illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546


The subject of desire, though long present in critical commentary on Shakespeare's poetry and drama, has elicited steady interest in recent decades. Along with the related topics of jealousy and lust, critics have observed the theme of desire as an almost ubiquitous element in Shakespeare's writing, seen most clearly in such works as Venus and Adonis, Troilus and Cressida, the Sonnets, and Othello, but also lurking in Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even The Comedy of Errors. Many commentators have maintained that the force of human desire, be it sexual or otherwise, drives the love plays and, more subtly, the histories and tragedies.

Scholars have frequently devoted their attention to the nature of desire as an unfulfillable passion that leads to destruction in the plays. In Venus and Adonis, critics have seen desire as the symptom of love out of joint, as a devouring force characterized by the unrestrained lust of Venus for the beautiful Adonis. Catherine Belsey has observed desire as an ambiguous force, noting that Venus and Adonis "promises a definitive account of love" but fails to provide it. Instead, desire appears as an intensely contradictory power that facilitates the opposition of love and beauty—two ideals that William Keach has noted should be complementary, but rather clash in the poem, leading to the death of Adonis and the frustration of Venus. An unfulfilled and similarly destructive desire appears in Romeo and Juliet; according to Lloyd Davis, it exists in "two paradigmatic and conflicting ways," as both ideal and tragic, and results in a self-devouring passion.

Critics have further explored the ruinous forms of obsessive desire—lust and jealousy—in Shakespeare's sonnet cycle and in his later plays. Joseph Pequigney has examined Shakespeare's stylistic representation of lust in the language and imagery of the sonnets, noting the corrupting force of desire on the body and the soul. Lawrence Danson has applied an understanding of Elizabethan social structure to the topic of male jealousy in marriage. Using Othello and Cymbeline's Posthumus as examples, Danson evaluates desire as a tormenting force allied with a masculine requirement for absolute control of the feminine.

Not surprisingly, critics have also investigated Shakespeare's extensive use of desire as a metaphor. René Girard and Valerie Traub, for example, have both focused on its symbolism in Troilus and Cressida. Girard has viewed desire as serving a mimetic function, observing that for Troilus "the extinction of desire [is] a result of undisturbed possession" of Cressida. After he loses Cressida to the Greeks, Troilus finds that jealousy intensifies his desire, but only, Girard argues, as an imitation of the Greeks' passionate intensity. Thus, Troilus's desire ceases to be original, and is instead a destructive mimicry aroused by envy and loss. For Traub, desire operates through the corrupting metaphor of disease, specifically syphilis. Like syphilis, it appears as deadly and contagious in the play, and serves to represent "anxieties relating to all bodily exchanges," both sexual and military. Jonathan Hall has followed an even more esoteric study of the forms of this passion, highlighting metaphors of mercantile desire in relation to the dissolution of personal identity in The Comedy of Errors. Hall's work likewise indicates the varied forms of desire in Shakespeare's writing and the numerous avenues of inquiry this topic has elicited.

Unfulfilled Desire

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31214

William Keach (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Venus and Adonis," in Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries, Rutgers University Press, 1977, pp. 52-84.

[In the following essay, Keach analyzes the ironic imagery and erotic motivations of character in Venus and Adonis, examining the poem's...

(This entire section contains 31214 words.)

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"insight into the turbulence and frustration of sexual love."]

Shakespeare's first published work as a poet was an epyllion. With the London theatres closed in 1592-1593 by the plague, Shakespeare was temporarily prevented from writing for "Pennie-knaves delight" (to borrow Lodge's phrase from Glaucus and Scilla), so he took the opportunity to write and publish Venus and Adonis and thus to put himself before the public as a "serious" author.1 This "first heir of my invention," as he calls Venus and Adonis, is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, whose sybaritic taste it was presumably meant to flatter.2 Shakespeare's strategy for the occasion, we might speculate, was this: he would treat one of the most familiar of mythological subjects,3 but he would elaborate the subject into the new kind of poem introduced by Lodge three or four years earlier. Whether or not the striking stanzas on Venus and Adonis in Glaucus and Scilla actually suggested the subject of Shakespeare's epyllion it is impossible to say. But it does seem probable that without Lodge's epyllion, Shakespeare's career as a professional poet would not have begun as it did.

The poem which marks this auspicious moment has proved especially troubling to modern readers and critics. Coleridge's praise of the style of Venus and Adonis is well known, but even he complained of "the unpleasing nature of the subject."4 Later nineteenthand early twentieth-century critics tended to agree about the subject, and many of them found the style "unpleasing" as well, although allowances were always made for passages of beautiful natural description, such as the lines on "poor Wat" (11. 697-708). This tradition of disparaging criticism culminates in Douglas Bush's attack on Venus and Adonis. The poem is, for Bush, a not-very-original indulgence in literary fashion which fails both as "an orgy of the senses" and as "a decorative pseudo-classic picture."5 A rather daunting number of critics since Bush have tried to rescue the poem from his judgment by emphasizing the deliberate humor and satire, by reading the poem as a traditional moral and even religious allegory, or by proposing rather more pluralistic readings intended to accommodate the poem's many contradictory aspects.6

This last approach has come closest to doing justice to Shakespeare's epyllion, not just because it allows one to avoid a restrictive commitment either to a comic or to a conventionally moral interpretation, but because Shakespeare's handling of the mythological material is so deeply, at times even confusingly, ambivalent. Working with a myth that already carried a number of established philosophical and allegorical significances, Shakespeare evokes, plays with, even parodies many of these significances, and in the process develops a version of the story to which all the previously established interpretations are inadequate. It is not surprising, really, that we have had such trouble reading Venus and Adonis. As for imagining the effect of the poem's complexity and difficulty on Southampton and the sophisticated audience it was originally meant to please, we are in no better, and no worse, a position than when we speculate about contemporary understanding of Twelfth Night, Hamlet, or Measure for Measure.

With Shakespeare, as with Lodge, alterations made in adapting Ovid's episode are a key indication of the main thematic concerns. Shakespeare's major change was to make Venus more aggressively lustful than she is in the Metamorphoses and to have Adonis actively resist her advances. The effect of this change is the creation of a sexual conflict which is not present at all in the Metamorphoses. Ovid's Venus is comparatively restrained and decorous in her approaches. Having been accidentally grazed by one of Cupid's arrows (X. 526) and for the first time made to fall in love with a mortal (X. 529), she tucks her garments up about her knees like Diana (an irony which Shakespeare eliminates) and accompanies Adonis for an unspecified length of time as his hunting companion (X. 533-541). When they stop to rest Venus begins her wooing with kisses and with the tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes, the latter ostensibly meant to persuade Adonis to give up hunting savage animals. There is no suggestion that Adonis is either bashful or that he finds Venus's solicitations unpleasant:

Sed labor insolitus iam me lassavit, et, ecce, opportuna sua blanditur populus umbra, datque torum caespes: libet hac requiescere tecum' (et requievit) 'humo' pressitque et gramen et ipsum inque sinu iuvenis posita cervice reclinis sic ait ac mediis interserit oscula verbis:

(X. 554-559)

["But now this unaccustomed toil has tired me out, and look!—a poplar beckons us with its welcome shade, and the turf provides a couch: I would like to rest here with you" (and she reclined) "on the ground." She lay down on the grass and on him, and leaning backwards, with her head resting in the curve of the youth's neck, she spoke, interspersing her words with kisses.]

This cool, shady, secluded spot, as Segal has shown, is one of Ovid's characteristic settings for violent sexual aggression7—but Ovid's Venus is not aggressive or threatening at all. She is seen leaning back and resting her head on Adonis's neck ("inque sinu iuvenis posita cervice reclinis," I. 558)—the gesture is almost demurely submissive.

Ovid says nothing about Adonis's response to Venus, but the reader is led to suppose that he submits to her advances since there is no indication to the contrary. Ovid's Adonis is certainly old enough to understand what Venus is about: although he is referred to in line 558 as "iuvenis," we are given a clear statement of his development into young manhood earlier in the episode:

nuper erat genitus, modo formosissimus infans, iam iuvenis, iam vir, iam se formosior ipso est

(X. 522-523)

[ . . . only lately born, he was soon a most beautiful child, then a youth, then a man, now more beautiful than his former self. .. . ]

In the Metamorphoses Adonis is not averse to love, nor is he too young to respond to Venus's blandishments. He simply refuses to heed Venus's warnings against hunting savage beasts and is subsequently killed by a boar.

Shakespeare could have found many suggestions in previous Renaissance poetry for making Venus more aggressively lustful. In Abraham Fraunce's Amintas Dale (1592), to name just one extraordinary English example which appeared a year before Venus and Adonis, Venus makes love to Adonis with greedy abandon:

Adonis lipps with her owne lipps kindely she kisseth, Rolling tongue, moyst mouth with her owne mouth all to be sucking, Mouth and tong and lipps, with Joves drinck Nectar abounding.8

There are almost no previous examples, however, of a chaste, petulant Adonis repelled by Venus's advances. In fact most of the evidence suggests that the Elizabethans tended to view Adonis, as Fraunce clearly does in the lines just quoted, as amorous and willing to be seduced. The arras of Spenser's Castle Joyous in Book III of The Faerie Queene depicts Adonis giving in to Venus and becoming her "Paramoure." Five cantos later Spenser tells how Venus would visit the Garden of Adonis to "reape sweet pleasure of the wanton boy" (FQ A four-stanza lyric in Robert Greene's Perimedes the Blacke-Smithe (1588) presents "Wanton Adonis" as a playful "wag" who "waxt bold" and was "fierd by fond desire" when Venus kissed him.10

Were there no precedents at all for Shakespeare's reversal of the traditional Elizabethan conception of Adonis? Erwin Panofsky has proposed that the version of Titian's Venus and Adonis now in the Prado, Madrid, inspired Shakespeare's actively resistant Adonis.11 This painting was commissioned for Philip II and sent to him in London in 1554, where it may have remained well into the seventeenth century.12 Shakespeare could conceivably have seen the painting itself, then, although it is more likely that he would have known one of the sixteenth-century engravings done after it. Titian depicts Venus in an extremely awkward pose—she twists around and clutches at Adonis as he strides away with his spear and his hunting dogs. Adonis appears rather pleased with himself, and perhaps slightly embarrassed at the goddess's pathetically undignified behavior. The first four lines of the stanza which Coleridge has made one of the most famous in the poem could serve as a poetic "title" for Titian's painting. Adonis has just delivered his long speech on love and lust:

With this he breaketh from the sweet embrace Of those fair arms which bound him to her breast, And homeward through the dark laund runs apace; Leaves love upon her back deeply distress'd. Look how a bright star shooteth from the sky, So glides he in the night from Venus' eye;

(11. 811-816)

Earlier criticism of Shakespeare's poetry is full of vague, impressionistic adjectives like "Titianesque" and "Rubenesque," as a glance through the Variorum edition of the Poems will show. One would like to be able to follow Panofsky in thinking that for once we have a concrete instance of Shakespeare's being inspired by a great Renaissance painting.

Certain aspects of Panofsky's argument are open to question. Although Titian's decision to treat the "leavetaking of Adonis" represents a departure from the usual Renaissance approach to the myth, his treatment is not unprecedented, as Panofsky claims. There are antique representations of this moment, such as that in the relief scene from a sarcophagus of the second century, A.D., in the Lateran Museum. Titian does appear to have been the first sixteenth-century artist to revive the subject, however, and he was clearly the most prominent: the numerous treatments of this subject in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Italian and northern painting all look back more or less directly to Titian's painting. More important for our purposes are the differences between Titian's painting and Shakespeare's epyllion, differences which Panofsky does not mention. Titian's Adonis looks somewhat older and considerably larger and stronger than Shakespeare's—Titian's Venus could not possibly "pluck" this Adonis from his horse, as Shakespeare's does (l. 30). And although Titian's Adonis is shown resisting Venus, there is nothing in the painting which proves that Titian thought of Adonis as having resisted Venus throughout the encounter (unless it is the fact that Cupid is shown asleep without his arrows, suggesting that perhaps, having mischievously caused Venus to fall in love with Adonis, Cupid has failed to inflict the "wound" upon Adonis which would satisfy his mother's desire).13 But the striking correspondences between Titian's painting and the pivotal stanza of Shakespeare's narrative remain, and once we have acknowledged these qualifications, we may go on to conclude that Shakespeare's handling of the myth was quite possibly influenced by Titian's Venus and Adonis or by a sixteenth-century print after it.

But if Titian's painting gave Shakespeare the hint for a chaste, resistant Adonis, Ovid himself provided the models for developing this conception in the tales of Hermaphroditus (Metamorphoses IV. 285-388), Narcissus (Metamorphoses III. 342-510), and Hippolytus (Metamorphoses XV. 492-546). Like Shakespeare's Adonis, all of these figures are supremely beautiful young men full of self-love and self-ignorance who come to tragic ends when they refuse to acknowledge the power of sexual love.

The structural and thematic consequences which follow from Shakespeare's alteration of the behavior of Ovid's Venus and Adonis are profound. The antithetical, bipartite structure of Venus and Adonis, the vaguest outline of which Shakespeare found in the Metamorphoses, is made much more prominent and is charged with significance. Several structural patterns have been proposed for Venus and Adonis,14 but the fundamental one is that of the wooing and the hunt,15 or as Don Cameron Allen sees it, of the "soft hunt" of love and the "hard hunt" after the boar.16 On the narrative level the division between the two parts comes after Venus finally forces Adonis to yield a kiss and asks for a meeting on the next day:

He tells her no, tomorrow he intends To hunt the boar with certain of his friends.

(11. 587-588)

These lines, with their peculiar note of colloquial bathos (it is one of the few times in the poem when indirect speech is used), function as the hinge in the "pattern set up between the two parts" of the poem, through which Shakespeare "explores the nature of Venus' love, of Adonis' refusal, and of the significance of the Boar."17

Shakespeare's way of handling Venus and Adonis sets them in absolute opposition to one another and throws into relief a whole set of conflicts inherent in their relationship and in their own separate identities. On the most literal level their relationship is based upon the polarities of female/male and goddess/mortal, and Shakespeare disrupts the normal condition of both these polarities. Much more emphatically than Lodge, he reverses the conventional sexual roles of "wooer" and "wooed": Venus is the "bold-fac'd suitor" (1. 6); Adonis is the shy, reluctant beauty, "stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man" (1. 9). In addition, this reversal of sexual roles is yoked to an inversion of the normal relation between divinity and mortal. Venus, as a goddess, should work her will upon the mortal Adonis, but she does not. On the contrary, passion makes her totally dependent upon him.

Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn, To love a cheek that smiles at thee in scorn!

(11. 251-252)

Shakespeare exploits to the full the fact that in this myth the "sexual order" and what we might for want of a better term call the "cosmological order" are inseparable. Disorder in the sexual sphere (female wooing male) means disorder in the "cosmological" sphere (a divinity dependent upon the affection and fancy of a mortal).18 Underlying this double conflict is an acute perception about sexual love which Shakespeare develops with ambivalent irony: the wooer, although he (or she) initiates and takes the lead in a relationship, is actually more dependent than the person being wooed, since it is the wooer who offers his (or her) affection and risks being rejected.

Shakespeare expands the thematic resonance of the sexual and "cosmological" conflicts in his epyllion in terms of the traditional association of Venus with love and Adonis with beauty. The theme of the poem may be crudely described as a tragic parody of the Platonic doctrine that love is the desire for beauty. The controlling idea has been succinctly stated in a fine essay on the poem by Eugene Cantelupe: "Adonis-Beauty and Venus-Love should be complementary and sequential, but they are opposed and contradictory."19 This theme is most familiar to us, perhaps, through its repeated appearance in the sonnets. And in Venus and Adonis, as in the sonnets, Shakespeare is concerned not just with the conflict and incompatibility between love and beauty, but also with the contradictions inherent in love and beauty which bring this incompatibility about. So we can describe the theme of the epyllion somewhat more concretely as the opposition between sexual love so intense and aggressive that it becomes self-frustrating and beauty so selfish and inaccessible that it becomes self-destructive.

Let us now bring this abstract thematic introduction into line with the dramatic and verbal details of what Shakespeare actually wrote. To talk of Venus and Adonis as I have done in the preceding paragraph is to make the poem seem a very serious work indeed. But in addition to offering his poetry for the first time to the reading public, Shakespeare, like Lodge before him, was out to entertain a small sophisticated audience. The comedy, satire, and witty eroticism of Venus and Adonis must have succeeded marvelously in diverting Southampton and his coterie. The extraordinary thing about the poem, however, is that its seriousness—its insight into the turbulence and frustration of sexual love—is inseparable from its comedy and its entertaining eroticism. Whereas in Glaucus and Scilla one felt that Ovid's narrative had been changed into a clever, richly ornamented joke about Elizabethan love poetry, with the darker side of the myth present only in an implicit and unresolved way, in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare manages to intensify the potentially disturbing conflicts in Ovid's narrative and at the same time to exploit, as no one before him had done, the comic, satirical, and erotic possibilities of the myth.

The fundamental ambivalence of Venus and Adonis is nowhere more conspicuous than in Shakespeare's handling of Venus. He wastes no time in capitalizing on the comic and satirical potential of making her more aggressively lustful. In the opening stanzas Ovidian comic anthropomorphism is inflated and extended far beyond its range in the Metamorphoses as Shakespeare plays with the idea of a Venus human enough to make use of conventional poetic hyperbole and superhuman enough to tuck a young man under her arm:

With this she seizeth on his sweating palm, The precedent of pith and livelihood, And trembling in her passion, calls it balm, Earth's sovereign salve to do a goddess good; Being so enrag'd, desire doth lend her force Courageously to pluck him from his horse.

(11. 25-30)

Venus's attempt to convert the sweat of Adonis's hand into a "sovereign salve" fit for the gods is comically undermined by that superb colloquialism—"to do a goddess good"—which exposes the real earthiness of this goddess's desires. Throughout these early stanzas Venus's sheer physical grossness deflates her efforts to place her wooing of Adonis on a properly divine and transcendent level:

Panting he lies and breatheth in her face. She feedeth on the steam as on a prey, And calls it heavenly moisture, air of grace,

(11. 62-64)

Here the very sound of the words—the repeated p, h, th, sh, st—evokes the rudimentary physical reality which Venus tries to elevate verbally to a "heavenly" sphere. Never was a goddess more earthbound than Venus, or more human in her desire to etherealize the essential physicality of sensual experience.

The satiric dimension of Venus's behavior derives primarily from the way in which her speeches often parody the conventions of Renaissance love poetry.20 What takes Shakespeare's exploitation of such parody so far beyond that of Lodge is not merely his superior verbal imagination, but the way in which the parody is related to and becomes expressive of the poem's deepest thematic concerns. Venus's extravagant hyperboles are interesting not just as humorous exaggerations of poetic convention, but also as expressions of the overbearing, suffocating love she offers Adonis:

If thou wilt deign this favour, for thy meed A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know. Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses, And being set, Γ11 smother thee with kisses.

(11. 15-18)

Shakespeare adds to the subtlety of these expressive parodies by having Venus herself become aware on occasion that her verbal wooing has gotten out of control. Here she realizes that Adonis might not enjoy being smothered with kisses and "A thousand honey secrets," and she quickly tries to reverse her rhetorical strategy:

And yet not cloy thy lips with loath'd satiety, But rather famish them amid their plenty, Making them red, and pale, with fresh variety:

(11. 19-21)

Venus cannot get away from the imagery of feeding, however much she varies that imagery. Nor can she avoid hyperbole for very long-in the very next line she is back promising Adonis "Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty" (1. 22). She ends the stanza on a very clever note, however, appealing subversively to Adonis's fondness for "sport":

A summer's day will seem an hour but short, Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport.

(11. 23-24)

The puns on "sport" (common Elizabethan usage for "womanizing" or "whoring"21) throughout Venus and Adonis expose the relationship—the difference and the similarity—between Adonis's love of hunting and Venus's "soft hunt" of love.

Shakespeare grants Venus a great deal of wit and resourcefulness in her wooing. We often laugh sympathetically with her as well as critically at her. Take, for example, her three-stanza allusion to her love affair with Mars (11. 97-114). Robert P. Miller has shown how Shakespeare turns this allusion into "a piece of delightful dramatic self-revelation" by having Venus tell it not as a story of adultery and shameful exposure, as it is in Homer (Odyssey VII. 266 ff.) and in Ovid (Ars Amatoria II. 561 ff. and Metamorphoses IV. 171 ff.), but as the ultimate proof of the power of her attractiveness.22 One need not invoke the Christian allegorical interpretation of the story of Mars, Venus, and Vulcan as Miller does to establish the dramatic function of the allusion—the classical version itself is completely altered by Venus's failure to mention Vulcan and his net.

But ironic self-exposure is not the only effect of this speech. Venus is trying here to shame Adonis into compliance, and she is extremely skillful in her efforts. The masculine sexual imagery she employs, for example, has the desired effect of placing Mars in critical opposition to Adonis:

I have been woo'd as I entreat thee now, Even by the stern and direful god of war, Whose sinewy neck in battle ne'er did bow,

(11. 97-99)

Over my altars hath he hung his lance, His batter'd shield, his uncontrolled crest.

(11. 103-104)

Venus may have overlooked the fact that the phrase "as I entreat thee now" results in a partial transference of Mars's masculinity to herself, but never mind. Without a moment's hesitation she goes on to give a very convincing and triumphantly ironic picture of her domination over Mars:

And for my sake hath learn'd to sport and dance, To toy, to wanton, dally, smile and jest, Scorning his churlish drum and ensign red, Making my arms his field, his tent my bed.

(11. 105-108)

One has to admire that final chiasmus. Marlowe clearly did, for he reinforces the joke about Hero's tantalizing attempt to "evade" Leander with a line which recalls Venus's victory over Mars: "And as her silver body downward went / With both her hands she made the bed a tent" (II. 263-264). In the next stanza Venus delivers what remains one of the great lines in the poem, however many sources for it may be culled from previous literature.23

Thus he that overrul'd I oversway'd, Leading him prisoner in a red rose chain:

(11. 109-110)

Shakespeare wants the reader to be aware of the distortion involved in Venus's allusion to her affair with Mars, but he also wants us to admire the verbal resourcefulness of her performance.

A few stanzas after the allusion to Mars, Venus extols her own beauty in what several critics have shown to be a parody of the convention which Lodge also treated ironically in Glaucus and Scilla—the blason, or catalogue of feminine charms. Normally the supplicating wooer enumerates the physical delights of the lady to whom he is appealing; here the lady is wooer, and she enumerates her own charms. First, however, she catalogues the physical defects she does not possess:

Were I hard-favour'd, foul, or wrinkled old, Ill-nurtur'd, crooked, churlish, harsh in voice, O'erworn, despised, rheumatic, and cold, Thick-sighted, barren, lean, and lacking juice, Then mightst thou pause, for then I were not for thee;

(11. 133-137)

This stanza may work ironically against Venus by suggesting that she is sensitive about her age. But it also works for her, in that it sets up an image of ugly, unappealing femininity against which any woman would look good. It also makes the catalogue of self-praise which follows less ridiculous than it would be otherwise. The reader is drawn into Venus's rhetorical world and made to see things from her point of view, even as he is made to laugh at her over-heated, self-defeating wooing.

Shakespeare never allows the reader's attitude towards Venus to settle into an established position. We find ourselves sympathizing with her when she seems most grotesque and ludicrous; we also find ourselves critically distanced from her just when she seems to be enjoying her strongest moments. Consider, for instance, Venus's comment on the episode of the courser and the jennet (11. 259-324). The argument over this episode has been between those who view the behavior of Adonis's courser towards the jennet as an emblem of animal lust which Shakespeare wants the reader to condemn and which he uses to dramatize the bestial nature of Venus's love,24 and those who see the behavior of the horses as lending "force to Venus's argument that physical love is natural and inevitable."25 The latter view is more nearly correct, but it needs considerable adjustment.

It has been argued that the episode reflects Venus's and not the poem's ideal of healthy sexual energy, but this view overlooks the fact that the sequence is related by the narrator, not by Venus. The episode is placed so as to bring about a welcome release from the tension built up over the first 250 lines of confrontation and impasse, and this release of tension draws the reader sympathetically into what has justly been called an "anti-type to the main action."26 Adonis's courser is described in language betokening power, freedom, and masculine dignity. "Strong-neck'd steed" (1. 263) recalls the "sinewy neck" of Mars (1. 99) which "in battle ne'er did bow," and like Mars's "uncontrolled crest," the courser's "braided hanging mane / Upon his compass'd crest now stand on end" (11. 271-272). He moves towards the jennet "with gentle majesty and modest pride" (1. 278). The behavior of the horses is presented as admirable and natural, and in this sense it does support Venus's earlier argument that "By law of nature thou art bound to breed" (1. 171—Venus's use of "breed" in this line is important). The majestic sexual energy of the courser also reflects contemptuously on Adonis's coy petulance. Shakespeare sums up the relationship in an ambiguous couplet:

Look what a horse should have he did not lack, Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

(11. 299-300)

We may first take this to mean that Adonis's horse ought to be under the control of a rider, that his freedom is somehow not right. But the pressure on the repeated word "proud" makes us see that while Adonis is "proud" in the sense of having an inordinate selfesteem, he lacks "pride" in the sense of "sexual desire."27 Adonis's courser deserves a master equal to himself in "pride"—a master who combines lofty selfesteem with masculine sexual drive.

Given the verbal details just noted, the episode of the courser and the jennet would appear to place Venus in an extremely favorable position. Yet Venus's overeagerness to turn the episode to her own benefit (11. 385-408) reminds us that horses are, after all, animals, and that any attempt to look to the behavior of animals, however full of dignified natural energy and freedom they might be, as a model for human or divine behavior will have to confront the limiting implications of such an analogy. Venus's superficial inferences make us aware of the limitations of all comparisons between animal and human behavior. At the same time, Venus's insistence on such comparison forces us to realize that her own animal lust is less worthy of respect than that of the horses. She possesses little of the physical grace and majesty of the horses, however fervently she proclaims these virtues for herself. Even the parallels with the Mars allusion show that Venus's behavior towards Adonis is not in accord with the natural sexual behavior of the horses. What Venus emphasized in that allusion was that Mars "hath . . . been my captive and my slave" (1. 101), that he "was . . . servile to my coy disdain" (1. 112). Venus wants to control and dominate powerful masculine sexuality, not revel in it as the jennet does (11. 307-318); her overt aggressiveness is the very opposite of the jennet's cunningly provocative behavior. So when Venus comes to comment on the horses, her conclusions are partly undermined by her own failure to act with the natural beauty, dignity, and freedom of the animals she praises.

The conflicts in Venus's sexual nature become clear when we compare these stanzas where animal sexuality is presented in human terms with the more prevalent examples of the reverse, of Venus's own sexuality presented in animal terms. The narrator sees Venus not as an embodiment of healthy animal sexuality, but as a savage bird of prey:

Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast, Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone, Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste, Till either gorge be stuff'd or prey be gone:

(11. 55-58)

This view of Venus as a ravaging animal culminates in the moment when Adonis finally agrees to grant Venus a kiss as a reward for permission to go home. His kiss turns Venus from an eagle into a vulture:

He with her plenty press'd, she faint with dearth, Their lips together glued, fall to the earth. Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey, And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth. Her lips are conquerers, his lips obey, Paying what ransom the insulter willeth; Whose vulture thought doth pitch the price so high That she will draw his lips' rich treasure dry.

(11. 545-552)

It is significant that Venus is seen at her worst when Adonis momentarily submits to her lust and together they "fall to the earth." Beauty is complicit in Love's degradation. Nevertheless, this imagery of savage bestiality,28 joined as it is here and elsewhere with imag ery of voracious appetite, works against any tendency to treat Venus merely comically, as "a forty-year-old countess with a taste for Chapel Royal altos,"29 or merely pathetically, as "Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn." Venus is at times both comic and pathetic, but at other times her lust is repellent and grotesque. Our attitude towards her—like our attitude towards sexual experience itself—must somehow incorporate all these conflicting responses.

The first epithet used of Venus is "Sick-thoughted"—to remember the term now is to see it reverberate with a more disturbing range of meanings than it might have at first, when one could accept the usual gloss of "lovesick." The full implications of Adonis's first epithet, "rose-cheek'd," are not realized until the final metamorphosis at the end of the poem. But we can begin to examine Shakespeare's handling of Adonis, which has received much less attention than his handling of Venus, by looking at the emphasis on his soft, effeminate beauty suggested in the poem's opening stanza.

The context in which the Venus and Adonis episode appears in the Metamorphoses is important to the way in which Shakespeare conceives of Adonis and thus to the establishment of a type which appears in a number of later epyllia—the ideally beautiful young man who appeals to both sexes but who is himself uninterested in love. In the Metamorphoses the story of Venus and Adonis is told by Orpheus as part of his long lamenting discourse to the assembly of wild animals after the final loss of Eurydice. Orpheus's song begins with two tales of homosexual love, the reason being that after the loss of Eurydice he shunned all love of women and set the example for the people of Thrace by giving his love to young boys (X. 79-85). Orpheus's song is attended by the cypress (X. 106), the metamorphosed form of the youth Cyparissus, beloved of Phoebus. And Orpheus begins by singing of Jove's love for Ganymede (X. 155-161) and of Phoebus's love for Hyacinthus (X. 162-219). There then follow three tales involving aberrant feminine sexuality: prostitution in the case of the Propoetides, who also play a part in the tale of Pygmalion which follows; incest in the case of Myrrha, mother of Adonis. These three tales relate obviously, if indirectly, to Orpheus's homoerotic theme and may have influenced Shakespeare's handling of Venus. Finally, Orpheus concludes his song with the story of Venus and Adonis. There is nothing explicitly suggestive of homoeroticism in Orpheus's presentation of Adonis, but the fact that the Venus and Adonis episode comes as the conclusion to a discourse which begins with a strong emphasis on homoeroticism may have influenced the homoerotic overtones of Shakespeare's presentation of Adonis—his soft beauty, his petulant self-concern, his excessive aversion to feminine sexual advances.30

The androgyny of Adonis's beauty is announced by Venus in the very first lines she speaks:

"Thrice fairer than myself," thus she began, "The field's chief flower, sweet above compare; Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,

(11. 7-9)

Language of this sort, and subsequent references to the "maiden burning" of Adonis's cheek (1. 50) and to his "mermaid voice" (1. 429), suggest Adonis's kinship to Hermaphroditus. But the phrase "more lovely than a man" is ambiguous: Adonis is more beautiful than a "man" understood sexually, and hence demands comparison with the fairest of women; he is also more beautiful than "man" understood generically, more beautiful than a mortal. This ambiguity is richly expressive of the way in which the soft, effeminate male became for the Renaissance an ideal type of human beauty. Shakespeare's attitude towards this ideal, however, is deeply ambivalent. He goes on to develop the two principal aspects of Adonis's beauty—its effeminacy and its ideality—in a way which elicits responses as shifting and as contradictory as those elicited by Venus.

Part of the difficulty in evaluating Adonis stems from the fact that much of what we learn about him comes from Venus.31 The most explicit comments about the feminine quality of his beauty come from her, as do the imputations of an unmasculine self-love. There is, for example, the stanza in which Venus links Adonis with Narcissus. Ovid's emphasis on Narcissus's androgynous beauty (he appeals to both sexes) and on his aversion to the erotic interest others show in him suggests that Shakespeare was thinking of him throughout his presentation of Adonis.32 But the avidity with which Venus uses the story of Narcissus to charge Adonis with unnatural self-love challenges the reader's sense of objectivity:

Is thine own heart to thine own face affected? Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left? Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected; Steal thine own freedom, and complain on theft. Narcissus so himself himself forsook, And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.

(11. 157-162)

On the verbal level Venus's warning is extremely effective—notice how the imagery and repeating syntax evoke the idea of Narcissus longing after his own reflection. And in some respects Adonis's pouting self-concern does seem to bear out Venus's charge. "The sun doth burn my face," he complains, "I must remove" (1. 186). But there is nothing in the poem to indicate that Adonis is actively narcissistic about his own beauty, that his "own heart" is in fact to his "own face affected." The point is—and here we can agree with Venus—that a potential or latent narcissism certainly does exist in Adonis.

