Critical Evaluation

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Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), two of William Shakespeare’s most famous nondramatic works, were probably composed during the period between June, 1592, and May, 1594, while the theaters were temporarily closed because of the plague. Venus and Adonis, the earlier of the two poems, was entered at the Stationers’ Register on April 18, 1593, and was printed shortly thereafter by Richard Field, who, incidentally, had originally come from Stratford-on-Avon. Venus and Adonis was the first work of Shakespeare ever to be printed.

It should not be supposed from the date of composition that Venus and Adonis was merely a way of passing time while the theaters were closed. All indications are that Shakespeare thought of this poem as the public commencement of his serious literary work as distinct from his quotidian employment as a dramatist. Indeed, Shakespeare never bothered to see his plays into print, a fact that has proved the bane of editors ever since. Venus and Adonis, however, was handsomely printed with an ornate dedication to the earl of Southampton in which Shakespeare speaks of the poem as his first serious literary effort. In subject and style, it is a kind of poetry that occupied most of Shakespeare’s serious contemporaries.

Although the poem has been transmitted in only a few manuscripts, there is ample evidence that it was extremely popular in its own day. By 1600, it had become one of the most frequently quoted poems of the period, and many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries referred to it with admiration. Even Gabriel Harvey, fellow of Cambridge and stern arbiter of critical taste, noted the great fame that the poem enjoyed among undergraduates, although he did add reservations about the erotic nature of the poem. In that eroticism, Venus and Adonis reflected a vogue for such poetry, which appeared in profusion in the 1590’s. Like Shakespeare’s, these narrative or reflective poems generally drew on classical or pseudoclassical sources.

Shakespeare derived the story of Venus and Adonis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), the main difference being that in his poem Adonis becomes a coy and reluctant lover. This variation may be the result of accidental or intentional conflation of the tale with Ovid’s story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis or that of Narcissus. It could also be the result of the influence of stories in book 3 of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), in Thomas Lodge’s Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589), or in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). In any case, the change brings it in line with other late sixteenth century poems that stress male beauty. Regardless of the source, the substance of the poem is almost entirely conventional.

The few original additions that Shakespeare seems to have made—the digressive episode of the jennet and the stallion and the descriptions of the hunting of the fox and the hare, for example—are notable more for the conventional beauty of their style than for their narrative power. The entire poem is, in fact, an excellent example of stylistic decoration, an ornate work for a sophisticated audience more interested in execution than originality. The poetry is on the surface, in the ingenious handling of commonplaces and in the brilliant flourishes of image and phrase.

Virtually nothing happens in the poem. The bulk of it is taken up with the amorous arguments of Venus interspersed with objections from Adonis. There is no forward movement, merely a debate that results in no conclusion. The characters do not develop; they simply are what they are and speak in accord with their stylized roles. The plot does...

(This entire section contains 931 words.)

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not move from event to event by means of internal causality. Indeed, the only movement, that from the debate to the final scene in which Venus comes upon Adonis’s body, is occasioned more by the emotional necessities of the poem than by demands of plot.

It is tempting to see the poem, especially the debate, as a moral allegory in which Adonis represents rational control over sensual excess, while Venus represents not only passion but also the enduring love that can triumph over mutability. It is hard, however, to support this interpretation very far. Neither view prevails, and the interdeterminacy suggests that the allegory is merely another ornament, not the heart of the poem. Moreover, the tone of the speeches and the tone of the narrator’s commentary do not support moral earnestness. The many puns and erotic innuendos provide a suave distance, true both to Ovid and to Elizabethan taste.

The poem is a compendium of the themes that recur in the amatory poems and sonnet sequences of the age. The arguments proposed by Venus, for example, are familiar appeals to the desire for immortality. Carpe diem is prominent, as is the appeal to survival through procreation, and both are themes that Shakespeare exploited in his sonnets. Similarly, Adonis’s rationalistic view of sex is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 and many poems by Sir Philip Sidney.

The poem is also a storehouse of the rhetorical figures and imagistic techniques of Elizabethan lyric style. Balance and antithesis, alliteration and assonance, produce a pleasing aural effect not so much to underline the meaning as to call attention to their own beauty. The imagery is sharply and brilliantly visual with bright reds and whites being the dominant, and highly conventional, colors. Images are there to embellish, not to explain, and even Adonis’s fatal wound is gorgeous. The six-line stanza provides a supple medium for the gentle rhythms and sound patterns. The whole is an elegantly decorated blend of common themes into a pathetic-ironic showpiece.


Death by Rhetorical Trope: Poetry Metamorphosed in Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets