Venus and Adonis
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 interpreted the statement as meaning that the work was either Shakespeare's first nondramatic piece, or at least his first published work. Likely composed from Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the erotic tale of a mythological goddess's lust for a beautiful hunter was immediately popular, as evidenced by as many as ten reprintings over the twenty-five years following its initial publication. A rather lengthy period of critical disparagement followed, in which the figures in the poem were frequently reduced to allegorical significance. In the twentieth century, Venus and Adonis has elicited favorable scholarly comment, with a number of contemporary critics studying the complex romantic relationship of its principal characters. Focusing on Venus's desire and Adonis's denial, commentators have explored Shakespeare's ambivalent formulation of the rhetoric of love in the poem.
The exploration of erotic themes figures centrally in recent critical study of Venus and Adonis, with many scholars approaching this subject by means of Shakespeare's rhetorical treatment of romance and desire. Goran V. Stanivukovic (1997) argues that the rhetorical strategies of the poem provide its meaning, and that the failure of Venus's passionate arguments to woo Adonis reflects the impropriety of her lust. A. D. Cousins (1996) evaluates the predominately Petrarchan rhetoric employed by Venus in her seduction of Adonis, which contrasts with his silent, Platonic rhetoric of rejection. Cousins also examines the unique and transgressive quality of Shakespeare's poem which makes a male figure the chaste object of sexual desire. Tita French Baumlin (1990) evaluates Shakespeare's transformation of his direct source for the work, Ovid's Metamorphosis. Noting Shakespeare's ostensible imitation of Ovid, Baumlin contends that Venus and Adonis departs from its source material, principally in its humanized portrayal of Venus through her failed rhetoric of passion.
Regard for the element of ambiguity in Venus and Adonis is another dominant feature of contemporary critical interest. While acknowledging that some allegorical assessments of the poem can be considered reductive, Robert P. Merrix (1997) proposes an approach that privileges complexity, but retains allegorical significance. Merrix aligns Venus with domestic sexuality, contrasting this with Adonis's thirst for adventure and the unknown—symbolized by the boar that brings about his death. Despite such interpretations, Merrix also notes that both Venus and Adonis undergo social and psychological transformations in the poem. James Schiffer (1997) also values Shakespeare's complex representation of erotic desire in Venus and Adonis. Employing Lacanian psychoanalysis, Schiffer views the work as an ironic and tragicomic display of Venus's unquenchable phallic lust that, ultimately, defers final interpretation. Recent thematic assessments of the work have likewise privileged ambiguity in Venus and Adonis. John Klaus (1998), considering the theme of forgiveness, observes the pluralistic quality of the poem, which is in turn comic, satiric, and tragic. Analyzing the characters of Venus and Adonis, Klaus finds them to be at once guilty and pitiable. Nona Fienberg (1989) perceives the figure of Venus as mutable and diverse in contrast to Adonis, who remains fixed. In attempting to provide a theoretical framework from which to assess the poem, Fienberg employs the metaphor of "the marketplace of value" to describe the dynamically shifting struggle for sexual power in Venus and Adonis.
Tita French Baumlin (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "The Birth of the Bard: 'venus and Adonis' and Poetic Apotheosis," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 191-211.
[In the following essay, Baumlin evaluates Shakespeare's transformation of his Ovidian source material in Venus and Adonis.]