The ambivalence with which Shakespeare treats the ideality of Adonis's beauty poses similar interpretive problems. Critics have complained of the superficiality of Adonis's character, calling him "an incomplete sketch of what might, in a less confusing poem, have been a characterization,"33 or '"a man of wax,' a beautiful but self-centered and baffling creature."34 What these critics are responding to, I think, is the extreme externality with which Shakespeare treats Adonis in order to bring out his thematic significance as an embodiment of ideal but unresponsive beauty. Adonis sometimes seems to us, as he does to Venus, a work of art rather than a human being:

Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, Well-painted idol, image dull and dead, Statue contenting but the eye alone, Thing like a man, but of no woman bred! Thou art no man, though of a man's complexion, For men will kiss even by their own direction.

(11. 211-226)

As Geoffrey Bullough has pointed out, Venus's lines recall another of the tales from Orpheus's song in Book X of the Metamorphoses, the tale of Pygmalion.35 Adonis seems to Venus like Pygmalion's statue before it was given life—ideally beautiful and erotically arousing but cold, inanimate, unresponsive. The allusion, and the language Venus employs here ("Thou art no man . . ."), extend the connection between the ideality and the effeminacy of Adonis's beauty. But as with the allusion to Narcissus, one must be wary of accepting Venus's charges at face value. The constant emphasis in the poem on the way Adonis looks, rather than on what he thinks or feels, makes us want to agree with Venus. On the other hand, the descriptive details we are given about Adonis show him to be anything but an "image dull and dead." His "sweating palm," as Venus herself points out, is a "precedent of pith and livelihood" (11. 25-26), as is his panting breath (11. 62-64). Even his excessive blushing, though it is often described in the stylized contrasting imagery of red and white, shows Adonis to be full of physical and emotional intensity. The paradox for Venus, and to a certain extent for the reader, is that this remarkably beautiful and vibrantly alive creature refuses to interest himself in the love he arouses and seems so well suited for.

I say the reader sympathizes with Venus's frustration to a certain extent: there is something mean and perverse in Adonis's aversion to love as such ("Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn," 1. 4), but there is also something very understandable about his aversion to the domineering, suffocating, oppressive love Venus offers him. Shakespeare allows the reader to sympathize both with Venus's frustration and with Adonis's reluctance; he also forces the reader to recognize the excessive lust which makes Venus's frustration inevitable and the priggish dislike of sexual love which makes Adonis's reluctance so unappealing.

The demands upon the reader's capacity to be simultaneously sympathetic and critical are perhaps at their greatest at the end of the first "movement" of the poem, when Venus argues the "infirmities" of beauty and the consequent need to procreate with at least some of the force these arguments generate in the sonnets (11. 733-768).36 Adonis follows with his surprisingly eloquent discourse on the difference between love and lust. The reader's initial tendency is to be suspicious of this discourse, since it comes from one so lacking in experience and so primly confident of his moral purity:

For know, my heart stands armed in mine ear, And will not let a false sound enter there; . . .

Lest the deceiving harmony should run Into the quiet closure of my breast, And then my little heart were quite undone,

(11. 779-783)

Yet Adonis's speech contains a distinction which Shakespeare wants us to apply to the poem, if only to demonstrate that the distinction between love and lust cannot be held absolutely. He therefore partly undermines our misgivings about Adonis's lack of experience by having Adonis himself anticipate this objection:

More I could tell, but more I dare not say: The text is old, the orator too green.

(11. 805-806)

Adonis also directly contradicts the narrator's introductory statement about his aversion to love ("love he laugh'd to scorn") by distinguishing between the love that "is all truth" (1. 804) and Venus's "sweating lust":

I hate not love, but your device in love That lends embracements unto every stranger. You do it for increase: O strange excuse When reason is the bawd to lust's abuse!

(11. 789-792)

Adonis's conception of love is inadequate, since it makes no allowance at all for the power and importance of sexual experience. But the rhetorical effectiveness with which he articulates his view of love and his repugnance for "sweating lust" prevent the reader from "bracketing" this speech as easily and as clearly as he might wish.

The narrator's role in presenting the ambivalent confrontation between Venus and Adonis in the first half of the epyllion is extremely important. Coleridge, Dowden, and other early commentators noted the objectivity and detachment of Shakespeare's narrator.37 Unlike Lodge's narrator in Glaucus and Scilla, whose past experiences and present reactions figure centrally in the poem's drama, Shakespeare's narrator rarely intrudes his own interests or sympathies. When he does, it is primarily to direct the reader's attention to the action he describes rather than to divulge anything about his own emotional state and sensibility:

O what a sight it was, wistly to view How she came stealing to the wayward boy! To note the fighting conflict of her hue, How white and red each other did destroy!

(11. 343-346)

The narrator's exclamations here encourage the reader "to view," "to note." Coleridge slightly overstates the narrator's detachment, I think, when he describes him as "unparticipating in the passions" of the main figures and talks of his "alienation" and "utter aloofness."38 On one or two occasions the narrator does address the main figures directly and manifests a sensitivity to their feelings, as in the epitomic couplet beginning "Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn" (11. 251-252), or in the following comment after Venus in desperation has pulled Adonis down on top of her:

But all in vain; good queen, it will not be. She hath assay'd as much as may be prov'd:

(11. 607-608)

Even here the narrator moves immediately after the first line from direct address to indirect commentary. All the narrator's exclamations and apostrophes are directed towards the event or situation he is describing. Shakespeare's narrator has no persona, in the sense that Lodge's narrator or Marlowe's narrator has a persona.

It is partly the neutrality and transparency of Shakespeare's narrator that give the style of Venus and Adonis its special effectiveness. The extreme artificiality of the style, particularly the elaborate use of syntactic and metaphorical antithesis, has come in for considerable censure from critics who have seen Shakespeare's writing in this poem as his sacrifice to the Elizabethan taste for extravagant verbal ornament and decoration.39 And it is true that Venus and Adonis, like Glaucus and Scilla, reveals an "intoxicated delight in words,"40 a "conscious, self-delighting artistry."41 But Lodge's elaborately rhetorical sixains, however, locally effective and cleverly parodic they sometimes are, never give one the sense that verbal structure is reflecting the structure of the narrative itself. Shakespeare's sixains constantly do this. Antithesis is the key verbal figure in the poem, as Bush points out;42 antithesis is also the key to Shakespeare's conception of his myth, particularly in the first half of the poem. The intricate antithetical imagery and syntax with which the narrator presents the action reveal, on the most fundamental stylistic level, the ambivalent conflict between and within the protagonists.

Rhythm and syntax are often as important as metaphor to the narrator's antithetical description of the action:

Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust, And govern'd him in strength, though not in lust.

(11. 41-42)

The powerful caesuras in this couplet, intensified in the first line by the aural similarity of "push'd" and "thrust" and in the second line by the syntactic turn with "though," give one an almost physical sense of the struggle—not between Venus and Adonis, for she is doing all the pushing—but within Venus, between her actual physical aggression and her passionate desire that this aggression be returned. The "thrust"/"lust" rhyme points up the conflict between what she wants ("as she would be thrust") and what she gets ("though not in lust").

The most elaborately antithetical passages use syntax and line-endings to accentuate metaphorical antitheses:

He burns with bashful shame, she with her tears Doth quench the maiden burning of his cheeks;

(11. 49-50)

Pausing at the end of line 49, we think that both Adonis and Venus are burning—he "with bashful shame," she "with her tears" (the repeated preposition is largely responsible for initiating this line of thought, plus the fact that "burning tears" is as common a notion as "burning shame"). But we read on to discover that Venus's tears actually "quench" (perhaps in the sense of "to satisfy" as well as "to extinguish") "the maiden burning of his cheeks." The underlying antithesis of fire and water is first disguised, then revealed in full.

Shakespeare sometimes heightens the ultimate effect of verbal antithesis by presenting it within a context of ostensible sameness or similarity:

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 abilling.

(11. 361-366)

Coleridge quoted the first four lines as an example of "fancy . . . the faculty of bringing together images dissimilar in the main by some one point or more of likeness distinguished."43 The "fancy" in this stanza, however, is permeated with an extraordinary degree of imaginative power. The "point of likeness," of course, is the whiteness of "lily," "snow," "ivory," "alabaster," and, as Muriel Bradbrook has pointed out, all these entities possess symbolic as well as physical characteristics ostensibly opposed to the heated attempt at seduction actually taking place:

The lily, the snow, the ivory, and the alabaster are all chosen for their chilly whiteness, which has nothing in common with that of flesh. They are all symbols of chastity: alabaster was used for the effigies on tombs and hence was opposed to blood, the symbol of life . . . lilies were the emblem of virginity: snow was an ancient symbol of chastity and its coldness suggests death. . . . Again there is a direct contrast to the warm flexuous restraint of Venus's melting palm in the hardness of the ivory and alabaster which binds it, in the idea of imprisonment in a gaol, and the besieging force engirting the enemy. This passage is built on sensuous opposites. . . .44

Miss Bradbrook does not notice, however, that the images in the stanza may turn out to be ironically appropriate when one looks at the full range of their connections with Venus and Adonis. The lily's connection with chastity is appropriate to Adonis—and so is the fact that it is a flower (Adonis is "the field's chief flower"). Ivory picks up the idea Venus has established of Adonis as "cold and senseless stone / . . . Statue contenting but the eye alone" (11. 211-213). The connections of snow and alabaster with death are ironically prophetic of Adonis's death. The complex similarity and contrast in the stanza is even more complicatedly ambivalent than Miss Bradbrook allows.

One must see this stanza in its dramatic context, however, to become fully aware of its stylistic effectiveness. Having failed in her opening aggressive maneuvers, Venus has now changed her tactics and is trying to deal more delicately with Adonis. This shift in strategy, anticipated in the preceding stanzas and in the phrase "Full gently now" (1. 361), is the basis for the shift in imagery: instead of the alternating red and white of warm, moist, soft flesh, we have flesh presented entirely in terms of whiteness, coldness, and hardness. The imagery of the first four lines is as "unnatural" as is this kind of soft approach for Venus. The underlying conflict is present throughout, however, in the idea of imprisonment, in the paradox of a friend "engirting" a foe (not foe "engirting" foe), and in the "beauteous combat" of the "two silver doves," "wilful and unwilling," a combat which is ironic not only because doves are associated with peace, but also because doves are associated with Venus and love.45 The imagery of the stanza reflects a moment of superficial, contrived harmony in a relationship which is fundamentally one of strife and conflict.

I have dealt at length with the first part of Shakespeare's epyllion, with the "soft hunt" of love, because it is here that he establishes, dramatically and stylistically, the ambivalent conflict so central to the meaning of Venus and Adonis. Adonis disappears from the poem in lines 811-816 and only reappears at the very end, when Venus comes upon his dead body. Adonis's departure brings to an end the confrontation upon which the first part of the poem is based; the second part belongs entirely to Venus, at least as far as dramatic interest is concerned. The hunt after the boar and the death of Adonis are presented either through Venus's own words or through the narrator's account of her reactions to these events.

With Adonis gone and with the entire focus of the epyllion on her, Venus becomes an even more ambivalent figure than she had been previously. Her vulnerability at the moment of Adonis's departure is conveyed in a couplet which shows how Shakespeare's antithetical style will be accommodated to the new situation:

So did the merciless and pitchy night Fold in the object that did feed her sight.

(11. 821-822)

These lines are every bit as characteristic of the poem's stylistic virtues as the couplet of the preceding stanza which Coleridge praised at such length. The contrasting vowels of the alliterated "fold" and "feed" point up very powerfully the ominous way in which nature has deprived Venus of Adonis. The heightened sense of vulnerability which comes in at this point does not mean an end to the ironic treatment of Venus's lovesickness. The narrator tells us that the echoing lament she sings when Adonis has gone "was tedious, and outwore the night" (1. 841). And the next day, as Venus struggles through the underbrush towards the frothing boar and Adonis's baying hounds, she is met with this response from one of the wounded dogs:

And here she meets another sadly scowling, To whom she speaks, and he replies with howling.

(11. 917-918)

The irony at Venus's expense continues through this section, but at the same time our sympathy for her is deepened. The image of the forlorn, anxious goddess begins to replace the image of the sweating, sexually ravenous amazon of the first 800 lines.

The most puzzling motif which emerges in the stanzas between the departure of Adonis and the discovery of his corpse is the idea of a maternal-filial relationship between Venus and Adonis. Venus breaks free from the brambles which hinder her rush towards Adonis

Like a milch doe, whose swelling dugs do ache, Hasting to feed her fawn, hid in some brake.

(11. 875-876)

Miss Bradbrook reads these lines as a supreme expression of Venus being driven towards Adonis "by purely animal instinct,"46 but the maternal overtones of the passage are stronger than the animalistic. These lines certainly work towards balancing our previous image of Venus as a savage bird of prey, with Adonis as her victim. Venus herself anticipates the image two stanzas earlier in her apostrophe to the rising sun:

There lives a son that suck'd an earthly mother, May lend thee light, as thou dost lend to other.

(11. 863-864)

The way in which these lines remind us of the mortal/ divine aspect of Adonis's relationship to Venus is clear, but the maternal imagery again strikes one as curious.

Looking back through the poem for some indication of how the reader is to respond to the maternal-filial imagery, one finds Venus speaking of Adonis's mother and anticipating the later passages as early as lines 201-204:

Art thou a woman's son and canst not feel What 'tis to love, how want of love tormenteth? O had thy mother borne so hard a mind, She had not brought forth thee, but died unkind.

These lines work ironically against both Venus and Adonis. Adonis's mother, Myrrha, was indeed "unkind": she was possessed by an incestuous passion for her father Cinyras and conceived Adonis by him (Metamorphoses X. 311-519). But Myrrha did not die "unkind"—she was metamorphosed into a tree and as such gave birth to Adonis. Adonis has a turbulent sexual heritage of which both he and Venus seem to be unaware. Yet the idea of Adonis's mother comes to Venus on several occasions throughout the poem. What meaning are we to give to this recurring motif?

The critics who have noticed this maternal-filial imagery offer little help. D. C. Allen sees the relationship from a reverse perspective. Adonis "fusses over Venus as a boy might fuss over his mother," he says, while Venus merely "takes advantage of this filial-maternal relationship which is really all Adonis wants."47 A. C. Hamilton speaks of Venus as "at times .. . the bustling mother caring for that petulant boy who weeps when the wind blows his hat off. . . . "48 These comments get at some of the surface irony of the imagery, but they never really penetrate to the deeper level of suggestiveness. In addition to the obvious irony—Venus is old enough to be Adonis's mother—there is a submerged suggestion of incest, a suggestion which glances at the story of Adonis's mother Myrrha and, possibly, at Golding's comment on Book X in the "Epistle to Leicester":

The tenth books cheefly dooth containe one kynd of argument Reproving most prodigious lusts of such as have bene bent To incest most unnaturall.

(11. 213-215)

What Shakespeare suggests with the implicitly incestuous maternal-filial imagery applied to Venus and Adonis is not a scandalous unnaturalness, but a connection between the erotic and the maternal aspects of the feminine psyche. Venus lusts after Adonis, but she is also maternally protective of him, especially in the second part of the poem.

The final scene of Shakespeare's epyllion, Venus weeping over the dead Adonis, was a favorite Renaissance set piece.49 The way in which Shakespeare prepares for and conducts this scene transforms its usual significance and confronts one with the poem's most difficult interpretive problem. The crux of the problem is the relationship between Venus and the boar. Shakespeare begins to develop this relationship at the very first mention of the boar by showing Venus to be obsessively preoccupied with this particular beast:

He tells her no, tomorrow he intends To hunt the boar with certain of his friends. 'The boar," quoth she: whereat a sudden pale, Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose, Usurps her cheek; . . .

(11. 587-591)

Venus's reaction to the boar here is, admittedly, occasioned by Adonis's own words, but the force of her reaction, intensified by the shift from indirect to direct speech, is suggestive of what we come to see as an obsession. And it is an obsession which Shakespeare did not find in Ovid's version of the story. In the Metamorphoses Venus warns Adonis about the savagery of boars, but she also warns him about lions and other savage beasts he might encounter in his hunt (Metamorphoses X. 547-552).

What Shakespeare does with the boar in Venus and Adonis, as A. T. Hatto has shown, is in part based on the medieval and Renaissance tradition of the boar as a symbol of "overbearing masculinity in love and war."50 Chaucer develops both aspects of this tradition when he describes Troilus's dream of Criseyde after she has gone to the Greeks with Diomede:

He mette he saugh a boor with tuskes grete, That sleep ayein the brighte soones hete. And by this boor, faste in his armes folde, Lay kissing ay his lady bright Criseyde.51

(V. 1238-1241)

Shakespeare adapts the dream of the boar in Richard III (V.ii.7) and, more relevant to its appearance in Venus and Adonis, in Cymbeline, where Posthumus Leontes imagines Iachimo as "a full-acorned boar" who has "mounted" his wife (II.v.6). In Cymbeline and in Chaucer's Troilus the boar appears in the dreams or imaginations of jealous men who fear the unfaithfulness of their lovers. In Venus and Adonis, the vision of a boar torments a love-starved goddess who fears the loss of the young man to whom she is so powerfully attracted.

Adonis's first casual mention of the boar hunt moves Venus to put aside all restraint and to pull Adonis down on top of her (11. 591-606). Then, when Adonis finally struggles free, Venus launches into a seventeen-stanza warning about the danger of the boar, a warning which includes two stanzas on the subject of jealousy. Venus had earlier mentioned jealousy in the process of telling how Adonis excited each of the five senses:

But oh what banquet wert thou to the taste, Being nurse and feeder of the other four! Would they not wish the feast might ever last, And bid suspicion double-lock the door, Lest jealousy, that sour unwelcome guest, Should by his stealing in disturb the feast?

(11. 445-450)

This first rather curiously motivated reference to jealousy is the prelude to the stanzas in the warning to Adonis. One notices the repeated imagery of locked doors and sentinels and of feasting and eating, and the similarity of "sour unwelcome guest" and "sour informer":

For where love reigns, disturbing jealousy Doth call himself affection's sentinel; . . . This sour informer, this bate-breeding spy, This canker that eats up love's tender spring . . . Knocks at my heart, and whispers in mine ear, That if I love thee, I thy death should fear.

(11. 649-660)

Venus's jealousy here is based in part upon her identification of the boar with death and destruction, with the force that will deprive her of Adonis. But her jealousy also has an unmistakable sexual dimension.52 Venus goes on to envision Adonis's death:

And more than so, presenteth to mine eye, The picture of an angry chafing boar, Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie An image like thyself, all stain'd with gore.

(11. 661-664)

This image of Adonis on his back having been gored by the boar is the reverse of the posture which Venus herself assumes when, upon first hearing of the boar,

She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck; He on her belly falls, she on her back.

(11. 593-594)

Venus, as aggressive feminine sexuality, lies on her back and forces Adonis down on top of her. Her vision of the boar reverses the image into one of destructive masculine sexual aggressiveness, with Adonis in the usual feminine position. This idea of the boar enacting the destructive potential of Venus's lust is, as we shall see, carried out in Venus's account of Adonis's death.

Through a bitterly ironic translation of imagery, Shakespeare envisions the boar as the sexual rival of Venus who literally destroys the beauty which Venus has figuratively destroyed throughout the poem. The following lines early in the poem seem, upon first reading, a harmless hyperbole:

He saith she is immodest, blames her miss; What follows more, she murders with a kiss.

(11. 53-54)

Only in retrospect do we see that Venus's kiss here prophesies the boar's kiss which kills Adonis:

He thought to kiss him, and hath kill'd him so. Tis true, 'tis true, thus was Adonis slain: He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear, Who did not whet his teeth at him again, But by a kiss thought to persuade him there. And nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine Sheath'd unaware the tusk in his soft groin. Had I been tooth'd like him, I must confess, With kissing him I should have kill'd him first.

(11. 1110-1118)

F. T. Prince and Douglas Bush both insist that no special significance be attributed to this passage. Prince merely notes that the "conceit goes back to Theocritus' Id., XXX. 26-31" (actually this poem has been shown on the basis of style and meter to be the work of a later poet and not by Theocritus at all), and that it "had already been reproduced in several 16th.-cent. poems, such as Minturno's epigram De Adoni ab apro interempte, and Tarchagnota's L'Adone."53 But when we compare Shakespeare's handling of the boar's kiss with that of these earlier poems, we see that he infuses the "conceit" with special ironic significance. Shakespeare's lines function as a grotesque parallel to all the previous occasions when Venus's embraces were described as the attack of a wild beast. Instead of an amorous embrace depicted as a savage attack, we have just the reverse. Furthermore, in the Greek poem long attributed to Theocritus and in Tarchagnota's Italian adaptation, the boar himself tells Venus how he gored Adonis while trying to kiss him.54 By transferring the passage to Venus, Shakespeare heightens the irony (especially in lines 1117-1118, which have no equivalent in the Greek or Italian) and makes the conceit part of Venus's attempt to console herself and come to grips with Adonis's death.

Yet the fact that this passage is spoken by Venus means that one must hesitate in interpreting the boar's deadly kiss as the ironic literal fulfillment of the destructiveness of Venus's lust. What the reader gets is Venus's view of Adonis's death, although the irony of this view has been prepared for by the narrator as well as by Venus. Has Venus imposed her sexually-oriented vision of experience upon a more general force of unthinking evil and destruction? Perhaps she has, but the traditional symbolism of the boar lends support to her vision. So does the way in which Adonis himself had articulated his desire to hunt the boar:

"I know not love," quoth he, "nor will not know it, Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it.

(11. 409-410)

Adonis, like Hippolytus, has committed himself to chastity and redirected all his repressed erotic energies to the hunt. Both Hippolytus and Adonis are ultimately destroyed through their life-denying pursuits. And Adonis's destruction as Shakespeare treats it is directly linked, metaphorically and symbolically, to the sexual experience he tries to avoid. Restated in terms of the abstract thematic scheme suggested earlier in this chapter, beauty's destruction is made inevitable by its own death-seeking efforts to avoid involvement with possessive, threatening sexual love.

The final ten stanzas of Shakespeare's epyllion begin with Venus acting more like a goddess than she has at any other time in the poem and issuing a "prophecy" which in fact comes closer to being an accurate description of past and present reality than anything she has said heretofore:

Since thou art dead, lo here I prophesy, Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend: It shall be waited on with jealousy, Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end;

(11. 1135-1138)

Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy, They that love best, their loves shall not enjoy.

(11. 1163-1164)

Venus is here making herself responsible for the "chaos" which before she had presented as a necessary and inevitable consequence of the death of Adonis:

For he being dead, with him is beauty slain, And beauty dead, black Chaos comes again. 55

(11. 1019-1020)

The deeper irony of Venus's "curse" on love, however, is that throughout the poem love has been what Venus prophesies it will be in the future. Venus's erotic illusions have blinded her to the disorder and conflict inherent in the love of which she is the goddess—she is indeed in her "own law forlorn" (1. 251). Yet these erotic illusions are themselves an essential aspect of the view of love enacted in the poem. As for the beauty which love seeks, its existence rather than its death has intensified the disorder and "sickness" of love and has acted as the bait for love's illusions. Shakespeare's epyllion is not about the fall from the perfection of beauty and the subsequent usurpation of the place of love by lust.56 It is about the inherent limitations and imperfections of love and beauty and of love's relationship to beauty.

Shakespeare extends his theme through the stanzas describing Adonis's metamorphosis in a manner which is both disturbingly and playfully subversive. He is guided here by the details of Ovid's own extraordinary conclusion, although he exploits these details in a new way. By the time Venus has completed her prophecy, a purple flower has sprung up from Adonis's blood. In the Metamorphoses Adonis does not seem to be transformed into a flower. Rather, a flower is made to grow from Adonis's blood by the magic of Venus:57

sic fata cruorem nectare odorato sparsit, qui tactus ab illo intumuit sic, ut fulvo perlucida caeno surgere bulla solet, nec plena longior hora facta mora est, cum flos de sanguine concolor ortus, qualem, quae lento celant sub cortice granum, punica ferre soient; brevis est tarnen usus in illo; namque male haerentem et nimia levitate caducum excutient idem, qui praestant nomina, venti.

(X. 731-739)

[So saying, with fragrant nectar she sprinkled the blood which, touched by it, swelled as when clear bubbles rise up from yellow mud; and no longer than an hour's time had passed when a flower sprang up of blood-red color, like that borne by pomegranates, which hide their seed under a resistant skin. But brief is the enjoyment of this flower, for so weakly and lightly attached is it, and destined to fall, that the very winds which give it its name (Anemone, "the wind flower") shake it off]

Unlike Ovid's Venus, Shakespeare's Venus does nothing to make the flower appear. Adonis simply melts "like a vapour from her sight" (1. 1166) and a flower, purple and white to recall the red and white of Adonis's complexion, springs from his blood.

Shakespeare, even more than Ovid, makes it clear that Adonis is not reincarnated in the flower, although the flower resembles him (11. 1169-1170). And Venus herself realizes this—she initially allows the flower a separate, fully natural existence. She begins by bending down to smell the flower and by "Comparing" (1. 1172) its odor to the breath of Adonis. She then "crops the stalk" and "compares" (the word is repeated for emphasis) the drops of sap to the tears which came to Adonis's eyes with "every little grief (11. 1175-1176).58 At the beginning of the poem Venus had called Adonis "'the field's chief flower, sweet above compare'" (1. 8; italics mine). Now she has found a flower comparable to Adonis—or rather, she has been forced by Adonis's death to imagine a flower comparable to him.

Venus's realization that the flower is not Adonis contributes to the pathos of her comparisons and, in a sense, mitigates the shock of her "cropping" the flower. At the same time the language does recall the imagery used earlier to describe her relation to Adonis: "cropping" is what animals do to plants they eat, and of course Adonis—"rose-cheek'd," "the field s chief flower"—has been the beautiful virgin flower throughout. Shakespeare's handling of this final scene is extraordinarily deft. A shockingly ironic reenactment of Venus's relationship to Adonis is suggested but sufficiently distanced by being placed at the level of simile.

Venus's final words reaffirm the attitude towards experience she has manifested all along. Shakespeare significantly transforms the idea expressed in the final lines of Book X of the Metamorphoses: whereas Orpheus laments the inevitable natural withering of the shortlived anemone, Venus is unwilling to allow the flower to grow and wither naturally:

To grow unto himself was his desire, And so 'tis thine; but know, it is as good To wither in my breast as in his blood.

(11. 1180-1182)

Venus offers the flower the same kind of overbearing, suffocating love she offered Adonis. As she continues, the maternal imagery returns one last time along with the hyperbole which has characterized her speech from the beginning:

Here was thy father'd bed, here in my breast; Thou art the next of blood, and 'tis thy right. So in this hollow cradle take thy rest; My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night; There shall not be one minute in an hour Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love's flower.

(11. 1183-1188)

Despite her "prophecy" that "Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend" (1. 1136), Venus seems totally unchanged by Adonis's death. Her way of talking about the flower which has sprung up so miraculously embodies the same deluded idealizing ("Here was thy father'd bed, here in my breast") and the same gross attachment to physical immediacy ("Thou art the next of blood") which have permeated her language throughout the poem. Were she to meet another beautiful young man, one imagines, she would conduct herself very much as she has done with Adonis. For Venus a flower exists to be picked, an attractive youth to be seduced.

One of the aspects of Venus and Adonis which I have had to slight in this chapter is the vital relationship between Shakespeare's epyllion and his sonnets:

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;

(Sonnet 20, 11. 1-2)

In this and a number of the other sonnets Shakespeare explores the same frustrations and limitations inherent in sexual love's imperfect access to human beauty which he dramatizes in the mythological fiction of Venus and Adonis. Sonnet 53 makes explicit the connection between Adonis and the young man addressed in the early sonnets; the account in Sonnet 129 of lust "in action" and lust "till action" recalls in a striking way Venus's savage, thwarted desire. And there is also an even more fundamental artistic similarity between Venus and Adonis and the sonnets, a similarity deriving from what Stephen Booth has described as Shakespeare's ability to cope "with the problem of the conflicting obligations of a work of art"—the obligation to satisfy the mind's need for order, and the obligation to remain true to "the experience of disorderly natural phenomena" by transcending the mind's capacity to exhaust that order conceptually.59

Venus and Adonis presents the reader with an extraordinarily dense artificial order. As I have tried to show, this order grows out of and embodies Shakespeare's response to Ovid's tragedy of love's self-provoked passion for a mortal beauty inevitably doomed to destruction. On the one hand this order is conceptually satisfying: it provokes and rewards a remarkable range of aesthetic attention. On the other hand, the elusive complexity of the poem's formal order defeats all out attempts to reduce the poem's meaning to complete conceptual clarity even as it guides, teases, and compels us to think coherently about the ambivalence of sexual experience. The antithetical style of Venus and Adonis, with its intricate artificiality and its disturbingly persistent wit, both clarifies and complicates the closely-entwined, conflicting relationship of the two main figures. Shakespeare intensifies every aspect of Ovid's episode, but he does so in a manner which remains deeply Ovidian. As so often in Ovid's own poetry, the sexual drama in Venus and Adonis oscillates between the extremes of savage grotesqueness and broad comedy and yet generates, finally, a surprisingly powerful sense of erotic pathos.


1Venus and Adonis was entered in the Stationers' Register on 18 April 1593 (Arber, II, 297b). For arguments placing the composition of the poem in late 1592-early 1593, see T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakespeare's Poems and Sonnets (Urbana, Ill., 1950), p. 45; Prince, ed., The Poems, p. xxvi; Muriel Bradbrook, "Beasts and Gods: Greene's Grotsworth of Witte and the Social Purpose of Venus and Adonis, " Shakespeare Survey, 15 (1962), 63. Shakespeare had written several plays before Venus and Adonis, but of course the writing of plays was not considered a genuine literary achievement in the sixteenth century.

2 Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, was not quite twenty years old when Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis to him—yet he had already graduated M.A. at the age of sixteen from St. John's College, Cambridge, and had entered his name as a student at Gray's Inn (1589). For accounts of Southampton's early career and relationship to Shakespeare, of his flamboyant appearance and behavior, and of his literary interests, see DNB, XXI, 1055-1061; A. L. Rowse, Shakespeare's Southampton (New York, 1965), esp. pp. 54-61; G. P. V. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), esp. pp. 31 ff. There is little concrete evidence to support Esther Cloudman Dunn's claim in The Literature of Shakespeare's England (New York, 1936, p. 39) that Southampton "collected erotica as many a later exquisite has done" and that "Venus and Adonis was a deliberate contribution to the Earl's erotica" It is possible, however, that Thomas Nash wrote The Choise of Valentines (1594) for Southampton (see DNB, XXI, 1056).

3 The story of Venus and Adonis had been a popular literary subject as early as Sappho and Praxilla in the sixth century B.C. Theocritus had written of the worship of Adonis in his Idylls, and Bion's Lament for Adonis was one of the best-known Greek poems (Shakespeare seems to have been indebted to Bion for his imagery of contrasting red and white). The best account of Continental adaptations of the myth in the Renaissance is that of Sir Sidney Lee, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (Oxford, 1905), pp. 22-25.

4Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Hawkes, p. 59.

5Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition (Minneapolis, 1932), p. 149. I quote from the first edition of Bush's book because it was the harsher judgment articulated there that influenced all but the most recent criticism. In the revised edition Bush softens his attack somewhat; the phrase I have quoted becomes: "For a sensual orgy it is too intellectual and serious, for a metaphysical fable it is too Ovidian" (p. 148). My summary of earlier criticism, including my interpretation of the role Bush's argument has played, is indebted to J. W. Lever, "The Poems," Shakespeare Survey, 15 (1962), 19-22.

6 The "comic" approach was first argued by Rufus Putney, "Venus and Adonis: Amour with Humor," PQ, 20 (1941), 534-548 and "Venus Agonistes," University of Colorado Studies: Series in Language and Literature, No. 4 (1953), 52-66. A number of subsequent studies have incorporated Putney's extremely valuable perceptions. Moral and allegorical readings have been proposed by Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethan Love Conventions (New York, 1933), p. 285; Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino, Cal., 1957), pp. 19-53; R. P. Miller, "Venus, Adonis, and the Horses," ELH, 19 (1952), 249-264, and "The Myth of Mars' Hot Minion in 'Venus and Adonis,'" ELH, 26 (1959), 470-481; Don Cameron Allen, "On Venus and Adonis, " Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies Presented to Frank Percy Wilson, ed. Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1959), pp. 100-111. Of previous studies which have brought out the problematic ambivalence of Venus and Adonis, the three most helpful to me have been W. B. C. Watkins, "Shakespeare's Banquet of Sense," The Southern Review, 7 (1941-1942), 706-734; revised and reprinted as Chapter 1 in Shakespeare and Spenser (Princeton, 1950); A. C. Hamilton, "Venus and Adonis," SEL, 1 (1961), 1-15; Eugene B. Cantelupe, "An Iconographical Interpretation of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's Ovidian Comedy," SQ, 14 (1963), 141-151.

