Venus and Adonis (Vol. 67)
Venus and Adonis
For further information on the critical and stage history of Venus and Adonis, see SC, Volumes 10, 33, and 51.
An erotic tale relating Venus's unsuccessful pursuit of Adonis, Venus and Adonis is believed by some to be Shakespeare's first poem, and perhaps his first published work. Published in 1593, most scholars agree that the poem was written when playhouses in London were closed due to the plague. Evidence of the poem's popularity includes the fact that it was reprinted at least ten times in the twenty-five years that followed its 1593 debut. Most critics agree that Shakespeare relied on Ovid as a source for Venus and Adonis; Ovid's account of the couple appears in Book X of the Metamorphoses (c. 8 a.d.). Yet Shakespeare's version of the relationship is much different than Ovid's, as Shakespeare's Adonis does not return Venus's passionate advances. Shakespeare's depiction of Venus is the focus of many modern critical analyses of the poem, as critics attempt to demonstrate Venus's development as a character. The poem's status as allegory is another area of scholarly study, as is its treatment of sexuality and desire.
Venus is regarded unfavorably by some critics, who see the goddess as amusing, lusty, and overly aggressive. Adonis rebuffs Venus’s sexual advances, and his decision to hunt the boar rather than linger with her results in his death. However, Venus’s lusty image has been reassessed by modern critics such as Heather Asals (1973), James H. Lake (1974), and A. D. Cousins (2000). Asals studies Venus and her responses toward Adonis in light of the Neoplatonic hierarchy of the senses. The critic examines Venus's growth as a character and her progression from “Lust” to “Love,” concluding that Venus as “Love” represents “life in death” and offers the possibility of rebirth. Similarly, Lake tracks Venus's progress throughout the course of the poem, observing that a shift from comedy to tragedy occurs when Venus learns that Adonis will hunt the boar. Lake contends that following this transformation, Venus begins to develop into a “sincere and tender” individual. Cousins asserts that the characterization of both Venus and Adonis is more complex than many critics have allowed. In examining Venus's character, the critic finds that Venus lives the human experience of what it is like to love in vain, and that through this experience Venus is at least partially transformed. Cousins's study of Adonis's characterization shows that Adonis is associated with the feminine through his rhetoric, and through his role as the object of the male narrator's gaze.
The allegorical possibilities presented by Venus and Adonis are also an area of critical interest. Sayre Greenfield (1998) notes that Shakespeare's poem, as well as the treatment of the Venus and Adonis myth in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen (1590), are often read allegorically in order to moralize the text or to establish the text's coherence. Greenfield observes that some twentieth-century scholars have attempted to rehabilitate the poem’s literary image through allegory so that it may be included in the Shakespearean canon of “higher literature.” David N. Beauregard (1975) also addresses the nature of the allegory informing the poem, analyzing this issue in terms of the Renaissance theory regarding the sensitive soul and its two parts: the “concupiscible” and the “irascible” powers.
Another popular topic of critical study is the poem’s treatment of sexual desire. Catherine Belsey (1995) contends that Venus and Adonis generates desire and promises to provide a definitive portrayal of love, yet it ultimately fails to deliver. Instead of offering closure, Belsey notes, the poem tempts and teases the reader through a variety of methods, including the reversal of conventional ideas about gender roles, the imprecise nature of the poem's genre, and the presentation of love as both material and physical as well as ethereal and other-worldly. In another study of the poem's treatment of sexuality and desire, Jonathan Bate (1993) shows how Shakespeare's handling of Ovid, like that of his contemporaries Thomas Lodge (Scillaes Metamorphosis, 1589) and Christopher Marlowe (Hero and Leander, 1598), does not attempt to offer a moralized account of human love. Rather, these authors practice “Elizabethan Ovidianism” in that their treatment of the myth is not intended as a moralization, but as a study of the psychological exploration of love and desire. Through his investigation of the way Shakespeare utilized Ovid, Bate finds an emphasis on the transgressive nature of sexual love, and an exploration of the darker aspects of desire; for example, Bate illustrates the way in which Venus is portrayed as both a lover and a mother, suggesting incest and the threatening nature of female desire.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Roe, John. Introduction to The Poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle, The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover's Complaint, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Roe, pp. 1-73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Roe provides an introduction to Venus and Adonis, focusing on the poem’s ending, rhetoric, and tragic and comic elements. Additionally, Roe comments on Shakespeare's appeal to the Earl of Southampton in the dedication, studies the influence of Ovidian texts on Venus and Adonis, and compares the poem to Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander.]