Many readers, modern and Elizabethan alike, have delighted in the sensuous sophistication and humor of Venus and Adonis, but critics have been by no means univocal in their evaluations of the genre and effect of the entire poem. Some have questioned its genre, one critic calling Venus and Adonis an allegory on the Neoplatonic ascent, others describing it as a serious debate on the relative concepts of lust and chastity, either siding against Venus as a Goddess of lust who assails Adonis's maidenly virtue or attacking Adonis's so-called "villainous" rejection of the life-giving principle of the Venus Genetrix.1 Hallett Smith places the poem in the genre of Ovidian mythological-erotic poetry, but finds fault with its execution, calling it "an Ovidian poem that does not fully succeed," due to the unfortunate "rhetorical tradition which caused Shakespeare to put a large part of the poem into extended discourses by Venus" (1704). Certainly, if the poem is offered in imitation of Ovid, it does not succeed: though the poem's lush, sensuous imagery and delightful, earthy humor may well exceed the age's expectations of the Ovidian poem, the character of Shakespeare's Venus herself is fraught with problems. Compared to Ovid's divine creature, Shakespeare's Venus is gracelessly verbose, largely a grotesque, all-too-humanly ineffectual character. Yet the poem is not consistent with this characterization, for at the close of Shakespeare's poem, Venus does behave as one expects of the Goddess of Love, in fullest possession of all those divine powers readers would expect of an Olympian. And while this discussion is not meant to deny any thematic considerations on lust that various readers have found in the poem, perhaps it is well to examine the ways our expectations are frustrated when we read this youthful work. How are we to read the curious inconsistencies of tone, characterization, and voice in Venus and Adonis, these apparent blemishes in what we would expect of an Ovidian mythological erotic poem or, indeed, of the poetry of Shakespeare?
Venus and Adonis essentially displays a Venus who, like her poet-creator in relationship to his own models, faces a long-standing literary tradition of how a goddess ought to act, how her seduction ought to proceed. In his dedication of the poem Shakespeare characterized this work as his first serious attempt at literary art, the "first heire of my inuention." Taken as such, does not the poem give us—among the varied readings of the poem as numerous as its readers themselves—the struggles of a young poet striving to make his entrance into the literary scene? Unlike her Ovidian ancestor, Shakespeare's Venus must learn how to use the language of divine seduction, how to be the goddess she is reputed to be; this process of apotheosis, of learning and growing into the full-fledged Goddess of Love, mirrors a similar struggle in the inventive process of the new poet. Like Venus, who utilizes and must ultimately reject each of her models' persuasive rhetorics, so must the poet ultimately reject his source materials if he is to fashion his own voice and authority.
In this reading of the poem, Venus and Adonis is paradoxically most successful in its failure as an Ovidian love poem, in its rejection of its model. Here, in the genre of Ovidian love poetry, Shakespeare discovers the art which will serve him so well in his dramatic career: the art of finding the places in his source material where he can engage in combat with his predecessor, annihilating the old text to generate a new one most fully and unmistakably his own. Several questions, then, follow this line of thinking. Is Venus and Adonis offered in imitation of Ovid or as a critique of the Ovidian-styled poetic metamorphosis? What if the departures from the model reflect not the failure of the imitative poet but the triumph of the new poet who builds his poem by subverting his model? Finally, is it the poet who makes the poem, or the poem that makes, in some sense, the poet? The following analysis of Venus and Adonis seeks at least tentative answers to such questions.
Shakespeare's principal source, Ovid's Metamorphoses, presents an Adonis fully responsive to Venus's wooing. There Venus is scratched by Cupid's arrow as he kisses his mother, and Venus is compelled to love Adonis. Her seduction of Adonis is both brief and successful: as Golding translates it, Ovid's Venus
lovd Adonis more
Than heaven. To him shee clinged ay, and bare him companye.
And in the shadowe woont she was too rest continually,
And for too set her beawtye out most seemely to the eye
By trimly decking of her self.
Emphasizing their shared concerns, Ovid's poem shows Venus hunting with Adonis; unafraid to depart from her "trimly decked" image of sedate divinity, she dresses like Diana and runs "Bare kneed with garment tucked up" (620). Finally, she invites him to rest with her:
But now unwoonted toyle hath made
Mee weerye: and beholde, in tyme this Poplar with his shade
Allureth, and the ground for cowch dooth serve to rest uppon.
I prey thee let us rest us heere. They sate them downe anon,
And lying upward with her head uppon his lappe along,
She thus began: and in her tale she bussed him among.
And thus, with kisses to punctuate the tale, Venus tells the Tale of Atalanta who refused love until the race with Hippomenes, where she learned her own limitations and let love transform her. In Ovid's version, then, the goddess Venus is above all a poet, for it is with poetry, the tale of Atalanta, that she effects the seduction. Her poetry, however, is naive; it takes for granted precisely what it has to prove: its persuasive power. Ovid is, in fact, himself naive regarding the persuasive power of poetic language: for Ovid, such powers are automatic.
For Shakespeare's self-critical age, however, it is the very power of language which must be proven. Thus the essential difference between Shakespeare's and Ovid's text: the Renaissance poet cannot take such powers for granted but must find and fashion them in the act of composing. As poets find inspiration in their predecessors and yet struggle against them—what Harold Bloom has called the "anxiety of influence"—so does their poetry engage in combat with their sources, as Bloom points out: "The poet's conception of himself necessarily is his poem's conception of itself, in my reading, and central to this conception is the matter of the sources of the powers of poetry," for "the truest sources, again necessarily, are in the powers of poems already written' (3). This view of the nature of the poetic art is particularly applicable to the Renaissance poet, who deliberately adopts a pre-existing text as his inspiration but must also somehow fashion his own poetic voice in the process. Ben Jonson illustrates such "anxiety of influence" in the age of the English Renaissance:
A requisite in our Poet, or Maker is imitation, to be able to convert the substance or Riches of another Poet to his owne use. To make choise of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him till he grow very Hee, or so like him as the Copie may be mistaken for the Principali. Not, as a Creature that swallowes what it takes in, crude, raw, or undigested, but that feedes with an Appetite, and hath a Stomacke to concoct, devide, and turne all to nourishment.
This metaphor—feeding upon the model text in order to turn its material through digestion literally into the body of another text—implies the violence and subversion which J. Hillis Miller finds essential to the composing process, wherein the "host" poem becomes "food, host in the sense of victim, sacrifice":
The previous text is both the ground of the new one and something the new poem must annihilate by incorporating it, turning it into ghostly in substantiality, so that the new poem may perform its possible-impossible task of becoming its own ground. The new poem both needs the old texts and must destroy them. It is both parasitical on them, feeding ungraciously on their substance, and at the same time it is the sinister host which unmans them by inviting them into its home.
Thus, markedly different in Shakespeare's account of the wooing is Venus's total lack of success in winning Adonis for her paramour; the emphasis falls, instead, upon the poet's self-conscious attention to her language as she attempts, and fails, to seduce Adonis. Hallett Smith has noted—and lamented—the combative, argumentative nature of Venus's rhetoric, which is "unadapted to the genre" of Ovidian love poetry, for the reader is burdened with Venus's extended discourses—like the one beginning at line 95, where "for eighty lines she discusses Mars, her own charms, Narcissus, torches, jewels, herbs, and the laws of nature which require propagation . . . so that instead of realizing evoked physical beauty we are listening to a lecture" (1704). Venus's discourses are indeed the lectures of a pedant, deliberately, if the rhetoric is to reveal important facets of Venus's initially flawed, ineffective character. Of course, this Venus fails to seduce a reader like Hallett Smith, fails to evoke the image of beauty that would entice him to judge her worthy of the same name as the Ovidian Goddess of Love, that would lead him to judge the poem itself as a "successful" Ovidian love poem. Similarly, this Venus falls to seduce a reader like Gordon Williams, who finds that her character is too grotesque in this early portion of the poem to be taken seriously at all (771). Venus's failure to persuade and seduce modern readers thus mirrors her own failure to seduce Adonis—and ultimately, this failure leads us to question the nature and source of poetic inspiration: from what source—either for Venus or for the poet himself—comes the rhetorical power to seduce? Is it the model that creates, legitimizes, or confirms the new poet? Clearly, the poet's experience of human struggle against language as well as with language—the poet's experience of human failure with language—sets in motion the motivations which will occupy the true poet for a lifetime.