7Landscape in Ovid's Metamorphoses, pp. 8-10 and passim; also Parry, "Violence in a Pastoral Landscape," 269.

8 Quoted by Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 143, n. 15.

9 See Pooler's comment on Spenser's conflation of the stories of Adonis and Hermaphroditus in the tapestries of Castle Joyous in The Faerie Queene (III. i. 35); Arden edition, p. xxx.

10 Quotation from The Life and Complete Works, VII, 88-90. Several critics have dealt with Greene's romance and its relation to Venus and Adonis (Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 142; Baldwin, Literary Genetics, pp. 88-90; Hamilton, "Venus and Adonis," 7), but they have paid little attention to the context of Greene's lyric and to the contrast it affords with Shakespeare's epyllion.

11 Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographie (New York, 1969), p. 153. Panofsky notes that Titian was criticized by a late sixteenth-century writer, Raffaelo Berghini, "for his departure from Ovid in 'depicting Adonis fleeing from Venus . . . whereas he very much desired her embraces' ... " (p. 151, n. 36). Panofsky also remarks that the "illustrated Ovid editions . . . contain, as a rule, only two Adonis scenes: Venus and Adonis as happy lovers, she holding him in her lap; and her lament after his death" (p. 152).

12 Panofsky says "the painting ordered by Philip II remained in England for several years and was widely accessible in sixteenth-century prints by Giulio Sanuto (dated 1559) and Martino Rota (died 1583). . ." (Titian, p. 153). The earliest record of its presence in Spain is 1636; see Antonio Onieva, A New Complete Guide to the Prado Gallery, trans. Patricia May O'Neill, rev. ed. (Madrid, 1966), p. 51.

13 One might compare the piquantly alert and armed Cupid in the left foreground of Bartholomeus Spranger's Venus and Adonis which, though clearly indebted to Titian's treatment of the leave-taking, shows Adonis in an amorous, affectionate pose.

14 Baldwin, Literary Genetics, p. 12, and Cantelupe, "An Iconographical Interpretation," 143, emphasize the temporal structure, from the first morning through noon and night to the second morning when Venus discovers Adonis's body. Rufus Putney, "Venus Agonistes," 58, suggests that Shakespeare conceived it like a play as "a series of dramatic episodes, which may conveniently if not accurately be compared to acts."

15 Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, pp. 60-61.

16 "On Venus and Adonis," pp. 102-106.

17 Hamilton, "Venus and Adonis," 9.

18 Robert Sumner Jackson, "Narrative and Imagery in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis," Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 43 (1958), 315-320, notes the double conflict, but he does not bring out the mutual dependence of the two or the way in which Shakespeare's changes in Ovid's narrative affect the female/male, goddess/mortal polarities.

19 "An Iconographical Interpretation of Venus and Adonis," 151. Hamilton ("Venus and Adonis, " 9) says that the Platonic relationship of love and beauty is "treated with a sophisticated play of wit"; Cantelupe goes further and argues that it is openly travestied (145, 148).

20 Shakespeare's parody of love-poetry conventions is discussed in detail by Helmut Castrop, Shakespeares Verserzählungen: Eine Untersuchung der ovidischen Epik im elisabethanischen England (Marburg, 1964), pp. 39 ff.

21 Cf. Eric Partridge, Shakespeare 's Bawdy (New York: Dutton Paperback, 1960), p. 192.

22 "The Myth of Mars' Hot Minion," 470.

23 According to Prince ed., The Poems, p. 9 n., Malone was the first to compare Shakespeare's line to the opening of Ronsard's "Odelette": "Les Muses lierent un jour / De chaisnes de roses, Amour . . . (Oeuvres, Marty-Laveaux, II, 360). No one seems to have noticed that in Ronsard's poem "Amour" (here Cupid, not Venus) is led by a chain of roses, rather than doing the leading himself. Malone noted that Ronsard was imitating Anacreon; Baldwin, Literary Genetics, p. 15, argues that Anacreon's Ode 30, or a Latin translation of it, was the direct source of Shakespeare's image. Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 138, n. 2, quotes an English translation of Ronsard's line by Thomas Watson (Poems, ed. Arber, Sonnet 83, p. 119) which was apparently written before Venus and Adonis. Miller, "The Myth of Mars' Hot Minion," 478, n. 26, submits that the "source of the figure is not Ronsard but a commonplace tradition expressed by Boethius as the rosae catena of temporal delights (de consolatione Philosophiae, III, met. 10, 1-3)."

24 Cf. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well, p. 49, and Miller, "Venus, Adonis, and the Horses," 255-257.

25 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York, 1961), I, 164.

26Shakespeare's Poems, ed. Carleton Brown in The Tudor Shakespeare (1913), pp. xiii-xiv.

27 See articles 10 and 11 under "pride" and 7.b and 8 under "proud" in the OED. "Pride" meaning "sexual desire" was usually associated with animals, as in Othello III. iii. 404; "As salt as wolves in pride." But even here the simile is applied to human beings. "Proud" was even more commonly used to describe human lust. The OED cites Spenser, FQ I. x. 26: "In ashes and sackcloth he did array / His daintie corse, proud humors to abate."

28 For more detailed discussion of this imagery, see Hereward T. Price, "Function of Imagery in Venus and Adonis," Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, 31 (1945), 289-292 and Cantelupe, "An Iconographical Interpretation of Venus and Adonis," 149.

29 Allen, "On Venus and Adonis;" pp. 100-101.

30 Otis, Ovid as an Epic Poet, p. 370, characterizes the subject of Orpheus' song as "boys loved by gods; girls deserving the penalty that comes from the indulgence of illegitimate or unnatural desire." He describes the song as "'unepic' or Callimachean-elegiac" in mode, and goes on to remark: "It is not merely that the amours of Apollo and Jupiter with Cyparissus, Ganymede and Hyacinthus are homosexual (they are in fact quite parallel with the heterosexual amour of Venus and Adonis) but that the amours are frustrated . . ." (p. 371). Sensitivity to the subject matter of Book X on the part of traditional Elizabethan moralizing and allegorizing readers is suggested in Golding's comment ("Epistle to Leicester," 11. 213-215).

31 See Castrop, Shakespeares Verserzählungen, p. 20.

32 Cf. Metamorphoses III. 351-355: "For the son of Cephisus had reached his sixteenth year and might seem either a boy or a young man. Many youths and many maidens desired him; but in that delicate form was pride so unyielding that no youth, no maiden touched him." Narcissus's effeminacy, even more than Adonis's, was emphasized in late Renaissance paintings and illustrations.

33 Watkins, "Shakespeare's Banquet of Sense," 716.

34 Prince, The Poems, p. xxxii.

35Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I, 163. The idea could also have come from the pseudo-Theocritean "The Dead Adonis" (Idyll 30), in which Adonis is said to be "beautiful as a statue." See below, n. 54.

36 J. W. Lever, "Venus and the Second Chance," Shakespeare Survey, 15 (1962), p. 82, connects these arguments with the idea of "Venus Genetrix, the cosmic force of natura naturans," but overemphasizes, I think, the extent to which Shakespeare's Venus is presented as a straightforward embodiment of "the Lucretian and late-Renaissance vision of "the whole realm of Nature in growth and fertility'" (Lever is quoting Miss Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, p. 51). See Murray Krieger's comment on Venus's argument in A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Modern Poetics (Princeton, 1964), pp. 92-93.

37Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, p. 61; Edward Dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study (London, 1875), pp. 49-51. See Castrop on this point, Shakespeares Verserzählungen, pp. 51-83.

38Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, pp. 61-62.

39 See Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, pp. 141, 144, 147-148; Smith, Elizabethan Poetry, pp. 88-89.

40 Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 147.

41 Prince ed., The Poems, p. xxvii.

42Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 140.

43Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, p. 56.

44Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, p. 64.

45 Cf. the final stanza of Venus and Adonis: "Thus weary of the world, away she hies, / And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid / Their mistress mounted through the empty skies . . . " (11. 1189-1191; my italics).

46Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, p. 64.

47 "On Venus and Adonis," p. 109.

48"Venus and Adonis," 14.

49 See Panofsky, p. 152, who comments on the popularity of the subject and points out that it was one of the two scenes which commonly appeared in illustrated Renaissance editions of Ovid. Erwin and Dora Panofsky, "The Iconography of the Galerie Francois ler at Fontainebleu," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, series 6, 52 (1958), 139-144, discuss the traditional subject in relation to Rosso Fiorentino's Death of Adonis at Fontainebleu. In poetry, Bion's Lament for Adonis was wellknown and often imitated in the Renaissance; see n. 3 above.

50"Venus and Adonis—-and the Boar," MLR, 41 (1946), 355-356.

51 Quotations are from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1957).

52 Hatto, "Venus and Adonis—and the Boar," 353-354, makes the same general point but does not show how other details in the poem support it.

53 Prince ed., The Poems, p. 59 n. Ovid does not mention the boar's kiss, but he does say that Adonis was gored in the groin: "trux aper insequitur totosque sub inguine dentes" (Metamorphoses X. 715).

54 J. M. Edmonds' translation of the relevant passage in the Greek poem reads as follows: "To which the beast 'I swear to thee, Cytherean,' answered he, 'by thyself and by thy husband, and by these my bonds and these thy huntsmen, never would I have smitten thy pretty husband but that I saw him there beautiful as a statue, and could not withstand the burning mad desire to give his naked thigh a kiss"' (Loeb Library edition of The Greek Bucolic Poets, pp. 481 and 483). The stanza from Tarchagnota's L'Adone (ed. Angelo Borselli [Naples, 1898], p. 16) follows the Greek poem closely:

Ti giuro, che il voler mio non fu mai Di offender questo tuo si caro amante: Ben è egli il ver, che tosto, ch'io mirai Nel corpo ignudo sue bellezze tante, Di tanta fiamma accesso mi trovai, Che cieco a forza mi sospinsi avante, Per baciar la beltà, che il cor m'opria, Et ismorzar l'ardor, che in me sentía.

(stanza 65)

55 Baldwin lays great stress on these lines in arguing that disorder or chaos, understood in a metaphysical tradition which he traces through Hesiod, Plato, Ovid, and many later writers, is the theme of the poem (Literary Genetics, pp. 49-73). My view is that Shakespeare is more interested in the disorder existent in the world while Adonis is alive than after he is dead.

56"Venus and Adonis," 8.

57 See the previous discussion in Ch. I, pp. 13-14.

58 My attention was drawn to Shakespeare's handling of these similes by William Empson's brief remark on them in the introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Narrative Poems, ed. William Burto (London, 1968), p. xx.

59An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), pp. 162-172.

Catherine Belsey (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Love as Trompe-l'oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 257-76.

[In the essay, below, Belsey studies Venus and Adonis as a "literary trompe-l'oeil, a text of and about desire" that "promises a definitive account of love" but withholds it.]


The painter Zeuxis excelled in the art of trompe-l'oeil, a mode of painting that is capable of deceiving the eye by its simulation of nature. Zeuxis portrayed grapes with such success that birds flew toward his picture. His younger rival, Parrhasius, however, challenged Zeuxis to a competition to decide which painter's work was more true to life. Parrhasius won—by depicting a curtain so convincing that Zeuxis begged him to draw it and reveal the picture behind.1 Jacques Lacan, in his seminar "Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a," makes a distinction between the two pictures: only the curtain that Parrhasius painted is a true trompe-l'oeil, because its effect depends on what is missing, the absence of a secret concealed behind the paint. For Lacan it is not deception alone that defines the trompe-l'oeil: on the contrary, its determining characteristic is the promise of a presence that it fails to deliver. Trompe-l'oeil tantalizes.

At a critical moment in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, when the goddess has succeeded in maneuvering her reluctant suitor into a promising physical position, but without the consequence she seeks, the text compares Adonis to the painting by Zeuxis:

Even so poor birds deceiv'd with painted grapes Do surfeit by the eye and pine the maw:

Even so she languisheth in her mishaps, As those poor birds that helpless berries saw. The warm effects which she in him finds missing She seeks to kindle with continual kissing.

(11. 601-6)2

But in Shakespeare's poem the grapes also represent a trompe-l'oeil in accordance with Lacan's definition. Deceptively promising oral gratification, the enticing picture of the grapes yields no pleasure for the stomach. In the same way, despite her best efforts, Venus finds that the provocative outward image of Adonis conceals nothing to her purpose: his beauty evokes a longing, which remains unsatisfied, for his desire—or for its phallic signifier.

In painting, deceit gives pleasure. "What is it," Lacan asks, "that attracts and satisfies us in trompe-l'oeil? When is it that it captures our attention and delights us?" He proposes that the trompe-l'oeil pleases by presenting the appearance of a three-dimensional object which we go on to recognize as exactly that: no more than an appearance, painted in two dimensions. In order to enjoy the trompe-l'oeil, we have to be convinced by it in the first instance and then to shift our gaze so that, seeing the object resolve itself into lines on a canvas, we are no longer convinced; we have to be deceived—and then to acknowledge our own deception. The gap between these two moments is the place, Lacan affirms, of the objet a, the lost object in the inextricable real, the cause of desire.3 That which delights in art—the civilizing, sublimated product of the drive—is experienced in psychosexual life as a lack, . . . a source of indestructible longing.

The type of the desiring subject according to classical myth was Tantalus in the underworld, unable to reach the fruit that would allay his insatiable thirst. Shakespeare's Venus outdoes Tantalus in frustration, however, when she holds Adonis in her arms but can elicit no response. "That worse than Tantalus' is her annoy, / To clip Elizium and to lack her joy" (11. 599-600). The desire of Adonis is not subject to her control: love cannot be commanded. The third dimension she wants is missing, and the absence she encounters serves only to intensify her longing.

In the event, nothing very much happens in this narrative of desire. Tantal-ized as she is, Venus cajoles and entreats. Adonis resists, rejects, and finally escapes her; he is killed by the boar, and Venus laments. The poem, exceptionally popular in its own period,4 prompts in the reader a desire for action that it fails to gratify. Meanwhile, the critical tradition in its turn, tantalized by the poem's lack of closure, has sought to make something happen, at least at the thematic level, by locating a moral center that would furnish the work with a final meaning, a conclusion, a definitive statement. It is possible, however, to read the text itself as a kind of trompe-l'oeil, moving undecidably between modes of address and sustaining the desire of the reader in the process. I propose that it is precisely in its lack of closure that Shakespeare's poem may be read as marking a specific moment in the cultural history of love. A literary trompe'-l'oeil, a text of and about desire, Venus and Adonis promises a definitive account of love but at the same time withholds the finality that such a promise might lead us to expect. Instead, it tantalizes and, in so doing, throws into relief the difference between its historical moment and our own.


Venus and Adonis is a poetic record of the originating moment of desire. In Shakespeare's narrative poem the goddess of love, traditional object of all men's admiration, unexpectedly appears as a desiring subject, herself at the mercy of an intractable passion. Led by experience to expect the devotion of others and accustomed to master, imprison, and enslave her lovers (11. 101-12), Venus is here reduced to the role of suitor (1. 6), overpowered by another's beauty and subject in her turn to indifference and disdain. The protagonist of the story thus comes to represent what the text identifies as a personification of desire itself, which is by definition unsatisfied: "She's love, she loves, and yet she is not lov'd" (1. 610). Lost, ironically, in the emotion she herself traditionally promotes, a subjection that "makes young men thrall, and old men dote" (I. 837), the queen of love has now become love's helpless victim, in her "own law forlorn" (1. 251). The goddess of love stoops—and fails to conquer.

Because she cannot command the desire of Adonis, or even protect his life, Venus finally delivers, over his mutilated body, a curse on the emotion that subjects her, condemning love itself to perpetual dissatisfaction and despair:

"Since thou art dead, lo here I prophesy, Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend: It shall be waited on with jealousy, Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end; Ne'er settled equally, but high or low, That all love's pleasure shall not match his woe."

(11. 1135-40)

Though Venus has been unable to prevail upon her unwilling lover, she has authority, nevertheless, as the personification of love, to define the condition she both represents and shares. The goddess's words thus summarize her own story and at the same time "explain" proleptically the tragic endings of those romances that constituted the classic love stories of Shakespeare's period: Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas. As a result of Love's distress, suffering and loss have become the destiny of lovers.

All myth can be read as explanatory, a record of how things came to be the way they are: a sexual relation between the sky and the earth generates life; the story of the Fall explains the presence of evil in the world. Venus and Adonis is also a myth of origins. In this respect it is, of course, true to its source. Ovid's Metamorphoses records the origins of things and accounts in the process for their present character.5 The long narrative poem begins with the creation of the world, Jupiter's disappointment in the human beings he has made, and the consequent flood, from which only Deucalion and Pyrrha are saved. Under divine instruction, the couple throw stones over their shoulders and thereby generate a new race of human beings. The "stoniness" of their origins explains the hardy nature of the Romans as well as their capacity for work.6 More specific in its reference, the story of Daphne, which follows that of Deucalion and Pyrrha, accounts for the sacred character of the laurel. There was a time when Apollo was happy to wreathe his forehead with the leaves of any tree, but when Daphne eludes him, he feels a special warmth for the laurel she becomes and declares that from now on it will be the source of garlands for him and, ironically, for Roman generals returning in triumph.7 Later in Book 1, Argus asks how the reed pipe came to be invented, and Mercury responds by telling him the story of Pan and Syrinx.8 An assembly of classical narratives, the Metamorphoses retains the mythic character of much of the material it so elegantly rewrites.

The stories from this familiar grammar-school text9 which were most widely reproduced, elaborated, and imitated in the Renaissance concern the quest for a prohibited sexual pleasure either frustrated or compensated by metamorphosis: Daphne and Syrinx saved from rape in the nick of time; Narcissus unable to satisfy the erotic impulse his own image arouses and transformed into a flower. If desire is a quest for presence, for the full (imaginary, impossible) presence of the beloved to the lover, and to the degree that its perpetuation is an effect of presence deferred, these Ovidian narratives surely constitute perfect fables of desire. Daphne in flight, still out of reach, represents an emblem of the condition that subsists on the basis that possession eludes it; Daphne immobilized, meanwhile, putting down roots, fixed, remains the figure of unfulfilled desire, precisely because she is no longer Daphne. What Apollo now holds is not the nymph he wanted, though he loves the laurel and takes it for his tree.

In the case of Ovid's Venus and Adonis, presence is doubly deferred, gratification doubly displaced. The mythic story is explanatory, an account of the origin of the annual Adonia. This festival, the rite of Adonis, appears to have taken place in spring or summer all over the Mediterranean region.10 It seems that on the first day of the Adonia, the reciprocal love of Venus and Adonis was celebrated, with ripe fruit and sweet cakes, in the presence of their images as lovers, while on the second, the body of the hero was ritually consigned to the waves with bitter lamentation."11 Love and death were thus brought into close conjunction, the intensity of desire affirmed by the emphasis on its transience.

Ovid's version of the story begins with the passing of time and the swift succession of the years; it ends with the short-lived anemone.12 The flower that springs from the blood of Adonis is explicitly identified as a reminder of Venus's grief, her longing for lost presence; but by insisting on its ephemeral character, the text presents the flower itself as the emblem of yet another absence. Venus promises that the metamorphosis she brings about will constitute an everlasting memorial, but it is at once made clear that this is to be no more than an annually recurring image, and an image that is in turn especially fleeting, since the winds for which it is named so easily destroy it. In this way Ovid's lyrical narrative progressively withdraws the compensating presence it promises. The flower—beautiful, fragile, mutable, and all that remains of a youth who became an object of desire for the goddess of love—thus appears in its elusiveness the quintessential signifier of desire itself. Nor is it named: even the identity of the windflower is deferred for the reader, the unspecified answer to a kind of riddle constructed by the text.13

Shakespeare's Venus, however, unlike Ovid's we are to assume, never succeeds in eliciting the desire of Adonis. All she gets is the flower; but in Shakespeare's poem she does possess it, indeed, cradles it in her breast next to her throbbing heart, and kisses it (11. 1173, 1185-86, and 1188). And yet its destiny there, she recognizes, is to wither, and in Shakespeare's version there is no mention even of its annual reappearance. What the Renaissance in general and this text in particular adopt from Ovid is above all the notion of erotic metamorphosis itself: the object the lover finally possesses is not the object of desire but something else, a substitute, a stand-in. At the moment when the desiring subject takes possession of the object, something slips away, eludes the lover's grasp, and is lost.

But if Ovid's tale of Venus and Adonis offers absence as the recurring figure of desire, Shakespeare's poem surpasses its source, in audacity as well as length, by setting out to explain the origin of desire in its entirety. Love, we are invited to understand, was once reciprocal, which is to say that its conquest was absolute: Mars, stern god of war, became Venus's prisoner and learned to be a lover (11. 97-114). But Venus's new love is unrequited: now the goddess is "Sickthoughted" and Adonis "sullen" (11. 5 and 75). When Adonis's insistence on hunting the boar brings his death and her irretrievable loss, Venus decrees that henceforth love will always be anarchic in character:

"It shall suspect where is no cause of fear, It shall not fear where it should most mistrust; It shall be merciful, and too severe, And most deceiving when it seems most just; Perverse it shall be, where it shows most toward; Put fear to valour, courage to the coward."

(11. 1153-58)

Her words are necessarily authoritative. As the personification of love, Venus does no more here than proclaim her own nature. Shakespeare's myth of origins is also a definition of love.


A definition, however, ought surely to be definitive, a characteristic account of a representative state of affairs. And yet this narrative is hardly a typical love story. By conventional standards the gender roles of the central figures are disconcertingly reversed; meanwhile, the genre of the narrative, now lyrical, now bordering on farce, seems oddly unresolved. As a result, love itself appears at one moment grossly material and at another delicately insubstantial, no more than airy nothing. Is there, then, a definition here or only a bravura display of a range of skills on the part of a young and ambitious poet, in a text as anarchic as the emotion its central figure both demonstrates and defines?

First, gender. There can be little doubt that Elizabethan heroines, whether tragic or comic, whether Juliet or Rosalind, are permitted to be more outspoken in love than their Victorian counterparts. Even so, the voluble and unremitting pursuit of a coy young man by a relentless goddess wildly exceeds romantic convention. As is commonly noted, it is "Rose-cheek'd Adonis" (1. 3), with his white hands (11. 362-64) and his voice like a mermaid's (1. 429), who blushes and pouts (1. 33), while Venus pulls him off his horse and tucks him under her arm (11. 30-32). The "tender boy" (1. 32) is inert, like a bird in a net (1. 67), but Venus resembles an eagle (1. 55). And in case the reader should forget how these things are traditionally done, the poem gives us horses that behave in a much more predictable manner, Adonis's courser neighing and bounding imperiously at the sight of the jennet (1. 265) and majestically asserting control (1. 270). The text makes witty capital out of the scandal it creates when Venus draws explicit attention to the role reversal. Adonis is, she tells him, "'more lovely than a man'" (1. 9); if only, she sighs, things were the other way round: "'Would thou wert as I am, and I a man'" (1. 369).14

But palpably she is not, and the result is a good deal of slightly salacious comedy at the level of the poem's action, or rather lack of action: "Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust, / And govern'd him in strength, though not in lust" (11. 41-42). Venus pins Adonis to the ground as she kisses him goodnight, "And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth" (1. 548). The exhausted Adonis eventually ceases to struggle, "While she takes all she can, not all she listeth [i.e., wants]" (1. 564). A good joke is evidently worth repeating. Even when their physical positions are reversed, the text explains, the case of Venus remains hopeless:

Now is she in the very lists of love, Her champion mounted for the hot encounter. All is imaginary she doth prove; He will not manage her, although he mount her.

(11. 595-98)

At the same time, however, Venus and Adonis is lyrical about the passion it also presents as absurd and, at Adonis's death, is unaffectedly elegiac in its lament for perfection destroyed:

"Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost! What face remains alive that's worth the viewing? What tongue is music now? what canst thou boast Of things long since, or any thing ensuing? The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh and trim, But true sweet beauty liv'd and died with him."

(11. 1075-80)

Throughout the text one mode of address displaces another with remarkable agility. For earlier generations of critics the resulting question of genre represented the central critical problem of the poem. Was it primarily comic, or mainly tragic, or possibly satirical?15 Or was it simply so confused in its rapid shifts from high camp to low mimetic that it was impossible to make any real sense of it at all?16 Despite stylistic and thematic debts to the Metamorphoses, the text is no mere imitation of Ovid's disengaged and economical narrative; neither is it a generic copy of any existing Elizabethan text, regardless of parallels with Lodge's Glaucus and Scilla. In terms of poetic decorum, this tragicalcomical-pastoral(-mythical) love story defies the literary classifications of its period.

Where, then, in all this indeterminacy, is any consistent definition of love to be found? Is passion no more than the crude appetite of an overheated, "love-sick queen" (or quean [1. 175])? Or is it, conversely, the effect of a delicate appeal to the finest senses?

"Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear, Or like a fairy trip upon the green, Or like a nymph, with long dishevell'd hair Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen. Love is a spirit all compact of fire, Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire."

(11. 145-50)

What exactly is the significance of the personification of love as a goddess who leaves no imprint on the sand, makes no dent in a bank of primroses, and has no impact on her beloved either? Is her reiterated lightness (11. 151-52, 155, and 1192) an indication of lyric grace or vacuous triviality? What is the character of the desire that finds its inaugural moment in this myth of origins?


At one place the poem makes what appears to be a categorical statement, and the text seems, indeed, definitive. Adonis is speaking. He insists that Venus's desire is not love at all but rather its promiscuous, irrational, destructive simulacrum, lust (11. 789-98). The goddess has misrepresented the true nature of her desire: "'Call it not love, for love to heaven is fled, / Since sweating lust on earth usurp'd his name'" (11. 793-94). And Adonis undertakes to disentangle the two, specifying each as the antithesis of the other:

"Love comforteth like sunshine after rain, But lust's effect is tempest after sun; Love's gentle spring doth always fresh remain, Lust's winter comes ere summer half be done; Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies; Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies."

(11. 799-804)

A grateful critical tradition, eager to regulate the wayward textuality of the poem by locating within it a clear thematic statement, the expression of an authoritative design, has tended to reproduce Adonis's values as the key to the moral truth of the text.

The tradition goes back at least to Coleridge, who was relaxed about the identification of Venus with lust, arguing that although the poem was about concupiscence, it was not morally dangerous because Shakespeare had directed the reader's attention beyond "the animal impulse itself to the images and circumstances in which it is presented.17 A century later, however, Lu Emily Pearson emphasized how much was at stake in the antithesis Adonis had affirmed:

Venus is shown as the destructive agent of sensual love; Adonis, as reason in love. The one sullies whatever it touches; the other honors and makes it beautiful. The one is false and evil; the other is all truth, all good. Reason in love, truth, beauty—these are the weapons with which lust must be met, or the ideals of man must go down in defeat before the appetites.18

Pearson's moral vehemence sounds archaic now, but what surprises is the degree to which Adonis's condemnation of Venus and lust has survived the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Heather Dubrow is much kinder than Pearson, but the term lust reappears in her account, however softened by the attribution to Venus of motherliness: "Though lust is Venus' primary motive, it is by no means her only one and by no means an adequate label for her behavior: tender maternal love is commingled with her lust. . . . "19 Male critics, meanwhile, are relentless: according to one writer who echoes the view of his fellows, Shakespeare "casts Venus as a frenzied older woman driven by comic lust for a very young man barely emerging from boyhood."20 And although the poem has nothing to say about her age except that her beauty is perfect and annually renewed (11. 133-44), the goddess's supposed decline has nonetheless proved explanatory for some male readers: "Her vulnerability is that of the older woman, desperate to renew her youth in the arms of a young lover."21 Even a critic who allows that Venus represents "the drastically imperfect amalgam of lust and caring that is likely to be found in all lovers" finds it necessary to point out that "the suffocating, devouring lust of Venus is too 'vicious' (in both the antique and the modern senses) to escape censure."22 In this way criticism provides itself with a definitive signified, a univocal thematic "message" beyond the undecidabilities of the text, beyond, that is to say, the heterogeneity of its mode of address.23


This critical reiteration of the taxonomy of desire that Adonis so confidently delivers is problematic, however, because it inevitably attributes the central affirmation of the poem to a hero who is, as the text repeatedly reminds us and the plot of the story insists, so young that he knows nothing of love (11. 127-28, 409, and 806). It is, of course, not inconceivable that Adonis could be speaking with preternatural wisdom: Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream speaks of love with an insight that her role in the story might not lead us to expect (1.1.232-39).24 But if Helena speaks "out of character" here, her observations are confirmed, in the absence of a controlling narrative voice, by the events of the play. The narrative voice in Venus and Adonis, however, does not reproduce the neat antitheses the hero enunciates. On the contrary, while Adonis urges Venus to call it not love but lust, the text names desire both love and lust with apparent indifference:

The studded bridle on a ragged bough Nimbly she fastens—O how quick is love!

The steed is stalled up, and even now To tie the rider she begins to prove: Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust, And govern'd him in strength, though not in lust.

(11. 37-42 [my emphasis])

Meanwhile, the steed in question leaps, neighs, and bounds (1. 265) in response to a jennet identified as his "love" throughout (11. 287, 307, and 317). The animal's condition is variously "love" and "desire" (11. 311 and 276). As for Venus, "desire doth lend her force" (1. 29); her language is "lustful" (1. 47); still, "she cannot choose but love" (1. 79). In her case "careless lust stirs up a desperate courage," but "love," too, lacks moral scruples and picks locks to get at beauty (11. 556 and 576). Venus, of course, calls it love, but the text calls her "love" the moment Adonis has completed his disquisition:

With this, he breaketh from the sweet embrace Of those fair arms which bound him to her breast, And homeward through the dark laund runs apace; Leaves love upon her back deeply distress'd.

(11. 811-14)

It is not obvious that one set of terms is used ironically: indeed, irony is precisely the quality that the polyphony of the text renders elusive. The poem seems to invest with a certain indeterminacy the terms Adonis so categorically distinguishes.

In this respect the narrative voice is characteristic of its historical moment. In the early modern period love and lust are not consistently used as antitheses: on the contrary, both terms are synonyms for desire, each innocent or reprobate according to the context, and occurring interchangeably without apparent irony. The emergence of a radical distinction between the two—a process inadvertently encouraged, as it turns out, by the voice of Adonis—marks a moment in the cultural history of desire which, as modern criticism unwittingly reveals, has proved formative for our own cultural norms and values.

In the mid-sixteenth century William Baldwin published A treatise of Morali Phylosophie, a collection of precepts derived from a range of classical authorities, each duly named in the margins of the page. The work was exceptionally popular: twenty-four editions appeared between 1547 and about 1640. The earliest editions allow a certain overlap between the categories of love and lust: indeed, in 1550 the chapter heading "Of the worlde, the loue, and pleasures therof" appears in "The Table" as "Of the worlde, the lustes, and pleasures therof."25 While this might be no more than a printer's error, we should note that Baldwin places "Loue, luste, and lecherye" together in a single short chapter.26 The love in question is mainly caritas, which has no sexual connotations, except that in one instance he defines "Repentaunce" as "the ende of fylthy loue," where the adjective has the effect of aligning love with the sin of lechery. At the same time, "Luste is a lordlye and disobedient thynge," whereas "Dishonor, shame, euell ende and damnacion, wayte upon lecherie, and all other like vyces."27 The implication seems to be that lust is a powerful impulse but in itself morally neutral, so that, like the will, it needs to be brought under control in the interests of virtue, while lechery is by definition wicked.

Later editions of the Treatise are modified by the intervention of Thomas Paulfreyman, who repeatedly edited and enlarged Baldwin's text. By 1564 love has been removed from the chapter heading and from the table of contents. But if this simplifies the position in respect of love, lust remains as equivocal as before. Appropriately qualified, it evidently belongs with lechery, as in "Flie lecherous lustes" or "fired to the filthy luste of lecherie."28 On the other hand, in a different context it might equally well be morally neutral: "Enforce thy self to refraine thine euill lustes and folow the good: For the good mortifieth and destroieth the euill."29 Evidently at this moment lust is not necessarily to be condemned out of hand.

