Venus and Adonis
An erotic tale relating Venus's unsuccessful pursuit of Adonis, Venus and Adonis is believed by some to be Shakespeare's first poem, and perhaps his first published work. Published in 1593, most scholars agree that the poem was written when playhouses in London were closed due to the plague. Evidence of the poem's popularity includes the fact that it was reprinted at least ten times in the twenty-five years that followed its 1593 debut. Most critics agree that Shakespeare relied on Ovid as a source for Venus and Adonis; Ovid's account of the couple appears in Book X of the Metamorphoses (c. 8 a.d.). Yet Shakespeare's version of the relationship is much different than Ovid's, as Shakespeare's Adonis does not return Venus's passionate advances. Shakespeare's depiction of Venus is the focus of many modern critical analyses of the poem, as critics attempt to demonstrate Venus's development as a character. The poem's status as allegory is another area of scholarly study, as is its treatment of sexuality and desire.
Venus is regarded unfavorably by some critics, who see the goddess as amusing, lusty, and overly aggressive. Adonis rebuffs Venus’s sexual advances, and his decision to hunt the boar rather than linger with her results in his death. However, Venus’s lusty image has been reassessed by modern critics such as Heather Asals (1973), James H. Lake (1974), and A. D. Cousins (2000). Asals studies Venus and her responses toward Adonis in light of the Neoplatonic hierarchy of the senses. The critic examines Venus's growth as a character and her progression from “Lust” to “Love,” concluding that Venus as “Love” represents “life in death” and offers the possibility of rebirth. Similarly, Lake tracks Venus's progress throughout the course of the poem, observing that a shift from comedy to tragedy occurs when Venus learns that Adonis will hunt the boar. Lake contends that following this transformation, Venus begins to develop into a “sincere and tender” individual. Cousins asserts that the characterization of both Venus and Adonis is more complex than many critics have allowed. In examining Venus's character, the critic finds that Venus lives the human experience of what it is like to love in vain, and that through this experience Venus is at least partially transformed. Cousins's study of Adonis's characterization shows that Adonis is associated with the feminine through his rhetoric, and through his role as the object of the male narrator's gaze.
The allegorical possibilities presented by Venus and Adonis are also an area of critical interest. Sayre Greenfield (1998) notes that Shakespeare's poem, as well as the treatment of the Venus and Adonis myth in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen (1590), are often read allegorically in order to moralize the text or to establish the text's coherence. Greenfield observes that some twentieth-century scholars have attempted to rehabilitate the poem’s literary image through allegory so that it may be included in the Shakespearean canon of “higher literature.” David N. Beauregard (1975) also addresses the nature of the allegory informing the poem, analyzing this issue in terms of the Renaissance theory regarding the sensitive soul and its two parts: the “concupiscible” and the “irascible” powers.
Another popular topic of critical study is the poem’s treatment of sexual desire. Catherine Belsey (1995) contends that Venus and Adonis generates desire and promises to provide a definitive portrayal of love, yet it ultimately fails to deliver. Instead of offering closure, Belsey notes, the poem tempts and teases the reader through a variety of methods, including the reversal of conventional ideas about gender roles, the imprecise nature of the poem's genre, and the presentation of love as both material and physical as well as ethereal and other-worldly. In another study of the poem's treatment of sexuality and desire, Jonathan Bate (1993) shows how Shakespeare's handling of Ovid, like that of his contemporaries Thomas Lodge (Scillaes Metamorphosis, 1589) and Christopher Marlowe (Hero and Leander, 1598), does not attempt to offer a moralized account of human love. Rather, these authors practice “Elizabethan Ovidianism” in that their treatment of the myth is not intended as a moralization, but as a study of the psychological exploration of love and desire. Through his investigation of the way Shakespeare utilized Ovid, Bate finds an emphasis on the transgressive nature of sexual love, and an exploration of the darker aspects of desire; for example, Bate illustrates the way in which Venus is portrayed as both a lover and a mother, suggesting incest and the threatening nature of female desire.