The subject of desire, though long present in critical commentary on Shakespeare's poetry and drama, has elicited steady interest in recent decades. Along with the related topics of jealousy and lust, critics have observed the theme of desire as an almost ubiquitous element in Shakespeare's writing, seen most clearly in such works as Venus and Adonis, Troilus and Cressida, the Sonnets, and Othello, but also lurking in Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even The Comedy of Errors. Many commentators have maintained that the force of human desire, be it sexual or otherwise, drives the love plays and, more subtly, the histories and tragedies.
Scholars have frequently devoted their attention to the nature of desire as an unfulfillable passion that leads to destruction in the plays. In Venus and Adonis, critics have seen desire as the symptom of love out of joint, as a devouring force characterized by the unrestrained lust of Venus for the beautiful Adonis. Catherine Belsey has observed desire as an ambiguous force, noting that Venus and Adonis "promises a definitive account of love" but fails to provide it. Instead, desire appears as an intensely contradictory power that facilitates the opposition of love and beauty—two ideals that William Keach has noted should be complementary, but rather clash in the poem, leading to the death of Adonis and the frustration of Venus. An unfulfilled and similarly destructive desire appears in Romeo and Juliet; according to Lloyd Davis, it exists in "two paradigmatic and conflicting ways," as both ideal and tragic, and results in a self-devouring passion.
Critics have further explored the ruinous forms of obsessive desire—lust and jealousy—in Shakespeare's sonnet cycle and in his later plays. Joseph Pequigney has examined Shakespeare's stylistic representation of lust in the language and imagery of the sonnets, noting the corrupting force of desire on the body and the soul. Lawrence Danson has applied an understanding of Elizabethan social structure to the topic of male jealousy in marriage. Using Othello and Cymbeline's Posthumus as examples, Danson evaluates desire as a tormenting force allied with a masculine requirement for absolute control of the feminine.
Not surprisingly, critics have also investigated Shakespeare's extensive use of desire as a metaphor. René Girard and Valerie Traub, for example, have both focused on its symbolism in Troilus and Cressida. Girard has viewed desire as serving a mimetic function, observing that for Troilus "the extinction of desire [is] a result of undisturbed possession" of Cressida. After he loses Cressida to the Greeks, Troilus finds that jealousy intensifies his desire, but only, Girard argues, as an imitation of the Greeks' passionate intensity. Thus, Troilus's desire ceases to be original, and is instead a destructive mimicry aroused by envy and loss. For Traub, desire operates through the corrupting metaphor of disease, specifically syphilis. Like syphilis, it appears as deadly and contagious in the play, and serves to represent "anxieties relating to all bodily exchanges," both sexual and military. Jonathan Hall has followed an even more esoteric study of the forms of this passion, highlighting metaphors of mercantile desire in relation to the dissolution of personal identity in The Comedy of Errors. Hall's work likewise indicates the varied forms of desire in Shakespeare's writing and the numerous avenues of inquiry this topic has elicited.
William Keach (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Venus and Adonis," in Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries, Rutgers University Press, 1977, pp. 52-84.
[In the following essay, Keach analyzes the ironic imagery and erotic motivations of character in Venus and Adonis, examining the poem's "insight into the turbulence and frustration of sexual love."]
Shakespeare's first published work as a poet was an epyllion. With the London theatres closed in 1592-1593 by the plague, Shakespeare was temporarily prevented from writing for "Pennie-knaves delight" (to borrow Lodge's phrase from Glaucus and Scilla), so he took the opportunity to write and publish Venus and Adonis and thus to put himself before the public as a "serious" author.1 This "first heir of my invention," as he calls Venus and Adonis, is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, whose sybaritic taste it was presumably meant to flatter.2 Shakespeare's strategy for the occasion, we might speculate, was this: he would treat one of the most familiar of mythological subjects,3 but he would elaborate the subject into the new kind of poem introduced by Lodge three or four years earlier. Whether or not the striking stanzas on Venus and Adonis in Glaucus and Scilla actually suggested the subject of Shakespeare's epyllion it is impossible to say. But it does seem probable that without Lodge's epyllion, Shakespeare's career as a professional poet would not have begun as it did.
The poem which marks this auspicious moment has proved especially troubling to modern readers and critics. Coleridge's praise of the style of Venus and Adonis is well known, but even he complained of "the unpleasing nature of the subject."4 Later nineteenthand early twentieth-century critics tended to agree about the subject, and many of them found the style "unpleasing" as well, although allowances were always made for passages of beautiful natural description, such as the lines on "poor Wat" (11. 697-708). This tradition of disparaging criticism culminates in Douglas Bush's attack on Venus and Adonis. The poem is, for Bush, a not-very-original indulgence in literary fashion which fails both as "an orgy of the senses" and as "a decorative pseudo-classic picture."5 A rather daunting number of critics since Bush have tried to rescue the poem from his judgment by emphasizing the deliberate humor and satire, by reading the poem as a traditional moral and even religious allegory, or by proposing rather more pluralistic readings intended to accommodate the poem's many contradictory aspects.6
This last approach has come closest to doing justice to Shakespeare's epyllion, not just because it allows one to avoid a restrictive commitment either to a comic or to a conventionally moral interpretation, but because Shakespeare's handling of the mythological material is so deeply, at times even confusingly, ambivalent. Working with a myth that already carried a number of established philosophical and allegorical significances, Shakespeare evokes, plays with, even parodies many of these significances, and in the process develops a version of the story to which all the previously established interpretations are inadequate. It is not surprising, really, that we have had such trouble reading Venus and Adonis. As for imagining the effect of the poem's complexity and difficulty on Southampton and the sophisticated audience it was originally meant to please, we are in no better, and no worse, a position than when we speculate about contemporary understanding of Twelfth Night, Hamlet, or Measure for Measure.
With Shakespeare, as with Lodge, alterations made in adapting Ovid's episode are a key indication of the main thematic concerns. Shakespeare's major change was to make Venus more aggressively lustful than she is in the Metamorphoses and to have Adonis actively resist her advances. The effect of this change is the creation of a sexual conflict which is not present at all in the Metamorphoses. Ovid's Venus is comparatively restrained and decorous in her approaches. Having been accidentally grazed by one of Cupid's arrows (X. 526) and for the first time made to fall in love with a mortal (X. 529), she tucks her garments up about her knees like Diana (an irony which Shakespeare eliminates) and accompanies Adonis for an unspecified length of time as his hunting companion (X. 533-541). When they stop to rest Venus begins her wooing with kisses and with the tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes, the latter ostensibly meant to persuade Adonis to give up hunting savage animals. There is no suggestion that Adonis is either bashful or that he finds Venus's solicitations unpleasant:
Sed labor insolitus iam me lassavit, et, ecce,
opportuna sua blanditur populus umbra,
datque torum caespes: libet hac requiescere tecum'
(et requievit) 'humo' pressitque et gramen et ipsum
inque sinu iuvenis posita cervice reclinis
sic ait ac mediis interserit oscula verbis:
["But now this unaccustomed toil has tired me out, and look!—a poplar beckons us with its welcome shade, and the turf provides a couch: I would like to rest here with you" (and she reclined) "on the ground." She lay down on the grass and on him, and leaning backwards, with her head resting in the curve of the youth's neck, she spoke, interspersing her words with kisses.]
This cool, shady, secluded spot, as Segal has shown, is one of Ovid's characteristic settings for violent sexual aggression7—but Ovid's Venus is not aggressive or threatening at all. She is seen leaning back and resting her head on Adonis's neck ("inque sinu iuvenis posita cervice reclinis," I. 558)—the gesture is almost demurely submissive.