In 1594, a year or more after the publication of Venus and Adonis, Thomas Bowes issued an English translation of Pierre de la Primaudaye's Academie Francoise. There is in Bowes's translation some uncertainty about the moral implications of lust: "I will begin then with the affection of loue, which is a motion whereby the heart lusteth [appete] after that which is good. . . ."30 Almost immediately, however, a tentative moral distinction begins to appear. The will is drawn to what is good and desires to embrace it, "and this loue is called Cupiditie, Lusting, or Coueting [cupidité, ou concupiscence, ou convoitise]." But this love is not "true love," which is the love of the good for itself and not for the sake of possession.31 Here lust is evidently not to be endorsed since it is proprietary, but at the same time, it has no specifically sexual connotations; as in Baldwin, it is possible to lust after the good.

In the longer term, however, a change was taking place. During the course of the sixteenth century, lust was to lose its innocence, or at least its potential innocence, since a reprobate meaning was always available. Understood in the Middle Ages as delight, pleasure, desire, or sinful passion, according to context, by the mid-seventeenth century the term had acquired a primarily sexual and strongly pejorative meaning. Coverdale's version of Numbers 14:8, "Yf the Lorde haue lust vnto us," was evidently acceptable in 1535; but in the Authorized Version of 1611, the phrase appeared as "If the Lord delight in vs."32 In 1533 the translator of the popular Enchiridion of Erasmus thought it appropriate to render libido as "bodyly luste," "the luste of the body," "lechery," "fylthy lust," or "unclenly lustes."33Lust alone was evidently considered not specific enough:34 a qualifier of some sort was necessary to do justice to a condition in which human beings, God's handiwork, are reduced to "fylthy swyne / to gotes / to dogges / and of all brute beestes / unto ye most brute," and which, in Erasmus's humanist analysis, wastes time, destroys health, hastens old age, and (perhaps worst of all) obliterates the use of reason.35 Just over 150 years later, a new translation of the Enchiridion was published as A Manual for a Christian Soldier. Here the qualifying words and phrases have disappeared, and libido is translated simply as "lust." Without in any way softening the value judgments inscribed in Erasmus's text, the version of 1687 leaves it to "lust" alone to do the work of defining a condition that reduces human beings to the level of beasts.36 (Twentieth-century translators also tend to render libido as "lust."37

This handful of examples, most of them taken from repositories of popular morality, merely amplifies what the OED already indicates: in the course of the early modern period, with whatever advances and reversals, lust gradually became exclusively sexual and specifically reprobate. But the dictionary, which defines individual words in isolation, on the assumption that they are "full" of their own meanings, does not record the network of differences which constitutes a taxonomy. The shifting meaning of lust depends, at least in part, on the emergent difference between lust and love. Predictably, therefore, in this period of change the connotations of love are no less problematic. The name of a condition that may be divine, purely social, romantic, or exclusively sexual, but which is in all these cases intense, leads to semantic indeterminacies and gives rise to anxieties in the process. Sir Thomas More, for example, was deeply critical of William Tyndale because Tyndale translated the biblical "charity" as "love." The problem, from More's Christian humanist point of view, is that love carries the wrong connotations unless it is appropriately qualified by an adjective that distinguishes between the divine and the sexual, since sexual love is not, of course, highly valued.38 Tyndale, however, to More's disgust, consistently repudiates the adjective:

If he called charitie sometyme by the bare name of loue: I wold not stick therat. But now wheras charite signifieth in english mens eares, not euery common loue, but a good vertuous & wel ordred loue, he . . . wyl studiously flee fro ye name of good loue, & alway speke of loue, & alway leaue out good.39

The problem, as More identifies it, is that Tyndale's practice is motivated by the Lutheran project of elevating faith at the expense of charity. Because their theology makes salvation a question of faith and not good works, the Reformers deliberately conflate charity with the merely erotic love that exists between a man and his paramour:

and therefore he chaungeth ye name of holy vertuous affeccion, into ye bare name of loue comen to the vertuous loue that man beareth to god, and to the lewde loue that is betwene flecke & his make.40

While poetry and romance idealize love, humanist morality holds it in contempt. Erasmus has no greater patience than does his friend More with sexual love (amor), and he includes it under the heading of libido in the Enchiridion. Love is just as absurd and just as reductive as all erotic desire:

Set before thyne eyen howe ungoodly it is / howe altogyder a mad thing to loue / to waxe pale / to be made leane / to wepe / to flatter / and shamfully to submyt thy selfe unto a stynkyng harlot most fylthy and rotten / to gape & synge all nyght at her chambre wyndowe / to be made to the lure & be obedyent at a becke / nor dare do any thing except she nod or wagge her heed / to suffre a folysshe woman to reigne ouer the / to chyde the: to lay unkyndnesse one agaynst ye other to fall out / to be made at one agayne / to gyue thy selfe wyllynge unto a queene / that she myght mocke / k[n]ocke / mangle and spoyle the. Where is I beseche the amonge all these thynges the name of a man? Where is thy berde? Where is that noble mynde created unto moste beautyfull and noble thynges?41

In view of our own taxonomies, it is tempting to speculate on the meaning of love in this instance. The emotions described are romantic, even Petrarchan. "Harlot," however, is not appropriate in the context of romantic love; nor, of course, is violence, which evokes the fabliau genre rather than romance. But the point, presumably, is that Erasmus does not distinguish among them: all passion is degrading.

The humiliating harlot reappears in the first part of The French academie; evidently she had entered into the European popular consciousness, along with the corresponding value judgment on love. "True" love, by contrast, is not sexual:

For we see some men so bewitched with a harlot, that if neede bee, and shee command it, they will hazard their honour and credit, and oftentimes make themselues an example to a whole countrey vpon an open scaffold. And then they labour to couer their folly with this goodly name of Loue, which is better tearmed [of] Euripides by the name of Fury and madnesse in men. For true and good loue, which is the fountaine of friendship, is alwaies grounded vpon vertue, and tendeth to that end: but this slipperie and loose loue, is a desire founded vpon . . . the opinion of a Good, which indeede is a most pernitious euill.42

It is not clear that the moralists commonly recognize a radical difference between love and lust, or even between love and lechery. As late as 1616, Thomas Gainsford's commonplace book The Rich Cabinet demonstrates that there was still some uncertainty about whether these two categories were antithetical or synonymous. Gainsford at first sets up a contrast between the two, but this gradually gives way to similarity. His observations are divided under topics and are listed alphabetically. "Love" therefore comes immediately after "Lechery." If this is simply a trick of the alphabet, Gainsford nonetheless exploits its effect by setting up love initially as the contrary of lechery. While lechery reduces human beings to the level of beasts and generally performs much as love does in Erasmus, love in Gainsford at first uplifts and ennobles. But the simple opposition does not hold for long. Gradually there is a reversion to type, as it emerges that love is irrational, frivolous, a form of madness, like a monster, and then "libidinous and luxurious like a Goat."43 Eventually all the old commonplaces are reaffirmed, and any clear distinction between love and lechery can no longer be detected: "Love doth trouble wit, hinder Art, hurt nature, disgrace reason, lose time, spoile substance, crosse wisedome, serue folly, weaken strength, submit to beautie, and abase honour."44 Meanwhile, it is worth noting, lechery is a kind of love and a form of lust, the differences once again specified only by the appropriate adjectives: "Lechery is in plaine tearmes extreame lust, vnlawfull loue, brutish desires, beastlie wantonnesse, and the itch or scab of old concupiscence."45


Evidently, the terms love and lust were changing in relation to one another: a new system of differences, which is to say a new taxonomy, was in the process of construction. But there is no single moment of transformation: the vocabulary of the period is marked by attempts at policing the language on the one hand and by constant slippages on the other. While the sharp and unconditional antitheses of Adonis are evidently one option in the 1590s, the indeterminacies of the narrative voice in Shakespeare's poem are another and were probably a more familiar practice in the period. Critics with a strong sense of cultural history, who have nevertheless wanted to identify Adonis as the conscience of the text, have been driven to invoke Neoplatonism, somewhat incongruously, as the moral framework of this racy, salacious Ovidian narrative.46

As for Venus herself, she was capable of signifying a whole range of meanings. While the Neoplatonists were anxious to distinguish the heavenly from the earthly Venus, others were content to acknowledge her heterogeneity. Richard Linche's The Fovntaine of Ancient Fiction, an early instance of cultural history, derived from Vincenzo Cartari's mid-sixteenth-century Italian book on images of the gods of the ancients, explained to English readers why there were so many classical statues and pictures of the goddess. The reason was that she represented "several natures and conditions," from lechery to holy matrimony:

According therfore to the opinion of the Poets, Venus was taken to be the goddesse of wantonnes & amorous delights, as that she inspired into the minds of men, libidinous desires, and lustfull appetites, & with whose power & assistance they attained the effect of their lose concupiscence: whervpon also they entermed her the mother of loue, because that without a certaine loue and simpathie of affections, those desires are sildome acomplished. And vnto hir they ascribe the care and charge of marriages and holie wedlockes. . . . 47

Linche does not reveal how anomalous he finds this range of natures and conditions in 1599.

But history was on the side of Adonis. In 1615, more than twenty years after the poem was first printed,48 Alexander Niccholes cites Adonis, without naming him, as a proper authority on the contrast between love and lust. Niccholes quotes Shakespeare's text anonymously with two minor variations, both well within the range of likely errors in transmission. Love and lust are contraries, Niccholes declares, and in support of this position, he urges, "one thus writeth":

Loue comforteth like sunne-shine after raine, But lusts effect is tempest after sunne. Loves golden spring doth euer fresh remaine, Lusts winter comes ere summer halfe be done.49

In the account Niccholes gives, lust is everything that love is not, so that love is defined by the exclusion of its differentiating opposite. Lust is what does not last, for example, and does not discriminate its objects. It is also impoverished, lacking. Niccholes turns Adonis's "glutton" (1. 803) into a beggar: "In Loue there is no lacke, in Lust there is the greatest penury, for though it be cloyed with too much, it pines for want. . . ." Moreover, lust destroys the domestic enclave that love creates: "the one, most commonly, burnes downe the house that the other would build up."50 The context of this sequence of antitheses is a treatise giving advice on how to achieve the great blessing of conjugal happiness, A Discourse, of Marriage and Wiving: and of The greatest Mystery therein contained: How to choose a good Wife from a bad. The book represents an argument, the title page assures its readers, "Of the dearest vse, but the deepest cunning that man may erre in: which is, to cut by a Thrid [i.e., thread] betweene the greatest Good or euill in the world."

As Niccholes's text indicates, the realignment of love and lust is motivated by the newfound valorization of marriage in the course of the century following the Reformation rejection of the celibate ideal. In this context the radical distinction between love and lust is a critical issue. "Lvst," Niccholes affirms, is "the most potent match-maker in all Marriages under thirty, and the chiefe breaker of all from eighteene to eight[y]. .. . "51 Lust makes unstable marriages. Love holds the family together; lust endangers it. In consequence, love is now endorsed by the moralists and lust repudiated. The difference between them, and not the irrationality of both, has become the concern of a prescriptive morality.

What philology records, it cannot be too strongly stressed, is not a fall from a merry Middle Ages, when sexual desire was innocent and the body and its pleasures beyond the range of moral judgment. On the contrary, in the earlier epoch lechery was a deadly sin, celibacy the way of perfection, and asceticism the privileged way of life for those capable of sustaining it. Love belonged in romances, which were held to be essentially trivial, mere entertainment. But the celebration of love as the foundation of a lifetime of concord, and the inclusion of desire within the legality of marriage, brought with it an imperative to distinguish between true love, which would lead to conjugal happiness on the one hand and, on the other, appetite, which was the worst possible basis for a stable social institution. True love was sexual, but it was also companionable; lust, by contrast, was precipitate, inconsistent, turbulent, and dangerous.

As markers of a cultural shift, the semantic changes may perhaps be indicated, however sketchily, by comparing two considerations of marriage, widely separated chronologically, both of which address the problems of love and lust. First, in 1411-12, Thomas Hoccleve discusses the question in his Regement of Princes, addressed to the Prince of Wales on the eve of his accession to the throne as Henry V. In Hoccleve's account, celibacy is evidently preferable to marriage, but within marriage it is best to struggle against fleshly lusts. A man should take care to choose a wife on the basis of virtue: marrying for lust is bound to lead to disaster.52 This sounds familiar, but the problems begin, predictably, with the respective meanings of the terms. Hoccleve confesses that he finally gave up waiting for a benefice and took a wife, whom he married for love (1. 1561), His interlocutor, the Beggar who has become his moral guide, is not satisfied with this account; he suspects, rightly as it turns out, that Hoccleve does not know the difference between love and lust, that he sees them as "conuertible" (i.e., interchangeable [1. 1563]). This is a serious error: love, that is, "goode" love (1. 1628), is love of virtue, "loue of the persone" (1. 1633), and it lasts; lust, meanwhile, is sexual desire or pleasure, and though lawful lust is necessary for procreation, lust for lust's sake is against God's commandments. Nowadays, he writes, people use aphrodisiacs, but this is contrary to the will of God.

The Regement of Princes thus holds apart love and lust by identifying as lust everything that has to do with sex. No sooner, however, has the text established this taxonomy than the precarious system of differences it has created with such difficulty collapses in a verse that precisely treats love and lust as "conuertible." Love's heat is suddenly synonymous with lust, and both are sexual:

Also they that for luste chesen hir make Only, as other while it is vsage, Wayte wel, that whan hir luste is ouerschake, And there-with wole hir loues hete asswage, Thanne is to hem an helle, hire mariage.

(11. 1653-57)53

The Beggar, a kind of Adonis avant la lettre but invested by the text with a good deal more authority, cannot in the event hold apart the terms he sets out to define as antithetical. There is nothing here about marriage as companionship, no endorsement of nuptial love, no idealization of married pleasure. In the circumstances the only way to differentiate love from lust is to purge it of all sexual reference, and so rigorous a policing of its meaning cannot, it appears, be effectively sustained, since meaning is not at the disposal of the individual speaker.

We have reached a quite different and recognizably modern world, however, when in 1638 Robert Crofts provides a rhapsodic account of the romantic and companionable happiness of married love and family life:

It is said, there is no pleasure in the world like that of the sweet society of Lovers, in the way of marriage, and of a loving husband and wife. Hee is her head she commands his heart, he is her Love, her joy, she is his honey, his Doue, his delight.

They may take sweet councell together, assist and comfort one another in all things, their joy is doubled and Redoubled.

By this blessed vnion, the number of Parents, friends, and kindred is increased; It may be an occasion of sweet and lovely Children, who in after times may bee a great felicity and joy to them. . . .

A multitude of felicities, a million of joyfull and blessed effects, spring from true Love.

And indeed this Nuptial Love and society sweetens, all our Actions, discourses, all other pleasures, felicities, and even in all Respects, Encreases true Joy and happinesse.54

Crofts sees no reason why married lovers should not have recourse to the arts of love to enhance their pleasure, and he advises husbands to talk to their wives about love and its value or to tell them love stories, both happy and sad. He even includes a selection of sample poems and songs for the purpose. Some people, he continues, would think this sort of advice profane:

But wee may know that it is good and commendable, for such as doe, or intend to Hue in that honourable and blessed estate of marriage, to bee possest with conjugall Love, and consequently such honest love discourses, deuices, and pleasures, as encrease the same, are to bee esteemed good and commendable.55

On the other hand, Crofts is entirely explicit in his condemnation of lust. He reaffirms the dichotomy between "true," which is to say married, love and those extramarital desires for forbidden objects, which destroy the family and destabilize society: "Let us also (while wee view the excellency of Lawfull and true Loue) beware of unlawfull and Raging Lusts. There is wel nigh as much difference betweene true Love and unlawfull Lusts, as betweene heaven and hell."56 In Crofts's text the antithesis between love and lust is clear and is beginning to be familiar from a twentieth-century point of view. We could find something of the same taxonomy of desire in any Harlequin romance, where the happy ending depends on the ability of the protagonists to distinguish between true love, on the one hand, and, on the other, an infatuation of the senses, which is no basis for marriage. And yet it is worth nothing, first, that Crofts still apparently feels it necessary to invoke an adjective: the repeated phrase in this chapter is "unlawfull lusts."57 Second, the term is not arbitrary: the text does not base the distinction between love and lust on a dualism of mind and body,58 but on a duality of lawful and unlawful, married and unmarried: unlawful lusts lead to fornication, adultery, incest, rape, breach of promise. The fully fledged dualism of caring and sensuality in current popular romance is an effect of the Cartesian crystallization of the cogito, identity as mind, which was evidently not yet part of Crofts's culture.59 And third, "love," too, still benefits from a defining adjective: "true love," of course, has survived unchanged into the modern era.


The power and the durability of the cultural change brought about by Shakespeare's Adonis and Niccholes and Crofts, assisted by countless Puritan divines, is evident in the readings of Venus and Adonis I have already cited. A substantial proportion of twentieth-century criticism, by endorsing the opposition Adonis formulates and finding in it the thematic truth of the poem, reproduces the taxonomy he helps to cement; such criticism thereby enlists Shakespeare in support of family values, the naturalization of the nuclear family as the only legitimate location of desire. Interpretation takes place within a framework, often unacknowledged, of value judgments about true and false love, "healthy" sexual dispositions, or the proper (which is to say "natural") relations between men and women. True love is identifiable in terms of a set of norms produced in the early modern period, norms now so familiar that they pass for nature. They represent the means by which a culture subjected an anarchic passion to the legality that is marriage, the terms on which unpredictable sexual desire was conscripted as the foundation of a stable social institution. True love is, or ought to be, we are to understand, companionable and based on shared convictions; the rhetoric of lovers is properly transparent, their exchanges honest, not designed to persuade; and genuine love occurs only between equals or near-equals, who treat each other with respect.

Venus, of course, fails on all counts. The love she represents is in these terms palpably unhealthy and contrary to nature. She is altogether too passionate, too persistent, too manipulative, too old. The phrase "Sickthoughted Venus," virtually a circumlocution for lovesickness, as the Arden editor recognizes, comes in the criticism to justify the diagnosis of a sexual pathology: critics write, for example, that "She is introduced as 'Sick-thoughted' (1. 5), the primary notion of amorous languishment being overlaid with that of sick excess";60 "in the light of that epithet her desire for the young Adonis can only be taken as unnatural and disorderly."61 Leonard Barkan's account of the poem finds the love it defines "passionate and excessive,"62 and Jonathan Bate considers the desire of Venus "perverse," while nothing that perversity is also a common element of love. The poem, he proposes, is about transgression as a component of passion; it is thus "a celebration of sexuality even as it is a disturbing exposure of the dark underside of desire."63

But what exactly is it that is transgressed in Venus and Adonis? Or, what is the "wholesome" arrangement that constitutes the criterion for the critical identification of psychosexual pathology here? Whatever Venus is proposing for Adonis, it is not marriage. In the first place, she is married already. The text does not mention Vulcan, but the invocation of Mars would surely remind most readers of the humiliating story of the adulterous couple caught in her husband's net and exposed to view in the very act of love.64 And in the second place, it was not yet obvious in the early 1590s that the only proper destiny of lovers was to found a nuclear family. That belief, I have suggested, was still in the process of construction. The condition the poem records is not true love as the basis of marital concord but the tragic passion of the classic love stories, and the narrative bears out the characterization of desire in the goddess's final curse, a definition that applies prophetically for others and retrospectively for her.

The invocation of family values as a framework for making sense of Venus and Adonis betrays, it seems to me, both the complexity of cultural history and the polyphony of Shakespeare's text, which draws on Ovid and the poetic and romance traditions as well as on popular morality. If the poem is definitive for the period, it is so to the degree that it brings an emergent taxonomy into conjunction—and conflict—with a residual indeterminacy,65 an understanding of sexual desire as precisely sensual, irrational, anarchic, dangerous but also, and at the same time, delicate, fragile, and precious.

Family values represent an effort to bring desire into line with Law, in the Lacanian sense of that term, with the taxonomies and the corresponding disciplines inscribed in the symbolic order. The family promises gratification in exchange for submission to the rules: true love is desire that is properly regulated; it is for an appropriate (heterosexual) object; and its story is told in Shakespearean comedy and, in due course, in the nineteenth-century novel. True love obeys the rules of gender and genre, and its moment of closure is marriage, the metonym of a lifetime of happiness.

Venus and Adonis tells a quite different story. It is at the moment when Venus is compelled to realize that gratification is not an option ("All is imaginary she doth prove" [1. 597]) that the text invokes the trompel'oeil of the painted grapes. Venus perceives that the fulfillment of her desire is "imaginary" because her entreaties, arguments, threats, and promises fail to arouse any response in Adonis. Passion is not subject to reason or entreaty, to regulation or Law. On the contrary, desire is anarchic, and its cause is not, in the end, the persuasive powers of another person, not even a goddess, but the missing objet a, the presence that the ordering mechanisms of the symbolic both promise and withhold. Irrational, irregular, incited by prohibition, and thus quite unable to take "no" for an answer, desire is in every sense of the term an outlaw.

It follows that desire repudiates the rules, the classifications, and the proprieties that historically take up their place in the symbolic order. The queen of love has her own law, the poem affirms (1. 251), but it is a topsy-turvy one that enslaves only the ruler. What the text proposes is that desire rejects the taxonomies of both gender and genre. Love is for a boy who looks like a girl and who is in one sense too young for the difference to matter; its modes of address are at once absurd and lyrical and tragic. Passion is contrary, contradictory; "love is," the text affirms, "wise in folly, foolish witty" (1. 838).

Venus and Adonis, which participates in the construction of family values, can also be read as indicating the altogether Utopian character of a social project that sets out to subject desire to discipline, regulation, legality. Itself a trompe-l'oeil, moving between genres, unclosed, unfurnished with a final signified, the poem sustains the desire of the reader-critic to the degree that it refuses to yield the gratification of a secret meaning, a moral truth concealed behind the folds of its heterogeneous textuality.


This essay was written at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It owes a great deal to the stimulus of that environment and to the intellectual generosity of the readers and the staff.

1 Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, 10 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1938-63), Bk. 35, sec. 36.

2 Quotations of Venus and Adonis follow the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Poems, ed. F. T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960), 1-62.

3 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1977), 112.

4 There were sixteen editions by 1640.

5 Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1986), 19, 27, and passim.

6 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols., rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984), Bk. I, 11. 414-15.

7 Ovid, Bk. 1, 11. 450-567.

8 Ovid, Bk. 1, 11. 687-712.

9 T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1944), 2:417-55. For an account of Ovid's appeal in the Renaissance, see William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1977), 3-35; and Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 1-47.

10 Barkan, 80.

11 See Theocritus, "The Festival of Adonis" in The Idylls of Theocritus and the Eclogues of Virgil, trans. C. S. Calverley (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1913), 82-91; Bion, "Lament for Adonis" in The Greek Bucolic Poets, trans. A.S.F. Gow (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1953), 144-47; Plutarch, "Alcibiades" in Plutarch's Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Library, 11 vols.

12 Ovid, Bk. 10, 11. 519-739.

13 Ovid, Bk. 10, 11. 725-39.

14 Ironically, even the boar, she complains, inadvertently achieves a kind of consummation denied her as a woman:

'"Tis true, 'tis true, thus was Adonis slain: He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear, Who did not whet his teeth at him again, But by a kiss thought to persuade him there; And nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine Sheath'd unaware the tusk in his soft groin."

(11. 1111-16)

15 For the range of literary classifications, see John Doebler, "The Many Faces of Love: Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis," Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 33-43; and John Klause, "Venus and Adonis: Can We Forgive Them?" Studies in Philology 85 (1988): 353-77, esp. 353-55. Not everyone, however, has supposed that the poem can be easily classified: New Criticism characteristically celebrates the ambiguity of the text. See, for instance, Kenneth Muir, "Venus and Adonis: Comedy or Tragedy?" in Shakespearean Essays, Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders, eds. (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1964), 1-13; Norman Rabkin, "Venus and Adonis and the Myth of Love" in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, eds. (Eugene: U of Oregon Books, 1966), 20-32.

16 Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1932), 139-49, esp. 149. See also C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 498-99.

17 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 2:16.

18 Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethan Love Conventions (Berkeley: U of California P, 1933), 285.

19 Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1987), 46. Cf. "Venus lusts after Adonis, but she is also maternally protective of him" (Keach, 77).

20 John Doebler, "The Reluctant Adonis: Titian and Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 480-90, esp. 484. Doebler repeats the earlier judgment of Don Cameron Allen, who proposes that Venus is "a forty-year-old countess with a taste for Chapel Royal altos." Later in the poem Venus comes "to discourse foolishly on love like a fluttery and apprehensive Doll Tearsheet of forty"; see Allen's Image and Meaning: Metaphoric Traditions in Renaissance Poetry (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1968), 43 and 57.

21 Gordon Williams, "The Coming of Age of Shakespeare's Adonis," Modern Language Review 78 (1983): 769-76, esp. 776.

22 Klause, 371 and 364.

23 The most perceptive account I have found of the poem's "tonal shifts" is Nancy Lindheim, "The Shakespearean Venus and Adonis," SQ 37 (1986): 190-203.

24 See the Arden Shakespeare edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Methuen, 1979).

25 William Baldwin, A treatise of Morali Phylosophie . . . (London, 1550), sigs. 18r and R6r I owe this observation to Peter Blayney.

26 William Baldwin, sig. 02r-v.

27 William Baldwin, sig. 02v.

28 William Baldwin, A treatyce of moral philosophy . . . (London, 1564), fols. 185v and 186r.

29 William Baldwin, A treatyce, fol. 185r-v.

30 Pierre de la Primaudaye, The French academie . . . (London, 1618), 479; see also Pierre de la Primaudaye, Academie Francoise (Paris, 1580), fol. 166r.

31 La Primaudaye, The French academie, 480; Academie Francoise, fol. 166v.

32Oxford English Dictionary, sv lust, sb., Id.

33 Erasmus, A booke called in latyn Enchiridion militis christiani and in englysshe the manuell of the christen knyght. . . (London, 1533), sigs. Nlr, Q5v, Q6r R3r and R2v. This English translation of the Enchiridion may have been made by William Tyndale; see E. J. Devereux, Renaissance English Translations of Erasmus: A Bibliography to 1700 (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1983), 104.

34 There is one counter-example: the next chapter heading (an epilogue of remedies against incentives to libido) is translated as "A shorte recapitulacyon of remedyes agaynst the flame of lust" (sig. R3v). Here I think the destructive "flame" does some of the work of the other qualifying words or phrases.

35 Erasmus, sigs. Q5v and Q6r-v.

36 Erasmus, A Manual for a Christian Soldier (London, 1687), 184-92.

37Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, p. 61; Edward Dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study (London, 1875), pp. 49-51. See Castrop on this point, Shakespeares Verserzählungen, pp. 51-83.

38Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, pp. 61-62.

39 See Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, pp. 141, 144, 147-148; Smith, Elizabethan Poetry, pp. 88-89.

40 Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 147.

41 Prince ed., The Poems, p. xxvii.

42Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 140.

43Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, p. 56.

44Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, p. 64.

45 Cf. the final stanza of Venus and Adonis: "Thus weary of the world, away she hies, / And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid / Their mistress mounted through the empty skies . . . " (11. 1189-1191; my italics).

37 See, for instance, the following modern editions: Erasmus, Handbook of the Militant Christian, trans. John P. Dolan (Notre Dame, IN: Fides Publishers, 1962), 147-59; and The Enchiridion of Erasmus, ed. and trans. Raymond Himelick (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963), 177-84.

38 Cf. Sir Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Raphe Robynson, ed. Israel Gollancz (1551; London: Dent, 1898), 102-3.

39 Sir Thomas More, A Dialogue concernynge heresyes & matters of Religion . . . in The Wortes of Sir Thomas More Knyght . . . (London, 1557), 103-288, esp. 221.

40A Dialogue concernynge heresyes, 222.

41 Erasmus, A boohe called in latyn Enchiridion, sig. Q7r-v.

42 La Primaudaye, The French academie, 98-99.

43 Thomas Gainsford, The Rich Cabinet Furnished with varietie of Excellent discriptions . . . (London, 1616), fol. 86r. For the section on "lechery," see fols. 82v-84r; for "love," see fols. 84v-87v.

44 Gainsford, fol. 87r.

45 Gainsford, fol. 84r.

46 See T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakspere 's Poems & Sonnets (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1950), 73-93; and Heather Asals, "Venus and Adonis: The Education of a Goddess," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13 (1973): 31-51.

47 Richard Linche, The Fovntaine of Ancient Fiction . . . (London, 1599), sig. Cc2r-v.

48 By this time there had been nine more editions.

49 Alexander Niccholes, A Discourse, of Marriage and Wiving . . . (London, 1615), 31-32.

50 Niccholes, 32.

51 Niccholes, 30.

52 Thomas Hoccleve, The Regement of Princes (1405) in Hoccleve's Works, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society ES 72, 3 vols. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1897), Vol. 3, 11. 1555-764.

53 Marrying for lust was still a danger in 1585. In one instance, however, lust is identified as a component of love, but the two are not interchangeable; see "The wanton wyfe, whose love is all for luste . . ." in Geoffrey Whitney, Ms. Harvard Typ. 14, fol. 48. I owe this reference to Steven W. May.

54 Robert Crofts, The Lover: or, Nvptiall Love (London, 1638), sigs. A7v-A8r.

55 Crofts, sig. C6V.

56 Crofts, sig. D6v.

57 Crofts, sigs. D6v-D8r.

58 There is dualism elsewhere, but "sensual" love is not generally identified in this text as "lust" (Crofts, sigs. B1v-B2r).

59 See Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994), 21-41.

60 Williams, 770. See also Keach, 66.

61 David N. Beauregard, "Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare's Representation of the Passions," ShStud 8 (1975): 83-98, esp. 94.

62 Barkan, 271.

63 Bate, 48-65, esp. 65.

64 Ovid, Bk. 4, 11. 171-89.

65 For another symptom of this indeterminacy, see Margaret Mikesell's astute account of an unconscious regression to the praise of celibacy within the humanist defense of marriage in Vives's influential conduct book for women ("Marital and Divine Love in Juan Luis Vives' Instruction of a Christen Woman" in Love and Death in the Renaissance, Kenneth R. Bartlett, Konrad Eisenbichler, and Janice Liedl, eds. [Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1991], 113-34).

Lloyd Davis (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "'Death-Marked Love': Desire and Presence in Romeo and Juliet," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 49, 1996, pp. 57-67.

[In this essay, Davis notes "the interplay between passion, selfhood and death " in Romeo and Juliet, a play about "the outcome of unfulfillable desire. "]


The action of Romeo and Juliet occurs between two speeches proclaiming the lovers' deaths—the prologue's forecast of events and the prince's closing summary. The vicissitudes of desire take place in this unusual period, after life yet before death. It is a kind of liminal phase in which social and personal pressures build to intense pitch before they are settled. Such liminal tension, as Victor Turner suggests, is the very stuff of which social dramas are made.1 It figures a mounting crisis that envelops those observing and taking part in the unfolding action. At the same time, this temporal setting has a range of interpretative implications.

With the lovers' deaths announced from the start, audience attention is directed to the events' fateful course. The question is less what happens than how it happens. By framing the action in this way, the prologue triggers various generic and narrative effects. First, it establishes the play as 'a tragedy of fate' similar to Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which gives 'the audience a superior knowledge of the story from the outset, reducing the hero's role to bring into prominence the complex patterns of action'.2 In turn, this generic marker initiates a compelling narrative, poised between prolepsis and analepsis, as opening portents of death are played off against background details and further intimations in the following scenes.3 The tension between these hints and flashbacks fills the narrative with foreboding. The breakneck speed of events (in contrast to the extended time frame of Arthur Brooke's version, a few days as opposed to nine months4 sees the ordained end bear relentlessly on the lovers. They are caught between a determining past and future.

The narrative has a further generic analogue. Gayle Whittier suggests that the play develops through a contrast between sonnet lyricism and tragedy that is finally reconciled in death: 'the "spoken lines" of the Prologue predestine the plot of the play to be tragic from without, even as the spirit of Petrarchan poetry spoken by Romeo to Juliet finally necessitates their tragic deaths from within'.5 What first appears as thematic conflict between two of the period's key literary modes makes way for a troubling similarity. The spirit of Petrarchism is revealed as tragically fatal and idealized romance collapses.

