Venus and Adonis (Vol. 79)
Venus and Adonis
For further information on the critical history of Venus and Adonis, see SC, Volumes 10, 33, 51, and 67.
Venus and Adonis, an erotic poem published in 1593, is believed by some critics to be Shakespeare's first poem, and perhaps his first published work. Inspired by a mythological tale found in Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poem centers on the refusal of a beautiful youth, Adonis, to submit to the amorous advances of Venus, the goddess of love. The poem concludes with Adonis's death after he is gored by a wild boar. Additional sources of the work include Ovid's erotic poems, Ars Amatoria, from which Shakespeare may have derived his version of Venus's conquest of Mars and Adonis's contention that he is too young to love. Despite the strong presence of Ovidian material in the poem, contemporary critics have noted that Shakespeare largely departed from his sources with his depiction of a willfully resistant Adonis and his brilliantly dramatic characterization of Venus. Although very popular in Shakespeare's day, Venus and Adonis suffered a lengthy interlude of critical neglect from the mid-seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, but was rediscovered in the twentieth century. Many contemporary scholars find Venus and Adonis to be an accomplished work in which Shakespeare transcended the limited conventions of Renaissance sensual poetry by addressing serious philosophical issues. Modern commentators are frequently captivated by the figure of Venus, and have studied the poem's allegorical and moral elements, as well as its masterful display of rhetoric and its complex study of desire.
Shakespeare's depiction of character, especially of Venus, has continued to be one of the most compelling areas of critical interest in Venus and Adonis. While traditional assessments of the goddess have tended to be unfavorable, emphasizing her lustful aggressiveness toward Adonis, her reluctant paramour has frequently been viewed as a static figure, immobile in his resistance to Venus's sensuous advances. John Doebler (1982) considers the title characters of the poem in light of Renaissance pictorial depictions of these mythic figures. In particular, Doebler compares the paintings of Adonis and Venus by Italian Renaissance painter Titian with Shakespeare's rendering of these mythological figures in his poem Venus and Adonis. The critic explores the possibility that Titian's paintings were a source for Shakespeare's poem, and also examines how both artists altered Ovid's original myth in their works. Heather Dubrow (1987) underscores resemblances between the central figures of Venus and Adonis and the complex characters found in Shakespearean drama. She argues that Shakespeare depicted his Venus as a flattering love poet, at various moments forceful or tender, depending on the shifting dictates of her rhetorical mode. Delving into Venus's psychological makeup, Dubrow highlights the goddess's volatile nature and potential to variously elicit the reader's sympathy or moral aversion. Dubrow also probes the psychological motivations of Adonis, whom she sees as an entrapped figure, imprisoned by his own unsettled emotional responses and conflicting moral obligations—making him a tragic foil to the voracious Venus. Finally, considering Adonis's death, Dubrow suggests that its apparent randomness stresses Shakespeare's thematic interest in the capriciousness of fate.
Traditional critical approaches to theme in Venus and Adonis have generally tended to explore the poem's allegorical and moral elements, as well as Shakespeare's masterful display of rhetoric and complex study of desire in the poem. Eugene B. Cantelupe (1963) explores the structure and imagery of Venus and Adonis, viewing the work as an Ovidian poem that satirically contrasts Love and Beauty and features a strong moralizing element. The critic concludes that the work is a cautionary tale on the dangers of extreme lust. Robert P. Miller (1959) comments on Shakespeare's ironic use of Ovidian moral themes associated with the mythological love affair of Venus and Mars, which is recounted by Venus as she attempts to woo Adonis. Miller examines Shakespeare's stylistic deviation from Ovid's version of the myth, and contends that despite his deviations Shakespeare's poem engages in typically Ovidian moral ambiguity by emphasizing a complex juxtaposition of the seemingly opposed ethical concepts of lust and virtue. W. R. Streitberger (1975) considers a complementary moral theme in his study of Venus and Adonis. For Streitberger, Adonis personifies an ethical choice between responsibility and neglect in the context of romantic courtship; by rejecting the erotic advances of Venus, the critic claims, Adonis makes a moral choice in favor of constancy to duty. Anthony Mortimer (see Further Reading) identifies rhetoric as the poem's fundamental concern and principal theme. He traces a thematic link between rhetorical display, self-knowledge, moral relativity (in, among other things, the potential continuity between love and lust), and the expression of sensual desire. Richard Halpern (1997) explores Venus and Adonis as a misogynist work directed toward female, rather than male, readers. The critic examines its “slightly grotesque portrayal of female sexual desire” and maintains that the poem is concerned with female sexual frustration and places Venus in the symbolic role of the feminine reader.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Cantelupe, Eugene B. “An Iconographical Interpretation of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's Ovidian Comedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 2 (spring 1963): 141-51.