Ovid says nothing about Adonis's response to Venus, but the reader is led to suppose that he submits to her advances since there is no indication to the contrary. Ovid's Adonis is certainly old enough to understand what Venus is about: although he is referred to in line 558 as "iuvenis," we are given a clear statement of his development into young manhood earlier in the episode:
nuper erat genitus, modo formosissimus infans,
iam iuvenis, iam vir, iam se formosior ipso est
[ . . . only lately born, he was soon a most beautiful child, then a youth, then a man, now more beautiful than his former self. .. . ]
In the Metamorphoses Adonis is not averse to love, nor is he too young to respond to Venus's blandishments. He simply refuses to heed Venus's warnings against hunting savage beasts and is subsequently killed by a boar.
Shakespeare could have found many suggestions in previous Renaissance poetry for making Venus more aggressively lustful. In Abraham Fraunce's Amintas Dale (1592), to name just one extraordinary English example which appeared a year before Venus and Adonis, Venus makes love to Adonis with greedy abandon:
Adonis lipps with her owne lipps kindely she kisseth,
Rolling tongue, moyst mouth with her owne mouth all to be sucking,
Mouth and tong and lipps, with Joves drinck Nectar abounding.8
There are almost no previous examples, however, of a chaste, petulant Adonis repelled by Venus's advances. In fact most of the evidence suggests that the Elizabethans tended to view Adonis, as Fraunce clearly does in the lines just quoted, as amorous and willing to be seduced. The arras of Spenser's Castle Joyous in Book III of The Faerie Queene depicts Adonis giving in to Venus and becoming her "Paramoure." Five cantos later Spenser tells how Venus would visit the Garden of Adonis to "reape sweet pleasure of the wanton boy" (FQ III.vi.46.3).9 A four-stanza lyric in Robert Greene's Perimedes the Blacke-Smithe (1588) presents "Wanton Adonis" as a playful "wag" who "waxt bold" and was "fierd by fond desire" when Venus kissed him.10
Were there no precedents at all for Shakespeare's reversal of the traditional Elizabethan conception of Adonis? Erwin Panofsky has proposed that the version of Titian's Venus and Adonis now in the Prado, Madrid, inspired Shakespeare's actively resistant Adonis.11 This painting was commissioned for Philip II and sent to him in London in 1554, where it may have remained well into the seventeenth century.12 Shakespeare could conceivably have seen the painting itself, then, although it is more likely that he would have known one of the sixteenth-century engravings done after it. Titian depicts Venus in an extremely awkward pose—she twists around and clutches at Adonis as he strides away with his spear and his hunting dogs. Adonis appears rather pleased with himself, and perhaps slightly embarrassed at the goddess's pathetically undignified behavior. The first four lines of the stanza which Coleridge has made one of the most famous in the poem could serve as a poetic "title" for Titian's painting. Adonis has just delivered his long speech on love and lust:
With this he breaketh from the sweet embrace
Of those fair arms which bound him to her breast,
And homeward through the dark laund runs apace;
Leaves love upon her back deeply distress'd.
Look how a bright star shooteth from the sky,
So glides he in the night from Venus' eye;
Earlier criticism of Shakespeare's poetry is full of vague, impressionistic adjectives like "Titianesque" and "Rubenesque," as a glance through the Variorum edition of the Poems will show. One would like to be able to follow Panofsky in thinking that for once we have a concrete instance of Shakespeare's being inspired by a great Renaissance painting.
Certain aspects of Panofsky's argument are open to question. Although Titian's decision to treat the "leavetaking of Adonis" represents a departure from the usual Renaissance approach to the myth, his treatment is not unprecedented, as Panofsky claims. There are antique representations of this moment, such as that in the relief scene from a sarcophagus of the second century, A.D., in the Lateran Museum. Titian does appear to have been the first sixteenth-century artist to revive the subject, however, and he was clearly the most prominent: the numerous treatments of this subject in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Italian and northern painting all look back more or less directly to Titian's painting. More important for our purposes are the differences between Titian's painting and Shakespeare's epyllion, differences which Panofsky does not mention. Titian's Adonis looks somewhat older and considerably larger and stronger than Shakespeare's—Titian's Venus could not possibly "pluck" this Adonis from his horse, as Shakespeare's does (l. 30). And although Titian's Adonis is shown resisting Venus, there is nothing in the painting which proves that Titian thought of Adonis as having resisted Venus throughout the encounter (unless it is the fact that Cupid is shown asleep without his arrows, suggesting that perhaps, having mischievously caused Venus to fall in love with Adonis, Cupid has failed to inflict the "wound" upon Adonis which would satisfy his mother's desire).13 But the striking correspondences between Titian's painting and the pivotal stanza of Shakespeare's narrative remain, and once we have acknowledged these qualifications, we may go on to conclude that Shakespeare's handling of the myth was quite possibly influenced by Titian's Venus and Adonis or by a sixteenth-century print after it.
But if Titian's painting gave Shakespeare the hint for a chaste, resistant Adonis, Ovid himself provided the models for developing this conception in the tales of Hermaphroditus (Metamorphoses IV. 285-388), Narcissus (Metamorphoses III. 342-510), and Hippolytus (Metamorphoses XV. 492-546). Like Shakespeare's Adonis, all of these figures are supremely beautiful young men full of self-love and self-ignorance who come to tragic ends when they refuse to acknowledge the power of sexual love.
The structural and thematic consequences which follow from Shakespeare's alteration of the behavior of Ovid's Venus and Adonis are profound. The antithetical, bipartite structure of Venus and Adonis, the vaguest outline of which Shakespeare found in the Metamorphoses, is made much more prominent and is charged with significance. Several structural patterns have been proposed for Venus and Adonis,14 but the fundamental one is that of the wooing and the hunt,15 or as Don Cameron Allen sees it, of the "soft hunt" of love and the "hard hunt" after the boar.16 On the narrative level the division between the two parts comes after Venus finally forces Adonis to yield a kiss and asks for a meeting on the next day:
He tells her no, tomorrow he intends
To hunt the boar with certain of his friends.
These lines, with their peculiar note of colloquial bathos (it is one of the few times in the poem when indirect speech is used), function as the hinge in the "pattern set up between the two parts" of the poem, through which Shakespeare "explores the nature of Venus' love, of Adonis' refusal, and of the significance of the Boar."17
Shakespeare's way of handling Venus and Adonis sets them in absolute opposition to one another and throws into relief a whole set of conflicts inherent in their relationship and in their own separate identities. On the most literal level their relationship is based upon the polarities of female/male and goddess/mortal, and Shakespeare disrupts the normal condition of both these polarities. Much more emphatically than Lodge, he reverses the conventional sexual roles of "wooer" and "wooed": Venus is the "bold-fac'd suitor" (1. 6); Adonis is the shy, reluctant beauty, "stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man" (1. 9). In addition, this reversal of sexual roles is yoked to an inversion of the normal relation between divinity and mortal. Venus, as a goddess, should work her will upon the mortal Adonis, but she does not. On the contrary, passion makes her totally dependent upon him.
Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn,
To love a cheek that smiles at thee in scorn!
Shakespeare exploits to the full the fact that in this myth the "sexual order" and what we might for want of a better term call the "cosmological order" are inseparable. Disorder in the sexual sphere (female wooing male) means disorder in the "cosmological" sphere (a divinity dependent upon the affection and fancy of a mortal).18 Underlying this double conflict is an acute perception about sexual love which Shakespeare develops with ambivalent irony: the wooer, although he (or she) initiates and takes the lead in a relationship, is actually more dependent than the person being wooed, since it is the wooer who offers his (or her) affection and risks being rejected.