In this view, Romeo and Juliet stages the outcome of unfulfillable desire. Although it appears to reverse the erotic story told in the Sonnets, the dramatic narrative ends up paralleling the failing course of identity and desire which can be traced through those poems. There the poet reluctantly finds his desire shifting from the self-gratifying potential figured by the youth to the disarming dark lady, who offers instead 'a desire that her very presence at the same time will frustrate'.6 This pattern initially seems to be inverted in the play—Romeo willingly renounces self-centred longing for Rosaline, Juliet tests and proves her self-reliance, both find true love in each other. However, their love ends in reciprocal death, with the Petrarchan images fatally embodied and materialized. The links between love and death unveil a dark scepticism about desire, despite bursts of romantic idealism. They convey a sense of futility and ironic fate which Romeo momentarily feels but is able to forget for a time, 'my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night's revels' (1.4.106-9).

Such scepticism appears in many subsequent literary and psychoanalytic conceptions, where possibilities of romantic union are queried.7 These questions carry implications about selfhood and desire and about ways of representing them. In theories and stories of divorce or isolation, selfhood is not effaced but conceived as incomplete; as Barbara Freedman puts it, 'The denial of self-presence doesn't negate presence but redefines it as a distancing or spacing we always seek but fail to close'.8 Characters cannot attain their goals, and the inability to claim satisfaction affects desire as much as selfhood. Proceeding from an uncertain source, desire remains 'predicated on lack, and even its apparent fulfilment is also a moment of loss'.9 In this view, desire and presence are forever intertwined: 'Differantiated [sic] presence, which is always and inevitably differed and deferred, and which in consequence exceeds the alternatives of presence and absence, is the condition of desire'.10 They forestall each other's wholeness yet continue to provide the self with images of consummation, contentment and victory—the curtsies, kisses, suits, livings and battles which Mercutio's dreamers envisage but cannot clasp, 'Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, / Which is as thin of substance as the air, / And more inconstant than the wind' (1.4.98-100).

The recurrence of this viewpoint in fiction and theory suggests that Romeo and Juliet stages a paradigmatic conflict between ways of representing and interpreting desire. The play affects these possibilities by placing idealized and tragic conceptions of desire and selfhood in intense dialogue with each other. This dialogue continues to be played out in literary and theoretical texts since, as Alan Sinfield notes, notions of sexuality and gender are 'major sites of ideological production upon which meanings of very diverse kinds are established and contested'.11Romeo and Juliet informs and illustrates a cultural history of desire in which images of romantic fulfilment or failure carry great importance.

As well as being part of this history, Shakespeare's play has two other distinctive temporal features. First, as noted above, it unfolds over a charged time span. Time allows desire to be acted out but also threatens its fulfilment, by either running out or not stopping. This equivocal link affects desire's tragic course in Romeo and Juliet, 'as the time and place / Doth make against' the characters (5.3.223-4).

Secondly, its depiction of desire reverberates with erotic tropes from earlier traditions—Platonic, Ovidian, Petrarchan, as well as popular sayings. These tropes are used by the characters to talk and think about relationships, but they are also challenged for not allowing the gap between self and other to be bridged. They are unfulfilling since it feels as if they belong to someone else; as Astrophil puts it, 'others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way'.12 The lovers are often dissatisfied with or unsure about the words of others. Their discontent grows from early dismissals such as Romeo's 'Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all' (1.1.171) and 'Thou talk'st of nothing' (1.4.96), or Juliet's 'And stint thou, too, I pray thee, Nurse' (1.3.60), to deeper disquiet over the inability of this language to match their experience: 'Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel' (3.3.64); 'Some say the lark makes sweet division; / This doth not so, for she divideth us' (3.5.29-30). The corollary of their frustration with the language of others and of the past is the value they put on their own: 'She speaks. / O, speak again, bright angel' (2.1.67-8); 'every tongue that speaks / But Romeo's name speaks heavenly eloquence' (3.2.32-3).

Like the lovers, the play also seeks to revise existing rhetorical conventions. It reworks these tropes into personal, tragic terms which underlie later literary and psychological conceptions. Hence, in addition to exemplifying Stephen Greenblatt's point that 'psycho-analysis is the historical outcome of certain characteristic Renaissance strategies',13Romeo and Juliet shows that these strategies develop in response to earlier discourses. The play's pivotal role in later depictions of desire stems from the way it juxtaposes historical and emergent conceptions.

These complex temporal and rhetorical effects are hinted at in the Prologue, which repeatedly sets past, present and future against each other. 'Our scene' is initially laid in a kind of continuous present, yet one that remains hanging between 'ancient grudge' and 'new mutiny'. Likewise, the 'star-crossed lovers take their life' in a present whose intimations of living and loving are circumscribed by 'the fatal loins' of 'their parents' strife'. As the birth-suicide pun on 'take their life' hints, sexuality is already marked by violence and death, its future determined by the past's impact on the present. The Prologue ends by anchoring the staging of 'death-marked love' in the here and now of the audience, who attend 'the two-hours' traffic of our stage'. It anticipates a successful theatrical conclusion, with the play's performance 'striv[ing] to mend' what the lovers 'shall miss'—a kind of closure that their desire cannot realize. In contrast to the simple linear Chorus to Act 2, which culminates in the lovers' union, the rebounding moments of the Prologue displace consummation with death.14

A complicity between sex and death is well known in Renaissance texts. Its function in Romeo and Juliet is, however, distinguished by temporal shifts which define the characters' relations. While the lovers in a poem such as Donne's 'The Canonization' exceed worldly time and place, and their post-coital condition is eternally celebrated, in Shakespeare's play the links between past and present, social and personal, cannot be transcended. The intense oneness felt by the lovers appears to signify mutual presence, but such intersubjective moments are overlaid with social and historical pressures. The drama alternates between instants of passion, when time seems to stand still, and inevitable returns to the ongoing rush of events. This contrast is manifested not only in the characterization and plot but in the interplay of underlying traditions, sources and tropes. The play reiterates and revises these conventions, confirming a conception of desire that speeds not to its goal but its end. In this conception personal presence can exist only as a transient, illusory sign of desire.


One of the main influences Romeo and Juliet has had on later depictions of love lies in its celebration of personal desire. The force of this celebration comes partly from its dramatic mode, staging the lovers' experiences for a 'live' audience. In the decades after the play was first performed, poetry (till then, the key romantic discourse) was changing from oral to written modes. Until the rise of the novel, drama remained the pre-eminent form for presenting love stories, and stage performance could give these tales the confessional tones which earlier forms of poetic recitation doubtless achieved. The Prologue enacts this shift by relocating the love sonnet in the drama, a move again underlined by the verse which the lovers will soon share in Act 1, scene 5.

On stage, the impact of the 'personal' can come across in different ways—through physical, verbal, even interpersonal performance. In Romeo and Juliet these forms of presence concentrate in the protagonists' unshakeable love. It seems to assume an essential quality which captures the 'diachronic unity of the subject'.15 This unity underwrites numerous adaptations of and responses to the play, from elaborate stage productions, operas and ballets, to more popular versions such as the American musical West-Side Story or the Australian narrative verse of C. J. Dennis's A Sentimental Bloke, whose colloquial tones add to the impression of true romance. For many audience groups, each of these transformations once again discovers the play's 'spirit', which surpasses local differences to reveal truths about desire and 'ourselves'.

The director's programme notes to a recently wellreceived production in Australia illustrate this kind of response. The mixed tones of confession and authority sway the audience to accept his views:

My fascination with this play continues. Considerable research over the years has taken me twice to Verona and Mantua, but the conflict in Bosnia has brought the work urgently closer. I first considered a Muslim-Christian setting several months before the tragedy of Bosko and Admira ... A study of the text supplies no religious, class, nor race barriers between the 'two households' and this makes Shakespeare's vision all the more powerful. When differences are minimal, ancient grudges seem the more difficult to understand. Yet they remain with us today, passed on by our parents. It seems the one thing we teach the next generation is how to maintain rage and other forms of prejudices. Thus this work is as much about young people in the Brisbane Mall today as it is about the hot days in medieval Verona . . . The human spirit, as portrayed by the 31 year old playwright, is a thing of wonder to be nurtured and treasured.16

The paradoxical effects of citing 'real' personal and political situations are first to detach the drama from its own historical concerns and then to efface the ideological grounds of the current crisis. The revelation of 'human spirit' triumphs over any tragic significance. Indeed, the play's freedom from material contexts testifies to its, its author's, and our affirming 'vision'. This viewpoint recalls Coleridge's claim that Shakespeare is 'out of time', his characters 'at once true to nature, and fragments of the divine mind that drew them'.17

Because it hides sexual, class and ethnic factors behind archetypal human experience, this sort of perception of Shakespeare's work becomes a target of materialist criticism:

Idealised and romanticised out of all dialectical relationship with society, it [Shakespeare's work] takes on the seductive glamour of aestheticism, the sinister and self-destructive beauty of decadent romance . . . this 'Shakespeare myth' functions in contemporary culture as an ideological framework for containing consensus and for sustaining myths of unity, integration and harmony in the cultural superstructures of a divided and fractured society.18

In relation to sexual issues, universal images of the personal in Romeo and Juliet can be seen as helping to naturalize notions of desire which reinforce an 'ideology of romantic love' in terms of 'heterosexualizing idealization' and the 'canonization of heterosexuality'.19 Personal romance and desire are revealed as authoritative codes which conceal and impose official sexuality.

The kinds of ideological impacts that the 'personal' registers may be intensified or interrogated by the generic effects of 'Excellent conceited Tragedie', as the Quarto titles announce. The combination of personal experience and tragic consequence can turn Romeo and Juliet into an account of contradictory notions of desire and identity, in line with Jonathan Dollimore's recognition that, notwithstanding traditions of celebration 'in terms of man's defeated potential', tragedy questions ideological norms.20 The genre's ambiguous drift to 'radical' or cathartic ends sees the play assume a kind of meta-textual disinterestedness, distanced from final interpretations as it seems to reflect on how desire may be conceived and staged. This distance can be observed in the play's citing and reworking of tropes and conventions from existing discourses of love and romance. The intertextual traces reveal continuities and changes in the depiction of desire, keyed to social and historical notions of the personal and interpersonal.

Platonism is traditionally seen as offering a set of tropes that affirm selfhood and desire as forms of true being despite possibilities of loss.21 In the Symposium, for instance, Socrates defines love as desire for what one lacks, either a specific quality or a lost or missing element of the self. Aristophanes goes so far as to image love as a 'longing for and following after [a] primeval wholeness . . . the healing of our dissevered nature'. The Symposium deals with this incipiently tragic situation by redirecting desire to the heavens; in a comedic resolution, love's lack is fulfilled by catching sight of 'the very soul of beauty . . . beauty's very self.22 Such vision provides the model for Renaissance Petrarchism.

This model is famously reproduced in Pietro Bembo's Neoplatonic paean to divine love at the close of Castiglione's The Courtier. He recounts 'a most happie end for our desires', as the courtier forsakes sensual desire for a wiser love that guides the soul: 'through the particular beautie of one bodie hee guideth her to the universali beautie of all bodies . . . Thus the soule kindled in the most holy fire of true heavenly love, fleeth to couple her self with the nature of Angels'. This 'most holy love' is 'derived of the unitie of the heavenly beautie, goodnesse and wisedom', and in narrating its course Bembo himself undergoes an ecstatic loss of identity. He speaks as if 'ravished and beside himselfe', and emphasizes that 'I have spoken what the holy furie of love hath (unsought for) indited to me'.23 Speaking and experiencing true desire are related forms of self-transcendence, and Bembo can rejoice in the loss of selfhood.

Similar experience underpins the double structure of Edmund Spenser's Fowre Hymnes, first published in 1596, around the time Romeo and Juliet was written. The hymn in honour of earthly love characterizes the lover as Tantalus, feeding 'his hungrie fantasy, / Still full, yet neuer satisfyde . . . For nought may quench his infinite desyre'. This figure is recast in the corresponding hymn of heavenly love, where the poet renounces his earlier poems—'lewd layes' which showed love as a 'mad fit'—for a lover linked to 'high eternali powre'.24 In these instances, the lack or absence which motivates love is conceived positively, part of a spiritual response which lifts the lover beyond temporal identity. Through its philosophic or poetic utterance, the self is not destroyed but surpassed.

However, the link between lack and love can also affect selfhood less positively, even fatally. Classical texts again offer tropes and characters to Renaissance authors. Ovid depicts less drastic versions of desire and self-loss in the changes that Jove makes to pursue various nymphs. These can be read in varying ways—on the one hand, a carnivalesque switching of sexual roles for the sake of pleasure; on the other, a sequence of illusory identities that offers no final fulfilment. Though Jove's transformations bring different degrees of satisfaction, none is tragically oriented (at least for himself). In contrast, the tale of Narcissus sets desire and selfhood in irresolvable conflict. In Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses, Narcissus gazes into the pond to find that 'He knowes not what it was he sawe. And yet the foolishe elfe / Doth burn in ardent love thereof. The verie selfe same thing / That doeth bewitch and blinde his eyes, encreaseth all his sting'.25 His desire cannot be satisfied, and the attempt to do so pains and then destroys selfhood.

Opposing notions of genre, time and character underlie these figures of ecstasy and loss. Platonic and Neoplatonic transcendence is marked by timelessness and selflessness. It brings narration and character to an end, as the self enjoys eternal fusion with the other. In comparison, Ovidian images of disguised or deluded self-loss entail conflict within or between characters. These interactions rely on distinct, often opposed, figures who respond to each other through time. Their fates frequently impose eternities of lonely, unfulfilled selfhood.

Platonic images of true desire and identity are invoked in Shakespeare's comedies during the 1590s; but even there, as characters move to romantic union, they are usually questioned. The disguises, confusions and mistakes through which love's destiny is reached may suggest random or enforced effects that unsettle 'nature's bias'. In a less equivocal way, Shakespeare's use of Ovidian images of desire and selfhood tends to limit or foreclose positive readings, especially where narcissistic traces are discerned. This tendency takes place in both comic and tragic genres: 'Like Ovid's tales, Shakespeare's comedies never lose sight of the painfulness and the potential for the grotesque or for disaster wrought by love's changes . . . If part of the Ovidianism of the comedies is their potential for violence and tragedy, it would seem logical to expect that Ovidianism to be developed in the tragedies'.26 In Venus and Adonis, for example, the humour of the goddess's overweening desire and her beloved's petulance changes to grim consequence. 'The field's chief flower' (line 8) is mournfully plucked, recalling Narcissus's end, 'A purple flower sprung up, chequered with white, / Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood / Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood' (lines 1168-70). The characters have shared an ironic desire whose deathly goal was unwittingly imaged by Venus, 'Narcissus so himself himself forsook, / And died to kiss his shadow in the brook' (lines 161-2). As noted earlier, comparable effects occur throughout Romeo and Juliet, where moments of romantic union are disrupted by ongoing events that undercut their idealism. The mixed genres in these tales represent desire as a hybrid of the comic, tragic and ironic.27

Related images of threatening or incomplete desire and self-transformation are repeated through many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts, from the angst of sonneteers to Montaigne's musings in the Apologie of Raymond Sebond on 'The lustfuli longing which allures us to the acquaintance of women, [and] seekes but to expell that paine, which an earnest and burning desire doth possesse-us-with, and desireth but to allay it thereby to come to rest, and be exempted from this fever'.28 As most of these references suggest, this notion of erotic jeopardy is almost always tied to masculine conceptions of desire and selfhood. The pains of desire are indulged if not celebrated, and they may convert to misogyny, as in Hamlet's tirade against Ophelia or Romeo's charge that Juliet's beauty 'hath made me effeminate' (3.1.114).

This attitude echoes through Romeo's early laments about Rosaline. As Coleridge noted, he is 'introduced already love-bewildered':29 'I have lost myself. I am not here. / This is not Romeo; he's some other where' (1.1.194-5). Amid these tones of despair a self-satisfied note can be heard. The early Romeo is a 'virtual stereotype of the romantic lover',30 whose role-playing brings a kind of egotistic reassurance. The lament for self-loss becomes proof of self-presence, a 'boastful positiveness',31 with Romeo still to know the unsettling force of desire.

From this point, the play proceeds by exploring the limits of the Platonic, Ovidian and Petrarchan tropes. The seriousness of narcissistic absorption is questioned (underlined by Mercutio's quips at romantic indulgence);32 yet the full consequence of desire is not realized in Platonic union but deferred to its aftermath. None of the conventional models can quite convey what is at stake in the lovers' story, and the discourse of desire must be revised.


Clearly, then, Romeo and Juliet invents neither tragic nor personal notions of desire. Both are strongly at work in Shakespeare's direct source, Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562): the threats to selfhood caused by love; the workings of 'False Fortune' and 'wavering Fortunes whele'; an intense desire that can be quenched 'onely [by] death and both theyr bloods'; time as tragic and ironic, first intimated in woe at Juliet's 'untimely death' and then gaining full significance as Romeus's man tells him 'too soone' of her end.33

While it reiterates these ideas, Shakespeare's play also develops and sharpens the connections among desire, the personal and the tragic. The lovers create new images of individuality and of togetherness in order to leave their worldly selves behind. Yet their efforts remain circumscribed by social forces. The ironic result is that the ideal identities the lovers fashion in order to realize their desire become the key to its tragic loss. Self-transcendence can be experienced but not as a kind of timeless ectasy; instead it becomes entwined with unfulfilled desire.

The play personalizes desire in ways which constantly alternate between idealism and failure. As Kay Stockholder notes, threats to desire are 'externalized' and the lovers consciously create 'a radiant world apart by attributing all inimical forces to surrounding circumstance'.34 In this reordering of reality, desire becomes part or even constitutive of private, individual identity. Romeo and Juliet's love is secret from others and transgresses the roles imposed by their families. In The Petite Fallace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576), George Pettie considered this opposition the key to the story: 'such presiness of parents brought Pyramus and Thisbe to a woful end, Romeo and Julietta to untimely death'.35 In A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, resisting or contesting patriarchal authority allows a temporary move towards selfhood.

Through this contest, love appears to be one's own, yet both plays show the impossibility of holding onto it. The personal is as elusive as it is idealized, destined to slip back into constraining and distorting social forms. In retrospect, we may see this elusiveness prefigured in the lovers' first meeting, an intense bonding that occurs amid an elaborate ritual of masks and misrecognition. The symbolic means through which love must be expressed will prevent its consummation.36 For the moment, however, love beholds a single object of desire, whose truth authenticates the lover and recreates both their identities: 'Deny thy father and refuse thy name, / Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I'll no longer be a Capulet . . . Call me but love and I'll be new baptized. / Henceforth I never will be Romeo' (2.1.76-93).

The nexus between identity and desire is strengthened by the need for secrecy. Hidden and equivocated as the lovers move between private and public realms, secret desire endows selfhood with interiority and intention. It grants a depth of character, and even if its longings are not fulfilled inner experience is confirmed. Juliet's cryptic replies to her mother's attack on Romeo reveal private pleasure couched in pain: 'O, how my heart abhors / To hear him named and cannot come to him / To wreak the love I bore my cousin / Upon his body that hath slaughtered him!' (3.5.99-102). Like secret desire, the obstacles to fulfilment sharpen internal experience and give it a kind of sensuous reality: 'runaways' eyes may wink, and Romeo / Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen. / Lovers can see to do their amorous rites / By their own beauties' (3.2.6-9).

This deep desire and selfhood develop in terms of intentionality—desire for someone, effected through imagination, speech and action. Desire marks the self as agent, and tragic desire portrays the onus of agency. It is felt sharply by Juliet before she takes the friar's potion, 'My dismal scene I needs must act alone' (4.3.19), and by Romeo as he enters the Capulet tomb 'armed against myself (5.3.65). In this sense, the play's depiction of desire is linked to representations of subjectivity that emerge during the sixteenth century. It reflects the important role that tropes such as the secret, with its social and personal disguises, have in discourses which are starting to inscribe both an inner self and the individual as agent.

Even as it invests in such notions of selfhood, at its most intense desire in Romeo and Juliet surpasses individual experience and realizes an intersubjective union. The lovers re-characterize each other as much as themselves: 'Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name—which is no part of thee—/ Take all myself (2.1.89-91). Again this effect has generic analogues, as we see the lovers' discourse moving beyond singlevoiced Petrarchism. They share exchanges which reveal 'not only the other's confirming response, but also how we find ourselves in that response'.37 Unlike contemporary sonnet sequences, which portray the poet by stifling the woman's voice (just as Romeo invokes and silences Rosaline), the play is marked by the lovers' dialogues. This reciprocity is epitomized by the sonnet they co-construct and seal with a kiss at their first meeting (1.5.92-105).38 It is a highly suggestive moment, capturing the separateness of the lovers' world and speech from others, and also rewriting the dominant 1590s genre for representing desire. The sonnet is re-envoiced as dialogue, its meanings embodied in the climactic kiss. At the same time, the heightened artifice of the scene intimates its transience. The lovers start another sonnet but are interrupted by Juliet's garrulous nurse, who foreshadows the dire interventions of others. A further irony is also implied—as noted earlier, their union will be ended by events that literalize poetic tropes of love and death: Romeo really does die 'with a kiss' (5.3.120), and Juliet falls in eternal sexual embrace, 'O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath! There rust, and let me die' (5.3.168-9).39

The deaths verify the Prologue's vision of inescapable ties between sex and violence. Not only can the lovers not escape the eternal feud that frames them, they even play parts in it, responding impulsively, at the threshold of nature and nurture, to news of Mercutio's and Tybalt's deaths. For a moment their union bows under its violent heritage as each impugns the other: 'O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper softened valour's steel' (3.1.113-15); 'did Romeo's hand shed Tybalt's blood? . . . O serpent heart, hid with a flow'ring face!' (3.2.71-3)

Other characters also link sex and violence, suggesting that the connection has become naturalized and accepted. The Capulet servants joke aggressively about raping and killing the Montague women (1.1.22-4). The friar parallels birth and death, 'The earth, that's nature's mother, is her tomb. / What is her burying grave, that is her womb' (2.3.9-10), and is later echoed by Romeo, who calls the Capulet crypt a 'womb of death' (5.3.45). The friar also connects 'violent delights' to 'violent ends' (2.5.9), and the lovers' suicides suggest a final fusing of love and death. Yet as different interpretations maintain, this fusion's meaning may be tragic, romantic, or both. The lovers are 'consumed and destroyed by the feud' and seem to rise above it, 'united in death'.40

The final scene thus accentuates the connections among selfhood, death and desire. It caps off the discourse of tragic desire announced by the Prologue—a tradition of failed love known through numerous European novellas, the second volume of The Palace of Pleasure (1567), and two editions of Brooke's Tragicall Historye (1562, 1587). The action has thus had a doubly repetitive stamp, not only replaying this oft-told tale but restaging what the Prologue has stated. Foreknowledge of the outcome plays off against moments of romantic and tragic intensity, and triggers a kind of anxious curiosity that waits to see the details of the deaths—the near misses of delayed messages, misread signs, plans gone awry.

Through this repetitive structure, the play affirms precedents and conditions for its own reproduction as if anticipating future responses. Before ending, it even shows these possibilities being realized. The grieving fathers decide to build statues of the lovers, and the prince's final lines look forward to 'more talk of these sad things', in an effort to establish once and for all what desire's tragic end might mean (5.3.306). As Dympna Callaghan observes, the play not only 'perpetuates an already well-known tale', but its closure is predicated on 'the possibility of endless retellings of the story—displacing the lovers' desire onto a perpetual narrative of love'.41

Patterns of repetition weave through the play as well as framing it. Characters constantly restate what has previously been staged—in the first scene Benvolio explains how the opening brawl started, and later he recounts details of Mercutio's and Tybalt's deaths and Romeo's involvement; the Chorus to the second act reiterates the lovers' meeting; the Nurse tells Juliet of Tybalt's death; the Capulets and Paris echo each other's lamentations over Juliet's apparent death;42 and lastly the Friar recaps the whole plot to the other characters after the bodies are found. These instances are part of the effort to explain the violent meaning of events, but as the prince's closing words suggest, something extra needs to be told, 'never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo' (5.3.308-9). There is a sense that 'this' version of the story exceeds earlier ones. For all its repetition of tropes and narratives, in closing the play recognizes and stresses a difference from precursors.

Other repetitive designs through the play are used to underline the tension between desire and death. Four meetings and kisses shared by Romeo and Juliet structure the romance plot. They are in counterpoint to four violent or potentially violent eruptions that occur between the male characters, especially involving Tybalt. A muted fifth interruption is provided by the presence of Tybalt's corpse in the Capulet crypt where Juliet and Romeo finally meet and miss each other. These turbulent scenes frame the romantic ones, unsettling the lyric and erotic essence which they seem to capture.

The repetitions and retellings connect with the representation of time in the play, imposing a destructive pressure between the weight of social and family history and personal longings. Social and personal time are opposed, and desire is caught between these conflicting time frames. Social time is frequently indexed through the play, in general terms such as the 'ancient grudge' and through the scheduling of specific events such as Capulet's banquet and Juliet's wedding to Paris. Against this scheme, the lovers' meetings seem to dissolve time, making it speed up or, more powerfully, stop and stand still, as the present is transformed into 'the time of love'.43 The lovers seek to disregard time and death in their union, 'Then love-devouring death do what he dare—It is enough I may but call her mine' (2.5.7-8). Yet this passionate energy also drives the drama to its finale, and Romeo's words link their union and separation with death. The time of love confronts the passing of its own presence.

In various ways, then, Romeo and Juliet renovates tragic desire for the Elizabethans and for subsequent periods. In early scenes it evokes a narcissistic poetics of desire as self-loss and death but moves beyond that to stage a dialogic reciprocal presence. The reappearance of death then inscribes ineluctable external influences—the determinations of time and history which frame desire—and the impossible idealization of self and other which passion seeks but fails to find. In this sense, Shakespeare's play marks a complex intersection between historical and emergent discourses of desire. First, in a period when modern institutions of family, marriage and romance are starting to appear, it translates Platonic, Ovidian and Petrarchan tropes of ecstasy and love into personal notions of desire. Next, it conceives desire as the interplay between passion, selfhood and death. And thirdly, its equivocal staging of love's death anticipates the tension between romantic and sceptical visions of desire that runs through many later literary and theoretical works.

It could be said that the play's symbolic bequest to these works is a notion of desire as lost presence. Though love continues to be celebrated as present or absent or present-in-absence in many texts (in different ways, Herbert's poetry and Brontë's Wuthering Heights come to mind), a significant line of literary works explores the interplay among desire, death and selfhood. Like Romeo and Juliet, these texts place desire in conflict with time, recounting moments of ideal presence whose future reveals they could never have been. This revision of desire begins with Shakespeare's later tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra—where one lover survives, though briefly, to feel the other's loss. It runs from the fallen lovers of Paradise Lost ('we are one, / One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself [9.958-9]), to the equivocal pairings at the end of Dickens's great novels or the images of foreclosed desire in Henry James's major phase. Its most poignant statement comes at the close of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:

the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If Romeo and Juliet helps to initiate this tradition, it does so as the last tragedy of desire. For in these later texts the note is of melancholic rather than tragic loss: what hurts is not that desire ends in death but that it ends before death. The present then becomes a time for recounting lost desire, and the self's task is to try to hold the story together. 'The subject's centre of gravity is this present synthesis of the past which we call history', writes Lacan.44 Like Romeo's last letter, this history reveals the 'course of love' (5.3.286) to those who remain.


1Drama, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, 1974), pp. 40-1 and passim.

2 Brian Gibbons, Introduction, in Romeo and Juliet (London, 1980), p. 37.

3 On analepsis and prolepsis, see Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London, 1983), pp. 46ff.

4 Gibbons, Introduction, p. 54.

5 Gayle Whittier, 'The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 27-41; p. 40.

6 Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley, 1986), p. 24.

7 Two of the primary psychoanalytic texts are Civilization and Its Discontents, and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. A clear reading of this direction in Freud is offered by Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psycho-analysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore, 1976): 'the death drive is the very soul, the constitutive principle of libidinal circulation' (p. 124). Related scepticism underlies Lacan's view of the link between desire and demand. Desire is dependent on demand, but demand, 'by being articulated in signifiers, leaves a metonymic remainder that runs under it . . . an element that is called desire': desire leads only to desire. See The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1981), p. 154; compare Catherine Belsey's gloss of Lacan's view—'desire subsists in what eludes both vision and representation, in what exceeds demand, including the demand for love'—in Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford, 1994), p. 139.

8Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, 1991), p. 110.

9 Belsey, Desire, pp. 38-9.

10 Ibid., p. 70.

11Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford, 1992), p. 128.

12Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Poems, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford, 1973), p. 117. As discussed below, this first sonnet's turn to a seemingly authentic self is also made in Romeo and Juliet.

13 Stephen Greenblatt, 'Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture', in Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore, 1986), 210-24; p. 224.

14 'But passion lends them power, time means, to meet, / Tempering extremities with extreme sweet' (2 Chor. 13-14). The Chorus, not included in first Quarto, is reprinted in the Arden edition (see n. 2).

15 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London, 1985), p. 34.

16 Aubrey Mellor, 'From the Artistic Director', in Queensland Theatre Company Program for Romeo and Juliet (Brisbane, 1993), p. 3.

17 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare and Other Poets and Dramatists, Everyman's Library (London: Dent, 1914), p. 410.

18 Graham Holderness, Preface: 'All this', in The Shakespeare Myth, ed. Graham Holderness (Manchester, 1988), pp. xii-xiii.

19 See Dympna Callaghan, 'The Ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet', in Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms and Jyotsna Singh, The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics (Oxford, 1994), pp. 59-101; Jonathan Goldberg, 'Romeo and Juliet' s Open Rs', in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, 1994), 218-35; p. 227; and Joseph A. Porter, 'Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Canonization of Heterosexuality', South Atlantic Quarterly, 88 (1989), 127-47.

20Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Age of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago, 1984), p. 49.

21 Cf. Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1990), p. 5 and passim.

22Symposium, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, 1985), 193a-c, 211d-e.

23 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London, 1948), pp. 319-22.

24Fowre Hymnes, 'A Hymne in Honovr of Love' (lines 197-203) and 'A Hymne in Honovr of Heavenly Love' (lines 8-28), in Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford, 1979).

25Shakespeare's Ovid: Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the 'Metamorphoses ', ed. W. H. D. Rouse (Carbondale, 1961), book 3: lines 540-2.

26 Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993), p. 173. Bate emphasizes Actaeon as another figure of self-consuming desire (p. 19 and passim).

27 Cf. George Bataille's conceptions of eros as 'laughable', tragic and 'arousing irony', and of 'The complicity of the tragic—which is the basis of death—with sexual pleasure and laughter': The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco, 1990), pp. 53 and 66.

28 Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans. John Florio (London, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 192-3.

29 Coleridge, Lectures, p. 103.

30 Harry Levin, 'Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet', in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of 'Romeo and Juliet': A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Douglas Cole (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), 85-95; p. 86.

31 Coleridge, Lectures, p. 103.

32 Joseph A. Porter emphasizes that Mercutio's opposition is to romantic love not to sex: Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama (Chapel Hill, 1988), p. 103.

33 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1 (London, 1966), lines 114, 210, 935, 2420 and 2532.

34 Kay Stockholder, Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays (Toronto, 1987), p. 30. In Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, 1984), Marianne Novy sees that the lovers' private world crystallizes in the aubade of Act 2, scene 1 (p. 108).

35 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 374.

36 On the interplay among misrecognition, desire and the symbolic, see Catherine Belsey, 'The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet', Yearbook of English Studies, 23 (1993), 126-42; on the significance of the lovers being masked from each other, see Barbara L. Parker, A Precious Seeing: Love and Reason in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1987), p. 142.

37 Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York, 1988), p. 21.

38 Edward Snow suggests that the sonnet registers 'an intersubjective privacy' that subdues 'sexual difference and social opposition': 'Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet', in Shakespear's 'Rough magic': Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark, 1985), pp. 168-92; p. 168; Novy contrasts this scene with the stichomythic exchange between Juliet and Paris at 4.1.18-38 (Love's Argument, p. 108).

39 On the love-death oxymoron, cf. Whittier, 'Sonnet's Body', p. 32.

40 Coppélia Kahn, 'Coming of Age in Verona', in The Woman 's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, 1980), pp. 171-93; p. 186. Marilyn Williamson regards the deaths as alienating rather than uniting, 'Romeo's suicide fulfills a pattern to which Juliet is both necessary and accidental': 'Romeo and Death', Shakespeare Studies, 14 (1981), 129-37; p. 132.