[In the following essay, Cantelupe examines the structure and imagery of Venus and Adonis, viewing the work as an Ovidian poem that satirically contrasts Love and Beauty and features a strong moralizing element in its lust motif.]
Italian Renaissance painters and English Renaissance poets knew that Ovid's Venus ardently wooed an Adonis who was more interested in hunting than in love-making. This is how Shakespeare and Titian portray them. But here the resemblance between the greatest and most influential of literary and pictorial versions of the Ovidian myth ends.1
In Titian's Pardo Venus, in the Louvre, the goddess reposes peacefully in an idyllic forest because her beloved, a young Italian courtier, indulges his love for the noble sport by hunting a gentle stag; and in the version in the Prado Museum, Venus desperately clutches at a handsome Greek athlete because he is forsaking her to hunt the ferocious boar. Veronese, preferring to emphasize the love that Adonis, according to Ovid, did not entirely scorn, features in two paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna a shy lad who lifts the hand of Venus from his thigh, and in the other version, an aggressive youth who fondles...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Doebler, John. “The Reluctant Adonis: Titian and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 4 (winter 1982): 480-90.
[In the following essay, Doebler compares Renaissance pictorial representations of Adonis and Venus with Shakespeare's rendering of these mythological figures in his poem Venus and Adonis.]
Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight Adonis painted by a running brook, And Cytherea all in sedges hid.
These words describe one of the “wanton” pictures the drunken tinker from The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94) can expect to enjoy as a lord (Induction, ii. 49-51). The subject of this article is Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593), where the paragon of male beauty betrays no more interest in the goddess of love than he does in the picture offered Christopher Sly. Although Cytherea is hidden from view in the painting, she is anything but unrevealed when she turns up as Venus in the narrative poem. The reluctance of Adonis in the poem to pity so ravishing a Venus has challenged those who have studied Shakespeare's sources. The major source, universally accepted, is Ovid's celebration of the contended love of Venus and Adonis (Metamorphoses, X). The usual explanation for the reluctant Adonis is the conflation of one or two other stories from Ovid.1
The tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (Met., IV) is...
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SOURCE: Dubrow, Heather. “‘Upon Misprison Growing’: Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 223-46. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Dubrow interprets the behavior and motivations of Venus and Adonis, and examines the ways in which Shakespeare dramatized the psychological elements of their characters.]
Readers have long acknowledged certain similarities between Venus and some of Shakespeare's dramatic characters: she shares, we are told, the earthiness of Falstaff, the sensuality of Cleopatra, and the determination of comedic heroines like Rosalind.1 Yet we have been slow to admit that the sophisticated techniques through which she is characterized represent yet another link between Venus and her counterparts in the plays. And we have been equally slow to admit the many regards in which her behavior mimes that of actual people.
I do not mean that Shakespeare's portrait of Venus is mimetic in every sense of that term. Few women could literally tuck a young man, however slim and “hairless” (487) he might be, under their arms, fewer yet react to the death of their beloved by flying into the air. And the characterization of Venus does lack one type of complexity that we encounter even in Shakespeare's earliest plays, as well as in The Rape of...
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SOURCE: Miller, Robert P. “The Myth of Mars's Hot Minion in Venus and Adonis.” ELH 26, no. 4 (December 1959): 470-81.
[In the following essay, Miller comments on Shakespeare's ironic use of Ovidian moral themes associated with the mythological love affair of Venus and Mars recounted in Venus and Adonis.]
An interesting departure from the source of Venus and Adonis (Metamorphoses X, 503-559, 705-739) is Shakespeare's “reference,” as it has been called,1 to the fable of Venus and Mars in a passage (sts. 17-19) which has received surprisingly little attention from critics of this “first heire” of Shakespeare's “inuention.” Although Venus' exemplum is clearly introduced “by way of contrast to her present experience with Adonis,”2 the function of her argument, much less its total effect, is inadequately described simply by calling it a contrast. Rather, Shakespeare ingeniously develops Venus' persuasive autobiographical excursion as a piece of delightful dramatic self-revelation. The goddess reveals more of herself than she realizes; and, whether he smile with Adonis in coy disdain, or savor the humor less morally, the reader is invited here to enjoy the amusing logical (as well as dramatic) ironies in which she rushes to involve herself. The solemnity with which her argument has been viewed has remained a chief obstacle...
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SOURCE: Streitberger, W. R. “Ideal Conduct in Venus and Adonis.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26, no. 3 (summer 1975): 285-91.
[In the following essay, Streitberger stresses the moral themes of Venus and Adonis, and views Adonis as the embodiment of the young nobleman faced with a dilemma between duty and the temptation to neglect responsibility.]
