(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cantelupe, Eugene B. “An Iconographical Interpretation of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's Ovidian Comedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 2 (spring 1963): 141-51.

[In the following essay, Cantelupe examines 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 in its lust motif.]

Italian Renaissance painters and English Renaissance poets knew that Ovid's Venus ardently wooed an Adonis who was more interested in hunting than in love-making. This is how Shakespeare and Titian portray them. But here the resemblance between the greatest and most influential of literary and pictorial versions of the Ovidian myth ends.1

In Titian's Pardo Venus, in the Louvre, the goddess reposes peacefully in an idyllic forest because her beloved, a young Italian courtier, indulges his love for the noble sport by hunting a gentle stag; and in the version in the Prado Museum, Venus desperately clutches at a handsome Greek athlete because he is forsaking her to hunt the ferocious boar. Veronese, preferring to emphasize the love that Adonis, according to Ovid, did not entirely scorn, features in two paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna a shy lad who lifts the hand of Venus from his thigh, and in the other version, an aggressive youth who fondles her breast. Both Venetians create pastoral settings, reminiscent of the Golden Age, for their paragons of physical beauty, but neither they nor such artists as Sebastiano del Piombo and Cambiaso, who were also attracted to the myth, depict as outrageously comic a couple as Shakespeare in his Venus and Adonis.2 Far from an Arcadian meadow, in the English countryside parched from the sun's “purple-coloured face”,3 a love-sick Amazon immediately gathers the reins of Adonis' horse over one arm, and under the other easily tucks, like a sack of beans,

… the tender boy,
Who blush'd and pouted in a dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy,
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire,
He red for shame, but frosty in desire.

(ll. 32-36.)

The icy, petulant Adonis is an English gentleman who, handsome and naive as Marlowe's Leander, is identified with Beauty, the bait for Love; and Venus, although distressingly muscular, is the incredibly beautiful—the reader has her oft-repeated word for it—goddess of love. But like Marlowe's Mercury, who fails at seduction because he ironically substitutes earthly gymnastics for Olympian eloquence, Venus also fails because she insists upon underlining her persuasive arguments with excessive snatching, pawing, and crushing. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare, trying their hand at the new erotic-mythological poem, pull out all the rhetorical stops at their command—amorous dialectic, subtle puns and ingenious conceits, original mythological embroidery, and sexual humor ranging from the witty to the farcical—to prove themselves sophisticated gentlemen-poets as well as commercial dramatists. Like Lodge and Thomas Edwards, they also make the erotic, Italianate qualities of the genre more palatable to English taste by means of comedy.4

Shakespeare very probably wrote Love's Labour's Lost and Venus and Adonis at the same time, the play for an audience as emancipated in its literary taste as the talented young Earl of Southampton, to whom the poem is dedicated. Whereas in the play the courtly lovers display the folly of denying love, only to be punished by Cupid with its opposite, that of doting upon it, in the poem Adonis laughs at and scorns love, and Venus dwells upon it ad nauseam. Either form of behavior was considered excessive and unreasonable by the Elizabethans, and for the dramatists it was a subject for comedy. For Shakespeare, who considered love primarily a subject for comedy, such foolish extremes demanded the comic mode.5

Coleridge first noticed that Venus and Adonis consists of a series of sharply etched scenes rendered in dialogue that are relieved occasionally by stage business and stitched by a “never broken chain of imagery, always vivid and, because unbroken, often minute.”6 In other words, Shakespeare creates a simple, dramatic structure which supports an enormous weight of rhetorical embellishment and reveals, quickly and effectively, the characters of the heroine and hero.

