Venus and Adonis
Venus and Adonis, first published in 1593, was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. In his dedication, Shakespeare describes the poem as "the first heire of my inuention," a statement that has lead some scholars to suggest that the poem was Shakespeare's first literary endeavor. Most modern critics, however, have almost unanimously interpreted the statement as meaning that the work was either Shakespeare's first nondramatic piece, or at least his first published work. At any rate, the erotic tale of Venus and Adonis was immediately popular, as evidenced by as many as ten reprintings over the twenty-five years following its initial publication.
It is commonly agreed among modern scholars that the direct source of Venus and Adonis is Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Shakespeare's poem about the goddess and hunter, as noted by many critics, represents a revision of the Ovidian tale. As Gordon Williams (1983) notes, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis represents a "radical alteration" of Ovid's story. The major difference between the two versions, maintains Williams, is Adonis's failure to respond to Venus in Shakespeare's poem. Theodore L. Steinberg (1990) maintains that Shakespeare' s manipulation of Ovid was designed to comically treat the significance of Venus and her role in human existence.
While observing these deviations from Ovid, critics also underscore Shakespeare's adherence to Ovidian tradition, that is, the stylistic conventions which Ovid used in storytelling, in terms of setting, structure, tone, and use of rhetoric. Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in Venus and Adonis has received a great deal of attention by twentieth-century critics. As Lucy Gent (1974) points out, Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in this poem has been praised for being "very well done" although many agree that it is tedious, and not particularly relevant to a modern understanding of the poem. Gent explains that the poem's rhetoric illuminates several aspects of the poem, including its tone and characterization. Similarly, Pauline Kiernan (1995) explores the "self-conscious artistry and elaborate rhetoric" of Venus and Adonis in an attempt to pinpoint its purpose and significance. Kiernan argues that Shakespeare's use of rhetoric in the poem serves the larger purpose of aiding Shakespeare's examination of his poetic identity and of literary imitation.
In addition to Ovid's influence, scholars having observed that Edmund Spenser included the myth of Venus and Adonis in his The Faerie Queen (1590) and that Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Laender (1593) also contains reference to the goddess and hunter, have suggested that these works may have influenced Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis as well. Critics such as Ellen Aprili Harwood (1977) suggest that not only did Shakespeare use Spenser's poem a source for Venus and Adonis, but he also used Venus and Adonis as a means of critically evaluating Spenser's Garden of Adonis, his erotic philosophy as depicted in the Garden of Adonis, and Spenser's Ovidianism. Gent also notes that in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare participates in a rhetorical contest with Hero and Leander.
Venus and Adonis has also been examined by twentieth-century critics in terms of its allegorical characteristics and its structure of conflict and contradiction. Donald G. Watson (1978) argues that the poem's allegorical implications are confused by Adonis's death and transformation. Watson believes that using the Renaissance theory of passions to identify desire and anger, rather than lust and reason, as the true polarities of the poem can help clarify the poem's meaning. Wayne A. Rebhorn (1978) suggests that the relationship between Venus and Adonis is one of mother and child, not one which centers around the conflict between Venus's lust and desire for propagation and Adonis's "self-centered egotism." Lennet J. Daigle (1980) demonstrates that examining the actions of Venus and Adonis with respect to their traditional allegorical roles helps resolve many questions about the poem's meaning.