The Ending of Venus and Adonis

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Anthony Mortimer, University of Fribourg

For much of Venus and Adonis Shakespeare seems careful to avoid direct confrontation with his source for the tale in the Metamorphoses, Book X. It is not simply that he omits all the antecedents that Ovid provides (the incestuous union of Cinyras and Myrrha, the miraculous birth of Adonis, the wounding of Venus with Cupid's arrow) and modifies the whole situation by making Adonis resist the advances of the goddess. The striking fact is that most of the frequent Ovidian echoes seem to derive from anywhere in the Metamorphoses except the passage which gave him the story in the first place. The sexually aggressive female and the reluctant youth recall Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (IV. 285-388) and, to a lesser extent, Echo and Narcissus (III. 339-510); the Lament of Venus owes little to Ovid's goddess, but a great deal to his long line of desperately eloquent human heroines (including those of the Heroides); the episode of Mars and Venus harks back to Book IV (171-89); even the description of the boar takes its details not from the boar of Book X, but from the Calydonian boar of Book VIII. Shakespeare, while happy to plunder the riches of the Metamorphoses, is not writing the kind of paraphrase, adaptation or expansion that keeps sending his readers back to the original.1

There is, however, one moment when the direct confrontation becomes unavoidable. However much of the Ovidian story Shakespeare might omit and however he might change the relation between the protagonists, the final metamorphosis had to remain: this was the moment his readers had been waiting for and, with Ovid in mind, they would expect a virtuoso performance. Shakespeare's task, briefly put, was to provide a metamorphosis that would rival Ovid's while still conforming to his own rereading of the myth.

The challenge, it must be said, was formidable. Here is Ovid in his most dazzling form and the passage must be quoted in full if we are to appreciate the significance of the Shakespearean revisions.

'at non tarnen omnia vestri
iuris erunt' dixit. 'luctus monimenta manebunt
semper, Adoni, mei, repetitaque mortis imago
annua plangoris peraget simulamina nostri;
at cruror in florem mutabitur. an tibi quondam
femíneos artus in olentes vertere mentas,
Persephone, licuit: nobis Cinyreius heros
invidiae mutatus erit?' 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 ilio;
namque male haerentem et nimia levitate caducum,
excutiunt idem, qui praestant nomina, venti.

(Met. X. 724-39)

'But all shall not be in your [the Fates'] power.
My grief, Adonis, shall have an enduring monument,
and each passing year in memory of your death shall
give an imitation of my grief. But your blood shall
be changed to a flower. Or was it once allowed to thee,
Persephone, to change a maiden's form to fragrant mint,
and shall the change of my hero, offspring of Cinyras,
be grudged to me?' So saying, with sweetscented nectar
she sprinkled the blood; and this, touched by the
nectar, swelled as when clear bubbles rise up from
yellow mud. With no longer than an hour's delay a
flower sprang up of blood-red hue such as pomegranates
bear which hide their seeds beneath the tenacious rind.
But short-lived is their flower; for the winds from
which it takes its name shake off the flower so
delicately clinging and doomed easily to fall.2

Ovid's conclusion to the story is finely balanced between consolation and regret. Venus establishes an annual ritual (the Adoniazusae) to commemorate the death of her lover. She does not have the power to grant him anything like a full-blown apotheosis and she needs to invoke the precedent of Persephone in order to justify the metamorphosis. But she does, at least, bring into being a flower that will continue to embody his beauty and his fragility. The last two lines, with the wonderfully mimetic suspension of the syntax and the final sighing exhalation of venti, leave us with the consolation that beauty, in some form or other, will always be renewed and with the regret that its specific incarnations will always prove transient.

In turning to Shakespeare, the first thing we notice is that his Venus is incapable of offering Adonis even the limited form of perpetuation granted in the Metamorphoses. Ovid's Venus defies the Fates ('all shall not be in your power') first by creating the ritual and then by performing the metamorphosis. Shakespeare's Venus seems too overcome by events to think of such positive action. There is, first of all, no suggestion of an annual commemoration and this is hardly surprising if we consider the tone of the immediately preceding speech where, under the guise of etiological prophecy, she has pronounced a curse on love and lovers:

Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy,
They that love best their loves shall not enjoy.3


A communal rite of mourning would, after all, be a way of coming to terms with death and a gesture of solidarity that Shakespeare's vindictive Venus, out of love with the world, is in no mood to make or accept.