The time scheme is twenty-four hours, from the first morning when Venus plucks the ruddy-faced boy from his horse, to the following morning when she finds his gored body. The first morning passes in lengthy lectures by Venus on her beauty and his responsibility to beget children, and an exemplum of her escapade with Mars (ll. 1-259); at noon, a breeding jennet distracts the horse of Adonis, and by nightfall, Venus has won no more for her brilliant and exhausting sermons and her clever but strenuous acrobatics than one quick, reviving, and one long, swooning kiss—which does not end in consummation but, ironically, in another sermon, this time delivered by Adonis (ll. 260-825). The second morning, when the gentle lark “From his moyst cabinet mounts upon hie”, includes her apostrophe to Death, her discovery of her beloved's body, and her final lament that sorrow shall ever attend upon love (ll. 853-1194). Thus, the first twelve hours consist mainly of lectures delivered by Venus, and the last six of her soliloquies.7

Shakespeare, of course, gives the stellar role to Venus, and his casting her as an aggressive and practised siren who pursues an innocent and adolescent boy—he knew of Lodge's and Greene's less effective attempts, and of the reversal of the roles in Marlowe's popular poem—demanded an exploitation of the sensuous and erotic as well as the satirical and farcical.8 Moreover, he makes doubly certain that the basic situation in which he places them provide for every possible irony. The virile, handsome Adonis, who loves hunting—“but loue he laught to scorn”—possesses a sweating palm which attests to his “pith and livelihood”; but he grows more scornful and resistant as Venus, who is “Loue … loues, and yet is not lou'd”, grows more desperate and frenzied. He emerges as a self-indulgent, at times irritatingly obtuse but disarmingly naive male; and she a voracious, extravagantly absurd yet immensely comic and sympathetic female. Her never flagging efforts to fire the passive youth with either the procreative arguments that comprise Shakespeare's first eighteen sonnets or with glowing descriptions of her physical beauty and sexual prowess not only reveal her self-confidence, insatiable appetite, and wit, but also beget sympathy through rollicking, robust humor. Adonis is the inverse of Romeo and Troilus, and Venus the obverse of Juliet's Nurse and Falstaff.

One of Shakespeare's most happy touches is the goddess's proclivity for self-praise, often wild and hyperbolic but always amusing and entertaining.9 The most effective of these self-laudatory passages is her recital of the conquest of Mars, an exemplum which should not only instruct the youth woefully ignorant of amatory lore but also impress him with the reputation of the woman who so desperately begs his attention. Shakespeare renders the scene as a magnificent medieval pageant. After Venus tells Adonis that Mars became her captive and slave who begged for that which the boy can have without asking, she describes the war god as prancing across a tented field on a caparisoned stallion, his “churlish drumme” beating an accompaniment to each victory—except that of love. To it he makes the supreme sacrifice. Over her altar, Venus boasts, he

… hung his lance,
His batter'd shield, his uncontrolled crest,
And for my sake hath learn'd to sport and dance,
To toy, to wanton, dally, smile and iest …
Making my arms his field, his tent my bed.

(ll. 104-109)

This stanzaic picture contrasts with Spenser's portrayal of a languid Acrasia and an impassive Verdant in the Bower of Bliss, but compares with a Venus and Mars painting by Francesca Cossa. The resemblance to Cossa's pictorial version, in the astrological cycle that decorates one of the rooms of the Palazzo Schifonia at Ferrara, depends upon the last image of the passage, which is one of the most engaging in the poem and one of Shakespeare's original details in his telling of this legendary romance. Venus emphasizes her triumph over Mars by adding that she then led him “prisoner in a red-rose chain”.10 This image alludes to her planetary grace and amiability, which are stronger than the physical prowess of the planet Mars, a power which Cossa depicts by placing Venus on a chariot with Mars, in full armor, kneeling before her, his waist encircled by a chain attached to her throne.

This passage not only summarizes the contemporary iconographical tradition in both the literary and graphic media but also illuminates the delicately lyrical, yet the smotheringly possessive qualities of Venus. This illustration, which Venus draws literally from the heights of Olympus and the heavenly spheres, succeeds merely in moving the youth, locked within the goddess's embrace, to complain

… Fie! no more of loue:
The sunne doth burn my face. …

(ll. 187-188)

Even this childish rebuff fails to daunt her. Immediately, and ingeniously, she converts her arms, “this circuit of … iuory pale”, into protecting borders around the park of her body, which includes hills, valleys, and a delightful plain with fountains,

Sweet bottom-grass …
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure, and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest, and from raine:
Then be my deare, since I am such a parke,
No dog shal rowze thee, though a thousand bark.