The narrative voice introduces Venus to us as "sickthoughted" (5), and though she begins her address with harmless Petrarchan compliment—"'Thrice fairer than myself,' thus she began, / 'The field's chief flower, sweet above compare'" (7-8)—she quickly renders her opening comments ineffective by telling Adonis that if he will come and sit by her she will "'smother [him] with kisses'" (18), forceful words indeed to be spoken to a young, inexperienced, and fearful lad. With this unfortunate speech, she "seizeth on his sweating palm" (25) and "being so enrag'd, desire doth lend her force / Courageously to pluck him from his horse" (29-30). She tucks the "tender boy" (32) under one arm and hauls him into the nearest thicket, where she throws him "backward . . . as she would be thrust" (41). Such brute force is the only reference in this first half of the poem to any powers she might possess and, far from emphasizing her divinity here, such a physical display simply makes us laugh at her even as it repulses Adonis. Telling us that she "govern'd him in strength, though not in lust" (42), the narrative deliberately emphasizes the failure of this kind of seduction; clearly, if this is a Goddess of Love, she demonstrates no power whatsoever to arouse her Adonis, as the rest of the poem proves.
Venus tells Adonis that she is well-schooled in Olympian seduction:
"I have been wooed, as I entreat thee now,
Even by the stern and direful god of war,
[Who] begg'd for that which thou unask'd shalt have."
To readers well versed in the mythological tales of Mars's and Venus's comic love affair, this reversal of roles—Venus seeking to imitate the God of War in her attempts to woo a young boy—emerges as delightfully ironic. And yet, beyond the comedy, Venus seems curiously unaware of the ill effects of her claims as she continues to describe how Mars's wooing made him "'my captive and my slave, [a] prisoner in a red rose chain . . . [and] servile to my coy disdain'" (101-12). This tactic is surely not a wise rhetorical choice for arousing the young and naive Adonis. She essentially claims that although Mars wooed her, she "'foil'd the god of fight'" (114) and enslaved his identity in her own likeness, for he "learn'd to sport and dance, / To toy, to wanton, dally, smile, and jest'" (105-06). Though she claims to be using Olympian arts of seduction, her behavior and language so far seem so full of blundering and blustering that we can hardly believe the truth of the claim.
In fact, it is not the Olympian arts of lovemaking, but the Elizabethan courtier's arts of literary rhetoric that she slavishly imitates here, such as George Puttenham describes in The Arte of English Poesie. The "vtterance" of "amorous affections" demands a rhetoric that is
variable, inconstant, affected, curious, and most witty of any others, whereof the ioyes were to be vttered in one sorte, the sorrowes in an other, and, by the many formes of Poesie, the many moodes and pangs of louers throughly to be discouered; the poore soules sometimes praying, beseeching, sometime honouring, auancing, praising, an other while railing, reuilling, and cursing. (59-60)
Shakespeare's Venus, who seems to be at the mercy of the Elizabethan rhetorician's advice, performs exactly as Puttenham prescribes, taking upon herself all the goals and functions of the orator: praising, blaming, persuading, instructing her audience Adonis in the arts of love. Choosing a language and argument that do not suit her audience's interests, she demonstrates only the comic insufficiency of Petrarchan language to move love. Although we are told that "to a pretty ear she tunes her tale" (74), the fact is that she has not tuned her words to suit her young, naive, and "pretty" audience. She has broken the first rule of persuasion, that one must adapt one's speech to the character of one's audience, and so her words are doomed to fail.
Filled with imperatives and sententiae, her speech makes of her more a querulous, ill-natured parent to the young Adonis than an alluring lover:
"What seest thou in the ground? hold up thy head,
Look in mine eyeballs, there thy beauty Lies;
Then why not lips on lips, since eyes in eyes?
Art thou asham'd to kiss?"
Incredulous that Adonis does not respond to her physical beauty, she complains vigorously in a comically verbose usage of accumulatio:
"Were I hard-favor'd, foul, or wrinkled old,
Ill-nurtur'd, crooked, churlish, harsh in voice,
o'Erworn, despised, rheumatic, and cold,
Thick-sighted, barren, lean, and lacking juice,
Then mightst thou pause, for then I were not for thee,
But having no defects, why dost abhor me?"