Even more important is the fact that in Shakespeare the metamorphosis of Adonis appears as a natural miracle which owes nothing to the intentions or powers of the goddess:

By this the boy that by her side lay killed
Was melted like a vapour from her sight,
And in his blood that on the ground lay spilled
A purple flower sprung up check'red with white.


'By this' is typical of the poem's rapid transitions ('At this', 'With this', 'This said') and, as we can see from previous occurrences (175, 877, 973), indicates mere succession with no necessary suggestion of causality—especially since the preceding speech contains no reference whatsoever to metamorphosis. Venus, therefore, has no power over the natural world and the metamorphosis appears less as a consolation for the death of Adonis than as the last stage of the process that takes him from her. A number of details confirm that Shakespeare is, in fact, consciously undermining traditional readings of the myth. Not only is there no indication that Adonis embodies the vegetative and seasonal cycle (an aspect that is, in any case, barely perceptible in Ovid), but even the idea that the flower will somehow perpetuate his beauty is frustrated by the action of Venus herself.

She bows her head the new-sprung flower to smell,
Comparing it to her Adonis' breath,
And says within her bosom it shall dwell,
Since he himself is reft from her by death.
She crops the stalk, and in the breach appears
Green-dropping sap, which she compares to tears.


This gesture, absent in Ovid, is the one she has conventionally attributed to Death ('thou pluck'st a flower', 946), but it also recalls her own attempt to crop the flower of Adonis's virginity and her argument that flowers should be 'gath'red in their prime' (131). By now literalizing her own metaphor Venus inverts its significance. The metaphorical cropping of the youth's virginity would have ensured his perpetuation through offspring; the literal cropping of the flower cuts off any hope of regeneration. In this context, it may well be significant that Shakespeare does not identify the flower. Ovid specifies that, though it resembles the bloom of the pomegranate, it is, indeed, the flower that takes its name from the wind, the anemone (from Greek anemos) that his readers could recognize. By omitting to name the flower Shakespeare may be implying that it no longer exists; its beauty, like that of Adonis, has been lost without trace. We remember that Venus had urged on Adonis the reproductive example of 'sappy plants' (165), but here the 'green-dropping sap' of the Adonis-flower falls to the earth like wasted semen.

Shakespeare clearly modifies Ovid by depriving the metamorphosis of its consolatory function. And yet this modification remains in the spirit of Ovid where the metamorphosis usually involves two stages—first the progressive dissolution of the human identity and then the subject's reemergence in a radically simple form reflecting the status to which he or she has been reduced by the story. As Leonard Barkan remarks, 'the artistic effect of metamorphosis is to transform human identities into images'.4 Thus, to take only one example, the metamorphosis of Arachne (Met. VI. 1-145) eliminates all that made her an individual—her lowly birth, her professional pride, her irreverence towards the gods—and makes her simply a spider, the embodiment of skill in weaving. Even where the concluding image is more attractive, as with Daphne transformed into a laurel, admiration at the aesthetic solution is still tempered with a sense of human loss. Shakespeare's Adonis receives the same kind of treatment. Not only is the complex adolescent we have known reduced to a single image of beauty, but, in conformity with his rôle throughout the poem, it is a beauty that will not be reproduced.

Since Venus has not herself performed the metamorphosis, she remains uncertain as to how it should be understood. The radical ambivalence of her gesture in cropping the flower is reflected in a final speech that hovers between a recognition that it is no real perpetuation of Adonis and a desire to cherish it as his child.

"Poor flower", quoth she, "this way thy father's guise—
Sweet issue of a more sweet-smelling sire—
For every little grief to wet his eyes;
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.

"Here was thy father's bed, here in my breast;
Thou art the next of blood, and 'tis thy right.
Lo, 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".


The two stanzas complete Venus's rewriting of the story which, omitting all reference to her sexual aggression and his resistance, has already transformed the stubborn young hunter into a marvellous child who, like the child in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, restores Nature to a prelapsarian harmony where the lamb need no longer fear the wolf and where even the boar only wounds Adonis in a misguided attempt to kiss him (1081-1116). Now the Adonis-flower becomes both a child to be cradled at her breast and the lover that Adonis has never been. Jonathan Bate has argued persuasively that the image of the son who takes his father's place in the mother's bed is an 'adroit variation' on the Myrrha story in Ovid.