(ll. 236-240)

Such conceits, worthy of a Biron or a Mercutio, only bring a smile of disdain to the cheeks of the boy, whose dimples ravish the goddess anew.

Shakespeare carefully balances her astonishing eloquence with physical dexterity and cunning. The more witty and clever her arguments, the stiffer the resistance they arouse in Adonis. This causes her to steam, sweat, and indulge in amorous gymnastics that are as bawdy and comical as her speeches. The late evening scene with the two kisses and the two fainting spells offers the best illustration. When Venus compensates for lack of physical union by indulging in a banquet of sense (ll. 435-450), her frustration sends her into a faint that he, conscience-stricken, attempts to erase with a brotherly peck and then a vigorous rubbing, clapping, and pinching of her anatomy. She revives, purring

O, where am I … in earth or heaven,
Or in the ocean drencht, or in the fire?
What hour is this? or morn or weary even?
Do I delight to die, or life desire?

(ll. 493-496)

When he informs her that he cannot meet her the next morning to continue “the match” because he is going boar hunting with friends, she so trembles with terror that she grabs him around the neck—making certain that when they sink to the ground this time, “He on her belly falls, she on her back.”

A forbidding note of death strikes across this uproarious scene—like that struck by the toy apple that an earthly Madonna often hands to a bouncing Christ Child in many Renaissance paintings—but Shakespeare muffles its sound by the superbly funny picture of this Mae Westian woman, who, like a military strategist, has at last maneuvered the enemy into a vulnerable position. Although Adonis again slips away, she, indestructible and indefatigable, counters with more verbal fireworks, pointing out the dangers of hunting the hideous boar, and the rewards of chasing the timorous hare, with which she ironically identifies herself, thus inviting Adonis for the hundredth time, surely, to pursue her instead.

The focus, of course, is upon Venus, not Adonis, who is not at all as interesting or appealing. His male beauty and youth serve mainly to incite Venus to words and acts that burlesque Renaissance styles, romantic literary conventions, and Neoplatonic notions of love. Yet he, too, is a comic character, manifesting the ridiculous naiveté and annoying priggishness that accompany virtually complete disinterest in and ignorance of love and sex. He makes a perfect foil, like Hal to Falstaff.

This “rose-cheek” male is no sooner pulled to the ground by the aggressive female than he pouts and blushes like a guilty child. When she fumes like a furnace, he squirms in her fiery embrace like a school boy whose uncomfortable plight becomes increasingly amusing because of his complete lack of awareness that he has inspired in her such consuming passion.11 Bewildered and self-pitying, his only responses to the flattery, pleadings, and exertions of Venus are—

… Let me go;
My day's delight is past, my horse is gone,
And 'tis your fault I am bereft him so. …

(ll. 379-381)

Fie, fie, you crush me: let me go;
You have no reason to withold me so. …

(ll. 611-612)

His longest and most famous speech on lust and love—it is delivered after a strenuous day with a talkative and perspiring gymnast who has lectured and coaxed, bounced and crushed him—comes as a surprise, even a shock. Undoubtedly the...

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John Doebler (essay date winter 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Doebler, John. “The Reluctant Adonis: Titian and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 4 (winter 1982): 480-90.

[In the following essay, Doebler compares Renaissance pictorial representations of Adonis and Venus with Shakespeare's rendering of these mythological figures in his poem Venus and Adonis.]

Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight
Adonis painted by a running brook,
And Cytherea all in sedges hid.

These words describe one of the “wanton” pictures the drunken tinker from The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94) can expect to enjoy as a lord (Induction, ii. 49-51). The subject of this article is Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 4713 words.)