Shakespeare expands the thematic resonance of the sexual and "cosmological" conflicts in his epyllion in terms of the traditional association of Venus with love and Adonis with beauty. The theme of the poem may be crudely described as a tragic parody of the Platonic doctrine that love is the desire for beauty. The controlling idea has been succinctly stated in a fine essay on the poem by Eugene Cantelupe: "Adonis-Beauty and Venus-Love should be complementary and sequential, but they are opposed and contradictory."19 This theme is most familiar to us, perhaps, through its repeated appearance in the sonnets. And in Venus and Adonis, as in the sonnets, Shakespeare is concerned not just with the conflict and incompatibility between love and beauty, but also with the contradictions inherent in love and beauty which bring this incompatibility about. So we can describe the theme of the epyllion somewhat more concretely as the opposition between sexual love so intense and aggressive that it becomes self-frustrating and beauty so selfish and inaccessible that it becomes self-destructive.
Let us now bring this abstract thematic introduction into line with the dramatic and verbal details of what Shakespeare actually wrote. To talk of Venus and Adonis as I have done in the preceding paragraph is to make the poem seem a very serious work indeed. But in addition to offering his poetry for the first time to the reading public, Shakespeare, like Lodge before him, was out to entertain a small sophisticated audience. The comedy, satire, and witty eroticism of Venus and Adonis must have succeeded marvelously in diverting Southampton and his coterie. The extraordinary thing about the poem, however, is that its seriousness—its insight into the turbulence and frustration of sexual love—is inseparable from its comedy and its entertaining eroticism. Whereas in Glaucus and Scilla one felt that Ovid's narrative had been changed into a clever, richly ornamented joke about Elizabethan love poetry, with the darker side of the myth present only in an implicit and unresolved way, in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare manages to intensify the potentially disturbing conflicts in Ovid's narrative and at the same time to exploit, as no one before him had done, the comic, satirical, and erotic possibilities of the myth.
The fundamental ambivalence of Venus and Adonis is nowhere more conspicuous than in Shakespeare's handling of Venus. He wastes no time in capitalizing on the comic and satirical potential of making her more aggressively lustful. In the opening stanzas Ovidian comic anthropomorphism is inflated and extended far beyond its range in the Metamorphoses as Shakespeare plays with the idea of a Venus human enough to make use of conventional poetic hyperbole and superhuman enough to tuck a young man under her arm:
With this she seizeth on his sweating palm,
The precedent of pith and livelihood,
And trembling in her passion, calls it balm,
Earth's sovereign salve to do a goddess good;
Being so enrag'd, desire doth lend her force
Courageously to pluck him from his horse.
Venus's attempt to convert the sweat of Adonis's hand into a "sovereign salve" fit for the gods is comically undermined by that superb colloquialism—"to do a goddess good"—which exposes the real earthiness of this goddess's desires. Throughout these early stanzas Venus's sheer physical grossness deflates her efforts to place her wooing of Adonis on a properly divine and transcendent level:
Panting he lies and breatheth in her face.
She feedeth on the steam as on a prey,
And calls it heavenly moisture, air of grace,
Here the very sound of the words—the repeated p, h, th, sh, st—evokes the rudimentary physical reality which Venus tries to elevate verbally to a "heavenly" sphere. Never was a goddess more earthbound than Venus, or more human in her desire to etherealize the essential physicality of sensual experience.
The satiric dimension of Venus's behavior derives primarily from the way in which her speeches often parody the conventions of Renaissance love poetry.20 What takes Shakespeare's exploitation of such parody so far beyond that of Lodge is not merely his superior verbal imagination, but the way in which the parody is related to and becomes expressive of the poem's deepest thematic concerns. Venus's extravagant hyperboles are interesting not just as humorous exaggerations of poetic convention, but also as expressions of the overbearing, suffocating love she offers Adonis:
If thou wilt deign this favour, for thy meed
A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know.
Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses,
And being set, Γ11 smother thee with kisses.
Shakespeare adds to the subtlety of these expressive parodies by having Venus herself become aware on occasion that her verbal wooing has gotten out of control. Here she realizes that Adonis might not enjoy being smothered with kisses and "A thousand honey secrets," and she quickly tries to reverse her rhetorical strategy:
And yet not cloy thy lips with loath'd satiety,
But rather famish them amid their plenty,
Making them red, and pale, with fresh variety:
Venus cannot get away from the imagery of feeding, however much she varies that imagery. Nor can she avoid hyperbole for very long-in the very next line she is back promising Adonis "Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty" (1. 22). She ends the stanza on a very clever note, however, appealing subversively to Adonis's fondness for "sport":
A summer's day will seem an hour but short,
Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport.
The puns on "sport" (common Elizabethan usage for "womanizing" or "whoring"21) throughout Venus and Adonis expose the relationship—the difference and the similarity—between Adonis's love of hunting and Venus's "soft hunt" of love.
Shakespeare grants Venus a great deal of wit and resourcefulness in her wooing. We often laugh sympathetically with her as well as critically at her. Take, for example, her three-stanza allusion to her love affair with Mars (11. 97-114). Robert P. Miller has shown how Shakespeare turns this allusion into "a piece of delightful dramatic self-revelation" by having Venus tell it not as a story of adultery and shameful exposure, as it is in Homer (Odyssey VII. 266 ff.) and in Ovid (Ars Amatoria II. 561 ff. and Metamorphoses IV. 171 ff.), but as the ultimate proof of the power of her attractiveness.22 One need not invoke the Christian allegorical interpretation of the story of Mars, Venus, and Vulcan as Miller does to establish the dramatic function of the allusion—the classical version itself is completely altered by Venus's failure to mention Vulcan and his net.
But ironic self-exposure is not the only effect of this speech. Venus is trying here to shame Adonis into compliance, and she is extremely skillful in her efforts. The masculine sexual imagery she employs, for example, has the desired effect of placing Mars in critical opposition to Adonis:
I have been woo'd as I entreat thee now,
Even by the stern and direful god of war,
Whose sinewy neck in battle ne'er did bow,
Over my altars hath he hung his lance,
His batter'd shield, his uncontrolled crest.
Venus may have overlooked the fact that the phrase "as I entreat thee now" results in a partial transference of Mars's masculinity to herself, but never mind. Without a moment's hesitation she goes on to give a very convincing and triumphantly ironic picture of her domination over Mars:
And for my sake hath learn'd to sport and dance,
To toy, to wanton, dally, smile and jest,
Scorning his churlish drum and ensign red,
Making my arms his field, his tent my bed.
One has to admire that final chiasmus. Marlowe clearly did, for he reinforces the joke about Hero's tantalizing attempt to "evade" Leander with a line which recalls Venus's victory over Mars: "And as her silver body downward went / With both her hands she made the bed a tent" (II. 263-264). In the next stanza Venus delivers what remains one of the great lines in the poem, however many sources for it may be culled from previous literature.23
Thus he that overrul'd I oversway'd,
Leading him prisoner in a red rose chain:
Shakespeare wants the reader to be aware of the distortion involved in Venus's allusion to her affair with Mars, but he also wants us to admire the verbal resourcefulness of her performance.
A few stanzas after the allusion to Mars, Venus extols her own beauty in what several critics have shown to be a parody of the convention which Lodge also treated ironically in Glaucus and Scilla—the blason, or catalogue of feminine charms. Normally the supplicating wooer enumerates the physical delights of the lady to whom he is appealing; here the lady is wooer, and she enumerates her own charms. First, however, she catalogues the physical defects she does not possess:
Were I hard-favour'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;
This stanza may work ironically against Venus by suggesting that she is sensitive about her age. But it also works for her, in that it sets up an image of ugly, unappealing femininity against which any woman would look good. It also makes the catalogue of self-praise which follows less ridiculous than it would be otherwise. The reader is drawn into Venus's rhetorical world and made to see things from her point of view, even as he is made to laugh at her over-heated, self-defeating wooing.