Ovid begins his tale with Adonis as a son issuing from a tree, Shakespeare ends his with a flower issuing from Adonis who thus becomes a father. Shakespeare's Venus acts out an extraordinary family romance. By imaging her lover as a father, she makes herself into the mother and the flower into the fruit of their union. But the logic of the imagery dictates that the flower is her sexual partner as well as her child, for it clearly substitutes for Adonis himself.5

The birth of Adonis was the result of an incestuous father-daughter union (Cinyras and Myrrha); Venus exploits his death and metamorphosis to envisage a further incest which is that of mother and son. But even without reference to the Myrrha story, it would still be clear that incest is the only conclusion that can satisfy Venus's desire to possess Adonis both as child and as lover. Throughout the poem she has alternated between bouts of sexual aggression and moments of maternal protectiveness. She concludes with the only image that can reconcile her 'variable passions' (967).

Venus exploits the power that the living usually have over the dead, that of being able to transform them into self-flattering fictions. The Adonis-flower, unlike Adonis himself, cannot answer back to say that he is no longer a child and will not be a lover. But the passage suggests that Venus is not really convinced by her own rhetoric. The consolation involved in seeing the flower as the child of Adonis is undermined by her memory of the Adonis who refused procreation despite her argument that 'things growing to themselves are growth's abuse' (166).

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.


This, surely, is a recognition that the metamorphosis must be ultimately meaningless. Even cradled at her breast, the flower will still wither and is, therefore, no real perpetuation of Adonis. Only ironically can the flower be made to resemble Adonis by being rendered barren. There is a touch of the same vindictiveness that marked her curse on love. Adonis himself has vanished without trace, and so she condemns the flower to the same extinction. Venus had prophesied that the world and its beauty could not survive the death of Adonis (10-11, 1019-20); that prophecy has obviously not been fulfilled ('The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh and trim', 1079), but she does her best to take revenge for Nature's indifference by cropping whatever beauty comes to hand.

It is, finally, disgust with the world that gains the upper hand over the illusory consolations of the metamorphosis.

Thus weary of the world away she hies,
And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid
Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies,
In her light chariot quickly is conveyed,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure herself, and not be seen.


There is a fine irony in the suggestion that Venus, whose habitual imagery has been so all-embracing, so world-welcoming, (the metaphorical expansion of her body into a deer-park, 229-40) now intends, by immuring herself, to imitate the attitude of Adonis who yearned for 'quiet closure' and the solitude of his bedchamber (781-6). As for the flight, the couplet may, as Roe suggests, contain an echo of Virgil:6

ipsa Paphum sublimis abit sedesque revisit
laeta suas, ubi templum illi centumque Sabaeo
ture calent arae sertisque recentibus halant.

(Aen. I. 415-7)

She herself through the sky goes her way to Paphos, and joyfully revisits her abode, where the temple and its hundred altars steam with Sabaean incense and are fragrant with garlands ever fresh.

If Shakespeare is indeed inviting comparison with the Virgilian passage, then our attention is drawn to the difference between the role of the goddess in his poem and her very different status in the epic. Virgil's Venus leaves her son, Aeneas, with words of encouragement after demonstrating her power to protect him; Shakespeare's Venus leaves Adonis whom she regards as the son she has been unable to protect. Aeneas is destined to become the father of a great race; Adonis has no progeny. In the Aeneid Venus flies away in a joyful spirit to receive the homage of her worshippers and to be greeted with 'garlands ever fresh'; in Venus and Adonis she is 'weary of the world', 'means to immure herself and carries a flower that will wither at her breast. For Virgil's Venus divinity involves a power to change the world; for Shakespeare's goddess divinity offers, at best, an escape from the world that she cannot change.

There is, of course, also a flight to Paphos in Ovid. After warning Adonis of the dangers of hunting, Venus leaves for Paphos and is recalled in mid-flight by the groans of the dying youth (Met X. 717-20). Thus Ovid's story ends not with Venus abandoning the world, but with her returning to it, accepting her share of grief and offering the consolation of a ritual and a metamorphosis. Shakespeare's Venus has nothing to offer the world except her curse. Ovid's version concludes with a goddess who stands on earth, sharing our common human experience of transience and loss; but Shakespeare's goddess has already been all too human—frustrated, sweating and repeatedly falling to the ground. Being a creature of extremes, she reacts by a rejection of humanity. There is no trace here of the goddess who, according to Heather Asals, undergoes a Neoplatonic education and rises from lust to love.7 For most of the poem Venus has been descending not ascending the Neoplatonic ladder (see her inversion of the hierarchy of the senses, 433-50), and the sensuality of her last incestuous image does not suggest that she has changed very much. What has changed is that the goddess of love has discovered what it is like to be subject to her own law ('Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn', 251) and has not enjoyed the experience. It is precisely because her descent has ended in defeat that her ascent sounds so resentfully definitive.