41 Callaghan, 'Ideology', p. 61.

42 See Thomas Moisan, 'Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: the "Lamentations" Scene in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983), 389-404.

43 Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1987), p. 213.

44The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I, Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954, trans. John Forrester (New York, 1991), p. 36. On literature and psycho-analysis as twin discourses of mourning and melancholia, see Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, 1993), esp. pp. 32-3.

Obsessive Desire: Jealousy And Lust

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14102

Joseph Pequigney (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Action of Lust," in Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 155-88.

[In the following excerpt, Pequigney observes the mechanisms of lust in Shakespeare's Sonnets 127-32 and 144-7.]

Possibly no single poem in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence is more imperative for understanding it holistically than Sonnet 129, "The expense of spirit." This key sonnet defines the central theme of Part II as lust, [and] sheds light on its arrangement of sonnets. . . . This sonnet is the third one of Part II, and the first two—127 and 128—prepare the way for it in the course of introducing the secondary subject of the Sonnets, the liaison with the mistress.

The protagonist is already infatuated with her in Sonnet 127. Nothing is said about how or when they met. He does not address her directly here but launches into that stock-in-trade of the amorist, praise of her beauty. It is not of the type normally admired, being "black," and so he must defend it while eulogizing it. That gives a mildly unconventional twist to the opening poem, though it barely hints at the unconventionalities to follow. The first quatrain points out that, in the past, "black," in the sense of the dark coloring of a brunette as opposed to the light coloring of a blonde, "was not counted fair [= comely, with a play on 'blonde')," and the same prejudice exists today. The long-standing vogue of blondeness proves, according to the second quatrain, corruptive: it promotes widespread use of cosmetic "art" for "fairing the foul," with the consequence that "sweet" and natural "beauty" is, if brunette, deprived of its proper designation. Gentlemen may prefer blondes, but the blondes often have bleached hair; "black" is truly beautiful and more likely to be genuine. In the octave the poet comes on, with his historical and moral observations, more as a social critic than as a lover. In the sestet he turns from generalizations to particularized application to the lady:

Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black, Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem. . . .

The single feature of the mistress noted is her eyes, the color of ravens and mourning apparel. Such eyes may metonymically imply dark hair and skin, and Shakespeare may have had in mind her total appearance; in any case, we soon learn that her hair (130.4) and "complexion" (132.12-14) are also "black." The ocular "mourners" seem sad because of the prevalent "false esteem" of feminine pulchritude:

Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe, That every tongue says beauty should look so.

The verb "looks so" takes the two meanings 'appear so' and 'look in the way her woeful eyes do.' Only now is praise of the lady made overt. Commendation of her is not restricted to the one admirer, for everyone agrees, and her "becoming" sadness may be bringing about new and better standards of taste.

Sonnet 128 is the first poem to address the mistress directly. The persona recounts his sensations upon listening to her playing the virginals and watching her fingers move across the keyboard, "that blessed wood." In the second and third quatrains he explains amusingly why "I envy those jacks," and the noun is at once a misnomer and a metaphor for the keys: a misnomer because, though a spinet has jacks, they do not touch the player's hands but are operated by the keys and hold the quills that pluck the strings; a metaphor because a "jack" can denote, and does here, 'ill-mannered fellow' or "knave' (OED 2). Shakespeare opts for the figurative sense, and never mind the literal exactitude. The wooden "jacks" are personified as rivals of the envious wooer's personified lips. Those rascals "leap / To kiss the inward tender of thy hand, / Whilst my poor lips," which covet that pleasure, "At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand" (128.5-8). The language becomes more sensual when the lips, yearning to be "tickled" by her fingers walking across them, would change places with the "dancing chips." Then the couplet proposes a compromise, designed to satisfy both parties:

Since saucy jacks so happy are in this, Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

And so the close reveals the motive of the speech. Something is sought, in contrast to Sonnet 127, and it is to kiss the lady, and not, after all, her hand but her mouth.

The reader may feel a bit of a letdown at the finish. In a speech so charged with libido, is nothing more sought than a kiss? Well, yes, kissing is, and that it will be passionate is guaranteed by the erotic excitement evident in the wooer. The suit, with its nice blend of humor and ardor, obviously succeeds, for we next learn that the lady has granted him, and not necessarily beyond his design, her lips and more, herself. They have sexual relations, in all likelihood for the first time, in the period following Sonnet 128 and shortly before the opening of 129.

Once desire for the woman has been sated, revulsion sets in. In that frame of mind the protagonist delivers the monologue of Sonnet 129, which anatomizes "lust" while dramatizing his struggle to come to terms with it.

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action, and till action, lust Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust; Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight; Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated as a swallow'd bait, On purpose laid to make the taker mad— Made in pursuit and in possession so, Had, having, in quest to have extreme; A bliss in proof, and prov'd a very woe, Before a joy propos'd, behind a dream. All this the world well knows, yet none knows well To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The experience is described as divisible into three successive phases: (A) carnal desire, or lust "till action"; (B) consummation, or "lust in action"; and (C) the aftermath. These phases, of which only the first two are textually and properly denominated "lust," are taken up not in a fixed but in a fluctuating order. . . .

The couplet holds surprises. It suddenly and cunningly universalizes lust: everyone knows about it, but no one knows how to escape it. The generalization interjects the familiar vindication that "everybody does it." This conclusion is at odds with the outcome that lines 1-9 had disposed the reader to anticipate. He might there have contemplated a resolve or admonition to shun lust. The actual closure, however unexpected, is by no means illogical, the grounds for it having been carefully prepared.

As lust "till" and "in" action ebbs in memory, antipathy wanes and the assessment undergoes retrospective alteration. The persona comes to survey the phases of his sexual venture with a more balanced mind, from a more detached viewpoint, and in more controlled language. He recollects, finally, the erotic "heaven" consisting of "a joy propos'd" and "bliss in proof." This recollection, representing a marked change in attitude, also foreshadows the revival of carnal desire. Postcoital depression not only fades but shades into anticipation of the next act of lust, and the couplet provides rationalization for the volte-face.

However, the argument of Sonnet 129 is yet more complex. The initial revulsion does exhibit a steady diminution—from lust as "despised," then "extreme," then "a woe," then, in line 12, "a dream"—until, in the terminal note of the sonnet, the process is arrested with "this hell." Thus does the end glance back at the beginning to tighten the internal organization. The couplet astonishes in two ways: by extenuating lust when its repudiation had seemed, as late as line 10, inevitable, and then by a partial reversal of this revised estimate of lust at the close. The speaker has not, after all, forgotten his initial torment and may still be suffering it to some extent. If he is, it is far less acute than at first, as can be inferred from the context of "this hell." The term is counterpoised and qualified in line 14 by "the heaven," for one thing, and, for another, it occurs in the sestet, where the condemnation of lust is transmuted into unreluctant resignation. The momentum toward the resuscitation of desire is too firmly established to be undermined simply by the recall of "this hell." That much is clear enough, it seems to me, from a perusal of Sonnet 129 alone, but further confirmation is forthcoming in 130.

Sonnet 129 is intrapsychic, since the feelings connected with a memory of the speaker are kept inside his mind. The three-stage process connected with lust is conceived of in the soliloquy as condensed and circular. It is condensed because the experience that is dramatized, lying between a recent and a likely forthcoming sexual act, progresses from disgust full-blown to its recession and then to the tinges of returning appetite, so that a course that would require a longer period is compressed into the space of fourteen lines. The process is circular because, as the phases follow, one upon the other, the third mutates into the first. . . .

Thus does lust "course it in a ring," and in a manner akin to "Sinnes round" in Herbert's poem of that name; however, the word "sin" is not used of lust in Sonnet 129.

The sonnet has been elucidated with fine insight not once but twice—first, and seminally, by Richard Levin, second by Helen Vendler, who concurs with his analysis and enlarges it with fuller explorations of the verbal detail. My own reading is largely indebted to Levin's. He shows, by attending especially to the diction and syntax, that the sonnet "dramatizes the internal 'action' that the speaker is undergoing" and that the couplet is "an 'unexpected and probable' denouement."

It is unexpected since the ideas and feelings expressed in the opening lines would lead us to predict that the speaker (if not all the world) would henceforward know well to shun this heaven; but upon looking back we realize that this change in attitude . . . has been carefully prepared for by the development up to this point, by the gradual dissipation of the man's disgust in the body of the sonnet. This dissipation has itself been made probable, both on general psychological grounds—as what might be expected when anyone has freely given vent to his painful emotions, and their immediate cause has receded into the background—and also in terms of the specific situation here, the insidious power of sexual desire and the speaker's weakness with respect to it.4

In a "recapitulation" toward the end of her article, Vendler writes that "the course of the feeling enacted in the sonnet seems common enough" and includes

a recognition that we are so constituted that we cannot have foreknowledge of endings, that sexual desire makes us pursue its object as the keenest joy, even if afterwards it seems all woe and illusion. And, finally, that we will do it all over again if the occasion arises, that desire is unteachable.5

As is evident from these excerpts, my own reading in the main accords with theirs—though more fully with Levin's; but it also differs from theirs in some notable respects.

Both Levin and Vendler examine Sonnet 129 as an autonomous poem, independent of the sequence. So viewed, it has nothing to do with the mistress, though she not only is the focus of attention through the whole of Part II but is directly addressed in both of the immediately adjacent sonnets, 128 and 130. Hence the light that these might cast on 129, and it on them, is overlooked. The seductive argument of 128 leads up, as I have shown, to the very "lust in action" that elicits such vehement repugnance at the opening of 129. The situation in 129, then, is more specifically defined than these critics have allowed. I might add that the wooer in 128 turns out to have harbored, by his own subsequent testimony, more frenzied and violent feelings than his courting speech let on. The testimony comes at 129.2b-4, where his "lust" is said to be, "till action, . . . perjur'd, murderous, bloody, etc.," this passage now providing a kind of retrospective subtext to 128. In Sonnet 130 the poet, recovered from his shame, is once more engaged in the wooing that the couplet of 129 implicitly anticipates.

Levin and Vendler alike suppose that the aftermath of lust as represented by Shakespeare is nothing out of the ordinary. But do such anguished and repudiative reactions, far in excess of tristitia post coitum, normally attend sexual gratification? Perhaps so under certain conditions, which must be specified; certainly not under other conditions, and not for the protagonist himself when he engages in carnal intimacy with the male beloved. Then he feels no wasteful "shame" and experiences no "painful emotions" of disgust and selfloathing. A distinction is called for, and it will depend on just what Shakespeare means by "lust."

The word is used pejoratively, and it appears only twice in the Sonnets, both times in a single line, 129.2. But the line is in Part II, and that is enough to tell us that the lust is heterosexually oriented. This, though it is everywhere assumed in the commentary—and rightly so, if only by default—cannot be inferred from the sonnet itself but can be from its contexts. By itself Sonnet 129 tells us nothing about the gender of the other participant. Transgressions of marriage vows or of the divine will might make for a guilty conscience, but neither the issue of adultery nor that of sin is expressly raised. Christian morals will not help us to the definition sought, for according to them the homoerotic commerce between the lovers, which is never termed lustful, is "unnatural" and therefore much more heinous than "natural" adultery. The sexual ethic of the Sonnets, which radically diverges from the Christian, is conceived of in psychological rather than religious terms, and Freud offers something to the point.

He does so in "Being in Love and Hypnosis," which is chapter 8 of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). There he defines "what is called common sensual love," which is precisely the same as the "lust" in Sonnet 129, as "nothing more than objectcathexis on the part of the sexual instincts with a view to direct sexual satisfaction, a cathexis which expires, moreover, when this aim has been reached." He later adds that

sexual impulsions which are uninhibited [by affection for the other participant] in their aims suffer an extraordinary reduction through the discharge of energy every time the sexual aim is attained. It is the fate of sensual love to become extinguished when it is satisfied.

Just so does the lust in Sonnet 129 suffer expiration upon orgasmic climax. Freud remarks the "certainty" with which it is "possible to calculate upon the revival of the need which had just expired." The certainty is confirmed in the sestet of the sonnet. Freud further points out that, from factors operative in the development of the personality, "a sensual current" may "remain separate" from "'affectionate' trends of feeling," in which case a man may be sexually aroused by a woman "whom he does not 'love' and thinks little of or even despises."6 The speaker of Sonnet 129 indeed thinks little of the female object of his lust; in fact, he does not think of her at all, unless—and this is ambiguous—she should be regarded as the setter of the madding "bait." Otherwise she is not a presence, and his disgust is directed toward himself and toward the libidinal enterprise. Elsewhere, though, he repeatedly reviles her. Her "deeds" are "black" (131.13); she is "the bay where all men ride" (137.6); her "heart" is "proud" (140.14, 141.12); she is "my female evil" and "my bad angel" (144), and "as black as hell, as dark as night" (147.14). Freud remarks on subjects of "sensual love" who "will only be potent" with despised women, and the persona tells his mistress at 150.13 that "thy unworthiness rais'd love in me." Not only is her character faulted, but even the physical attractiveness ascribed to her in Sonnet 127 comes to be denied. In Sonnet 141 she appeals neither to sight nor to any of the other "five senses," however enticing to "one foolish heart"; and the couplet of Sonnet 152 disavows her beauty: "For I have sworn thee fair—more perjur'd eye [and 'I'], / To swear against the truth so foul a lie."

Lust, then, as represented in Sonnet 129 is sheer and remittent carnal passion, devoid of the sustaining effects of respect, admiration, and affection for its object. She—and it could just as well be a he—might not appear attractive to the aroused suitor; but, if she did, the attractiveness would not outlive the passion, which dies with satiety, leaving nothing, or an emptiness, behind. Emotion, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so repugnance rushes in. Its intensity then lessens in inverse proportion to the rejuvenation of desire.

The protagonist's entire response to the mistress is properly termed "lust," and it is the term that I shall use. This terminology attests to the weight my reading of Part II places on Sonnet 129, the only place in which the word appears. Elsewhere Shakespeare calls the feeling for her "love." But it is a love fundamentally different from that for the youth. Freud distinguishes between "common sensual love," which is equivalent to Shakespeare's "love" in Part II and "lust" in Sonnet 129, and a second type, a "synthesis" of "unsensual, heavenly love and sensual, earthly love," an "interaction of uninhibited instincts" of "purely sensual desire" with "instincts of affection,"7 which is equivalent to Shakespearean love in Part I. This is a point I will expand on later, but here let me add that the devotion to the friend is affectionate, respectful, and admiring as well as passionate—a fact that goes far toward explaining why the sexual experience with him is antithetical to that with the woman.

The libidinal process delineated in Sonnet 129 is cyclic, and this cycle—moving from desire to gratification, then to abeyance of desire and aversion, then to the renewal of desire—is operative throughout Part II and, I submit, gives intelligible form to the arrangement of the sonnets in it. Again and again we come upon two juxtaposed poems, one of which vents loathing for the mistress and the passion she stimulates, while the other exhibits a predilection for her, expressed in the form of a commendation or supplication, and for the attraction, now accepted without qualms. For illustration we need look no farther afield than the sonnet next after 129.

A light and amusing bouquet for "My mistress" could hardly be anticipated in 129.1-10, where the persona is seized by sexual revulsion. But the next four lines, which presage the revival of his sexual appetite, do prepare the way for Sonnet 130, "My Mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." This first verse initiates the spoof of the Petrarchan sonneteer's blazon of his lady's sensate delights—delights visual (eyes like the sun, lips red as coral, hair golden wires, breasts white as snow, cheeks of roses red and white), olfactory (a perfumed breath), auditory (her speech is music), and kinetic (she walks like a goddess). Shakespeare produces the comic effect by simple means. He catalogues the overfamiliar tropes while denying their applicability to his own mistress in 130.1-12 and, in the couplet, to all mistresses, since "any she" so depicted is "belied with false compare [= comparison]." The poem has two distinct aspects, that of extended literary travesty and that of compliment; the latter is succinctly expressed, being limited to the clauses "I love to hear her speak" in 130.8, and, at the conclusion, "I think my love [= beloved] as rare [= excellent] as . . ." those women are in themselves who have been flattered with falsehoods by amorists. His praise, even tempered in this way, may not altogether jibe with his mocking of the Petrarchan tropes. In mocking them Shakespeare obliquely rejects stale artifice and, by doing so, lays claim to a more sincere and convincing commendation. Entertaining to the reader, the travesty may be designed to entertain the mistress as well. But would it, necessarily? The descriptive conventions of the Petrarchists had not yet lost viability. For evidence of that, one need not go outside the Sonnets themselves, where some of these conventions are elsewhere adopted for praising the Master Mistress. He has, at 20.5, "an eye more bright than" women's. "Music to hear" at 8.1, he is, in Sonnet 99, the archetype of beauty and fragrance, with flowers the ectypes. His breath gives off the perfumes of violets and roses, and the hues of roses, red, white, and pink, tint his countenance. He has, moreover, a lily-white hand, hair like "the buds of marjoram," and veins of subtler purple than the violet. With respect to physical beauty alone, apart from other qualities, he is esteemed not only far beyond the lady but in the Petrarchan terms denied her. The parody in Sonnet 130 may be rather less compatible with the compliments than is generally assumed. Still, after the hiatus of Sonnet 129, courtship is definitely, and in a playful vein, resumed.

Sonnet 131 opens, surprisingly after 130, with two lines of Petrarchan rhetoric: "Thou are as tyrannous . . . / As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel." Having made fun of the laudatory blazon, Shakespeare straightway appropriates the accusatory language of the same sonneteers, who habitually charge an unyielding mistress with tyranny, pride, and cruelty. He then differentiates between his own subjective response to the lady and the more disinterested opinions of other beholders: "Thy black is fairest in my judgement's place" (131.12); and yet, in 131.5-8,

Yet in good faith some say that thee behold, Thy face hath not the power to make love groan; To say they err, I dare not be so bold, Although I swear it to myself alone.

Without renouncing the counterview, he yet protests his own passion, confessing to "A thousand groans but thinking on thy face" (131.10), and the couplet attempts to adjust the disparate reactions:

In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds, And thence this slander as I think proceeds.

"Black" as a noun in 131.12 has reference only to appearance, which may or may not be judged "fair," and, as an adjective in 131.13, it denotes only morally 'foul.' The "deeds" so labeled either stem from her haughtiness in 131.1-2 or else are unspecified. Her sexual laxity has yet to be mentioned. But the couplet is the harshest thing said to her so far and is supposed to account for the "slander" of her physical unattractiveness. The blackness that ought to repel is not that of her looks but that of her character. In this sonnet the ambivalence barely intimated in the jocularity of Sonnet 130 comes into the open, but a strategy of wooing is still being pursued, one that combines intimidation with declarations of passion.

Then Sonnet 132 woos her more simply—without ambivalence or intimidation. "Thine eyes I love," the opening clause, sets the motif of the long first section, lines 5-9 of which praise their beauty, while lines 1-4 account for their "black." It was "put on" as though "pitying me, / Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain," and the conceit of the eyes as "mourners" (132.3, 9) repeats the conceit in the sestet of Sonnet 127—only there they mourn for the fashionable blonding of brunettes, here for the speaker in amorous torment. The second section, from the volta in 127.10 through 12, focuses on the heart, which she should "let . . . mourn for me" likewise, thus to "suit [= clothe and harmonize] thy pity like in every part," the heart as well as eyes. The couplet promises her a reward for complying:

Then will I swear Beauty herself is black, And all they foul that thy complexion lack,

where "complexion" = facial skin-color. Sonnet 132 so vividly recalls 128, not only with the reiterated conceit but with verbal repetitions as well (including "suited/suit," "face," "black," "mourners/mourn/mourning," "becoming/ become"), as to imply that the protagonist has come full circle, returning to the point at which he began, thus proving that he does not "know well [how] / To shun the heaven" that leads to the "hell" of 129.1-9.

Sonnets 144-47 reveal similar fluctuations in the course of lust. When Sonnet 144, "two loves I have," vents vehement contempt toward the she-devil, who would anticipate the levity of the very next lyric? The totally altered and relenting attitude toward her in Sonnet 145 shows not only that the jealous rage has passed but that desire has reemerged. This sonnet is unique in at least two ways: in its tetrameter measures and in recording the only words spoken by anyone other than the persona. Four words are attributed to the lady, and they constitute the "punch line": "I hate . . . not you." Well, she had seemed to hate him in Sonnet 144 (attempting "to win me soon to hell") and he to hate her, while now her hatred would, according to 145.14, kill him. No longer "my female evil," she has "lips that Love's own hand did make" (145.1), a "tongue . . . ever sweet" (145.6), and a "heart" receptive to "mercy" (145.5); and when, in the third quatrain, "'I hate' she alter'd with an end"—that of "'not you'" in 145.14—the end is said to follow "as gentle day / Doth follow night, who like a fiend / From heaven to hell is flown away." The simile descriptive of "night" calls up details from Sonnet 144. There she was the hellish fiend; now she wields the verbal power to exorcise a figurative fiend—that of night and of woe.8

The poet jests in Sonnet 145 about the lady's erotic power over him because he is at the moment under its control. But Sonnet 146, "Poor soul," finds him in a radically different frame of mind. He gives her no thought and, out of a sense of dissatisfaction with his life, takes stock of himself and resolves to reform by henceforth subduing the flesh. It is not unreasonable, on the basis of Sonnet 129, to surmise that an unrecorded experience of "lust in action," which would account for the change of mood, intervenes between Sonnets 145 and 146.

The persona's self-admonition in Sonnet 146 opens with a salutation to "Poor soul," his own, the object of address throughout and characterized in 146.1-2 as follows:

the center of my sinful earth, [My sinful earth] the rebel powers that thee array.

The phrase in brackets, which repeats the end of line 1 and adds an undue metric foot, is clearly a misprint. Two syllables have been lost, and irretrievably lost, but the sense they bore can be deduced from the overall poetic design, as will be shown. The design comprises a profusion of metaphors. Here are the others of the octave (146.3-8):

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth, Painting thy outward walls so costly gay? Why so large cost, having so short a lease, Doth thou upon thy fading mansion spend? Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?

It is the metaphorical vehicles that are richly diversified, for there are but two tenors and they never change. One is the "soul," designated vocatively in 146.1 and 9; the other is the body, specified in 146.8; and these are the polar terms on which the introspection turns. The body is represented as "sinful earth" (the 'dust' of Genesis and the origin of 'sins of the flesh'); as "rebel powers" (sensual forces in insurrection) which "array" (= afflict)9 the soul; as its "outward walls" and "fading mansion" (an edifice); and as its "charge" (= burden, expense, trust). The soul, correspondingly, is represented as "the center" (both 'inward' and in the privileged position); as "?" in 146.2; as a householder who starves and otherwise deprives himself for the upkeep of his house; as a lessee who spends lavishly on a decaying "mansion" when his lease is soon to expire; and as one immoderately concerned about an estate destined for greedy and unsavory heirs—the graveworms of 146.7. The "soul" is reproved for its perverse "excess" in inverting means (an abode) and ends (the occupant), in its asinine wasting of its resources (as lessee), and for the misguided providence of its bequest to the maggots.

The octave—in an interrogative mode, for it is composed of four questions—renders the regrettable moral condition of the persona as it now is; the sestet, in an imperative mode, directs the soul toward the opposite moral condition: the one aspired to, the one that should obtain (146.9-14):

Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss, And let that pine to aggravate thy store; Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross; Within be fed, without be rich no more: So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, And death once dead, there's no more dying then.

These metaphors, in conveying instructions to the soul to set right its relations with the body, methodically evoke and reverse the metaphors of the octave—or do so at least after 146.9. In this line soul is implicitly the master; for the body is "thy servant," and the trope carries over into 146.10, where the servant/body should "pine" in order to 'increase the wealth' of the master/ soul; this is the obverse of 146.3, where it is the soul that "dost . . . pine" and "suffer dearth." A profitable financial transaction is proposed in 146.11, as opposed to the unprofitable investment in real estate in 5-6. Precious time ("terms divine") is to be bought at the price of wasted time ("hours of dross"). In 146.12, "Within be fed" again recalls, and reverses, 146.3, where the "dearth" (= famine) is the soul's; and so too does "without [in body] be rich no more" recall and reverse the bodily "walls so costly gay" of 146.4; and the "within" and "without" may hark back to the soul's inner centrality in 146.1 and the body's circumferential outerness. The most complex affinities of all are those between the last two lines of the octave (7-8) and the last two of the sestet (13-14); but for now I will simply point to notions of death and eating as common features and to the body as fed on by worms, the soul as feeder on death. This system of metaphorical transpositions may be summed up as follows: there are reversals in line 10 of line 3; in line 11 of lines 5-6; in line 12 of lines 3-4; and in lines 13-14 of lines 7-8. Line 1, although it may have a connection with line 12, really lies outside the scheme. What is missing within it is a correlative for lines 2 and 9, and this suggests that these two lines might be meant to correlate with each other.

Two principles can be perceived to operate in the figurative pattern. The first, in the octave, is that of perversion, by which the proper order of things is turned upside down. The same device is used by the Fool in criticizing Lear: "thou bor'st thine ass on thy back o'er the dirt" (Lear 1.4.168-69). So, here, the dweller is for the sake of the dwelling rather than vice versa. The second principle, in the sestet, is that of restoration. Both principles will serve as guides to the drift of the missing syllables in 146.2. The bodily "rebel powers" there must somehow hold their legitimate ruler in subjection, and this political inversion should be reformed in the sestet, and probably in its first verse, 146.9. Both of these requirements would be satisfied with such emendations in 146.2 as these: "Rul'd by," "Sway'd by," or "Slav'd by"—participles modifying "Soul" in 146.1; or "Slave to," "Thrall to"10—nouns in apposition to "Poor soul." Then 146.2 gives us an implicit ruler (poor prince!) under the control of mutinous subjects, while 146.9 urges the soul, implicitly conceived of now as a master, to reassert his position of privilege over an exploitative, insubordinate servant. The political and domestic situations alike entail a relationship of power and authority, with the relationship deemed wrongful in line 2 and corrective in line 9. The idea of the soul as governor or lord of the body is of course highly traditional. These considerations all lead to the conclusion that the purport, though not the precise wording, of the foot displaced by the misprint of 146.2 is ascertainable.

The couplet poses interpretative problems. Does it posit the soul's immortality, and does it thereby make the poem Christian? The two questions are more disjoined than is often realized, for Christianity neither originated nor holds a monopoly on that belief.11 However, a negation of it would be un-Christian. In 146.13, "So [= in this manner] shalt [whether expressive of simple futurity and parallel to 146.7 or of obligation] thou feed on death, that feeds on men, . . ." The feeding will be, or ought to be twofold and simultaneous, the soul's on death and death's on "men," a word that does not denote the body only but human beings in their body-soul complex. The body is for the worms; in 146.7-8 they "eat up" corpses. Death's food, however, is the living, who are in plentiful and continuous supply; so death will last as long as its provisions do, and they will last as long as the human race. Hence the persona must needs expire before death does. What then could 146.14, "And death once dead, there's no more dying then," mean? In Christian terms the meaning would have to be eschatological, for death will come to an end only with the Second Coming and the resurrection of the body. This doctrine could be foisted on 146.14 only implausibly; but the line admits of another construction, one more consonant not only with its own phrasing and with the rest of the sonnet but with other sonnets too: "And death once dead" = 'when death ceases to exist,' not universally (as from Christ's sacrifice, never alluded to) but for each individual whom it devours and for whom, consequently, "there's no more dying then" in the sense that once you're dead, you're dead'; then 'all, including the fear and process of dying itself, will be over and done with, period.'12

It remains to be seen just how, in that case, the soul should "feed on death" and in what way that will work the hardships on the body set forth in 146.9-12. The counsel to the soul in line 13 augments "Within be fed" in line 12, the verbs "be fed" and "feed on" both connoting nourishment in contrast to the verb "eat up" in line 8—the action of the graveworms upon the body—which = 'consume.' The soul will be nourished and strengthened by an awareness of the limits of mortality. Soul can redeem time, "buy terms divine," while the lusting body only wastes time—the "hours of dross." The two halves of line 11 exhibit contrast in the verb and verbal "Buy" and "selling," in the temporal nouns "terms" and "hours," and in the epithets "divine" and "of dross." The word "terms" may denote a longer stretch of time than "hours"—one that can encompass months, such as a scholastic term, or years, a lease's term, or the entire "term of life" (92.2)—but yet denote a fixed period, 'a limit of time' (OED 4). With this meaning, the opposite of 'eternity,' the word in fact excludes that idea, and annotations to the contrary are misleading. The "hours," those through which lust runs its short course, are "of dross"—'refuse' (Schmidt)—while the "terms" are oppositely characterized as "divine," which in this context has to be glossed as 'extraordinarily good or great' (OED 5b). Hence the "terms divine" to be purchased by the soul must refer not to an everlasting heaven but to the relatively extended yet finite span of terrestrial time that the soul may command. It may do so by its own proper activities: of loving in the best sense, in a "marriage of true minds" that "alters not with . . . brief hours" (Sonnet 116), and of the "creative intuition" that comprises the knowing and making that are coordinated in poetry.13

For elucidation of Sonnet 146 one would do well to turn back to Sonnet 74. There, just as here, the body is "the prey of worms," and it is also "earth," which "can have but earth," the grave, as its "due." Yet another and "better part of me," namely, "my spirit" (= soul—Schmidt 6), is "thine" (the friend's, therein addressed), and will ever remain so; for, in the couplet of Sonnet 74, "The worth of that [the body] is that which it contains [the spirit], / And that is this [poem], and this with thee remains"—i.e., after my death. The soul does survive, but it survives here on earth, not in an otherworldly hereafter, and it survives with the beloved and by means of its own product verse. Two mental powers, those of love and poetic composition, unite to create the poet's "memorial": in 74.3-4, "this line [of verse] . . . for memorial still [= always] with thee shall stay." The "terms divine" in 146.11, then, are those given to loving truly and to composing enduring and immortalizing poetry: the operations of the soul that make possible its personal but not supernatural preservation.

The soul and the body are pictured in a state of conflict throughout Sonnet 146. The good of each demands that the good of the other be sacrificed. If the soul is to "live," it can do so only with "loss" for the body. The soul's "store," its "terms divine," and its proper nourishment require, in the third quatrain, that the body "pine" (languish in appetitive frustration), that "hours of dross" (misspent on concupiscence) be relinquished, and that corporal impoverishment (as carnal neediness) be imposed. Mortification, or disciplining of the flesh, is necessary for subduing the sensuality that impedes the nobler activities of the mind and spirit.

The body is "sinful earth"—sinful in contributing the root and coercion of lust. The membership of Sonnet 146 in Part II establishes that. If the sonnet were torn from this mooring, one might think of other flaws that can be associated with the flesh, such as gluttony or sloth, or vanity, with "walls so costly gay" suggesting cosmetic and tonsorial adornment; and vanity may be glanced at as a concomitant of lust. Lust is of the flesh, fleshly, expensive of spirit (129.1), and deplored as dehumanizing, wasteful, and short. Love, on the contrary, is conceived of in the Sonnets as moral, creative, and long-lasting, and what makes the difference between it and lust is not the absence of passion for the Master Mistress (20.2) but the soul's participation in the attachment to him. Thus the poet can speak of "my home of love" that is "thy breast" wherein "my soul ... doth lie" (109.4-5), and this is a love productive of poetic immortalization for both participants: "Death to me subscribes / Since spite of him I'll live in this poor rhyme," while "thou in this shall find thy monument" (107.10-11, 13). The fullness of erotic devotion that the protagonist knows himself capable of provides a standard by which his carnal lust is judged intolerable. Freud's "earthly sensual love" is Shakespeare's "sinful earth's" sensuality. . . .


4 Richard Levin, "Sonnet CXXIX as a 'Dramatic' Poem," Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965): 179.

5 Helen Vendler, "Jakobson, Richards, and Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXIX," in I. A. Richards: Essays in His Honor, ed. Reuben Brower, Helen Vendler, and John Hollander (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 193. Vendler's searching critique of the analysis of Sonnet 129 by Roman Jakobson and Lawrence G. Jones, Shakespeare 's Verbal Art in "Th ' expense of Spirit" (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), makes further consideration of their monograph unnecessary.

6SE, 18:111-12, 115.

