Venus and Adonis
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.
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.
Sidney's belief in the power of art over nature, a dominant credo of the period, finds itself repeatedly vindicated.1 Take for example the famous stanza describing Adonis's horse:
Look when a painter would surpass the life In limning out a well-proportioned steed, His art with nature's workmanship at strife, As if the dead the living should exceed— So did this horse excel a common one, In shape, in courage, colour, pace, and bone,
(289-94; my italics)
The purpose of such descriptions is to bring out the life of things in such a way as to exceed even the power of life itself. Keats writes to his friend Reynolds on the celebrated snail image (1033-4) that Shakespeare ‘has left nothing to say about nothing or anything’ …. Coleridge puts a similar point differently when he commends Shakespeare's subtlety in rendering vivid detail: ‘You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything.’2 Such observations suggest that not a little of the poem's appeal lies in its convincing evocation of a living moment. Yet the argument that life as portrayed in poetry excels natural life brings us back to the poem's art. Much of its power derives from its verbal dexterity, not just in hitting off successful details such as the evocation of the horse (259-300), or the snail simile (1033-34), but in the way in which words play on each other.
Much of this has to do with the role played by rhetoric in shaping the poetic character of Venus and Adonis. For the Elizabethans rhetoric constituted one of the great discoveries of antiquity. Perhaps ‘the application of rhetoric’ is a better way of putting the matter, since the precepts of classical orators such as Quintilian and Cicero had been available throughout the Middle Ages. What is curious about the application of rhetorical principle in Elizabethan poetry is that it differs in manner even from the ancients whose principles it revives. Latin poets such as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace indisputably observe the relations of words to each other and produce effects comparable to those described and recommended in theories of oratory. Yet the Elizabethans' self-conscious display of wit in creating verbal effects exceeds anything in classical literature and is probably greater than in contemporary Europe. Petrarch certainly knew how to pun, as his wordplay on the name Laura makes clear, but Elizabethan poetic punning seems to be of unprecedented intensity. Not only the pun but the stylish use of a wide range of rhetorical tropes characterises the poetry of the 1590s. Even Wyatt, who puns frequently, does not display anything like the variety of figures of speech which occur in the opening sonnets of Astrophil and Stella. And of course this dexterity is not confined to the genre of poetry: verbal virtuosity is the distinguishing mark of Love's Labour's Lost (written probably between 1593 and 1595). Neither ancient comedy nor the comedy of another contemporary European literature demonstrates wordplay on so sophisticated a scale. The fact that linguistic principles in Spain, Italy, or France were at the time comparatively more settled may account to some degree for the uniqueness of the English position. As studies of Shakespeare's vocabulary have shown …, the English language was expanding at a considerable rate and its grammatical and syntactical character undergoing fundamental modification.3 Culturally England had absorbed the impact of the Reformation and was a strong independent Protestant country within a geographical alignment of states dominated by Catholicism. In such circumstances it is not surprising that the trope of oxymoron, or antithesis, inherited from Petrarchan poetry, should register changes in how it was used and a marked increase in frequency. Punning similarly indicates division or unsettled meaning. When Venus pleads for a kiss from Adonis she puns on the different senses of the word ‘seal’:
Pure lips, sweet seals in my soft lips imprinted, What bargains may I make still to be sealing?
The word means variously the sign of authority which certifies a document and the conclusion of a bargain. Hinted at is the idea of things being sealed in silence, or made impermeable. Such punning works antithetically in that it enables a range of meanings to be comprehended at once (which no other deployment of language can do), while reminding us pointedly that meanings contradict and conflict with each other. Sealing a bargain denotes an agreement between equals, whereas the privileging seal of a king denotes inequality; the official pomp and display of a documentary seal differs from the furtive sealing of lips to keep a secret. The pun accordingly signals the ideal capacity of language to bring different and discordant meanings together while yet underlining the divisions that exist in reality. Poetry such as that of Venus and Adonis keeps uppermost in mind the relationship between the word and the world. The differences separating Venus and Adonis, differences of temperament, inclination, and disposition, differences in ethical outlook (including each's own internal contradictions), cannot be resolved by the debating parties within the poem nor in the judgement of its readers. Attempting to take a consistent ethical reading of, for example, Venus's sensuality is bound to fail. The play of language in the poem sees to that. The subversions of wordplay are no trite affair, nor are they mere surface merriment. For wordplay is not, as we have just seen, only divisive (though current fashions in linguistic theory concerning instability would insist that it was). It provides the only solution there is—an aesthetic one, which is beyond the scope of continuous, unfinished, formless action. The language of the poem encapsulates human reality, fragmented, inconclusive, and frustrating, and submits it to the order of art. If we are to see an ideal principle in the poem it is this: not an approved human choice as represented by one of the protagonists more than the other, for the poem does not ultimately evaluate such things, but a balanced contemplation of feelings, motives, and actions from contrasting or opposing angles.