Heather Dubrow (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dubrow, Heather. “‘Upon Misprison Growing’: Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 223-46. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Dubrow interprets the behavior and motivations of Venus and Adonis, and examines the ways in which Shakespeare dramatized the psychological elements of their characters.]

Readers have long acknowledged certain similarities between Venus and some of Shakespeare's dramatic characters: she shares, we are told, the earthiness of Falstaff, the sensuality of Cleopatra, and the determination of comedic heroines like...

(The entire section is 9824 words.)

Robert P. Miller (essay date December 1959)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Robert P. “The Myth of Mars's Hot Minion in Venus and Adonis.ELH 26, no. 4 (December 1959): 470-81.

[In the following essay, Miller comments on Shakespeare's ironic use of Ovidian moral themes associated with the mythological love affair of Venus and Mars recounted in Venus and Adonis.]


An interesting departure from the source of Venus and Adonis (Metamorphoses X, 503-559, 705-739) is Shakespeare's “reference,” as it has been called,1 to the fable of Venus and Mars in a passage (sts. 17-19) which has received surprisingly little attention from critics of this “first heire” of...

(The entire section is 4911 words.)

W. R. Streitberger (essay date summer 1975)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Streitberger, W. R. “Ideal Conduct in Venus and Adonis.Shakespeare Quarterly 26, no. 3 (summer 1975): 285-91.

[In the following essay, Streitberger stresses the moral themes of Venus and Adonis, and views Adonis as the embodiment of the young nobleman faced with a dilemma between duty and the temptation to neglect responsibility.]

Although the sonnets in The Passionate Pilgrim (IV, VI, IX, XI) represent, as T. W. Baldwin observed, “a kind of first handling of the Venus and Adonis story, out of which the poem of Venus and Adonis grew,”1 Don Cameron Allen has pointed out that the narrative poem takes an entirely...

(The entire section is 4135 words.)

Richard Halpern (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Halpern, Richard. “‘Pining Their Maws’: Female Readers and the Erotic Ontology of the Text in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 377-88. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, Halpern focuses on Venus and Adonis as a misogynist poem concerning female sexual frustration that places Venus in the symbolic role of the feminine reader.]

The prefatory material to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is a study in disingenuousness and misdirection, beginning with the epigraph from Ovid's Amores: “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo / Pocula...

(The entire section is 5029 words.)

Gary Kuchar (essay date September 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kuchar, Gary. “Narrative and the Forms of Desire in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.Early Modern Literary Studies 5, no. 2 (September 1999): 4.1-24.

[In the following essay, Kuchar examines the rhetorical and intertextual elements of Venus and Adonis and demonstrates “that the poem's frustrating effects are largely a product of its rhetorical design.”]

Recent articles by Catherine Belsey, Richard Halpern, and James Schiffer have shifted the critical focus of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis from questions of what the poem means, to how it means, from its moral allegory to its erotic and literary effects. For Belsey, this transition...

(The entire section is 8797 words.)

Lauren Shohet (essay date winter 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Shohet, Lauren. “Shakespeare's Eager Adonis.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42, no. 1 (winter 2002): 85-102.

[In the following essay, Shohet illuminates the distinctive oppositional modes of desire articulated by the title characters of Venus and Adonis.]

In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, when Venus solicits Adonis, he famously turns away. Venus entreats:

“Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed,
And rein his proud head to the saddle-bow;
If thou wilt deign this favor, for thy meed
A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know.”(1)

Adonis rebuffs her, because “Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to...

(The entire section is 6540 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Butler, Christopher, and Alastair Fowler. “Time-Beguiling Sport: Number Symbolism in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 157-69. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Stresses the presence of numerological patterns as significant thematic and structural components in Venus and Adonis.

Froes, João. “Shakespeare's Venus and the Venus of Classical Mythology.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 301-21. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Argues that the mixture of maternal and sexual love...

(The entire section is 289 words.)