below. Kenneth Muir's reading stands this line of interpretation on its head; for him the poem means that "Beauty which refuses Love is doomed to destruction and decay." See his "Venus and Adonis and the Myth of Love," Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, eds. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene, Oregon, 1966), p. 8.
3 "Function of Imagery in Venus and Adonis," Papers of the Michigan Academy of...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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