Venus and Adonis is both a tragic and a comic poem. Because people are affected differently by it, and differently at different times, responses vary; we have already noted some of them. Like all poems which seem in any way to advocate sexual licence, its sensuality is held against it. Venus has powerful detractors, such as C. S. Lewis and Don Cameron Allen,4 who argue that Shakespeare expects us to disapprove of her. We cannot do that any more than we can disapprove of Adonis. If we were to reverse allegiances, for instance, and say that Venus expressed the poem's essential spirit of exuberance, then we would be forced to include Adonis's courser along with her, the logic of this being, to adapt Sidney, ‘to wish ourselves a horse’ (Apology, p. 95). It is important, therefore, to distinguish between the overall character of the poem and locally occurring statements or appeals.
But how does the poem affect us by and large? It works by contraries, celebrating the principle of erotic pleasure embodied in Venus while countering this with that refinement of spirit expressed in Adonis. Between the two polarities degrees of approximation can be observed. Adonis's integrity is tempered by his childish petulance over the loss of his horse (325-6); but such chafing and lowering of brows is none the less attractive, as Venus finds. Venus's voluptuous appeal is qualified by her disingenuousness; yet that aspect of her too finds an answering chord in the reader who is no longer sexually innocent. The erotic principle, embodied in Venus, is never confused with mere lasciviousness, as it is in Marston's more voyeuristic poem, The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image. Nor, despite attempts to link the poem with Nashe's salacious Choise of Valentines …, is there much to satisfy pornographic inclination. The closest the poem comes to this is the moment when Venus sketches for Adonis a picture of sensual possibilities:
‘Fondling’, she saith, ‘since I have hemmed thee here Within the circuit of this ivory pale, 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.
Even as she holds out the prospect of her body as a place in which to graze she turns the grazer from an eager scavenger into a timid animal finding refuge from ‘tempest and from rain’. The duality of such imagery keeps a constant balance between the twin appeal of erotic enjoyment and tender restraint, the poem shifting back and forth easily between the two. Its success depends on neither principle's becoming dominant.
But there is a moment when the balance may seem to be upset and the ethical question matter more. This comes when Venus manages to prolong her kissing of Adonis, enacting for herself something of the enjoyment she promises him in the stanza quoted above:
Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey, And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth; Her lips are conquerors, his lips obey, Paying what ransom the insulter willeth, Whose vulture thought doth pitch the price so high That she will draw his lips' rich treasure dry.
And having felt the sweetness of the spoil, With blindfold fury she begins to forage; Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil, And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage, Planting oblivion, beating reason back, Forgetting shame's pure blush and honour's wrack.
These stanzas touch on the more troubling side of sexuality, namely the process whereby possession leads to loss, or, in this precise instance, how the grip of desire removes rational control, which constitutes human dignity. The description matters less as an account of Venus's attempt to ravish Adonis, and more as an indication of how the self is lost as brute instinct gains ground—‘reason’, ‘shame’, and ‘honour’, all signs of self-consciousness, being temporarily obliterated. Such moments derive their inspiration in part from the Metamorphoses, which repeatedly shows characters undergoing transformation as a result of a sexual encounter, most famously in the pursuit of Daphne by Apollo in Book I. This frightened virgin escapes her fate at the god's hands by being changed into a tree; the subsequent flowering symbolises the irresistible force of sex, which, though denied its immediate object, does involve an enforced change in her condition: Daphne gives up her maidenly freedom to come and go as she pleases, and takes root. Without going so far as to enforce a physical change in his protagonists as they experience passion (Adonis only flowers in death), Shakespeare none the less portrays the powerful psychological transformation which a person temporarily undergoes in the grip of sexual longing. The same argument is applied more despairingly in The Rape of Lucrece and in Sonnet 129:
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust, Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight, Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated,
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so, Had, having, and in quest to have extreme, A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe, Before, a joy propos'd, behind, a dream.
(Sonnet 129. 4-7, 9-12)
The difference between these observations and those of the passage quoted from Venus and Adonis is that Venus never experiences the ‘having’. She is on the point of but never possesses ‘bliss’. However furiously her face may reek, such ‘desperate courage’ never fully confronts conscience, for the sexual act remains unconsummated, ‘unhad’. Within a couple of stanzas of her leaving off kissing him Adonis tells Venus that tomorrow he means to hunt the boar:
whereat a sudden pale, Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose, Usurps her cheek; she trembles at his tale, And on his neck her yoking arms she throws. She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck; He on her belly falls, she on her back.
At this point the poem fully recovers its tone of tender comedy and pathos, and the recovery is made possible by the fact that desire remains unglutted. The voracious Venus of only a moment before adopts a more passive posture. Even as she ‘devours’ Adonis the narrative varies the significance of her action and its effect upon him by introducing images which would be unthinkable in a sonnet such as 129 and inappropriate to The Rape of Lucrece:
Hot, faint, and weary with her hard embracing, Like a wild bird being tamed with too much handling, Or as the fleet-foot roe that's tired with chasing, Or like the froward infant stilled with dandling, He now obeys.
Taming is injurious to a wild bird, though it is kind to calm a tetchy child; a deer at the beginning of a chase is eagerly hunted, but when seen at the end, exhausted, it arouses pity. This process of revising analogies places a check on those images which maintain an idea of the brutality of appetite, so that not only do they modify the impression of a threatened Adonis conjured earlier, but at least one of them even justifies Venus's attentions.