Her intended seduction also includes a lengthy lecture upon his apparently misidentified sexual role, for just as "'Torches are made to light, jewels to wear'" (163), so also, she exhorts him, "'beauty breedeth beauty; / Thou wast begot, to get it is thy duty / [For] by law of nature thou art bound to breed'" (167-71).
Adonis's body language indicates his reactions—he attends to her speeches "with a heavy, dark, disliking eye" (182)—and he even interrupts her to cry, "'Fie, no more of love!'" (185); yet she further condemns her own suit by attempting to rouse him with an insult: "'Thou art no man, though of a man's complexion, / For men will kiss even by their own direction'" (215-16). Again she fails to adapt her argument to the character of her audience, but here her failure indicates a marked inexperience not only in oratory but also in the art of courtly love. Within her experience, a "true" male would immediately respond to her beauty if only to prove his masculinity. She does not understand that Adonis is not the lover she knew in Mars; Adonis is yet a child, with a child's emotions. She also does not seem to comprehend that by now Adonis is not slavishly adhering to the rules of Petrarchan amorous discourse: he is not coyly feigning resistance to her advances; he is an adversary. However, having attempted "railing, reuilling, and cursing" (Puttenham 60), Venus for a moment can speak no more: "This said, impatience chokes her pleading tongue, / And swelling passion doth provoke a pause" (217-18).
As if she has not said enough, though, Venus launches into a second unfortunate tirade, this time resorting to erotic metaphor in an attempt to awaken Adonis's sexual appetite:
"I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain, or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie."
She goes on to describe her "'sweet bottom grass'" (236) and "'round rising hillocks'" (238), all in an apparent attempt to create within Adonis's mind an image of the female body and thus arouse his passions. The erotic language—here couched in the metaphors of natural landscape, literalization of "earthy" language—proves to be more comic in its inappropriateness than powerful in its imagery, more humanly desperate than divinely seductive. Still not the irresistible Goddess of Love of classical mythology. Venus appears here awkward, ineffectual, laughable—a point which the narrator further emphasizes in comic lament: "Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn, / To love a cheek that smiles at thee in scorn!" (251-52).
Certainly, in terms of the entire poem's erotic language, continually an aspect of the poet's art which readers have often appreciated, there appears an attempt to equal and even exceed Ovid's...
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A. D. Cousins (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Towards a Reconsideration of Shakespeare's Adonis: Rhetoric, Narcissus, and the Male Gaze," in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 68, No. 2, 1996, pp. 195-204.
[In the following essay, Cousins examines Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in characterizing Adonis, seeing him as an anti-Narcissus figure who is the object of a voyeuristic male sexual desire.]
Shakespeare's Adonis, like his Venus, has been primarily studied either in terms of Renaissance thinking about myth and symbol or as if a character in a play. Study in the first mode has connected Adonis with, for example, the idea of beauty's transience, a...
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John Klause (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Venus and Adonis: Can We Forgive Them?" in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXV, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 353-77.
[In the following essay, Klause discusses the theme of forgiveness in Venus and Adonis, tracing the related comic, ironic, and ambivalent qualities of the poem.]
"We may pity, though not pardon thee."
—The Comedy of Errors
"Pardon's the word to all. "
"Nothing to be done."
—Waiting for Godot
It became for Matthew Arnold a matter of regret that he had...
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Belsey, Catherine. "Love as Trompe-l'oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis." Shakespeare Quarterlv 46, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 257-76.
Views Venus and Adonis as a work that performs a literary illusion by promising a "definitive account of love" but withholding it.
Blythe, David-Everett. "Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis" The Explicator 53, No. 2 (Winter 1995): 68-70.
Argues that the phrase "vails his tail" in Venus and Adonis means "to lift" rather than "to lower" as it is commonly interpreted.
Bradbrook, M. C. "Beasts and Gods: The Social...
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