Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem that tells of the goddess Venus' infatuation for a mortal human, the young hunter Adonis. In erotic and humorous passages, Venus courts the youth, attempting to persuade him to make love. Adonis resists her advances, being unmoved by what he sees as simple lust; he prefers to go hunting. The next day, at dawn, Venus discovers the body of the dead Adonis, who has been killed by a wild boar. The poem closes with her lament;
Venus and Adonis has less relevance for most modern readers than do Shakespeare's dramas. Conventions that largely lack meaning today contribute to the overall tone and texture of the poem, and the work is now often perceived as frigidly artificial and remote from real human experience. But although its characterization and plotting are feeble by comparison with the plays, Venus boasts many charming passages. Moreover, and much more important, the poem does in fact deal with a humanly significant theme, sexual love.
Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southhampton—a classically educated and highly sophisticated patron of the arts—thus indicating his intention that the poem be received as a fashionable exercise in delicate eroticism, deftly constructed in an artificial and elaborately rhetorical classical manner. From the literature available to Elizabethan readers, the poet turned to the best source for such a poem, the works of the Latin master of erotic poetry, Ovid, which he probably knew both in Latin and in the English translation by Arthur Golding (1567). In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Adonis reciprocates Venus' love, but Shakespeare followed a variant of the tale that was also well known in England, incorporating elements from other Ovidian stories and portraying the mortal's rejection of the goddess. The epigraph to the dedication—promising a work meant for a select audience—comes from another work by Ovid, Amores. Classical literature was entirely familiar to 16th-century readers, and, in associating his work with
Ovid's, Shakespeare was plainly declaring his intention to be similarly witty, charming, and delicately sensual. Some details, especially the episode of the stallion and the mare, were probably inspired by passages in the Georgics of VIRGIL, the greatest of Latin poets.
Shakespeare was probably also influenced by HeroAnd Leander, by Christopher Marlowe. The date of composition of this poem is unknown—it was unfinished when the poet died in early 1593—and it was not published until 1598, but Shakespeare had probably read it in manuscript; certainly Hero and Leander's unprecedented combination of wit and luxuriant sensuousness was unique before Shakespeare wrote his poem. Like Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis was scandalously popular, to judge by the many references to it, both delighted and disapproving. It has often been speculated that the ferocity of the controversy impelled Shakespeare to follow Venus with a much primmer narrative poem. The Rape of Lucrece.
Venus and Adonis may be seen as simply a trivial entertainment, intended to attract the patronage of a cultured aristocrat. Or the poem may be given more weight and viewed as a scintillating example of Renaissance art, an evocation of ancient ideals equivalent to, say, the paintings of Botticelli. Still, the thematic richness of the plays, which even at their weakest are intent on exploring ideas and human relations, suggest that a work by Shakespeare must have more point than simple entertainment or beauty. However, the moral to be found in Venus and Adonis has proven elusive, and the poem has been assessed in many different ways. Some critics feel that Venus is a failure, an immature effort that is confused and uncertain because the author was himself unclear about the nature of love and lust and therefore resorted to humor to patch up his undeveloped work. Others see the poem as a delightfully erotic comedy, a celebration of sexual passion. Although Adonis dies, his story is couched in humor, and his death is not a tragic one—his corpse vanishes into air and his blood becomes the goddess' nosegay. Still other readers find one of two tragic lessons in Venus. Accepting the erotic passages as indicative of the poet's attitude, one may see Adonis' death as the pathetic outcome of his cold and foolish aversion to love and sex. On the other hand, the horror of his death and Venus' condemnation of love at the end of the poem may be thought to condemn lust as a primal force of destruction.
All of these viewpoints offer salient truths about the poem; as is so often the case when considering Shakespeare, the most productive response combines various theories. Like Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra in particular, Venus deals with perhaps the most difficult emotion to understand, love, and all three works present an essential paradox: love, an obvious manifestation of an elemental life force, is often tied to a self-destructive inclination towards death. Thus two irreconcilable attitudes about love are established, and the poem, like the plays, attempts to resolve the opposition between them.
