Venus and Adonis (Vol. 51)
Venus and Adonis
For further information on the critical history of Venus and Adonis, see .
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...
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The Rhetoric Of Desire
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 connection that has been interestingly explored.1 Study in the second mode has closely traced his responses to Venus' sexual aggression, examining his evasions, his defiances, and so on.2 In what follows (and so in parallel to my discussion of Venus), both familiar critical approaches are used but new arguments about Adonis' characterization are put forward. It is initially argued that, in response to Venus' assertive (male) rhetoric of seduction, Adonis has at once an eloquent, silent, female rhetoric of rejection and a Platonic, male rhetoric of love (he also has, of course, an adolescent rhetoric of indignation and impatience at harassment). He has, that is to say, a rhetoric of chastity through which to counter the...
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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 created in Empedocles on Etna a situation "in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done"1—his dissatisfaction arising from his belated intuition that the helpless suffering portrayed in the poem might lame the spirit that contemplated it. In these latter days we are more inclined to find some value in futility. Many critics have come to believe that poets, whatever the fate of their characters, can do no better than to lead their readers into a state of helplessness, to have them endure without recourse not only the finality of what passes before them, but the recalcitrance of contradiction in the meaning of facts or events. No greater compliment, it seems, may be paid to authors ancient or...
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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 Purpose of Venus and Adonis" In Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, pp. 43-56. Sussex: The Harvester Press. 1984.
Sees the poem Venus and Adonis as a claim to social dignity by Shakespeare in an era when drama and dramatists were frequently disparaged.
Duncan-Jones, Katherine. "Much Ado with Red and White: The Earliest Readers of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593)." Review of English Studies XLIV, No. 176 (November 1993): 479-501.
Considers the early popularity of Venus and Adonis as an erotic courtship poem.
Dundas, Judith. "Wat the Hare, or Shakespearean...
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