VENUS AND ADONIS
By virtue of its exuberant stylistic confidence, Venus and Adonis has always been recognized as a leading example of the erotic narrative tradition. It shares with Marlowe's Hero and Leander, with which it is often compared, a brilliance and accomplishment which other poems in the genre imitate but do not match. With these two effortlessly fluent masterpieces English poetic sprezzatura comes of age. Discerning compatriots would have leafed through their pages with feelings of incredulous admiration and pride. Later, Romantic poets such as Keats and Coleridge gave special praise to Venus and Adonis for its quickness of wit, imaginative bravura, and liveliness of detail....
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Asals, Heather. “Venus and Adonis: The Education of a Goddess.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 1 (winter 1973): 31-51.
[In the following essay, Asals challenges critics who view Venus as a humorous figure who embodies female lust in its lowest and most aggressive form. Asals argues that when Venus's responses to Adonis are studied in terms of Neoplatonism, Venus's growth as a character and her progression from “Lust” to “Love” become recognizable.]
Critical reaction to the figure of Venus in Shakespeare's curious contribution to the body of Elizabethan Ovidian poetry has been almost unanimously unfavorable. As Hallet Smith points out, Venus “represents no ideal picture of physical love. She is dominated by the imagery, which most often and most significantly revolves around the hard and violent appetite of the hawk.”1 Eugene Cantelupe argues that “there is very little divinity and even less of mythology about Venus”—“there is not so much as a shred of Platonic ennoblement and spirituality in her feelings for him. Certainly there is only revulsion in his feelings for her. And this is the theme of the poem.”2 Most find her simply an advocate of lust. Robert Miller explains, “It is clear that what the goddess of love desires is abandonment to the enjoyment of sensual pleasure for its own sake, not for the purpose of...
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SOURCE: Lake, James H. “Shakespeare's Venus: An Experiment in Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 25, no. 2 (spring 1974): 351-5.
[In the following essay, Lake identifies the transition between comedy and tragedy in Venus and Adonis and traces Venus's evolution into a sincere, if not admirable, character.]
When one considers the numerous contributions made yearly in Shakespeare criticism, it seems remarkable that the poet's first published work1 should receive such scant recognition. With a few notable exceptions,2 critics have tended either to deprecate Venus and Adonis as a cold, dull failure3 or to explain it away as a kind of mirthful poetic exercise geared to the tastes of the Earl of Southampton,4 while they have tended to ignore the observation made long ago by Coleridge, that in this poem “the great instinct, which impelled the poet to the drama, was secretly working within him.”5 Moreover, Shakespeare's unique treatment of a myth familiar to every Elizabethan school boy who read Ovid attests to his dramatic purposefulness.
Traditionally, whether Adonis is preserved from the hunt to operate harmoniously with Venus Genetrix in the sustenance of all creation, as in Spenser's version (F.Q. [The Faerie Queen], III. vi.), or is finally destroyed by the boar, as in Jean de Meun's,6 he is...
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SOURCE: Cousins, A. D. “Venus and Adonis.” In Shakespeare's Sonnets and Narrative Poems, pp. 12-47. New York: Longman, 2000.
[In the following essay, Cousins examines the complexities of the characterization of Venus and Adonis.]
(I) THE MINOR EPIC. LODGE'S SCILLAES METAMORPHOSIS
Venus and Adonis was the first of Shakespeare's poems to be published. It was registered at Stationers' Hall on 18 April 1593 and may have been begun in the summer of the previous year.1 For much of the time, approximately between that summer and May 1594, the London theatres were closed because of the plague.2 His career as a playwright interrupted, Shakespeare took the opportunity to present himself publicly as someone who could write not only plays.3 He dedicated his poem to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who was then nineteen years old, prominent at court and a sought-after patron.4 As has often been pointed out, the wording of the dedication gives one no reason to believe that Shakespeare knew the Earl well, or even at all.5 Moreover, what he hoped to gain from dedicating the poem to Southampton is not clear. Shakespeare no doubt desired the prestige of patronage by the Earl; he also probably wanted more than prestige. It may be that he wanted hospitality in a comfortable residence outside London and hence away...
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SOURCE: Beauregard, David N. “Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare's Representation of the Passions.” Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 83-98.
[In the following essay, Beauregard addresses the nature of the allegory informing Venus and Adonis and analyzes this issue in terms of the Renaissance theory regarding the sensitive soul and its two parts: the “concupiscible” and the “irascible” powers.]
In the past thirty-five years or so, various attempts have been made at defining the meaning of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Lu Emily Pearson early claimed that the poem portrays Venus as sensual love and Adonis as rational love, the final meaning being that “when Adonis is killed, beauty is killed, and the world is left in black chaos.” Similarly, T. W. Baldwin concluded that “Adonis is Love and Beauty, and when he dies Chaos is come again,” adding that Venus in arguing for procreation so that “Love-Beauty-Adonis may not die” is a benevolent figure (though oddly she is also made out to be Lust). Don Cameron Allen has more recently read the poem in terms of the double hunt: “Venus hunts Adonis; Adonis hunts the boar. The first hunt is the soft hunt of love; the second is the hard hunt of life.” And finally, A. C. Hamilton has explained it as a treatment of the mystery of creation and the Fall: Adonis, the perfection of unfallen Nature, blunders in ignoring the good counsel...