One must start with a pervasive and obviously positive aspect of Venus and Adonis: the poem is unquestionably funny. Venus' overbearing seizure of Adonis, beginning in line 25, is a virtual parody of male aggressiveness; the description of the stolid Adonis as a tiny, terrified waterbird (lines 86-87) provides a droll juxtaposition; Venus' erotic characterization of her own body as landscape (lines 229-240) is sufficiently amusing to extract a smile even from Adonis. Even at a moment of revulsion, as Venus first sees Adonis' corpse, the famous simile of the shrinking snail (lines 1033-1036) offers an irresistibly whimsical image that softens the blow; the situation is not permitted to inspire horror.
In a similar spirit, the poem boasts frequent vivid and sensual representations of country life—from such minor images as the comparison of the captive Adonis to a trapped bird (lines 67-68) or that of Venus to a 'milch doe, whose swelling dugs do ache' (line 875), to the more elaborate descriptions of the boar (lines 619-630), the boar hounds (lines 913-924), and the hunted hare (lines 679-708). Particularly impressive is the fully developed anecdote of Adonis' stallion in pursuit of a mare (lines 258-324), the last couplet of which is itself a handsome miniature landscape. Venus' repeated enthusiasm for physical love (e.g., in lines 19-24) is part of the same charming presentation of the sensual life. The poem offers an idyllic world populated by delightful plants and animals, needing only the consummated love of man and goddess—or so Venus asserts—to complete the picture.
However, a distinctly darker strain complicates matters. Venus' attraction to Adonis is not simply a delightful infatuation, but rather a fever of the soul; she tears at her beloved like a bird of prey (lines 55-58) and, when she refuses to stop kissing him, he is compared to a forcibly tamed hawk and a deer pursued to exhaustion (lines 560-561). Conversely, Adonis rejects not only Venus herself but also her idea of love, which he equates with lust, in a passage (lines 787-798) strikingly reminiscent of Sonnet 129, which decries lust as 'Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame' (see SONNETS). For Venus, love is entirely involved with physical life, but it is only in death that Adonis can find love, as he conceives it; he says, 'I know not love . . . unless it be a boar, and then I chase it' (lines 409-410). Thus Venus and Adonis represent opposing points of view: the goddess finds fulfillment in the delights of sensuality, while the mortal man conceives of an ideal spiritual state.
We can see that the poem often supports Adonis' position by subtly undercutting that of Venus, and vice versa. The comical sight of Venus plucking Adonis from his horse (line 30) reflects the more serious point that her powers of seduction are so inadequate that she is reduced to this undignified action. When Venus argues—as Shakespeare himself does in several of the sonnets—that love is the most appropriate human activity because it leads to reproduction (lines 163-174), she seems to represent the life force, but in the very next line all such high purpose is lost, as 'the love-sick queen began to sweat'. Even one of Venus' most delightful tactics—her somewhat lewd yet humorous description of herself in terms of landscape (lines 229-240)—results only in her further humiliation; Adonis smiles in disdain, she is reduced to helplessness by his dimples, and the poet remarks, 'being mad before, how doth she now for wits?' (line 249). However, Adonis' ideal is similarly weakened. Although he rejects the animal nature of love that Venus extols, he is himself associated with animals throughout the poem, from the early parallels between him and birds, mentioned above, through the symbolism of his runaway horse as a male lover, to his almost sexual union with the boar in mutual death. The attitude of each protagonist is therefore compromised by the manner in which it is presented.