Shakespeare never allows the reader's attitude towards Venus to settle into an established position. We find ourselves sympathizing with her when she seems most grotesque and ludicrous; we also find ourselves critically distanced from her just when she seems to be enjoying her strongest moments. Consider, for instance, Venus's comment on the episode of the courser and the jennet (11. 259-324). The argument over this episode has been between those who view the behavior of Adonis's courser towards the jennet as an emblem of animal lust which Shakespeare wants the reader to condemn and which he uses to dramatize the bestial nature of Venus's love,24 and those who see the behavior of the horses as lending "force to Venus's argument that physical love is natural and inevitable."25 The latter view is more nearly correct, but it needs considerable adjustment.
It has been argued that the episode reflects Venus's and not the poem's ideal of healthy sexual energy, but this view overlooks the fact that the sequence is related by the narrator, not by Venus. The episode is placed so as to bring about a welcome release from the tension built up over the first 250 lines of confrontation and impasse, and this release of tension draws the reader sympathetically into what has justly been called an "anti-type to the main action."26 Adonis's courser is described in language betokening power, freedom, and masculine dignity. "Strong-neck'd steed" (1. 263) recalls the "sinewy neck" of Mars (1. 99) which "in battle ne'er did bow," and like Mars's "uncontrolled crest," the courser's "braided hanging mane / Upon his compass'd crest now stand on end" (11. 271-272). He moves towards the jennet "with gentle majesty and modest pride" (1. 278). The behavior of the horses is presented as admirable and natural, and in this sense it does support Venus's earlier argument that "By law of nature thou art bound to breed" (1. 171—Venus's use of "breed" in this line is important). The majestic sexual energy of the courser also reflects contemptuously on Adonis's coy petulance. Shakespeare sums up the relationship in an ambiguous couplet:
Look what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.
We may first take this to mean that Adonis's horse ought to be under the control of a rider, that his freedom is somehow not right. But the pressure on the repeated word "proud" makes us see that while Adonis is "proud" in the sense of having an inordinate selfesteem, he lacks "pride" in the sense of "sexual desire."27 Adonis's courser deserves a master equal to himself in "pride"—a master who combines lofty selfesteem with masculine sexual drive.
Given the verbal details just noted, the episode of the courser and the jennet would appear to place Venus in an extremely favorable position. Yet Venus's overeagerness to turn the episode to her own benefit (11. 385-408) reminds us that horses are, after all, animals, and that any attempt to look to the behavior of animals, however full of dignified natural energy and freedom they might be, as a model for human or divine behavior will have to confront the limiting implications of such an analogy. Venus's superficial inferences make us aware of the limitations of all comparisons between animal and human behavior. At the same time, Venus's insistence on such comparison forces us to realize that her own animal lust is less worthy of respect than that of the horses. She possesses little of the physical grace and majesty of the horses, however fervently she proclaims these virtues for herself. Even the parallels with the Mars allusion show that Venus's behavior towards Adonis is not in accord with the natural sexual behavior of the horses. What Venus emphasized in that allusion was that Mars "hath . . . been my captive and my slave" (1. 101), that he "was . . . servile to my coy disdain" (1. 112). Venus wants to control and dominate powerful masculine sexuality, not revel in it as the jennet does (11. 307-318); her overt aggressiveness is the very opposite of the jennet's cunningly provocative behavior. So when Venus comes to comment on the horses, her conclusions are partly undermined by her own failure to act with the natural beauty, dignity, and freedom of the animals she praises.
The conflicts in Venus's sexual nature become clear when we compare these stanzas where animal sexuality is presented in human terms with the more prevalent examples of the reverse, of Venus's own sexuality presented in animal terms. The narrator sees Venus not as an embodiment of healthy animal sexuality, but as a savage bird of prey:
Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,
Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone,
Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste,
Till either gorge be stuff'd or prey be gone:
This view of Venus as a ravaging animal culminates in the moment when Adonis finally agrees to grant Venus a kiss as a reward for permission to go home. His kiss turns Venus from an eagle into a vulture:
He with her plenty press'd, she faint with dearth,
Their lips together glued, fall to the earth.
Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey,
And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth.
Her lips are conquerers, 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.
It is significant that Venus is seen at her worst when Adonis momentarily submits to her lust and together they "fall to the earth." Beauty is complicit in Love's degradation. Nevertheless, this imagery of savage bestiality,28 joined as it is here and elsewhere with imag ery of voracious appetite, works against any tendency to treat Venus merely comically, as "a forty-year-old countess with a taste for Chapel Royal altos,"29 or merely pathetically, as "Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn." Venus is at times both comic and pathetic, but at other times her lust is repellent and grotesque. Our attitude towards her—like our attitude towards sexual experience itself—must somehow incorporate all these conflicting responses.
The first epithet used of Venus is "Sick-thoughted"—to remember the term now is to see it reverberate with a more disturbing range of meanings than it might have at first, when one could accept the usual gloss of "lovesick." The full implications of Adonis's first epithet, "rose-cheek'd," are not realized until the final metamorphosis at the end of the poem. But we can begin to examine Shakespeare's handling of Adonis, which has received much less attention than his handling of Venus, by looking at the emphasis on his soft, effeminate beauty suggested in the poem's opening stanza.
The context in which the Venus and Adonis episode appears in the Metamorphoses is important to the way in which Shakespeare conceives of Adonis and thus to the establishment of a type which appears in a number of later epyllia—the ideally beautiful young man who appeals to both sexes but who is himself uninterested in love. In the Metamorphoses the story of Venus and Adonis is told by Orpheus as part of his long lamenting discourse to the assembly of wild animals after the final loss of Eurydice. Orpheus's song begins with two tales of homosexual love, the reason being that after the loss of Eurydice he shunned all love of women and set the example for the people of Thrace by giving his love to young boys (X. 79-85). Orpheus's song is attended by the cypress (X. 106), the metamorphosed form of the youth Cyparissus, beloved of Phoebus. And Orpheus begins by singing of Jove's love for Ganymede (X. 155-161) and of Phoebus's love for Hyacinthus (X. 162-219). There then follow three tales involving aberrant feminine sexuality: prostitution in the case of the Propoetides, who also play a part in the tale of Pygmalion which follows; incest in the case of Myrrha, mother of Adonis. These three tales relate obviously, if indirectly, to Orpheus's homoerotic theme and may have influenced Shakespeare's handling of Venus. Finally, Orpheus concludes his song with the story of Venus and Adonis. There is nothing explicitly suggestive of homoeroticism in Orpheus's presentation of Adonis, but the fact that the Venus and Adonis episode comes as the conclusion to a discourse which begins with a strong emphasis on homoeroticism may have influenced the homoerotic overtones of Shakespeare's presentation of Adonis—his soft beauty, his petulant self-concern, his excessive aversion to feminine sexual advances.30
The androgyny of Adonis's beauty is announced by Venus in the very first lines she speaks:
"Thrice fairer than myself," thus she began,
"The field's chief flower, sweet above compare;
Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,
Language of this sort, and subsequent references to the "maiden burning" of Adonis's cheek (1. 50) and to his "mermaid voice" (1. 429), suggest Adonis's kinship to Hermaphroditus. But the phrase "more lovely than a man" is ambiguous: Adonis is more beautiful than a "man" understood sexually, and hence demands comparison with the fairest of women; he is also more beautiful than "man" understood generically, more beautiful than a mortal. This ambiguity is richly expressive of the way in which the soft, effeminate male became for the Renaissance an ideal type of human beauty. Shakespeare's attitude towards this ideal, however, is deeply ambivalent. He goes on to develop the two principal aspects of Adonis's beauty—its effeminacy and its ideality—in a way which elicits responses as shifting and as contradictory as those elicited by Venus.