One of the poem's most discerning and judicious critics, Hallett Smith, finds that the provincialism of such images makes it the inferior of Hero and Leander for sophistication:
There is nothing like the variety of color, of surface finish, that Marlowe's poem exhibits. And curiously, Shakespeare's queen of love herself seems considerably less divine than the semi-human figures of Hero and Leander.
(Elizabethan Poetry, p. 86)
The maternal Venus observed above supports Smith's impression, as does the occasional gawkiness of Adonis. Yet while Shakespeare's poem may defer to Marlowe's on the point of surface accomplishment (Hero's costume and Leander's anatomy are both richly evoked in comparison with the largely undescribed persons of Venus and Adonis), as a poem of atmosphere and mood rather than of expressive detail it shows a capacity for introspection lacking in the earlier work. This has again to do with Coleridge's instructive observation (quoted above), ‘You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything’, but also with Shakespeare's more sympathetic narrative stance, which shares the hopes and frustrations of Venus equally with the youthful, naive idealism of Adonis. By contrast, Marlowe's amused and caustic commentator keeps a knowing distance from both his protagonists, whom he regards as equally untutored. His point of view (to invoke a Jamesian term) is provided by the mature, homosexual Neptune, whose desire for Leander is more self-confident than desperate. Marlowe gives the impression of knowing all the answers, whereas Shakespeare's narrator shows slightly more concern to explore the questions. Shakespeare, who allows freer play to instinct, filtering his theme less than Marlowe through the lens of scepticism, creates a dimension of pathos as the action moves from the common Marlovian ground of inadvertent slapstick to that of the brutality of chance and accident at the moment in which the boar catches Adonis unawares. In their different and opposing ways both Venus and Adonis exercise the freedom nature offers to take one's pleasure according to one's inclination. But what she senses, and what he is still too young to have learnt, is equally true: nature's freedom recognises no distinction of value or intention; violent accidents or impulses also share it. The world that acknowledges the force of Venus's sexual appeal is the same one that includes the boar's mindless savagery. This is not to say, as if often claimed, that the two are identifiable, or that the boar stands as an allegory for an essential destructiveness in Venus's passion; but they are in some respects coextensive: what nature permits the one she must allow to the other.
The effect of pathos is realised variously in the depiction of the two principals, partly in the not-altogether callow innocence of the youth (see for example Adonis's condemnation of lust in lines 793-810), but also in Venus herself, who renounces her procreative advocacy following the death of the boy, prophesying instead that love will henceforth act cruelly and arbitrarily. To some degree Shakespeare follows the practice of classical authors in observing this contradictory behaviour of a deity: a goddess being still a woman and therefore subject to whim might turn petulant when crossed, acting out of character and even contrary to her own interests. But that does not sufficiently explain the force of Venus's dire prediction, which issues in a spirit of lament as much as threat, as if she is discovering that things have changed beyond her control. It is not Adonis now but fate that has crossed her, and, understanding this, she declares her new-found opposition to love as much in terms of a submission to destiny as an edict of her own rule:
Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy, Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend; It shall be waited on with jealousy, Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end; Ne'er settled equally, but high or low, That all love's pleasure shall not match his woe.
In the attempted ‘rape’ scene, as the prospect of raging sexuality gradually fades, it is followed by a series of statements which appear to vindicate Venus in terms of carpe florem:
What wax so frozen but dissolves with temp'ring, And yields at last to every light impression? Things out of hope are compassed oft with vent'ring, Chiefly in love, whose lease exceeds commission: Affection faints not like a pale-faced coward, But then woos best when most his choice is froward.
When he did frown, O had she then gave over, Such nectar from his lips she had not sucked. Foul words and frowns must not repel a lover: What though the rose have prickles, yet 'tis plucked. Were beauty under twenty locks kept fast, Yet love breaks through, and picks them all at last.
As she sinks fainting at the news of what he intends the next day, she finds herself at last lying beneath him; this is enough to revive her, but to no avail:
Now is she in the very lists of love, Her champion mounted for the hot encounter. All is imaginary she doth prove; He will not manage her, although he mount her: That worse than Tantalus' is her annoy, To clip Elizium and to lack her joy.
The broad comedy secures the complete release of the poem from the darker effects that temporarily cloud it. In The Rape of Lucrece, …, such disturbances are not negotiated so lightly, and there is to be no similar recovery of equilibrium; but Venus and Adonis maintains its tone by restricting blame to fortune and the laws of mortality while steadily reducing the role of conscience.
It would be overstating matters to say that the poem presents us with a vision of the golden age longed for by Tasso, in which ‘S'ei piace, ei lice’ (i.e. ‘if it gives pleasure, it is lawful’). Like the Aminta, from which this statement of pleasure as natural law comes, Shakespeare's protagonists experience the frustration that characterises the pastoral mode. In a true golden age pleasure is indeed lawful and according to the will of nature; but in a fallen age nature works contrarily, encouraging pleasure on the one hand while denying it on the other.
Venus might be regarded less as a goddess than...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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