7 Ibid., p. 112.

8 Andrew Gurr argues persuasively for wordplay on the surname Hathaway at 145.13, "'I hate' from hateaway she threw" ("Shakespeare's First Poem: Sonnet 145," Essays in Criticism [1971]: 221-26). Booth adds that the "And" of 145.14, "And sav'd my life may be a pun on Anne. These attractive suggestions carry the further implication of early composition, before Shakespeare's marriage at eighteen to Anne Hathaway, as Gurr points out, and with this he accounts for the flaws he observes: the repetition of "gentle" at 145.7-10 and the "padding" of 145.10-12. The octosyllabic measure would also indicate an imperfect grasp, as yet, of the sonnet form. If Shakespeare did write this poem long before, and for another occasion, the question arises of why and how it came to be inserted in his sequence and, particularly, between Sonnets 144 and 146. It serves an important thematic and structural function in that position, as I have shown, and its removal would drastically alter the relationship of Sonnets 144 and 146. Lines 10-12 may not be felicitious, but they do offer images that tie in with those of Sonnet 144. However inferior as a poetic performance, Sonnet 145 does do the job required of it in its place. As to how it got there, who more feasibly could have put it there than its own author (its authorship being further confirmed by Gurr's discovery), Shakespeare himself, when he later was at work on the Sonnets?

9 "Array" can hardly denote 'attire'; for while the flesh is sometimes said to clothe the soul, the idea of armed forces as a garment for their object of attack would be an awkward, wrenching mixed metaphor.

10 Ingram and Redpath list some ninety-seven possible emendations for the first foot of 146.2, their criteria being "two syllables" and words that make "good sense" in this context and that are "used elsewhere by Shakespeare in the sense required here" (pp. 358-59, 336). Of my suggested emendations, only "Slav'd by" is missing from their list; their own choice is "foil'd by."

11 The pagan belief in the soul's afterlife was well known—by Dante of course, and universally. Shakespeare makes his own awareness of that belief evident in Antony and Cleopatra 4.14.50-54; 5.2.279-89.

12 John Crowe Ransom and Elizabeth Drew have voiced the following impressions of Sonnet 146. Ransom: "I am struck by the fact that the divine terms which the soul buys are not particularly Christian: there are few words in the poem that would directly indicate conventional dogma." Drew: "I would agree that the poem is not essentially Christian. . . ." These remarks are reported by Donald Stauffer in "Critical Principles and a Sonnet," American Scholar 12 (1943): 61.

13 "Poetic intuition," writes Jacques Maritain, "is both creative and cognitive" and "can be considered especially either as creative, and, therefore, with respect to the engendering of the work, or as cognitive, and therefore with respect to what is grasped by it" (Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry [New York: Pantheon Books, 1953], p. 125; Maritain's italics).

Thomas Tyler, in his edition of the Sonnets (London: David Nutt, 1890), annotates 146.11: "To be understood most probably of immortal renown, which is to be purchased by sacrificing a few years to intent study and enthusiastic literary work" (p. 308).

Lawrence Danson (essay date 1994)

"'The Catastrophe is a Nuptial': The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 69-79.

[In the essay below, Danson discusses male jealousy and sexual possessiveness in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale.]

I want in this essay to listen to some of Shakespeare's jealous husbands as they discover the pathos and panic of male sexuality within a marital economy of masculine possessiveness. Since my attention to the suffering of men may seem perverse, let me begin by acknowledging the infinitely greater impositions of that economy on women. Petruccio's boast—'I will be master of what is mine own. / She is my goods, my chattels. She is my house, / My household-stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything' (3.3.101-4)—may conceal or reveal whatever lovable little ironies it wants, but still it registers the plain facts of the Elizabethan laws of coverture. Modern historians who disagree on other matters agree on this: thus Lawrence Stone writes that 'By marriage, the husband and wife became one person in law—and that person was the husband. He acquired absolute control of all his wife's personal property, which he could sell at will'; and Martin Ingram, who thinks that Stone exaggerates the iron claim of patriarchy and underestimates the role of affection in Elizabethan marriage, writes that 'married women had no property rights independent of their husbands; while the law prescribed that "the husband hath . . . power and dominion over his wife, and may keep her by force within the bonds of duty, and may beat her" (albeit not in "a violent and cruel manner")'. Ann Jennalie Cook quotes a 1632 treatise called The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights: '"That which the Husband hath is his owne", while "That which the Wife hath is the Husbands'": 'At the end of the wedding day', Cook writes, 'the woman yielded up her body, her name, and her worldly goods.'1

So I start my discussion of men's problems with Othello, who was 'taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery' (1.3.136-7) and is therefore the only one of Shakespeare's jealous husbands who has himself been the property of another person and therefore been subjected to something comparable to the status of a married woman. We know tantalizingly little about Othello's life as a slave except that it was not the condition to which he was born; rather, he fetches his 'life and being / From men of royal siege' (1.2.21-2), a lineage that stresses the privileges both of patriarchy and royalty. But possibly because Othello has known both extremes of an economy in which human beings can be chattel, he articulates, in one of the most astonishing lines of psychic suffering torn from the selftormentings of Shakespeare's jealous men, the terror that undermines the privilege of male possessiveness: 'O curse of marriage, / That we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites' (3.3.272-4). The line undoes itself, I suggest, in much the way that the ideology of marital possessiveness repeatedly undoes itself in Shakespeare. The unconstrainable residue Othello calls 'appetite'—the always and inevitably unconstrainable residue: "Tis destiny unshunnable, like death. / Even then this forkèd plague is fated to us / When we do quicken' (3.3.279-81)—denies what the depersonalizing epithet 'creature' tries to affirm. In effect Othello's line puts a self-possessed human being, the owner of her own appetites, in exactly the space where it tries to posit the possessible product of masculine creation. In marriage, woman's 'appetite' ought to be under male control, but 'appetite' like 'honour', is 'an essence that's not seen' (4.1.16). Bloody sheets on the marriage morning betoken what a husband can take but say nothing about what a wife can withhold. Slaves know that something is always with-held from the master; married men, like Othello, fear it until they too believe they know it.

Othello's 'O curse of marriage, / That we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites' both defines and undoes a specific construction of marriage, one based on the unfulfillable imperative of masculine possessiveness.2 Through a verbal quibble, the line also hints at a potentially tragic contradiction in the way the gendered human subject is defined within the possessive regime of marriage. It says that 'we' men cannot have a woman's appetites as 'ours': the status of the pronoun is in question—as, to take a comparable case, it is when Prospero says of Caliban, 'This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine' (Tempest 5.1.278-9); and also in question is the definition of property that the possessive pronoun draws with it, a definition which extends (as James Calderwood has reminded us) from 'the outward sense of "things owned'" to 'the inward sense of "a defining quality, characteristic, attribute'", in the sense of that which is proper to me.3 So 'we' men cannot call these delicate creatures' appetites 'ours' not only because 'we' can never be sure 'we' fully own or control a property that can't be seen, but also because 'we' define a woman's appetite as something always alien, the defining attribute or property of the other, the always not-ours.

In the generalized realm of Othello's 'we' and 'ours', men feel jealous of whatever in female appetite is beyond their sole possessing (''I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses' [3.3.274-7]), and jealous also because men are inevitably excluded from experiencing a woman's appetite as their proper own. That exclusion is caused in part by the biological facts of different sexualities but it is in part also a socially conditioned self-exclusion. In order to call these delicate creatures' appetites ours, 'we' men would have to know those appetites, experience them as proper to us rather than fear them as something alien; so that for a man to accomplish the proprietary imperative of marriage he would, in effect, have to become what he's made woman to be, and thus undo precisely the mastery of the accomplishment.

What we call Othello's jealousy, then, is, as Stanley Cavell has written, 'directed to the sheer existence of the other, its separateness from him'.4 I'd add to Cavell's account that such jealousy is not only produced by difference but is itself productive of difference: it is an effect of Othello's desire to know that Desdemona is fully possessed by him at the same time that he estranges—constructs as foreign, unknowable to him—the female sexuality which he will not possess because it threatens his masculine sense of self. In the bafflement of his desire for possession the jealous husband creates an elusive, interiorized space within woman, a space he can open but can never fill, neither by phallic penetration nor by imaginative speculation into the metaphorical space of his wife's appetitive freedom. This is the space for erotic exploration which proprietary desire converts into the goal of colonial exploitation, a female interior to be claimed in the name of a patriarchal crown.5

The jealous husband's tropism towards his wife's elusive interior converts an economic and social imperative of possession into a powerful because always thwarted erotics. Donne's 'Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going to Bed' makes explicit the analogy between an individualized consciousness of masculine sexual proprietorship and its global political equivalent:

License my roaving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above, below. O my America! my new-found-land, My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd, My Myne of precious stones, My Emperie, How blest am I in this discovering thee!6

Later in this essay we'll hear how Donne's 'How blest am Γ is answered by Leontes' 'How accurst in being so blest': America's a big country, and the imperializing claim to possess her singly, to man her with one man, is mocked by the vastness the roving hands discover. In Shakespeare, the eroticized discovery of the new found land of female interiority engenders an endless anxiety: the more open a woman is made by her husband's jealous speculation or erotic attention the more available she is to occupation by other men, 'the general camp, / Pioneers and all' (3.3.350-1). Even conception, which might be thought to fill a space literalized, now, as what Elizabethan obstetrics characterized as a mobile and greedy womb, only increases male anxiety about possessing that which is within.7Possessive desire for the unseen essence shapes the space 'we' men want to fill with proprietary knowledge, but that space 'we' shape becomes the 'you' compounded precisely of the absence of knowledge.

Materialist critics have claimed that the 'unified subject of liberal humanism' (in Catherine Belsey's phrase) is a product of the late seventeenth-century bourgeois ascendancy; its supposedly self-possessed interiority 'is a chimera, an effect of language, not its origin'. Francis Barker looks into the heart of Shakespeare's most famously interiorized character and finds that 'At the centre of Hamlet, in the interior of his mystery, there is, in short, nothing. The promised essence remains beyond the scope of the text's signification; or rather, signals the limit of the signification of this world by marking out the site of an absence it cannot fill.'8I find these analyses of the interiorized character persuasive, only I want to claim that, here as elsewhere, Shakespeare anticipated both his critics and the historical event: Shakespeare's jealous husband is the precursor, in a sense the progenitor, of that bourgeois critic who in Barker's scheme empties his own fears and desire into the bottomless textual space. We see something like that process at work in Othello's language when he turns Desdemona into an ambiguously fluid site and source:

But there where I have garnered up my heart, Where either I must live or bear no life, The fountain from the which my current runs Or else dries up—to be discarded thence, Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads To knot and gender in!


But with Desdemona's protest, 'Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?', Othello's language recognizes that the source of Desdemona's ignorant sin—the fountain or cistern within her female body—is the product of his own readerly creation: 'Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write "whore" upon?' (4.2.73-4). Unsure of his possession of what he cannot see or will not have as his proper own, Othello, in the torment of his self-exile, creates in the goodly book called 'Desdemona' the space of his own exclusion.

The alienness Othello creates in Desdemona with his discovery of her open yet unpossessible interior leads, of course, to his demand to 'see it' and thus 'prove'—not in his readerly imagination only but actually—'prove [his] love a whore' (3.3.364). The emphasis throughout the 'temptation scene' is partly on the need to see a truth beyond demonstration, and partly on the need to define the female interior as a threatening or degraded realm to be excluded rather than entered or embraced. Iago himself says that Othello cannot be 'satisfied': 'Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on, / Behold her topped?' (3.3.400-1); as Katharine Maus nicely puts it, Iago 'pretends that the practical difficulty of surprising an illicit couple in bed represents a real epistemological limitation . . . [The] demand for ocular proof comes to represent an impossible aspiration to the absolute knowledge of another person.'9 But Iago not only increases the insatiable hunger to know; he also helps create the idea that the elusive object of knowledge will inevitably be a horror too great to be endured.

Throughout the scene, Iago himself cunningly plays—or perhaps better, foreplays—the woman's part, as that part is typically construed in the imagination of Shakespeare's anxiously desiring male characters. To Othello's demand, 'If thou dost love me, / Show me thy thought', comes Iago's coy response, 'My lord, you know I love you'—which Othello can only follow with his own 'I think thou dost' (3.3.119-22). Capitalizing both on Othello's experience as a former slave who knows that no one can own another's appetites, and as a husband who fears it, Iago baits Othello with a prospect that is not only unattainable but also 'vile and false':

Though I am bound to every act of duty, I am not bound to that all slaves are free to. Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false, As where's that palace whereinto foul things Sometimes intrude not? Who has that breast so pure But some uncleanly apprehensions Keep leets and law-days, and in sessions sit With meditations lawful?


Iago shapes within himself a masculine idea of feminine space. The interiors Iago figures—a palace, a law court, his breast—retain their secrets no matter how much they're forced: you cannot know his thoughts if his heart were in your hand (3.3.167). The space he creates is gendered female both because it seems to Othello to solicit a penetration it ultimately denies, and also because it contains those 'uncleanly apprehensions' which men project into the space created by their frustrated desire for possessive knowledge.

So far I've spoken only about one case of marital jealousy. I'll return to more particulars, but first—and with appropriate brevity—I want to generalize about what I'll grandly call the construction of male sexual desire. To desire is, of course, to be without: to lack gratification; equally, of course, it's a positive state, the excitation which is the condition for gratification. You must lack in order to desire, and you must lose the desire in order to be gratified. It's not a perfect arrangement but it has its points. So it's worth asking why male sexual desire in Shakespeare so frequently figures not as a source of pleasure but of torment, or at best a heaven that leads to hell.

One reason for this—not inevitably but frequently—unhappy state of affairs is, I suggest, the masculine requirement for control both of the self and of the sexual other.10 That requirement, which is by its nature unfulfillable, puts in play the corresponding fear of lack of control. The desire and the fear are mutually constitutive. Under the sway of that fear, male desire must either be endless—a yearning toward a consummation which must not be achieved—or it's a movement toward the achievement of its own defeat. Thus, in its most anxiously inflected form, male sexual desire becomes the unappeasable state of affairs sonnet 129 defines as 'Th'expense of spirit' that finds no rest whether 'had, having, or in quest to have'. It's what Giacomo calls 'That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub / Both filled and running' (Cymbeline 1.6.50-1). Frequently, a man's inability to achieve a simultaneity of release and control is blamed on woman: the masculine fear of being in a motile state that defies possessive control is one source of the misogynistic trope of female insatiability. Adonis, who needs no one, confronts in Venus the very essence of perpetual need: 'Glutton-like she feeds yet never filleth' (Venus 548). Hamlet describes Gertrude hanging upon his father as if 'increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on' (1.2.144-5). And Cleopatra is designated both cause and effect of this state of affairs where desire is precisely that which cannot be adequately ended: 'she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies' (Antony 2.2.243-4).

The most extensive and frightening anatomy of the idea of insatiable masculine desire is Troilus and Cressida, a play in which 'To have done is to hang / Quite out of fashion' (3.3.145-6): there's no satisfaction, only detumescence (the death of desire) or an endlessness of ardour. What pertains on the world-stage of a battle-field where men struggle for possession of a woman pertains also in more localized sexual affairs. Troilus, unarmed or effeminized by his love, is still man enough to fear having what he most desires to have:

What will it be When that the wat'ry palates taste indeed Love's thrice-repurèd nectar? Death, I fear me, Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness For the capacity of my ruder powers. I fear it much; and I do fear besides That I shall lose distinction in my joys, As doth a battle when they charge on heaps The enemy flying.


In the temporal world of masculine desire, where 'good deeds' immediately convert to 'alms for oblivion', Troilus either 'tarries' ('Have I not tarried', he asks Pandarus, 'still have I tarried' [1.1.19, 22]) or he 'dies': 'How my achievements mock me' (4.2.72) will be Troilus' consummatory cry.

Part of Troilus' problem is that he inhabits a generically unstable dramatic universe, not quite a tragedy or a comedy. Now it is a truth universally acknowledged—and why not, since it was propounded by Northrop Frye?—that Shakespearian comedy is typical of the larger class New Comedy in 'proceeding toward an act which, like death in Greek tragedy, takes place offstage, and is symbolized in the final embrace'.11 There are adequate material reasons why the 'act' has to take place offstage: there's the problem of boy-actors and the problem of political and religious sensibilities, any of which will adequately explain why the representation of sexual intercourse is impossible on the Shakespearian stage. But still I want to suggest, pace Frye, that the hymeneal end of comedy doesn't stand in for the real consummation but forestalls and avoids it—and given the masculine anxiety I'm describing, that's why we can call it a happy ending. In Shakespeare, unmarried sex threatens loss, destruction ('Th' expense of spirit', Troilus' swooning destruction), but sex within marriage presumes a controlling, possessive knowledge that can never be attained. Marriage is supposed to socialize sexuality, but those delicate female creatures' appetites can't be socialized, because they can't be put into the confines of male possession. Espousal, then—not technically marriage, which only comes into being at the moment of consummation12—is the perfect comic resolution because it puts a fiction of control—of ending, achievement, possession—in place of the experience of male sexuality as loss, defeat, exclusion.

Janet Adelman writes, from a more rigorously psycho-analytic perspective than mine, that 'the bed trick in All's Well [is] as much a part of a deep fantasy of escape from sexuality as it is an attempt to bring the married couple together'.13 That fantasy of escape, as much as the promise of consummation, is generically gratified in Shakespearian comedy by the movement toward a conclusion in which nothing is concluded except a promise of something ever more about to be. The hymeneal end of Shakespearian comedy is prophylactic against the destructiveness Shakespeare's men fear in consummated sexual desire.

From this point of view, Love 's Labour's Lost, which delays its resolution for 'a twelve month and a day', is less anomalous than it's usually taken to be. Its four noble young men begin the play vowing to eschew the world of sex and women. They want to achieve selfperpetuation by a sort of parthenogenesis which avoids the risks of the more common form of procreation: they aim to cheat 'cormorant devouring Time' of the good deeds it gobbles up in Troilus' disastrously sexualized world, and they would become, without other aids, 'heirs of all eternity'. Neither the play's noble women nor its less noble characters of either sex share this austere regime; the sexual indulgence of Costard and Jaquenetta rebukes Biron and company's self-protective monasticism as surely as do the gibes of the French princess and her women. The Spanish fantasime Don Armado also embraces the more usual route. Boyet intercepts the love letter in which Armado, so learnedly as to be barely comprehensible, compares his wooing of Jaquenetta to King Cophetua's wooing of 'the penurious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon' (4.1.65). The course of that love ran as true love ought to do in comedy: the king overcame the beggar, and therefore, writes Don Armado, drawing now on the language of dramaturgical theory, 'the catastrophe is a nuptial' (4.1.75). Technically, Armado is right: as Ben Jonson writes in Discoveries, 'the parts of a Comedie are the same with a Tragedie' and at the end of both is the part called the catastrophe.14 But beyond the comedy's fifth act—outside the park's pale, after a twelvemonth and a day—we may, on the evidence of other Shakespearian treatments of sex and marriage, suspect that the nuptial will be catastrophic in more than purely formal ways.

In comedy the catastrophe is a nuptial; in tragedy and romance, the nuptial is prologue. For Othello as well as for Posthumus in Cymbeline and Leontes in The Winter's Tale the marital prophylaxis fails. Marriage releases upon Othello, Posthumus and Leontes the torment of a sexuality which marriage was supposed rigorously to proscribe within the proprietary bounds of Christian and English legal doctrine, but which they find is 'slippery' (the word appears both in Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale), a sexuality which leaks and spills from the woman-as-other whose appetites men can never call their own.

My fluid metaphors are suggested by Othello's figuring Desdemona as either 'fountain from which [his] current runs' or 'cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in'. In Cymbeline the idea of the wife as a watery site is complexly joined with the idea of the wife as property—the one idea, as we would expect, confounding the other, since you can't keep things that flow like a fountain or breed like a cistern. A language of possessiveness is present from as early as the leavetaking of Posthumus and Imogen: conventionally enough, Posthumus gives, in exchange for Imogen's ring, his bracelet as 'a manacle of love' which he puts 'upon this fairest prisoner', her arm (1.1.123). Once entered into the realm of commodified value, Posthumus is easily susceptible to Giacomo's revaluations. Posthumus wants to claim that Imogen is absolutely the best of women, but good, better, and best, as Giacomo cunningly convinces Posthumus, have only relative meanings in an exchange economy. So Giacomo, playing on the idea of relativized value, agrees that 'If [Imogen] went before others I have seen—as that diamond of yours outlustres many I have beheld—I could not but believe she excelled many; but I have not seen the most precious diamond that is, nor you the lady' ( 1.4.70-4). Posthumus tries to put Imogen's value outside the realm of exchange: his diamond, he tells Giacomo, 'may be sold or given', but his lady 'is not a thing for sale, and only the gift of the gods' (80). Giacomo's devastating reply—which introduces the idea of fluidity (of woman as water) into the argument—insists that whatever a man can keep a man can lose:

You may wear her in title yours; but, you know, strange fowl light upon neighbouring ponds. Your ring may be stolen too; so your brace of unprizable estimations, the one is but frail, and the other casual. A cunning thief or a that-way accomplished courtier would hazard the winning both of first and last.


The movement of metaphor from the apparent solidity of diamond-like virtue to the unpossessible fluidity of 'neighbouring ponds' horrifyingly suggests the instability of a love rated in terms of marital possessiveness.

For Posthumus, as for Othello, doubt about his ability to keep his wife from the realm of masculine exchange-value leads to—or is it caused by?—doubt about his ability to know the Imogen constituted and defined by her unseen unpossessible appetite. And once in doubt, Posthumus finds doubt everywhere; as Othello does with Desdemona, he even converts the evidence of Imogen's chastity into evidence of her slipperiness. 'Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained', he remembers—invoking, as Othello also does, a realistically implausible history of marriage in this drama of newlyor indeed barely-weds—

And prayed me oft forbearance; did it with A pudency so rosy the sweet view on't Might well have warmed old Saturn; that I thought her As chaste as unsunned snow


To the jealous Posthumus, Imogen's oddly salacioussounding 'pudency' now seems the deceitful delaying tactic of a 'that-way-accomplished' woman, a woman perhaps like Cressida, who knows that 'Women are angels, wooing; / things won are done. Joy's soul lies in the doing' (Troilus 1.2.282-3). Patricia Parker tells us that such sexually provocative delaying tactics can go by the name 'dilation': Parker cites Andreas Capellanus on this supposed female tactic in the art of love, and says that 'By the time of Eve's "sweet reluctant amorous delay" in Book IV of Paradise Lost, "dilation" in this sense was almost a terminus technicus for the erotics of prolongation'.15 To the jealous Posthumus, the memory of Imogen's 'pudency' has an effect similar to the imputation of sexual appetitiveness. A wife's chaste refusal is as effective as her sexual compliance in exciting the doubt that becomes jealousy. It opens a space both between Imogen and Posthumus and within Imogen herself, a space filled now not with erotic tension but with the anxiety of Posthumus' inability to know her appetites and intentions.

(Several critics, invoking different evidence for different purposes, have questioned whether Imogen is merely chaste or in fact technically a virgin throughout the play.16 If, as they plausibly argue, the marriage of Posthumus and Imogen was not consummated, Cymbeline would show an otherwise unlikely affinity to The Taming of the Shrew, where there is also a wide gap of time between the contract and the post-fifth act consummation. But in Cymbeline the evidence must remain inferential; and a degree of textual uncertainty seems to me appropriate: it mimics the legal status of marriage in the period, when church and state were trying to regulate more precisely the time and conditions when marriage comes into being—and thereby making visible the actual insubstantiality of 'marriage' as a natural fact. The custom of de futuro and de praesenti spousal contracts supposedly required, but did not always get, the further legitimation of a church ceremony, and only then could intercourse legally take place and a man thereby enter into possession of his wife's property. The multiplication of formalities as a woman dwindled into a wife suggests an anxiety in the legal realm corresponding to the individual anxiety I've been discussing, where a requirement of certitude creates the very conditions which baffle certitude.)

The scene of Giacomo's nocturnal invasion of Imogen's chamber (2.2) powerfully dramatizes the process by which male erotic longing creates (with ambiguous consequences) a masculine idea of the female space he can never fully occupy. As Giacomo emerges from the trunk into the bedroom, the sleeping Imogen, like Lucrece to Tarquín, becomes the object of his controlling male gaze. Critics have wondered why Giacomo doesn't in fact do what he will later claim to have done: David Bergeron, for instance, argues that Giacomo's abstinence means that he's literally impotent.17 This misses, I think, the source of the scene's erotic power, which is the male voyeuristic fantasy of controlling a woman without risking the failure which consummated sexuality so often entails in Shakespeare. The sleeping Imogen lies open to Giacomo, but only by not taking sexual possession of her can the fantasy of possession be gratified.

Giacomo's inventory recreates Imogen as metonymy: she is her white skin, ruby lips, azure-laced eyelids—a conventional blazon, yet (I want to claim) one that is being converted into something dramatically and historically remarkable. She is also the 'movables' Giacomo itemizes to 'enrich [the] inventory'. And of course she is that bracelet with which Posthumus had made her arm his prisoner: only now the pledge of constancy is figured with the word that designates woman as unpossessible: 'Come off, come off; / As slippery as the Gordian knot was hard' (2.2.33-4). Finally, there's the most intimate of these metonymies, 'On her left breast / A mole, cinque-spotted' (2.2.37-8). Giacomo himself describes the process by which these externalities—the metonymies that inventory Imogen—will become the metaphor for her threatening womanly otherness: the bracelet, he says, 'will witness outwardly, / As strongly as the conscience does within, / To th' madding of her lord' (35-7); and the 'secret' of her mole 'Will force him think I have picked the lock and ta'en / The treasure of her honour' (41-2). The locked treasury of a woman's honour is the most expectable of tropes; but in this room, under this man's gaze, in a context that explicitly recognizes a difference between outward witness and inward conscience, it not only recreates the idea of woman as economic possession but creates the contradictory idea that the tokens of exchange—the visible, knowable parts of woman—hide a more essential, ultimately unknowable, unpossessible woman within.

Throughout the scene, Giacomo writes down the objects of his scrutiny. At the end of his inventory his attention turns to the book Imogen 'hath been reading late, / The tale of Tereus. Here the leaf's turned down / Where Philomel gave up' (2.2.44-6). The association of Imogen with her book recalls Othello's question, 'Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write "whore" upon?' The idea of woman-as-book recognizes the extent to which these wives have become objects of male fantasy, fictions of female otherness. The projection of male sexual anxiety creates the idea of a female subjectivity intractible to male possessiveness; by the same token, however, it locates in woman all that a man would reject in himself and essentializes the idea of 'the woman's part':

for there's no motion That tends to vice in man but I affirm It is the woman's part; be it lying, note it, The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers.


Of all Shakespeare's jealous husbands Leontes is perhaps the most febrile of fictionalizers, as the title of his play, The Winter's Tale, makes the process of imaginative creation most prominent. Like Othello, or like a Narcissus not of self-love but of loathing, Leontes is compelled to peer into those horrifying depths his own imagination creates:

How blest am I In my just censure, in my true opinion! Alack, for lesser knowledge—how accursed In being so blest! There may be in the cup A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart, And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge Is not infected; but if one present Th'abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides, With violent hefts. I have drunk and seen the spider.


Where is this cup and what is the poisonous knowledge it contains? For us, it's Leontes' own mind and his own jealous imaginings; but for Leontes it's Hermione, the vessel (to alter Othello's phrase) from which his current runs, which now contains in its depths the proof of her inward foulness. Like the other husbands I've been listening to, Leontes cannot fully articulate an idea of his wife as a subject possessing an inward essence: what we hear instead, in imagery like this of the cup and the spider, is his intimation of the inaccessible inwardness of her appetites confusedly expressed as a pollution of his own interior, like the pollution that turns Othello's 'fountain' to a 'cistern'.

Images of unconstrainable female fluidity run throughout Leontes' self-tormenting. Camillo must be blind if he can't see that 'My wife is slippery' (1.2.275). Leontes finds himself 'Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and ears a forked one!' (1.2.187): he's measuring the rising tide of his infamy, the troubled waters in which, as he's just previously said, 'I am angling now' (181); but he's also taking the measure of Hermione's treacherous depths. Like Othello, Leontes rushes to generalize his case, but with a metadramatic immediacy which seeks to infect the male members of the theatre audience—'even at this present, / Now, while I speak this'—with his condition:

There have been, Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now, And many a man there is, even at this present, Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by th' arm, That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence, And his pond fished by his next neighbour, by Sir Smile, his neighbour. Nay, there's comfort in't, Whiles other men have gates, and those gates opened, As mine, against their will.


Here the idea of female fluidity becomes literally the image of female genitalia. Giacomo, too, in Cymbeline, speaks of 'neighbouring ponds' on which 'strange fowl light' (1.4.87): no landowner can secure his sole fishing rights in these women. Not only the fish can be taken; in Leontes' imagining, the pond itself is subject to the law of sexual hydrodynamics and can be 'sluiced' away. As clearly, terribly, as self-defeatingly as anywhere in Shakespeare, Leontes follows the logic which makes his wife a property that he can never possess:

be it concluded, No barricado for a belly. Know't, It will let in and out the enemy With bag and baggage.


That metonymic identification of Hermione as unbarricaded belly—of her body's concavity as the place of her never-to-be possessed identity—is graphically reinforced by her visible pregnancy. Polixenes has made her 'swell like this', Leontes believes; her swollen state and, indeed, the presence on stage of Mamillius, her body's previous issue, introduces into The Winter's Tale a poignant complication only latent in either Othello or Cymbeline. The ubiquitous, virtually obsessive Elizabethan fear of cuckoldry can in part be explained as a consequence of the laws of inheritance, that is, of the actual possibility that a man's estate will fall into the possession of another man's child. But in Leontes' speculation about paternity there's a characterological surplus-value: Shakespeare invests the fact of paternity with a psychological importance absent from previous (usually comic) treatments of the cuckold's fear that he may be raising another man's child. Not only Leontes' adjunctive estate but his own identity is in question as he looks upon the lines of his boy's face:

methoughts I did recoil Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreeched, In my green velvet coat; my dagger muzzled, Lest it should bite its master, and so prove, As ornament oft does, too dangerous. How like, methought, I then was to this kernel, This squash, this gentleman.


For Leontes, Mamillius signifies doubly: as the fruit (or here, more exactly, the vegetable) of a woman's body, he's the sign of Leontes' entrance into a world where masculine self-possession depends on the ability to possess a woman's sexual appetite and reproductive capacity ('they say we are / Almost as like as eggs. Women say so, / That will say anything' [1.2.131-3]); at the same time the child embodies the men's fantasy of a world free from the danger of adult heterosexuality ('We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i'th'sun, / And bleat the one at th'other. What we changed / Was innocence for innocence' [1.2.69-71]). In the men's recollections of early childhood, the only transaction was easy and equal '[ex]change'; the phallic dagger of sexual possessiveness was as yet merely ornamental. But in the adult world where a man's self-definition depends on keeping 'mine' separate from 'thine', 'affection . . . stabs the centre' (140). Hermione's swollen belly figures the female space, both physiological and psychological, which a husband unbarricades only to discover that it contains a life of its own, and which he can close only by killing

Certainly there were cuckolds, real and imagined, ere Shakespeare began to dramatize their torments and tormentings. And certainly there has always been sexual jealousy, inside and outside of marriage and regardless of gender or sexual preference. In this essay I've only wanted to claim that the peculiar consciousness of self and other that we see in the jealous husbands of Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale registers a turn from what had previously figured mainly as an economic and social phenomenon toward an interiorized correlative which yields the repertoire of the modern psychological subject. Shakespeare puts into play the full mystification of marriage as bulwark against an unappeasable sexuality which threatens male control both of the public realm and the realm of the individual.18His anxious husbands try desperately to know, in order to possess, the women they would keep as their wives. In the process these characters discover, within themselves and for us, a new range of psychological complexity. But that discovery, the opening out of themselves to us, depends on another, more troubling 'discovery' these male characters think they make about the threateningly foreign country of women.

