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 interpreted the statement as meaning that the work was either Shakespeare's first nondramatic piece, or at least his first published work. Likely composed from Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the erotic tale of a mythological goddess's lust for a beautiful hunter was immediately popular, as evidenced by as many as ten reprintings over the twenty-five years following its initial publication. A rather lengthy period of critical disparagement followed, in which the figures in the poem were frequently reduced to allegorical significance. In the twentieth century, Venus and Adonis has elicited favorable scholarly comment, with a number of contemporary critics studying the complex romantic relationship of its principal characters. Focusing on Venus's desire and Adonis's denial, commentators have explored Shakespeare's ambivalent formulation of the rhetoric of love in the poem.
The exploration of erotic themes figures centrally in recent critical study of Venus and Adonis, with many scholars approaching this subject by means of Shakespeare's rhetorical treatment of romance and desire. Goran V. Stanivukovic (1997) argues that the rhetorical strategies of the poem provide its meaning, and that the failure of Venus's passionate arguments to woo Adonis reflects the impropriety of her lust. A. D. Cousins (1996) evaluates the predominately Petrarchan rhetoric employed by Venus in her seduction of Adonis, which contrasts with his silent, Platonic rhetoric of rejection. Cousins also examines the unique and transgressive quality of Shakespeare's poem which makes a male figure the chaste object of sexual desire. Tita French Baumlin (1990) evaluates Shakespeare's transformation of his direct source for the work, Ovid's Metamorphosis. Noting Shakespeare's ostensible imitation of Ovid, Baumlin contends that Venus and Adonis departs from its source material, principally in its humanized portrayal of Venus through her failed rhetoric of passion.
Regard for the element of ambiguity in Venus and Adonis is another dominant feature of contemporary critical interest. While acknowledging that some allegorical assessments of the poem can be considered reductive, Robert P. Merrix (1997) proposes an approach that privileges complexity, but retains allegorical significance. Merrix aligns Venus with domestic sexuality, contrasting this with Adonis's thirst for adventure and the unknown—symbolized by the boar that brings about his death. Despite such interpretations, Merrix also notes that both Venus and Adonis undergo social and psychological transformations in the poem. James Schiffer (1997) also values Shakespeare's complex representation of erotic desire in Venus and Adonis. Employing Lacanian psychoanalysis, Schiffer views the work as an ironic and tragicomic display of Venus's unquenchable phallic lust that, ultimately, defers final interpretation. Recent thematic assessments of the work have likewise privileged ambiguity in Venus and Adonis. John Klaus (1998), considering the theme of forgiveness, observes the pluralistic quality of the poem, which is in turn comic, satiric, and tragic. Analyzing the characters of Venus and Adonis, Klaus finds them to be at once guilty and pitiable. Nona Fienberg (1989) perceives the figure of Venus as mutable and diverse in contrast to Adonis, who remains fixed. In attempting to provide a theoretical framework from which to assess the poem, Fienberg employs the metaphor of "the marketplace of value" to describe the dynamically shifting struggle for sexual power in Venus and Adonis.