Part of the difficulty in evaluating Adonis stems from the fact that much of what we learn about him comes from Venus.31 The most explicit comments about the feminine quality of his beauty come from her, as do the imputations of an unmasculine self-love. There is, for example, the stanza in which Venus links Adonis with Narcissus. Ovid's emphasis on Narcissus's androgynous beauty (he appeals to both sexes) and on his aversion to the erotic interest others show in him suggests that Shakespeare was thinking of him throughout his presentation of Adonis.32 But the avidity with which Venus uses the story of Narcissus to charge Adonis with unnatural self-love challenges the reader's sense of objectivity:
Is thine own heart to thine own face affected?
Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left?
Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected;
Steal thine own freedom, and complain on theft.
Narcissus so himself himself forsook,
And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.
On the verbal level Venus's warning is extremely effective—notice how the imagery and repeating syntax evoke the idea of Narcissus longing after his own reflection. And in some respects Adonis's pouting self-concern does seem to bear out Venus's charge. "The sun doth burn my face," he complains, "I must remove" (1. 186). But there is nothing in the poem to indicate that Adonis is actively narcissistic about his own beauty, that his "own heart" is in fact to his "own face affected." The point is—and here we can agree with Venus—that a potential or latent narcissism certainly does exist in Adonis.
The ambivalence with which Shakespeare treats the ideality of Adonis's beauty poses similar interpretive problems. Critics have complained of the superficiality of Adonis's character, calling him "an incomplete sketch of what might, in a less confusing poem, have been a characterization,"33 or '"a man of wax,' a beautiful but self-centered and baffling creature."34 What these critics are responding to, I think, is the extreme externality with which Shakespeare treats Adonis in order to bring out his thematic significance as an embodiment of ideal but unresponsive beauty. Adonis sometimes seems to us, as he does to Venus, a work of art rather than a human being:
Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,
Well-painted idol, image dull and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone,
Thing like a man, but of no woman bred!
Thou art no man, though of a man's complexion,
For men will kiss even by their own direction.
As Geoffrey Bullough has pointed out, Venus's lines recall another of the tales from Orpheus's song in Book X of the Metamorphoses, the tale of Pygmalion.35 Adonis seems to Venus like Pygmalion's statue before it was given life—ideally beautiful and erotically arousing but cold, inanimate, unresponsive. The allusion, and the language Venus employs here ("Thou art no man . . ."), extend the connection between the ideality and the effeminacy of Adonis's beauty. But as with the allusion to Narcissus, one must be wary of accepting Venus's charges at face value. The constant emphasis in the poem on the way Adonis looks, rather than on what he thinks or feels, makes us want to agree with Venus. On the other hand, the descriptive details we are given about Adonis show him to be anything but an "image dull and dead." His "sweating palm," as Venus herself points out, is a "precedent of pith and livelihood" (11. 25-26), as is his panting breath (11. 62-64). Even his excessive blushing, though it is often described in the stylized contrasting imagery of red and white, shows Adonis to be full of physical and emotional intensity. The paradox for Venus, and to a certain extent for the reader, is that this remarkably beautiful and vibrantly alive creature refuses to interest himself in the love he arouses and seems so well suited for.
I say the reader sympathizes with Venus's frustration to a certain extent: there is something mean and perverse in Adonis's aversion to love as such ("Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn," 1. 4), but there is also something very understandable about his aversion to the domineering, suffocating, oppressive love Venus offers him. Shakespeare allows the reader to sympathize both with Venus's frustration and with Adonis's reluctance; he also forces the reader to recognize the excessive lust which makes Venus's frustration inevitable and the priggish dislike of sexual love which makes Adonis's reluctance so unappealing.
The demands upon the reader's capacity to be simultaneously sympathetic and critical are perhaps at their greatest at the end of the first "movement" of the poem, when Venus argues the "infirmities" of beauty and the consequent need to procreate with at least some of the force these arguments generate in the sonnets (11. 733-768).36 Adonis follows with his surprisingly eloquent discourse on the difference between love and lust. The reader's initial tendency is to be suspicious of this discourse, since it comes from one so lacking in experience and so primly confident of his moral purity:
For know, my heart stands armed in mine ear,
And will not let a false sound enter there; . . .
Lest the deceiving harmony should run
Into the quiet closure of my breast,
And then my little heart were quite undone,
Yet Adonis's speech contains a distinction which Shakespeare wants us to apply to the poem, if only to demonstrate that the distinction between love and lust cannot be held absolutely. He therefore partly undermines our misgivings about Adonis's lack of experience by having Adonis himself anticipate this objection:
More I could tell, but more I dare not say:
The text is old, the orator too green.
Adonis also directly contradicts the narrator's introductory statement about his aversion to love ("love he laugh'd to scorn") by distinguishing between the love that "is all truth" (1. 804) and Venus's "sweating lust":
I hate not love, but your device in love
That lends embracements unto every stranger.
You do it for increase: O strange excuse
When reason is the bawd to lust's abuse!
Adonis's conception of love is inadequate, since it makes no allowance at all for the power and importance of sexual experience. But the rhetorical effectiveness with which he articulates his view of love and his repugnance for "sweating lust" prevent the reader from "bracketing" this speech as easily and as clearly as he might wish.
The narrator's role in presenting the ambivalent confrontation between Venus and Adonis in the first half of the epyllion is extremely important. Coleridge, Dowden, and other early commentators noted the objectivity and detachment of Shakespeare's narrator.37 Unlike Lodge's narrator in Glaucus and Scilla, whose past experiences and present reactions figure centrally in the poem's drama, Shakespeare's narrator rarely intrudes his own interests or sympathies. When he does, it is primarily to direct the reader's attention to the action he describes rather than to divulge anything about his own emotional state and sensibility:
O what a sight it was, wistly to view
How she came stealing to the wayward boy!
To note the fighting conflict of her hue,
How white and red each other did destroy!
The narrator's exclamations here encourage the reader "to view," "to note." Coleridge slightly overstates the narrator's detachment, I think, when he describes him as "unparticipating in the passions" of the main figures and talks of his "alienation" and "utter aloofness."38 On one or two occasions the narrator does address the main figures directly and manifests a sensitivity to their feelings, as in the epitomic couplet beginning "Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn" (11. 251-252), or in the following comment after Venus in desperation has pulled Adonis down on top of her:
But all in vain; good queen, it will not be.
She hath assay'd as much as may be prov'd:
Even here the narrator moves immediately after the first line from direct address to indirect commentary. All the narrator's exclamations and apostrophes are directed towards the event or situation he is describing. Shakespeare's narrator has no persona, in the sense that Lodge's narrator or Marlowe's narrator has a persona.
It is partly the neutrality and transparency of Shakespeare's narrator that give the style of Venus and Adonis its special effectiveness. The extreme artificiality of the style, particularly the elaborate use of syntactic and metaphorical antithesis, has come in for considerable censure from critics who have seen Shakespeare's writing in this poem as his sacrifice to the Elizabethan taste for extravagant verbal ornament and decoration.39 And it is true that Venus and Adonis, like Glaucus and Scilla, reveals an "intoxicated delight in words,"40 a "conscious, self-delighting artistry."41 But Lodge's elaborately rhetorical sixains, however, locally effective and cleverly parodic they sometimes are, never give one the sense that verbal structure is reflecting the structure of the narrative itself. Shakespeare's sixains constantly do this. Antithesis is the key verbal figure in the poem, as Bush points out;42 antithesis is also the key to Shakespeare's conception of his myth, particularly in the first half of the poem. The intricate antithetical imagery and syntax with which the narrator presents the action reveal, on the most fundamental stylistic level, the ambivalent conflict between and within the protagonists.