The comparisons with Virgil and Ovid might lead us to think that Venus and Adonis ends with the desolate vision of a world deprived of divine sympathy or protection, overarched by 'the empty skies' and abandoned to the meaningless violence of the boar. But any sense of gloom is surely dispelled by the grace, swiftness and lightness of the imagery. Venus may intend to 'immure herself, but her actual movement is one of aerial and unrestricted freedom. There is, if anything, a sense of relief in seeing the goddess restored to her supernatural element of space and soaring flight, finally released from the gravity that bound her to earth and to the human condition. We respond this way because we too are released from gravity, freed from any temptation to read this ending as the conclusion to a real human tragedy. The burden of pathos that might have been imposed on the reader by seeing Venus as a mater dolorosa is lifted by this magical Venus whose silver doves draw her chariot through the skies. We need not feel too sorry for someone who can so easily shake off the weight of the world and we are, indeed, slyly encouraged to think that her protestations of eternal devotion to the memory of Adonis should be taken with a pinch of salt. We are not told that she will, in fact, 'immure herself, and not be seen', only that she 'means' to do so. Shakespeare does not go as far as Ronsard who reminds us that she will soon replace Adonis with the Phrygian shepherd, Anchises ('Telles sont et seront les amitiez des femmes'), but there is a hint of the same urbane cynicism.8

Shakespeare's handling of the conclusion works on two levels: on the one hand, as we have seen, he undermines the positive significance of the metamorphosis as a perpetuation of beauty or as a myth of seasonal regeneration; on the other hand, he clears the atmosphere and lightens the spirit by finally restoring the tale to the realm of fable. And this procedure brings to the surface some of the assumptions that underlie Shakespeare's treatment of his Ovidian source. For all the portentous interpretations of classical myth offered by Renaissance Neoplatonists (some of them still plague criticism of Venus and Adonis), the Ovidian revival of the sixteenth century did not necessarily lend itself to solemnity. Though an occasional allegorical gloss might come in useful to deflect censorship, there is little evidence that Lodge, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Drayton and other authors of epyllia regarded classical mythology as a repository of universal wisdom. Given the reverence with which modern criticism usually uses the term 'myth', it might be better to speak of the Ovidian stories as 'fables'—fables which did not invite the reader to suspend his disbelief and which, therefore, allowed Renaissance poets to treat potentially serious sexual themes without committing themselves to seriousness. The ending of Venus and Adonis is consistent with this attitude. It is designed to distance the reader from the often hilarious but frequently uncomfortable psychological realism of the poem he has been reading. The real and final metamorphosis is that of a frustrated woman and a sullen youth into miraculous apparitions who vanish in the turning of a verse. Adonis is 'melted' from our sight and Venus disappears into 'the empty skies'. The whole poem, so fraught with unresolved tensions, so psychologically convincing, so solidly rooted in our earthly experience, dissolves like the masque in The Tempest, freeing us to regard as entertainment the disturbing passions it has entertained.


1 For the Ovidian sources of Venus and Adonis the most useful modern editions are Hyder Edward Rollins, The Poems: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia, 1938) and F. T. Prince, The Poems, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1960). There is a detailed scholarly account of the Ovidian influence in T.W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakspere's Poems and Sonnets (Urbana, 111., 1950). The most stimulating critical discussion of what Ovid means to Venus and Adonis is in Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993), Chapter Two, 'Sexual Poetry'.

2 For Latin texts I have used the editions of the Loeb Classical Library with translations by Frank Justus Miller (Ovid) and H. R. Fairclough (Virgil).

3 All citations are to the The Poems, ed. John Roe, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1992). Line numbers are given in brackets.

4 Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven, Conn., 1986), p. 26.

5 Op. cit., pp. 58-9.

6 Op. cit., p. 138.

7 Heather Asals, 'Venus and Adonis: The Education of a Goddess', SEL 13 (1973), 31-51.

8 'Adonis' in Ronsard, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Gustave Cohen (Paris, 1950), vol. 2, p. 33.

Source: "The Ending of Venus and Adonis," in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 4, July, 1997, pp. 334-41.