I put the word 'discovery' in inverted commas to indicate its ambiguous status. What the jealous husband 'discovers' as his wife's irreducible difference from himself is also the myth he creates to protect his idea of masculinity and to explain his anguish within a regime of sexual possessiveness. As such the myth of female otherness is, no doubt, a very bad thing, the potent tool of patriarchy which first creates the idea that women are a threat and then creates the means to control that threat. Yet I find the situation not entirely without socially redeeming value. For one thing, it's its own (no doubt inadequate) punishment: male jealousy does kill women, but in Shakespeare, at least, it also tends not to make men happy. As Toril Moi observes in her essay about differences between male and female sexual jealousy, 'Killing the woman one loves would seem counterproductive'.19 For another thing, and to take the situation at its most optimistic reading, we might say that the jealous sexuality that unsuccessfully strives to turn a person into a property creates, in the very failure Shakespeare dramatizes, the possibility for a different economy where, to alter Locke's phrase, not only 'every Man' but every Woman too, 'has a Property in his [or her] own Person'.20

As a sad matter of fact, liberal individualism was—and continues to be—very slow to accept the case Emilia makes in Othello for equal opportunity based on equal appetites:

Let husbands know Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell, And have their palates both for sweet and sour, As husbands have.


To return to the legal realm where this essay began: in England, married women were still subsumed within their husband's legal person, their properties literally not their own, until passage of the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. In the United States in 1992 the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to require a husband's consent to his wife's choice to have an abortion: a married woman with income of her own can file a single income tax return, but the space and contents of her body remain a joint possession. But in Shakespeare, in plays like Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter 's Tale, the tragic failure of male possessive desire implicitly but powerfully recognizes a realm of female self-possession; and that recognition (again, on the optimistic reading) is the precondition for a conceivable state where a man knows a woman's sexuality neither as threat to be expelled nor possession to be controlled.


1 Stone. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, abridged edn (New York, 1979), p. 136; Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640 (Cambridge, 1987), p. 143; Cook, Making A Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society (Princeton, 1991), p. 166.

2 Cf. Katharine Eisaman Maus, 'Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama', ELH, 54 (1987), 561-83: '[Othello] laments an arrangement that grants men ownership of women but which cannot grant them the usual correlatives of possession, knowledge and control', p. 578.

3The Properties of 'Othello' (Amherst, Mass., 1989), p. 10.

4Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1987), p. 9. Cavell adds, 'The violence in masculine knowing, explicitly associated with jealousy, seems to interpret the ambition of knowledge as that of exclusive possession, call it private property', p. 10.

5 On male efforts to control the female body, see Peter Stallybrass, 'Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed' in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, Nancy J. Vickers, eds., Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, 1986), pp. 123-42; Linda Woodbridge, 'Palisading the Elizabethan Body Politic', Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 33 (1991), 327-54; Georgianna Ziegler, 'My Lady's Chamber: Female Space, Female Chastity in Shakespeare', Textual Practice, 4 (1990), 73-90.

6The Poems of John Donne, ed. Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford, 1933), lines 25-31.

7 Audrey Eccles, Obstetrics and Gynecology in Tudor and Stuart England (Kent, Ohio, 1982), quotes a text by Guillemeau: 'In some Women the wombe is so greedy, and lickerish that it doth euen come down to meet nature, sucking, and (as it were) snatching the same, though it remaine only about the mouth and entrance of the outward orifice thereof (p. 29).

8 Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London, 1985), pp. 33, 54; Barker, The Tremulous Private Body (London, 1984), p. 37.

9 'Proof and Consequences: Inwardness and its Exposure in the English Renaissance', Representations, 34 (1991), 29-52; p. 42.

10 Cf. Edward A. Snow, 'Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello ', English Literary Renaissance, 10 (1980), 384-412.

11 'The Argument of Comedy', English Institute Essays 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson (New York, 1949), p. 60.

12 Cook, Making a Match, p. 165.

13 'Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure', in Norman Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris, eds., Shakespeare's Personality (Berkeley, 1989), pp. 151-74; pp. 158-9.

14Discoveries line 2625, in C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, Ben Jonson, vol. 8 (Oxford, 1947), p. 643.

15Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London, 1987), pp. 16-17.

16 David M. Bergeron, 'Sexuality in Cymbeline", Essays in Literature, 10 (1983), 159-68; p. 160. Bergeron cites Murray M. Schwartz, 'Between Fantasy and Imagination: A Psychological Exploration of Cymbeline,' in Psychoanalysis and the Literary Process, ed. Frederick Crews (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 219-83; p. 232. The most recent version of the argument for non-consummation was made by Anne Barton in a paper delivered at the Twenty-fifth International Shakespeare Conference, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 1992.

17 'Sexuality in Cymbeline', p. 165.

18 Cf. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence (Oxford, 1991): 'Female constancy is the paradigm to which other kinds of stability, sexual and political, refer, and upon which they depend, dreadfully and of course impossibly', p. 162.

19 'Jealousy and Sexual Difference', in Sexuality: A Reader, ed. Feminist Review (London, 1987), pp. 134-56; p. 149.

20 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, para. 27, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge 1960, rev. 1963): 'Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself (p. 328).

Desire As Metaphor

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5798

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

"Mercantilism and Desire in The Comedy of Errors," in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 39-52.

[Here, Hall investigates Shakespeare 's mercantile metaphors of desire and their relation to the construction of personal identity in The Comedy of Errors.]

The advent of mercantile capitalism should not be understood as a purely "economic" transition, if by that term we mean the severely delimited and specialized set of theories and practices characteristic of the epoch of bourgeois hegemony. The later "science" of political economy tends (naturally, as it now seems to us) to obscure its own basis in an alienation of the practices of monetary power and rationalized administration from all other social interrelations and cultural practices. It is constituted as an impersonal science precisely through a "forgetting" of its nonetheless persistent and real connections with the politics of the everyday, that is interpersonal relations of every sort and, consequently, the organization of even supposedly private desire. But this economic scientism, so familiar to us as to appear almost unquestionable (except occasionally on moral grounds), is a late development of bourgeois culture, and in our epoch of monopoly capitalism it sits rather awkwardly with the culture of individual enterprise. Capitalist "adventure," with its sense of personal risk, still has its practitioners, however few and far between, but it is now inescapably marked out as the glamorous myth of an inglorious practice. This is not a moral issue alone, for imperial "adventurers" always had their critics; it arises rather from the sense of there being an already established world market, in which some win and some lose, but neither outcome makes any real difference to general social conditions. In short, nothing collective is any longer at stake in the individual "adventure." And yet, as Marx remarked à propos of post-revolutionary bourgeois culture in general, such a prosaic state of affairs nevertheless had heroic beginnings.1 One could make the same point about early capitalist "adventure" itself, which borrowed quite a lot of its imaginative self-representations from feudal quest narratives. As Michael Nerlich points out in his Ideology of Adventure, the earlier "quête de l'aventure," whereby a knight sought to define himself as a true knight, is taken over by the despised "borjois" with the necessary modifications of the ideal.2

I will start my enquiry into Shakespeare's dramatic and poetic participation in the construction of the new modalities of mercantile desire with a comparison between Shakespeare's first merchant comedy, The Comedy of Errors, and its Plautine models, Menaechmi (and to a lesser extent Rudens), not to study influences but to explore the radically different universes of discourse in which both authors construct their heroes' desires. It is no doubt true to say that both plays draw on the ancient device of the comic double which throws identity into doubt, and that their pleasures arise from dealing with the anxiety which this entails.3 My approach, however, will not be to pursue what is historically constant in Shakespeare's comedy and its ancient sources, but, on the contrary, to address the difference in the two plays' negotiation of that crisis of identity. I will argue that the historical specificity of Shakespeare's rewriting of the crisis has important reverberations in the representation of desire and the unconscious in his play. Shakespeare's manic plot does not merely "out-Plautus Plautus," as Theodore Weiss observes,4 but sets up a relationship of anxiety and decentering completely alien to Plautus's universe of discourse.

In Plautus's play, names and property go astray, and in the last resort, it must be said, wife and mistress are close to being considered as forms of property, whose alienation does not greatly disturb the owner. Indeed, the play ends with the wife being auctioned off along with the other household effects. This comic auction, which provides the closure of the play, is the ultimate affirmation of ownership, and ownership is understood as the right to consume or enjoy. The twin double appears as a rival consumer of the sexual favors of Menaechmus's mistress, and of the meals prepared by his wife. There is another minor rival, who is comic because of his impotent parasite status. That is Peniculus, whose name is usually translated in the secondary literature as "little brush" or "table-sweeper." But, of course, it also means "little penis." Both wife and mistress are metonymically linked to the meals that they serve to male appetite throughout the play, which tends to underline the link between ownership and consumption.

The identification of the Menaechmi as a family of maritime merchants seems curiously perfunctory when the play is viewed retrospectively, back across the Renaissance when the merchant is seen as a more complex, and even heroic figure. In Plautus, the merchant is represented merely as owner and consumer, and the greatest threat to Menaechmus through the appearance of his twin concerns the comic interruption of his rights to consume. Insofar as there is a Utopian or festive ending, it consists in the restoration of those rights, and in the expansion of the circle of consumers to include the twin brother, Sosicles, and the freed slave Messenio. The social identity of the merchant that is disturbed and then restored in Plautus's play, is the identity of a consumer within a stable world momentarily interrupted. The ending is a restoration of the "familia" as a stable social unit.

Plautus's play has within it a formal potential which Shakespeare develops much later, but in a way which transforms the whole discourse. The contrasts between land and sea, between safety and danger, between fixed property and mercantile movement, are represented in the difference between the established, propertied, and initially satisfied twin and his traveling alter ego. The threat to the propertied self comes from this uncertain other, who is also part of the merchant's own self But there is no suggestion in Plautus that the mobile twin is the representative of a different form of desire, a desire which might seek to perpetuate its own motion even at the expense of fixed property and the satisfactions of consumption. In other words, Plautus's play is about merchants within a landed, agrarian society. Their confirmation as owners and consumers in the final celebration is the achievement of their desires within a Utopian overcoming of rivalry. In Shakespeare's play, by contrast, whatever the formal closures at the end, the desiring (male) self seeks a perpetuation of its mobility. My argument, then will be that Shakespeare reexplores the ancient topos of the loss of the self within a newly "monetarized" world, and this has large implications for his representation of the male erotic drives. In Shakespeare's play, identity is constructed within a totally different social and political order, although the word "constructed" does not sufficiently suggest the precarious and provisional nature of the construction. In Ephesus, identity is equivalent to reputation, which is supported by the ability to pay cash at a specified time. Angelo expresses the normality of the belief that, as some still say, a gentleman's word is his bond, when he gives the golden chain to a baffled Antipholus of Syracuse on the mistaken grounds that the latter has "bespoken" it:

Syr. Ant. Made it for me, sir? I bespoke it not.Angelo. Not once, nor twice, but twenty times you have. Go home with it, and please your wife withal, And soon at supper-time I'll visit you, And then receive my money for my chain.Syr. Ant. I pray you, sir, receive the money now, For fear you ne'er see chain nor money more.Angelo. You are a merry man, sir; fare you well.  [Exit]

(The Comedy of Errors, 3.2.170ff.)3

The assumption is that the public name should ensure that the spoken word corresponds to an ability to provide cash at the agreed time, without the slowing and (literally) deadening recourse to law, written bonds or contracts, and the force of the state. That is why there is also a residual aristocratic sense that a name carries value in itself. Only a nobleman's utterance would command sufficient trust. L. C. Knights points, very pertinently, to the insistence in England at the time on the difference between the noble trader in overseas commerce and the ignoble domestic retailer.6 In Elizabethan society, the hybrid social identity of the merchant as nobleman permits the mobility of that political economy, in which the socially guaranteed identity of the nobleman itself functions as credit. And it is precisely this precarious identity that is disrupted, in Shakespeare's play, when the name goes astray. The crisis is not a metaphysical affair but an economic and semiotic one, culminating in Antipholus of Ephesus' apparent failure to honor his pledge (4.1. Iff). The crisis of identity is a failure of credit (etymologically derived from "belief," but, from 1542, denoting the delivery of goods in the belief in a future ability to pay [OED]). The failure of credit brings about an immediate threat of violent "reterritorialization."

The failure of this identity is a social crisis entailing a general arrest in both senses of the word. As Angelo, the goldsmith is arrested, he in turn arrests Antipholus of Ephesus for a failure to back up a verbal promise with money. Credit enables exchange, being a system of generalized belief, no longer held without anxiety, that the mere sign (which is what name or reputation has now become) should correspond to a "real" value (gold). Reputation, and its potential ruin, is not an individual matter, nor is it any longer a purely feudal family matter of honor, where the nobleman defends and defines his name with his body and blood if necessary. If identity fails, in the specific social form of mercantile reputation, then there must be a recourse to the law. It is ultimately the law, and not persons themselves, which underwrites the system of mutual trust, and it is only the law which guarantees that the value of a promise will inhere in a real body. Thus the law is the last resort of the system, the violence whose existence is necessary, but whose emergence into visibility is itself a sign of crisis. Its violence is the guarantor of stability at the center of a system of circulation and deferral, but its emergence brings about the death of the system that it guarantees.

For capitalism, as we know, "time is money," and time in this play becomes an organizing principle in the plot in a way entirely absent from Plautus. The golden chain must be paid for by five o'clock, or the law will ineluctably swing into action. Meanwhile, Egeus must also find money to redeem himself from the law within twenty-four hours, or the law will inevitably exchange his blood for the amount due. This father figure escapes from the dangers of the sea only to be more deeply engulfed in those of the market. Furthermore, as this monetarized time becomes more active in the structuring of plot, it too contributes to the surreptitious subversion of the solidity of identity. Not only is it no longer a question of who you are and whether you can pay (which will re-establish who you are), but correlatively whether you can pay by a stipulated time. This makes identity (reputation) dependent upon external factors over which even the nominally powerful have no control. Just as the system of circulation is permanently liable to sudden arrest, so is the individual, and his arrest can take the form of a complete stop. The monetarization of both time and the bourgeois individual involves this perpetual danger.

The judicial violence, represented unwillingly by the duke, is the necessary precondition for all the social mobility in the play, although it is also its absolute antithesis. That mobility depends on "credit," which is the understanding that the name stands in for golden coinage (just as the "names" which underwrite Lloyds of London still do). When the violence emerges into visibility, it arrests the very movement that it is supposed to guarantee. This has in fact already happened, in a serious register, before the main action. In this sense the main action repeats in a comic register the sociopolitical scenario that has condemned the merchant father, Egeon, to death at the very outset. The duke states clearly the reasons for the law's exaction:

The enmity and discord which of late Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your Duke To merchants, our well-dealing countrymen, Who, wanting guilders to redeem their lives, Have sealed his rigorous statutes with their bloods, Excludes all pity from our threat'ning looks.

(1.1.5 ff.)

The duke himself makes no claim for abstract or universal principles of right here. He is not talking within the terms of Roman law, but from within the constraints of a mercantilist polity. The system is no longer centered on the duke himself, and does not even coincide geographically with his territory. The madness of proliferating doubles is not limited to the Antipholus and Dromio couples in this play, for the duke of Ephesus is also the double of the duke of Syracuse. In other words, there is a decentering of power; the constraints upon the duke come from outside his realm and point to a loss of sovereignty in the nominal sovereign himself. That is why the duke shares the patriarchal impotence of Egeon, with whom he sympathizes. At the same time, this decentering of power must be negated by the exercise of judicial violence. The statutes must be sealed in blood. As blood must replace ink, the body must replace the abstract word, and power must be seen to reside in territoriality and the duke's own person. However, this violence is not really identical with personal rule because personal rule implies a sovereign decision on whether to use violence or mercy, and the duke is not so free. He is constrained to negate by reterritorializing violence the half-acknowledged truth of his loss of sovereignty.

This division in power entails a psychologization of the nominal powerholder, and the duke becomes a figure of split desires. When, like the sultan in 1001 Nights, he commands the reluctant Egeon to tell his tale and postpone his death for twenty-four hours, it is he who desires to "procrastinate" the death which he must pronounce, not Egeon. And this desire for the story is the agent of deferral which enables the play to take place. In other words, although he continues to talk of himself as the embodiment of the law, he in fact behaves as its reluctant and constrained representative, putting himself in the position of the audience and seeking the deferral of the sentence through the narrative of the play itself. This noncoincidence of even the ruler's desires with his "own" discourse is a significant effect of the decentering of power which haunts this comedy.

The duke talks from within the language of contemporary political imperatives, which are actually the guarantees of overseas trade. But those same imperatives, when credit fails, freeze trade and life itself. Then the body of the debtor is answerable to the law. In important ways the issues of The Merchant of Venice are prefigured here. The reason why the duke in this early comedy is helpless before the law (given that he no longer embodies but represents it), is that his (i.e., its) power, authority, and "honor" are indeed at stake, as he says (1.1. 142ff.). To restore them requires that he impose death. In the main action of the play, when gold and jewels are restored to their owners, ownership is not the most important aspect of the restoration, as it is in Plautus. What is more important is the avoidance of the last resort of the law.

At a simple level, of course, the audience is gratified because the destruction of bodies is avoided, but this is dependent upon another subtler gratification: namely that spoken words re-acquire value without the resort to the systemic violence that both underwrites and destroys credit. Circulation becomes possible again. Time can become productive instead of being deathbound. The ship for Persia can depart, and the loving address from Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana becomes permissible (5.1377ff.). The duke is released from his reterritorializing obligation by this resolution of the plot. But, although his sovereignty is restored, this restoration can never be absolute, since the plot has also revealed its contingent quality. Critics have often noted an alleged inconsistency (whether psychological or compositional) in the way that the duke no longer requires the guilders in payment for Egeon's life as soon as they are in fact available. The real point would seem to be that the duke only reacquires the sovereign power to act mercifully when the system of credit is restored. Then the actual surrender of gold coinage to the state is neither necessary nor desirable. The main issue is its return to circulation. Properly speaking, too, the crisis of identity is not resolved in Shakespeare's play, but postponed. The postponement only looks like resolution, because what is restored is a polity that requires a permanent deferral of its last resort of power in order to function at all. Stability is deferred, because in this polity the only stability is death. This is rather like saying that the system requires a permanent crisis of identity in order to function at all. So it is to this question of the psychological counterpart of monetarization that we must now turn.

It is not only the power of the sovereign that is decentered in the process of mercantilist "deterritorialization," but the discourse of (male) desire itself. It is often noted that the town of Ephesus appears to be governed by witchcraft, and that the duke's exclamation near the end, "I think you have all drunk from Circe's cup" (5.1.271), sums up a great deal, particularly with regard to sexual identity. It is significant that the town of Ephesus is also governed by another magic, which is even more deceptive than that of Circe's isle. This magic, which also dissolves the self, is the market, and it operates as the silent condition of possibility for the metaphoric equivalence of self and money (which, as we have said, is the basis of credit). When Antipholus of Syracuse thinks that he has been robbed, he exclaims:

Upon my life, by some device or other The villain is o'eraught of all my money. They say this town is full of cozenage, As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, Soul-killing witches that deform the body, Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, And many such-like liberties of sin: If it prove so, I will be gone the sooner. I'll to the Centaur to go seek this slave; I greatly fear my money is not safe.


Through Antipholus of Syracuse's extended metaphor, the normal or commonplace fear for the loss of money is translated into a demonization of the everyday deceptions of the marketplace. This speech is factually erroneous in its misapprehension of the plot situation, but its governing metaphor articulates a psychic truth. In other words, it functions to convert an "error," which is a factual matter to be resolved by clarification, into psychic truths of desire. These can never be resolved. For the most striking power of the market is that it has already worked its own particular magic upon Antipholus' speech. The magic power is already there in the way in which Antipholus accepts the metaphoric equivalence of himself and his money. This governing metaphor blurs a distinction between clear factual "error" and the psychic disposition which produces it and unwittingly displays itself. So, even as Antipholus produces a comically inappropriate demonic version of its power, for the amusement of the audience who see it as an "error," he confirms that demonic power in a way that makes it less certain for them that it is simply an "error."

In general, the fears of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, who are the mercantile "venturing" pair, provide more of the disturbing comedy in the play than the pair resident in Ephesus, because of the way in which they mentally transform errors into sorcery, and the women whom they encounter, into fearful witches and sirens. The inappropriateness of this response provides a comedy of "errors," but Shakespeare's use of the comic goes much further than this. Shakespeare's dramatic discourse explores, through the metaphors, the anxieties which sustain both the comedy and the eroticism of his venturing hero. For him, the market and the town are like a fair, in which all the familiar forms of seduction and deception are present, but they are also a scene in which deception is indistinguishable from magic, and the self is therefore at risk. And there is fascination in the fear, which implies a strong desire for the loss of self that is feared.

The psychological possibilities of reading which emerge here, in marked contrast with the Plautine models, should not be understood in terms of Shakespeare's revelation of the timeless truths of the psyche, however. What happens is more interesting. Shakespeare constructs the very possibility of modern psychologistic readings by reworking the Plautine versions of what Bakhtin calls the "involuntary adventure" of the classical narrative:

It goes without saying that in this type of time, an individual can be nothing other than completely passive, completely unchanging. .. . to such an individual things can merely happen. He himself is deprived of any initiative. He is merely the physical subject of the action, [emphases in original text]7

Bakhtin is concerned with what he terms "chronotopes," namely the narrative modes of constructing a hero within certain pregiven conditions of space and temporality together with the limiting possibilities of action which they imply. But Michael Nerlich's comment, which provides the point of departure for his own Ideology of Adventure, makes a very telling point:

What Bakhtin overlooks, strangely enough, is the fact that the passive, suffering, unchanging human being to whom things happen is the absolute opposite of the modern view of adventure or the adventurer.8

Nerlich's overall argument, in a nutshell, is that the feudal "quête de l'aventure," later appropriated by the mercantile bourgeoisie, posited "adventure" as active desire, not as unsought and unwelcome event. Here, I would argue, is the historical issue in Shakespeare's transformation of the quest narrative of romance into metaphors of desire in this play. This refers us back to the dominant maritime metaphors.

Unlike the storms in Plautus's Menaechmi and Rudens, the storm in this play is psychologized into revealing metaphors of desires in the male self.9 The storm which has separated the whole family from each other, sets up a desire for reintegration, which is partly gratified at the level of family and state, by the end of the play. But if we focus on Antipholus of Syracuse, who is in search of his brother and mother, the storm at sea which separated him from both his mirror image (his twin) and his nurturing mother, is also what has constituted him as a desiring subject, precisely through that primal separation. Thus what he is seeking is his own annihilation as separate individual, and the sea which threatens to engulf him is also the goal of his desire. As he says early in the scene, at the level of his desires he is not a separate entity but is constituted by a loss and a regressive desire to return to the engulfing sea:

He that commends me to mine own content Commends me to the thing I cannot get.

I to the world am like a drop of water That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. So I, to find a mother and a brother, In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

(1.1.33 ff.)

The quest for the mother and brother involves the loss of isolated self-hood. He is not only seeking "to find his fellow forth" (the identical brother), but also the mother who is identified with the ocean. So we have in the metaphor of the ocean and the two drops, a search for a separate male identity in the twin brother, and less avowedly, a search for fusion with a mother figure which overthrows identity by engulfment. It might appear farfetched to say that this constitutes an erotic drive, if it were not demonstrable that Adriana unknowingly returns his metaphor to him, but reaccentuated so that the merging of male into female is an image of fulfillment and not of loss:

How comes it now, my husband, O how comes it That thou art then estranged from thyself?— Thy "self I call it, being strange to me That, undividable, incorporate, Am better than thy dear self's better part. Ah, do not tear away thyself from me; For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall A drop of water in the breaking gulf, And take unmingled thence that drop again Without addition or diminishing, As take from me thyself, and not me too.

(2.2.122 ff.)

The comedy of "errors," or mistaken identities, at this point permits an extraordinary effect: Antipholus' metaphor of desire, strongly marked by a "death wish," is returned to him as a metaphor of completion. What he fears is also what he seeks. To put it another way, his quest is already aimed at a loss of selfhood, although at the same time that loss is what he fears. Within the situational "error" and its attendant amusement, Adriana confronts him, and the audience, with a disturbing truth of desire, that its fulfillment would be the "confounding" of the self that it seeks and fears.

By psychologizing the external storm, previously the agent of Fate or Fortune, Shakespeare transforms that purely narrative event into a strange collaboration with the subjective desire of the mercantile "adventurer." This does not mean that such events simply discard their external or "accidental" quality. They certainly retain that unwilled quality, but they also become ambiguously doubled with subjective desire. What happens in these narratives of adventure capitalism is extremely ambiguous. The adventurer has a conscious goal shadowed by an unconscious self-destructive one.

This contradictory desire, which requires an "adventure" narrative, is a new construction of the (male) self, and it is explored through the principal metaphors of this comedy. This fear of the loss of self, which is also the secret truth of desire persists in the comic situation of mistaken identity when Antipholus of Syracuse tries to declare his love to Luciana, and she rejects it because she takes him for Adriana's husband. At the situational level, the "error" is clear to the audience. They can see the honest intention in the duplicity of Luciana's discourse when, thinking that she is talking to a deceiving husband, she urges him to be even more deceitful in order to spare her sister's feelings:

If you did wed my sister for her wealth, Then for her wealth's sake use her with more kindness; Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth, Muffle your false love with some show of blindness. Let not my sister read it in your eye; Be not thy tongue thy own shame's orator; Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty; Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger; Bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted; Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint, Be secret false; what need she be acquainted.


Although she then turns to talk of women as the victims of deceit, this speech begins to cast a lot of doubt on the speaker's known "honesty," for how could honesty be so eloquent about the strategems of duplicity? Despite her honesty, her words are the site of psychic mobility, because what happens here is that Luciana speaks from an assumed position of dialogue with a hypocrisy that she attributes to Antipholus. An utterance is conditioned by its addressee even when that "other" is imagined. An audience which saw the joke here must also feel a disquiet, because even honest language is no longer an expression of a self.

It is, of course, an impenetrable problem to Antipholus of Syracuse, who is attempting to declare his love in accordance with neo-Platonic conventions, which hold that love is the language of truth. He perceives that her words are deceitful, not just in the sense that she is enjoining deceit, but also in the sense (lethal for neo-Platonism) that they are not expressive of the being that inspires love in him. This disastrous disruption—and let us not forget that it is funny—leads him on to the idea that her words are an attempt by her to separate his soul from its truth (i.e., that they are a soulchanging enchantment, Circe-like, close to witchcraft). Although this is actually an erroneous interpretation of her intentions, it is not untrue about her words ' effect upon him. Once again, then, the "error" of situation goes on to disclose a truth of his desire: his self-abandonment to the destructive magic which he fears (earlier he has said "I'll entertain the offer'd fallacy"; 2.2.185) is the truth of his discourse of desire:

Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak; Lay open to my earthly gross conceit, Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak, The folded meaning of your words' deceit. Against my soul's pure truth, why labour you To make it wander in an unknown field? Are you a god? would you create me anew? Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield.

(3.2.333 ff.)

This perplexed, but enthusiastic lover transforms her first into a masculine god that will recreate him (above), and then into a mermaid and siren whose love will kill him:

O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears; Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote; Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs, And as a bed I'll take thee, and there lie, And in that glorious supposition think He gains by death that hath such means to die; Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink.

(3.2.45 ff.)

Theodore Weiss calls this "love as the great school, the enlightenment of a young man by a beautiful young woman."10 But if there is "enlightenment" here, it is in a fearful destructiveness, because the truth of his desire emerges in these metaphors of love and death, namely that he would hand himself over, body and soul, to what he fears. This, then, is Shakespeare's use of plot of the mistaken identities. The "errors" provide the occasion for the metaphorical utterance of normally unstated truths. The scene ends when Antipholus of Syracuse, (who has been informed of his Dromio's flight from Nell, the engulfing "mountain of mad flesh" which claims to be his wife), responds to this with the same fear of the siren's song:

There's none but witches do inhabit here, And therefore 'tis high time that I were hence; She that doth call me husband, even my soul Doth for a wife abhor. But her fair sister, Possess'd with such a gentle sovereign grace, Of such enchanting presence and discourse, Hath almost made me traitor to myself; But lest myself be guilty to self-wrong, I'll stop my ears against the mermaid's song.


The goddess who enchants is also the mermaid or witch who threatens. But this is not an accurate statement about Luciana as a character, as though she were represented dramatically by Shakespeare as half-witch, half-goddess. It is no longer a simple "error." Such images are the product of Antipholus's surrender to what he fears; in short, they are metaphors of his desire, not representations of Luciana's inward being. Although Antipholus of Syracuse succumbs to the disturbing charms of witchcraft, this is not exactly the same as surrendering to Luciana. He surrenders to a false representation of her, but to a truth of his own desire, in which enchantment and fear are contributory. The "madness" of the plot, which disturbs and frightens him, also promises him the gratifications of the loss of self for which the market and the sea are joint metaphors. All this has very little to do with representation of the women through their own speech, which is also part of the plot.

The entirely nonmagic quality of the women, in marked contrast to the power which they acquire over Antipholus, is part of the comic effect. Neither Adriana nor Luciana bear any resemblance to Circe or to mermaid figures. Like Miranda later, Luciana could well protest: "No wonder, sir, but certainly a maid" (The Tempest, 1.2.430-31). The magic arises from the way in which the plot provides an opportunity for the play of male fantasies. Its comic quality arises from its non-coincidence with the representation of the women outside those fantasies. The melancholy "death wish" which promises its own gratifications has nothing to do with Shakespeare's representation of women, but everything to do with his exploration of the new discourse of desire.


1 "Wholly absorbed in the production of wealth and in the peaceful struggle of competition, it no longer comprehended that the ghosts of Roman times had watched over its cradle. But unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and the battles of nations to bring it into being. And in the classically austere traditions of the Roman republic its gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to keep their zeal on the high plane of the great historical tragedy." Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978), 11; (originally, New York: Die Revolution, 1852).

2 Michael Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness 1100-1750, volume 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 51-64.

3 There is a recurrent association of twins and doubles with death. See, for example, Otto Rank, The Double: a Psychoanalytic Study, trans. and ed. Harry Tucker Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1979).

4 Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), 25.

5 All references to Shakespeare's plays in this book are to the Arden editions.

6 L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1937), 5Iff. The domestic grocer is still a figure of contempt in British culture. Margaret Thatcher's father marked her off from the patrician wing of the Tory party.

7 M. M. Bakhtin, "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1981), 105.

8 Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure, 4.

9 See Coppélia Kahn, Man 's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 199ff. My argument is a location of this psychological reading in a historical discourse.

10 Weiss, Breath of Clowns and Kings, 22.

Further Reading

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Adelman, Janet. "Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 151-74. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Examines male sexual desire as a violating and corrupting force potentially legitimized through marriage.

Belsey, Catherine. "Desire's Excess and the English Renaissance Theatre: Edward II, Troilus and Cressida, Othello." In Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, edited by Susan Zimmerman, pp. 84-102. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Notes chaotic and ironic manifestations of desire in Troilus and Cressida and Othello.

Calderwood, James L. "Desire, the Eyes and the Gaze." In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, pp. 23-47. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

Investigates metaphors of seeing in relation to the topic of desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Girard, René. "The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida" In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, pp. 188-209. New York, Methuen, 1985.

Explores the workings of desire in both the erotic and political sub-plots of Troilus and Cressida.

Harris, Jonathan Gil. "'Narcissus in thy face': Roman Desire and the Difference it Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra." Shakespeare Quarterly 45, No. 4 (Winter 1994): 408-25.

Challenges "the status of Cleopatra as the quintessentially female object of heterosexual desire" in Antony and Cleopatra.

Hattaway, Michael. "Fleshing His Will in the Spoil of Her Honour: Desire, Misogyny, and the Perils of Chivalry." In Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Volume 46, edited by Stanley Wells, pp. 121-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Comments on the anatomical, psychoanalytical, social, and ideological sites of desire and misogyny in several of Shakespeare's plays.

Taylor, Mark. "Female Desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream." Shakespeare Yearbook 2 (Spring 1991): 115-31.

Maintains that female desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream "does not become indistinct or interchangeable; and this desire . . . is not one to which women surrender themselves unconditionally."

Traub, Valerie. "Invading Bodies/Bawdy Exchanges: Disease, Desire, and Representation (Troilus and Cressida)" In Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, pp. 71-87. London, Routledge, 1992.

Examines the central metaphor of desire as disease in Troilus and Cressida.

Willbern, David. "Hyperbolic Desire: Shakespeare's Lucrece." In Contending Kingdoms: Historical, Psychological, and Feminist Approaches to the Literature of Sixteenth-Century England and France, edited by Marie-Rose Logan and Peter L. Rudnytsky, pp. 202-24. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Offers a stylistic analysis of obsessive desire in The Rape of Lucrece.


Deception in Shakespeare's Plays


Dreams in Shakespeare