Rhythm and syntax are often as important as metaphor to the narrator's antithetical description of the action:
Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust,
And govern'd him in strength, though not in lust.
The powerful caesuras in this couplet, intensified in the first line by the aural similarity of "push'd" and "thrust" and in the second line by the syntactic turn with "though," give one an almost physical sense of the struggle—not between Venus and Adonis, for she is doing all the pushing—but within Venus, between her actual physical aggression and her passionate desire that this aggression be returned. The "thrust"/"lust" rhyme points up the conflict between what she wants ("as she would be thrust") and what she gets ("though not in lust").
The most elaborately antithetical passages use syntax and line-endings to accentuate metaphorical antitheses:
He burns with bashful shame, she with her tears
Doth quench the maiden burning of his cheeks;
Pausing at the end of line 49, we think that both Adonis and Venus are burning—he "with bashful shame," she "with her tears" (the repeated preposition is largely responsible for initiating this line of thought, plus the fact that "burning tears" is as common a notion as "burning shame"). But we read on to discover that Venus's tears actually "quench" (perhaps in the sense of "to satisfy" as well as "to extinguish") "the maiden burning of his cheeks." The underlying antithesis of fire and water is first disguised, then revealed in full.
Shakespeare sometimes heightens the ultimate effect of verbal antithesis by presenting it within a context of ostensible sameness or similarity:
Full gently now she takes him by the hand,
A lily prison'd in a gaol of snow,
Or ivory in an alabaster band:
So white a friend engirts so white a foe.
This beauteous combat, wilful and unwilling,
Show'd like two silver doves that sit abilling.
Coleridge quoted the first four lines as an example of "fancy . . . the faculty of bringing together images dissimilar in the main by some one point or more of likeness distinguished."43 The "fancy" in this stanza, however, is permeated with an extraordinary degree of imaginative power. The "point of likeness," of course, is the whiteness of "lily," "snow," "ivory," "alabaster," and, as Muriel Bradbrook has pointed out, all these entities possess symbolic as well as physical characteristics ostensibly opposed to the heated attempt at seduction actually taking place:
The lily, the snow, the ivory, and the alabaster are all chosen for their chilly whiteness, which has nothing in common with that of flesh. They are all symbols of chastity: alabaster was used for the effigies on tombs and hence was opposed to blood, the symbol of life . . . lilies were the emblem of virginity: snow was an ancient symbol of chastity and its coldness suggests death. . . . Again there is a direct contrast to the warm flexuous restraint of Venus's melting palm in the hardness of the ivory and alabaster which binds it, in the idea of imprisonment in a gaol, and the besieging force engirting the enemy. This passage is built on sensuous opposites. . . .44
Miss Bradbrook does not notice, however, that the images in the stanza may turn out to be ironically appropriate when one looks at the full range of their connections with Venus and Adonis. The lily's connection with chastity is appropriate to Adonis—and so is the fact that it is a flower (Adonis is "the field's chief flower"). Ivory picks up the idea Venus has established of Adonis as "cold and senseless stone / . . . Statue contenting but the eye alone" (11. 211-213). The connections of snow and alabaster with death are ironically prophetic of Adonis's death. The complex similarity and contrast in the stanza is even more complicatedly ambivalent than Miss Bradbrook allows.
One must see this stanza in its dramatic context, however, to become fully aware of its stylistic effectiveness. Having failed in her opening aggressive maneuvers, Venus has now changed her tactics and is trying to deal more delicately with Adonis. This shift in strategy, anticipated in the preceding stanzas and in the phrase "Full gently now" (1. 361), is the basis for the shift in imagery: instead of the alternating red and white of warm, moist, soft flesh, we have flesh presented entirely in terms of whiteness, coldness, and hardness. The imagery of the first four lines is as "unnatural" as is this kind of soft approach for Venus. The underlying conflict is present throughout, however, in the idea of imprisonment, in the paradox of a friend "engirting" a foe (not foe "engirting" foe), and in the "beauteous combat" of the "two silver doves," "wilful and unwilling," a combat which is ironic not only because doves are associated with peace, but also because doves are associated with Venus and love.45 The imagery of the stanza reflects a moment of superficial, contrived harmony in a relationship which is fundamentally one of strife and conflict.
I have dealt at length with the first part of Shakespeare's epyllion, with the "soft hunt" of love, because it is here that he establishes, dramatically and stylistically, the ambivalent conflict so central to the meaning of Venus and Adonis. Adonis disappears from the poem in lines 811-816 and only reappears at the very end, when Venus comes upon his dead body. Adonis's departure brings to an end the confrontation upon which the first part of the poem is based; the second part belongs entirely to Venus, at least as far as dramatic interest is concerned. The hunt after the boar and the death of Adonis are presented either through Venus's own words or through the narrator's account of her reactions to these events.
With Adonis gone and with the entire focus of the epyllion on her, Venus becomes an even more ambivalent figure than she had been previously. Her vulnerability at the moment of Adonis's departure is conveyed in a couplet which shows how Shakespeare's antithetical style will be accommodated to the new situation:
So did the merciless and pitchy night
Fold in the object that did feed her sight.
These lines are every bit as characteristic of the poem's stylistic virtues as the couplet of the preceding stanza which Coleridge praised at such length. The contrasting vowels of the alliterated "fold" and "feed" point up very powerfully the ominous way in which nature has deprived Venus of Adonis. The heightened sense of vulnerability which comes in at this point does not mean an end to the ironic treatment of Venus's lovesickness. The narrator tells us that the echoing lament she sings when Adonis has gone "was tedious, and outwore the night" (1. 841). And the next day, as Venus struggles through the underbrush towards the frothing boar and Adonis's baying hounds, she is met with this response from one of the wounded dogs:
And here she meets another sadly scowling,
To whom she speaks, and he replies with howling.
The irony at Venus's expense continues through this section, but at the same time our sympathy for her is deepened. The image of the forlorn, anxious goddess begins to replace the image of the sweating, sexually ravenous amazon of the first 800 lines.
The most puzzling motif which emerges in the stanzas between the departure of Adonis and the discovery of his corpse is the idea of a maternal-filial relationship between Venus and Adonis. Venus breaks free from the brambles which hinder her rush towards Adonis
Like a milch doe, whose swelling dugs do ache,
Hasting to feed her fawn, hid in some brake.
Miss Bradbrook reads these lines as a supreme expression of Venus being driven towards Adonis "by purely animal instinct,"46 but the maternal overtones of the passage are stronger than the animalistic. These lines certainly work towards balancing our previous image of Venus as a savage bird of prey, with Adonis as her victim. Venus herself anticipates the image two stanzas earlier in her apostrophe to the rising sun:
There lives a son that suck'd an earthly mother,
May lend thee light, as thou dost lend to other.
The way in which these lines remind us of the mortal/ divine aspect of Adonis's relationship to Venus is clear, but the maternal imagery again strikes one as curious.
Looking back through the poem for some indication of how the reader is to respond to the maternal-filial imagery, one finds Venus speaking of Adonis's mother and anticipating the later passages as early as lines 201-204:
Art thou a woman's son and canst not feel
What 'tis to love, how want of love tormenteth?
O had thy mother borne so hard a mind,
She had not brought forth thee, but died unkind.
These lines work ironically against both Venus and Adonis. Adonis's mother, Myrrha, was indeed "unkind": she was possessed by an incestuous passion for her father Cinyras and conceived Adonis by him (Metamorphoses X. 311-519). But Myrrha did not die "unkind"—she was metamorphosed into a tree and as such gave birth to Adonis. Adonis has a turbulent sexual heritage of which both he and Venus seem to be unaware. Yet the idea of Adonis's mother comes to Venus on several occasions throughout the poem. What meaning are we to give to this recurring motif?
