Venus and Adonis
Venus and Adonis, an erotic poem published in 1593, is believed by some critics to be Shakespeare's first poem, and perhaps his first published work. Inspired by a mythological tale found in Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poem centers on the refusal of a beautiful youth, Adonis, to submit to the amorous advances of Venus, the goddess of love. The poem concludes with Adonis's death after he is gored by a wild boar. Additional sources of the work include Ovid's erotic poems, Ars Amatoria, from which Shakespeare may have derived his version of Venus's conquest of Mars and Adonis's contention that he is too young to love. Despite the strong presence of Ovidian material in the poem, contemporary critics have noted that Shakespeare largely departed from his sources with his depiction of a willfully resistant Adonis and his brilliantly dramatic characterization of Venus. Although very popular in Shakespeare's day, Venus and Adonis suffered a lengthy interlude of critical neglect from the mid-seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, but was rediscovered in the twentieth century. Many contemporary scholars find Venus and Adonis to be an accomplished work in which Shakespeare transcended the limited conventions of Renaissance sensual poetry by addressing serious philosophical issues. Modern commentators are frequently captivated by the figure of Venus, and have studied the poem's allegorical and moral elements, as well as its masterful display of rhetoric and its complex study of desire.
Shakespeare's depiction of character, especially of Venus, has continued to be one of the most compelling areas of critical interest in Venus and Adonis. While traditional assessments of the goddess have tended to be unfavorable, emphasizing her lustful aggressiveness toward Adonis, her reluctant paramour has frequently been viewed as a static figure, immobile in his resistance to Venus's sensuous advances. John Doebler (1982) considers the title characters of the poem in light of Renaissance pictorial depictions of these mythic figures. In particular, Doebler compares the paintings of Adonis and Venus by Italian Renaissance painter Titian with Shakespeare's rendering of these mythological figures in his poem Venus and Adonis. The critic explores the possibility that Titian's paintings were a source for Shakespeare's poem, and also examines how both artists altered Ovid's original myth in their works. Heather Dubrow (1987) underscores resemblances between the central figures of Venus and Adonis and the complex characters found in Shakespearean drama. She argues that Shakespeare depicted his Venus as a flattering love poet, at various moments forceful or tender, depending on the shifting dictates of her rhetorical mode. Delving into Venus's psychological makeup, Dubrow highlights the goddess's volatile nature and potential to variously elicit the reader's sympathy or moral aversion. Dubrow also probes the psychological motivations of Adonis, whom she sees as an entrapped figure, imprisoned by his own unsettled emotional responses and conflicting moral obligations—making him a tragic foil to the voracious Venus. Finally, considering Adonis's death, Dubrow suggests that its apparent randomness stresses Shakespeare's thematic interest in the capriciousness of fate.
Traditional critical approaches to theme in Venus and Adonis have generally tended to explore the poem's allegorical and moral elements, as well as Shakespeare's masterful display of rhetoric and complex study of desire in the poem. Eugene B. Cantelupe (1963) explores the structure and imagery of Venus and Adonis, viewing the work as an Ovidian poem that satirically contrasts Love and Beauty and features a strong moralizing element. The critic concludes that the work is a cautionary tale on the dangers of extreme lust. Robert P. Miller (1959) comments on Shakespeare's ironic use of Ovidian moral themes associated with the mythological love affair of Venus and Mars, which is recounted by Venus as she attempts to woo Adonis. Miller examines Shakespeare's stylistic deviation from Ovid's version of the myth, and contends that despite his deviations Shakespeare's poem engages in typically Ovidian moral ambiguity by emphasizing a complex juxtaposition of the seemingly opposed ethical concepts of lust and virtue. W. R. Streitberger (1975) considers a complementary moral theme in his study of Venus and Adonis. For Streitberger, Adonis personifies an ethical choice between responsibility and neglect in the context of romantic courtship; by rejecting the erotic advances of Venus, the critic claims, Adonis makes a moral choice in favor of constancy to duty. Anthony Mortimer (see Further Reading) identifies rhetoric as the poem's fundamental concern and principal theme. He traces a thematic link between rhetorical display, self-knowledge, moral relativity (in, among other things, the potential continuity between love and lust), and the expression of sensual desire. Richard Halpern (1997) explores Venus and Adonis as a misogynist work directed toward female, rather than male, readers. The critic examines its “slightly grotesque portrayal of female sexual desire” and maintains that the poem is concerned with female sexual frustration and places Venus in the symbolic role of the feminine reader.