What symbolism is evident in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis?

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The most important symbol in William Shakespeare’s poem is the purple-and-white flower that is mentioned in the fourth stanza from the end. This flower stands for Adonis’s blood and skin, as Venus explains. The poem is a retelling of the classical myth that explains the origin of this flower, traditionally considered to be the anemone. Most of the other symbolism is closely related to this specific one. Flowers figure throughout the poem. Color symbolism of white and red or purple is also consistently applied. Birds also appear with symbolic associations, sometimes in conjunction with color; this is especially the case for white doves. Whiteness, in addition to purity, may stand for the pallor of death. The wounds of love are also associated with death.

The final flower association, to which the others lead, is:

And in his blood that on the ground lay spill'd,

A purple flower sprung up, chequer'd with white,

Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood

Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.

From the poem’s beginning, Shakespeare clearly establishes the precedent for the symbolism of the purple and white flower, and of the flower and color symbolism more generally. In the first lines, he refers to sunrise as the sun’s purple face, and he mentions Adonis’s rose-colored cheeks. Upon first seeing Adonis, Venus calls him the best flower in the field, saying his complexion is whiter than doves and redder than roses.

Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face

Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase;

Hunting he loved, but love he laugh'd to scorn;

Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,

And like a bold-faced suitor 'gins to woo him.

'Thrice-fairer than myself,' thus she began,

'The field's chief flower, sweet above compare,

Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,

More white and red than doves or roses are.

Venus is intent on having Adonis as her lover, but he only wants to hunt. The poet draws a parallel between her pursuit of the youth and his of the boar, but the hunt does not strictly speaking symbolize sex. Both are manifestations of strong passion. In describing Adonis’s appearance as he flees from Venus, the poet again uses the white and red color symbols.

Still is he sullen, still he lours and frets,

'Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy-pale:

Being red, she loves him best; and being white,

Her best is better'd with a more delight.

Venus’s unfulfilled passion is symbolized by the clashing colors in her complexion: white, which is a common symbol of purity, or pale; and red, for passion, here symbolized by fire. His cheek, as she touches it, is white as snow.

To note the fighting conflict of her hue,

How white and red each other did destroy!

But now her cheek was pale, and by and by

It flash'd forth fire, as lightning from the sky.

Now was she just before him as he sat,

And like a lowly lover down she kneels;

With one fair hand she heaveth up his hat,

Her other tender hand his fair cheek feels:

His tenderer cheek receives her soft hand's print,

As apt as new-fall'n snow takes any dint.

His association with virginity or lack of sexual desire is emphasized by repeated use of white as different shades and manifestations: lily, snow, ivory, alabaster, and the closely associated silver. The flower association is present in calling him a lily. Here the birds are doves or love birds.

Full gently now she takes him by the hand,

A lily prison'd in a gaol of snow,

Or ivory in an alabaster band;

So white a friend engirts so white a foe:

This beauteous combat, wilful and unwilling,

Show'd like two silver doves that sit a-billing.

When she tempts him to love, he disdains it and compares it to death.

“My love to love is love but to disgrace it;

For I have heard it is a life in death,

That laughs and weeps, and all but with a breath.”

As he continues resistant and is determined to hunt, she warns him that it will prove fatal. Indeed it does; the “angry chafing boar” kills him. The color and flower associations, including the white lily, appear in describing his dead body and blood after the boar gores him. Her eyes “threw . . . light,” or saw

Upon the wide wound that the boar had trench'd

In his soft flank; whose wonted lily white

With purple tears, that his wound wept, was drench'd:

No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf, or weed,

But stole his blood and seem'd with him to bleed.

These also prefigure the final mention of the white and purple flower, quoted above. She picks the newly sprung flower and swears to kiss it every day, thinking of him. They she flies off with her silver doves, now symbolizing the dead youth’s spirit.

Thus weary of the world, away she hies,

And yokes her silver doves; by whose swift aid

Their mistress mounted through the empty skies

In her light chariot quickly is convey'd.

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