The critics who have noticed this maternal-filial imagery offer little help. D. C. Allen sees the relationship from a reverse perspective. Adonis "fusses over Venus as a boy might fuss over his mother," he says, while Venus merely "takes advantage of this filial-maternal relationship which is really all Adonis wants."47 A. C. Hamilton speaks of Venus as "at times .. . the bustling mother caring for that petulant boy who weeps when the wind blows his hat off. . . . "48 These comments get at some of the surface irony of the imagery, but they never really penetrate to the deeper level of suggestiveness. In addition to the obvious irony—Venus is old enough to be Adonis's mother—there is a submerged suggestion of incest, a suggestion which glances at the story of Adonis's mother Myrrha and, possibly, at Golding's comment on Book X in the "Epistle to Leicester":
The tenth books cheefly dooth containe one kynd of argument
Reproving most prodigious lusts of such as have bene bent
To incest most unnaturall.
What Shakespeare suggests with the implicitly incestuous maternal-filial imagery applied to Venus and Adonis is not a scandalous unnaturalness, but a connection between the erotic and the maternal aspects of the feminine psyche. Venus lusts after Adonis, but she is also maternally protective of him, especially in the second part of the poem.
The final scene of Shakespeare's epyllion, Venus weeping over the dead Adonis, was a favorite Renaissance set piece.49 The way in which Shakespeare prepares for and conducts this scene transforms its usual significance and confronts one with the poem's most difficult interpretive problem. The crux of the problem is the relationship between Venus and the boar. Shakespeare begins to develop this relationship at the very first mention of the boar by showing Venus to be obsessively preoccupied with this particular beast:
He tells her no, tomorrow he intends
To hunt the boar with certain of his friends.
'The boar," quoth she: whereat a sudden pale,
Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose,
Usurps her cheek; . . .
Venus's reaction to the boar here is, admittedly, occasioned by Adonis's own words, but the force of her reaction, intensified by the shift from indirect to direct speech, is suggestive of what we come to see as an obsession. And it is an obsession which Shakespeare did not find in Ovid's version of the story. In the Metamorphoses Venus warns Adonis about the savagery of boars, but she also warns him about lions and other savage beasts he might encounter in his hunt (Metamorphoses X. 547-552).
What Shakespeare does with the boar in Venus and Adonis, as A. T. Hatto has shown, is in part based on the medieval and Renaissance tradition of the boar as a symbol of "overbearing masculinity in love and war."50 Chaucer develops both aspects of this tradition when he describes Troilus's dream of Criseyde after she has gone to the Greeks with Diomede:
He mette he saugh a boor with tuskes grete,
That sleep ayein the brighte soones hete.
And by this boor, faste in his armes folde,
Lay kissing ay his lady bright Criseyde.51
Shakespeare adapts the dream of the boar in Richard III (V.ii.7) and, more relevant to its appearance in Venus and Adonis, in Cymbeline, where Posthumus Leontes imagines Iachimo as "a full-acorned boar" who has "mounted" his wife (II.v.6). In Cymbeline and in Chaucer's Troilus the boar appears in the dreams or imaginations of jealous men who fear the unfaithfulness of their lovers. In Venus and Adonis, the vision of a boar torments a love-starved goddess who fears the loss of the young man to whom she is so powerfully attracted.
Adonis's first casual mention of the boar hunt moves Venus to put aside all restraint and to pull Adonis down on top of her (11. 591-606). Then, when Adonis finally struggles free, Venus launches into a seventeen-stanza warning about the danger of the boar, a warning which includes two stanzas on the subject of jealousy. Venus had earlier mentioned jealousy in the process of telling how Adonis excited each of the five senses:
But oh what banquet wert thou to the taste,
Being nurse and feeder of the other four!
Would they not wish the feast might ever last,
And bid suspicion double-lock the door,
Lest jealousy, that sour unwelcome guest,
Should by his stealing in disturb the feast?
This first rather curiously motivated reference to jealousy is the prelude to the stanzas in the warning to Adonis. One notices the repeated imagery of locked doors and sentinels and of feasting and eating, and the similarity of "sour unwelcome guest" and "sour informer":
For where love reigns, disturbing jealousy
Doth call himself affection's sentinel; . . .
This sour informer, this bate-breeding spy,
This canker that eats up love's tender spring . . .
Knocks at my heart, and whispers in mine ear,
That if I love thee, I thy death should fear.
Venus's jealousy here is based in part upon her identification of the boar with death and destruction, with the force that will deprive her of Adonis. But her jealousy also has an unmistakable sexual dimension.52 Venus goes on to envision Adonis's death:
And more than so, presenteth to mine eye,
The picture of an angry chafing boar,
Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie
An image like thyself, all stain'd with gore.
This image of Adonis on his back having been gored by the boar is the reverse of the posture which Venus herself assumes when, upon first hearing of the boar,
She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck;
He on her belly falls, she on her back.
Venus, as aggressive feminine sexuality, lies on her back and forces Adonis down on top of her. Her vision of the boar reverses the image into one of destructive masculine sexual aggressiveness, with Adonis in the usual feminine position. This idea of the boar enacting the destructive potential of Venus's lust is, as we shall see, carried out in Venus's account of Adonis's death.
Through a bitterly ironic translation of imagery, Shakespeare envisions the boar as the sexual rival of Venus who literally destroys the beauty which Venus has figuratively destroyed throughout the poem. The following lines early in the poem seem, upon first reading, a harmless hyperbole:
He saith she is immodest, blames her miss;
What follows more, she murders with a kiss.
Only in retrospect do we see that Venus's kiss here prophesies the boar's kiss which kills Adonis:
He thought to kiss him, and hath kill'd him so.
Tis true, 'tis true, thus was Adonis slain:
He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear,
Who did not whet his teeth at him again,
But by a kiss thought to persuade him there.
And nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine
Sheath'd unaware the tusk in his soft groin.
Had I been tooth'd like him, I must confess,
With kissing him I should have kill'd him first.
F. T. Prince and Douglas Bush both insist that no special significance be attributed to this passage. Prince merely notes that the "conceit goes back to Theocritus' Id., XXX. 26-31" (actually this poem has been shown on the basis of style and meter to be the work of a later poet and not by Theocritus at all), and that it "had already been reproduced in several 16th.-cent. poems, such as Minturno's epigram De Adoni ab apro interempte, and Tarchagnota's L'Adone."53 But when we compare Shakespeare's handling of the boar's kiss with that of these earlier poems, we see that he infuses the "conceit" with special ironic significance. Shakespeare's lines function as a grotesque parallel to all the previous occasions when Venus's embraces were described as the attack of a wild beast. Instead of an amorous embrace depicted as a savage attack, we have just the reverse. Furthermore, in the Greek poem long attributed to Theocritus and in Tarchagnota's Italian adaptation, the boar himself tells Venus how he gored Adonis while trying to kiss him.54 By transferring the passage to Venus, Shakespeare heightens the irony (especially in lines 1117-1118, which have no equivalent in the Greek or Italian) and makes the conceit part of Venus's attempt to console herself and come to grips with Adonis's death.
Yet the fact that this passage is spoken by Venus means that one must hesitate in interpreting the boar's deadly kiss as the ironic literal fulfillment of the destructiveness of Venus's lust. What the reader gets is Venus's view of Adonis's death, although the irony of this view has been prepared for by the narrator as well as by Venus. Has Venus imposed her sexually-oriented vision of experience upon a more general force of unthinking evil and destruction? Perhaps she has, but the traditional symbolism of the boar lends support to her vision. So does the way in which Adonis himself had articulated his desire to hunt the boar:
"I know not love," quoth he, "nor will not know it,
Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it.