Although the sonnets in The Passionate Pilgrim (IV, VI, IX, XI) represent, as T. W. Baldwin observed, “a kind of first handling of the Venus and Adonis story, out of which the poem of Venus and Adonis grew,”1 Don Cameron Allen has pointed out that the narrative poem takes an entirely different position. The substitution of the courser and jennet episode for the legend of Atalanta and Hippomenes indicates that Shakespeare's plan is as different from Ovid's “as his Venus—a forty-year-old countess with a taste for Chapel Royal altos—is. …” Professor Allen notes that the imagery associated with Venus, the “emptie eagle” given to “vulture” thoughts, points to her as the hunter, and that the imagery associated with Adonis, the bird “tangled” in Venus' “net,” the deer in Venus' “parke,” points to him as her prey. He goes on to connect the hare imagery with Venus, noting that she was often represented accompanied by a hare as the symbol of generative love, and traces the notion of love as a hunt from...
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SOURCE: Halpern, Richard. “‘Pining Their Maws’: Female Readers and the Erotic Ontology of the Text in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 377-88. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
[In the following essay, Halpern focuses on Venus and Adonis as a misogynist poem concerning female sexual frustration that places Venus in the symbolic role of the feminine reader.]
The prefatory material to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is a study in disingenuousness and misdirection, beginning with the epigraph from Ovid's Amores: “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo / Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.”1 (“Let cheap things dazzle the crowd; may Apollo serve me cups filled with water from the Castalian spring”). In what is at once a change of genre and a change of vocation, these lines apparently signal Shakespeare's conversion from popular playwright to classicizing poet.2 (In Sonnet 111 he would similarly disparage his playwrighting as “public means which public manners breeds.”) But of course his abandonment of the stage was hardly voluntary; he turned to writing Ovidian verse in 1593 not because he heard a higher calling but because the theaters had been closed on account of the plague.3 Moreover, Venus and Adonis bears more than a little resemblance to the...
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SOURCE: Kuchar, Gary. “Narrative and the Forms of Desire in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.” Early Modern Literary Studies 5, no. 2 (September 1999): 4.1-24.
[In the following essay, Kuchar examines the rhetorical and intertextual elements of Venus and Adonis and demonstrates “that the poem's frustrating effects are largely a product of its rhetorical design.”]
Recent articles by Catherine Belsey, Richard Halpern, and James Schiffer have shifted the critical focus of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis from questions of what the poem means, to how it means, from its moral allegory to its erotic and literary effects. For Belsey, this transition arose from her sense that readers of Shakespeare's epyllion who seek a “moral center that would furnish the work with a final meaning, a conclusion, a definitive statement” (262) tend to be interpreted by the poem in the very effort made to interpret it. Venus and Adonis, Belsey contends, “prompts in the reader a desire for action it fails to gratify. Meanwhile, the critical tradition in its turn, tantalized by the poem's lack of closure, has sought to make something happen, at least at the thematic level” (262).1 Likewise, Halpern asserts that “Venus and Adonis is not only a poem about female sexual frustration; it is meant to produce such frustration. Just as Adonis' beauty arouses Venus but refuses to...
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SOURCE: Shohet, Lauren. “Shakespeare's Eager Adonis.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42, no. 1 (winter 2002): 85-102.
[In the following essay, Shohet illuminates the distinctive oppositional modes of desire articulated by the title characters of Venus and Adonis.]
In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, when Venus solicits Adonis, he famously turns away. Venus entreats:
“Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed, And rein his proud head to the saddle-bow; If thou wilt deign this favor, for thy meed A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know.”(1)
Adonis rebuffs her, because “Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn” (line 4). The critical tradition has discussed in great detail Adonis's refusal to love.2 But, importantly, this line does not begin with a refusal. Rather, it introduces Adonis with a positive predicate: he “loves” hunting. Moreover, the “but” that conjoins his predilection for hunting with his antipathy to love has dialectical overtones: Adonis would seem to scorn “love” more as an alternative to the hunt than as an independent proposition.
The two characters thus articulate distinct forms of “love” that present competing models of desire. Furthermore, the poem provocatively interrelates models of desire and language. In the stanza cited above, if Adonis alights, Venus will reward him...
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Butler, Christopher, and Alastair Fowler. “Time-Beguiling Sport: Number Symbolism in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 157-69. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
Stresses the presence of numerological patterns as significant thematic and structural components in Venus and Adonis.
Froes, João. “Shakespeare's Venus and the Venus of Classical Mythology.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 301-21. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
Argues that the mixture of maternal and sexual love demonstrated by Shakespeare's Venus in Venus and Adonis coincides with, rather than contradicts, classical depictions of the Roman goddess.
Greenfield, Sayre N. “Allegorical Impulses and Critical Ends: Shakespeare's and Spenser's Venus and Adonis.” Criticism 36, no. 4 (fall 1994): 475-97.
Focuses on allegorical critical approaches to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Book Three of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.
Kolin, Philip C. “Venus and/or Adonis among the Critics.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 3-65. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
Surveys the critical reception and principal...
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