Thus the apparently hopeless dichotomy between Venus and Adonis is resolved even as it is presented, for Shakespeare's ultimate purpose here is to present opposing views as intertwined principles. The poem opens with a paradoxical introduction of the two protagonists: in the first stanza 'rose-cheek'd Adonis' is contrasted with 'sick-thoughted Venus' (lines 3, 5). A standard romantic convention—lovesick male pursues uninterested woman—is here reversed, and this switch is at the heart of Shakespeare's strategy. Venus is a parody of a typical male suitor, while Adonis is presented in a traditionally feminine role, a sex object, especially in lines 541-564, where he is virtually raped. He is also associated with imagery suggestive of women's physical charms, as in lines 9, 50, 247-248, and, most strikingly, 1114-1116, where the boar's death blow is described in sexual terms. (Adonis' femininity is sometimes taken as evidence of a homosexual inclination in Shakespeare, but the image seems to function quite well in the poem without such a conclu sion. However, it does certainly suppose the acceptability of homoerotic ideas to both the poet and his audience.) The confusion of gender anticipates the conjunction of the two points of view that is reached in the closing stanzas.
The poem simultaneously views love in contradictory ways. Though love is the noblest of imaginable even ridiculous, grounded as it is in the physical desires embodied by Venus' lust. Although Adonis' death is brought about by his rejection of Venus' idea of love, it does not discredit her essentially comic approach; instead, it adds to it a tragic element, that of humanity's unachievable aspiration. Love's complicated blend of opposing qualities is asserted in the description of love in Venus' closing lament: 'Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend, [and it] shall be raging mad, and silly mild, make the young old, the old become a child.... It shall be merciful and too severe, and most deceiving when it seems most just' (lines 1136-1156). While Venus is 'weary of the world' (line 1189) at the tale's end, yet she also has been able to realize that, for all its pain, love may 'enrich the poor with treasures' (line 1150). This is the theme that the poem offers its readers, in as fine and showy a setting as the young Shakespeare could devise.
Venus and Adonis is a flawed, youthful work. The two protagonists display little credible personality; differences in tone within the poem seem to reflect indecisiveness on Shakespeare's part; in particular, Venus' final position, in which she seems to reject love in light of Adonis' death, is uncomfortably at odds with her earlier, much lighter attitude. Therefore, many readers simply accept the pleasures of the poem's numerous delightful passages and disregard an otherwise seemingly unrewarding text. However, the poem is much richer than this. Like Shakespeare's greater works, it is concerned with the human predicament, and it illuminates the young playwright's attitude towards one of his most important concerns, sexual love.
In the poem's dedication Shakespeare calls his work 'the first heir of my invention', and this is sometimes taken as evidence that Venus and Adonis was written before any of the plays. However, most scholars agree that it is much more likely to have been written between June 1592, when the London theatres were closed because of a plague epidemic, and April 1593, when the poem was registered with the Stationers Regiser. During this enforced break in his promising career, the young playwright turned to a mode of literature that was far more prestigious at the time. Thus the reference in the dedication is taken to allude to the poet's first effort at 'serious' writing. Not only was poetry regarded as the only important branch of literature, while the stage was still somewhat disreputable, but, under the patronage system that prevailed until long after Shakespeare's death, it was potentially much more profitable than a career in the theatre.
Venus and Adonis was first published in 1593 by the printer Richard Field in a Quarto edition (known today as Ql), of which only one copy—in Oxford's Bodleian Library—has survived. Field, who also printed The Rape of Lucrece, was probably a friend of Shakespeare's, and this fact, plus the great care with which both texts were printed, suggests that the narrative poems were the only works whose publication was supervised by Shakespeare himself. Venus was very popular, and eight more editions were published during Shakespeare's lifetime. These are known as Q2-Q9 (plus one that is unnumbered, since only a titlepage has survived), though all but Q2 were actually published in an octavo format. A tenth edition, Q10, appeared shortly after Shakespeare's death. Each of these editions was simply a reprint of one of its predecessors, incorporating such minor alterations as the printers saw fit to make, and, while they all contain variant readings, none is thought to reflect any changes that Shakespeare made. Q.1 is therefore regarded as the only authoritative text, and it is the basis for all modern editions.
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