Adonis, like Hippolytus, has committed himself to chastity and redirected all his repressed erotic energies to the hunt. Both Hippolytus and Adonis are ultimately destroyed through their life-denying pursuits. And Adonis's destruction as Shakespeare treats it is directly linked, metaphorically and symbolically, to the sexual experience he tries to avoid. Restated in terms of the abstract thematic scheme suggested earlier in this chapter, beauty's destruction is made inevitable by its own death-seeking efforts to avoid involvement with possessive, threatening sexual love.
The final ten stanzas of Shakespeare's epyllion begin with Venus acting more like a goddess than she has at any other time in the poem and issuing a "prophecy" which in fact comes closer to being an accurate description of past and present reality than anything she has said heretofore:
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;
Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy,
They that love best, their loves shall not enjoy.
Venus is here making herself responsible for the "chaos" which before she had presented as a necessary and inevitable consequence of the death of Adonis:
For he being dead, with him is beauty slain,
And beauty dead, black Chaos comes again. 55
The deeper irony of Venus's "curse" on love, however, is that throughout the poem love has been what Venus prophesies it will be in the future. Venus's erotic illusions have blinded her to the disorder and conflict inherent in the love of which she is the goddess—she is indeed in her "own law forlorn" (1. 251). Yet these erotic illusions are themselves an essential aspect of the view of love enacted in the poem. As for the beauty which love seeks, its existence rather than its death has intensified the disorder and "sickness" of love and has acted as the bait for love's illusions. Shakespeare's epyllion is not about the fall from the perfection of beauty and the subsequent usurpation of the place of love by lust.56 It is about the inherent limitations and imperfections of love and beauty and of love's relationship to beauty.
Shakespeare extends his theme through the stanzas describing Adonis's metamorphosis in a manner which is both disturbingly and playfully subversive. He is guided here by the details of Ovid's own extraordinary conclusion, although he exploits these details in a new way. By the time Venus has completed her prophecy, a purple flower has sprung up from Adonis's blood. In the Metamorphoses Adonis does not seem to be transformed into a flower. Rather, a flower is made to grow from Adonis's blood by the magic of Venus:57
sic fata cruorem
nectare odorato sparsit, qui tactus ab illo
intumuit sic, ut fulvo perlucida caeno
surgere bulla solet, nec plena longior hora
facta mora est, cum flos de sanguine concolor ortus,
qualem, quae lento celant sub cortice granum,
punica ferre soient; brevis est tarnen usus in illo;
namque male haerentem et nimia levitate caducum
excutient idem, qui praestant nomina, venti.
[So saying, with fragrant nectar she sprinkled the blood which, touched by it, swelled as when clear bubbles rise up from yellow mud; and no longer than an hour's time had passed when a flower sprang up of blood-red color, like that borne by pomegranates, which hide their seed under a resistant skin. But brief is the enjoyment of this flower, for so weakly and lightly attached is it, and destined to fall, that the very winds which give it its name (Anemone, "the wind flower") shake it off]
Unlike Ovid's Venus, Shakespeare's Venus does nothing to make the flower appear. Adonis simply melts "like a vapour from her sight" (1. 1166) and a flower, purple and white to recall the red and white of Adonis's complexion, springs from his blood.
Shakespeare, even more than Ovid, makes it clear that Adonis is not reincarnated in the flower, although the flower resembles him (11. 1169-1170). And Venus herself realizes this—she initially allows the flower a separate, fully natural existence. She begins by bending down to smell the flower and by "Comparing" (1. 1172) its odor to the breath of Adonis. She then "crops the stalk" and "compares" (the word is repeated for emphasis) the drops of sap to the tears which came to Adonis's eyes with "every little grief (11. 1175-1176).58 At the beginning of the poem Venus had called Adonis "'the field's chief flower, sweet above compare'" (1. 8; italics mine). Now she has found a flower comparable to Adonis—or rather, she has been forced by Adonis's death to imagine a flower comparable to him.
Venus's realization that the flower is not Adonis contributes to the pathos of her comparisons and, in a sense, mitigates the shock of her "cropping" the flower. At the same time the language does recall the imagery used earlier to describe her relation to Adonis: "cropping" is what animals do to plants they eat, and of course Adonis—"rose-cheek'd," "the field s chief flower"—has been the beautiful virgin flower throughout. Shakespeare's handling of this final scene is extraordinarily deft. A shockingly ironic reenactment of Venus's relationship to Adonis is suggested but sufficiently distanced by being placed at the level of simile.
Venus's final words reaffirm the attitude towards experience she has manifested all along. Shakespeare significantly transforms the idea expressed in the final lines of Book X of the Metamorphoses: whereas Orpheus laments the inevitable natural withering of the shortlived anemone, Venus is unwilling to allow the flower to grow and wither naturally:
To grow unto himself was his desire,
And so 'tis thine; but know, it is as good
To wither in my breast as in his blood.
Venus offers the flower the same kind of overbearing, suffocating love she offered Adonis. As she continues, the maternal imagery returns one last time along with the hyperbole which has characterized her speech from the beginning:
Here was thy father'd bed, here in my breast;
Thou art the next of blood, and 'tis thy right.
So in this hollow cradle take thy rest;
My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night;
There shall not be one minute in an hour
Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love's flower.
Despite her "prophecy" that "Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend" (1. 1136), Venus seems totally unchanged by Adonis's death. Her way of talking about the flower which has sprung up so miraculously embodies the same deluded idealizing ("Here was thy father'd bed, here in my breast") and the same gross attachment to physical immediacy ("Thou art the next of blood") which have permeated her language throughout the poem. Were she to meet another beautiful young man, one imagines, she would conduct herself very much as she has done with Adonis. For Venus a flower exists to be picked, an attractive youth to be seduced.
One of the aspects of Venus and Adonis which I have had to slight in this chapter is the vital relationship between Shakespeare's epyllion and his sonnets:
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
(Sonnet 20, 11. 1-2)
In this and a number of the other sonnets Shakespeare explores the same frustrations and limitations inherent in sexual love's imperfect access to human beauty which he dramatizes in the mythological fiction of Venus and Adonis. Sonnet 53 makes explicit the connection between Adonis and the young man addressed in the early...
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Joseph Pequigney (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Action of Lust," in Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 155-88.
[In the following excerpt, Pequigney observes the mechanisms of lust in Shakespeare's Sonnets 127-32 and 144-7.]
Possibly no single poem in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence is more imperative for understanding it holistically than Sonnet 129, "The expense of spirit." This key sonnet defines the central theme of Part II as lust, [and] sheds light on its arrangement of sonnets. . . . This sonnet is the third one of Part II, and the first two—127 and 128—prepare the way for it in...
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Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)
"Mercantilism and Desire in The Comedy of Errors," in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 39-52.
[Here, Hall investigates Shakespeare 's mercantile metaphors of desire and their relation to the construction of personal identity in The Comedy of Errors.]
The advent of mercantile capitalism should not be understood as a purely "economic" transition, if by that term we mean the severely delimited and specialized set of theories and practices characteristic of the epoch of bourgeois hegemony. The later "science" of political economy...
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Adelman, Janet. "Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 151-74. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Examines male sexual desire as a violating and corrupting force potentially legitimized through marriage.
Belsey, Catherine. "Desire's Excess and the English Renaissance Theatre: Edward II, Troilus and Cressida, Othello." In Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, edited by Susan Zimmerman, pp. 84-102. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Notes chaotic and ironic...
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