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SOURCE: Bate, Jonathan. “Sexual Perversity in Venus and Adonis.” Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 80-92.
[In the following essay, Bate examines Venus and Adonis as an example of “Elizabethan Ovidianism,” in that its treatment of the myth is not intended as a moralization, but as a study of the psychological exploration of love and desire.]
Late in 1589, Thomas Lodge published his poem Scillaes Metamorphosis: Enterlaced with the unfortunate love of Glaucus. In so doing, he established a new poetic genre, the witty love-poem dressed in the manner of Ovid. Following in Lodge's wake, Marlowe wrote Hero and Leander and Shakespeare Venus and Adonis—to judge by frequency of allusions to the former and reprintings of the latter, two of the most popular poems of the age.
An earlier tradition, extending back through the middle ages, had moralized Ovid's tales: in the prose dedication to the first edition of his translation, Arthur Golding wrote that the myths of the Metamorphoses were ‘outwardly moste pleasant tales and delectable histories’, but that they were ‘fraughted inwardlye with most piththie instructions and wholsome examples’.1 With not inconsiderable ingenuity, Golding peeled off the narrative skin and found hidden ‘inner’ moral meanings in the text; he thus contrived to make Ovid sound at least a little...
(The entire section is 6441 words.)
SOURCE: Belsey, Catherine. “Love as Trompe-l'oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 261-85. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1995, Belsey observes that Venus and Adonis generates desire and promises to provide a definitive portrayal of love, yet it ultimately fails to deliver.]
The painter Zeuxis excelled in the art of trompe-l'oeil, a mode of painting that is capable of deceiving the eye by its simulation of nature. Zeuxis portrayed grapes with such success that birds flew toward his picture. His younger rival, Parrhasius, however, challenged Zeuxis to a competition to decide which painter's work was more true to life. Parrhasius won—by depicting a curtain so convincing that Zeuxis begged him to draw it and reveal the picture behind.1 Jacques Lacan, in his seminar “Of the Gaze as Objet Petu a,” makes a distinction between the two pictures: only the curtain that Parrhasius painted is a true trompe-l'oeil, because its effect depends on what is missing, the absence of a secret concealed behind the paint. For Lacan it is not deception alone that defines the trompe-l'oeil: on the contrary, its determining characteristic is the promise of a presence that it fails to deliver. Trompe-l'oeil tantalizes....
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SOURCE: Greenfield, Sayre N. “Allegory to the Rescue: Saving Venus and Adonis from Themselves.” In The Ends of Allegory, pp. 86-110. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Greenfield explores the reasons why Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Spenser's treatment of the Venus and Adonis myth in The Faerie Queen have been read allegorically, observing that the allegorization of such texts stems from a desire to moralize a text or to demonstrate the text's coherence.]
This chapter sketches out how allegorical readings arise as reactions against the sort of metonymic fractures described in the previous chapter. To do this, it traces one particular history of interpretation, that of the Venus and Adonis myth in the poems of Shakespeare and Spenser. Allegory substitutes a metaphoric structure for failed metonymy, but it is only one of a variety of defenses against such cognitive disturbances. Some of these reactions come through associative readjustments, but when these readings cannot satisfy imperatives to recuperate the texts, allegory may salvage the work, or rather save the readers' desires for probity and coherence. Although Gordon Teskey defines allegory as “violence emerging from noise” and “from chaos,” he concludes that “the child it hopes for is Harmony.”1
Allegories interact with the structure of radical...
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Brown, Huntington. “Venus and Adonis: The Action, the Narrator, and the Critics.” Michigan Academician 2, no. 2 (fall 1969): 73-87.
Reviews twentieth-century criticism of Venus and Adonis, challenging the views of critics who offer disparaging interpretations of the poem, its characters, or its action.
Cantelupe, Eugene B. “An Iconographical Interpretation of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's Ovidian Comedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 2 (spring 1963): 141-51.
Studies the poem in its relation to the iconographical tradition depicting the myth of Venus and Adonis, and maintains that Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is not only erotic and entertaining, but morally didactic.
Daigle, Lennet J. “Venus and Adonis: Some Traditional Contexts.” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 31-46.
Maintains that the poem should be studied in terms of its allegorical aspects and characterization, and offers a reading informed by classical, medieval, and Renaissance material pertaining to Venus.
Dubrow, Heather. “‘Upon misprision growing’: Venus and Adonis.” In Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets, pp. 21-79. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.
Analyzes Shakespeare's depiction of...
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