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.
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 "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...
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