Venus and Adonis
Venus and AdonisINTRODUCTION
Venus and Adonis is one of Shakespeare's two most substantial narrative poems, the other being Lucrece. Shakespeare is commonly believed to have written both of these poems early in his career while the London theaters were closed to prevent the spread of the plague. Also, both narrative poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, a noted literary patron; critics have noted that, as courtly poetry, the works signaled a fair degree of ambition on Shakespeare's part. M. C. Bradbrook notes in Shakespeare: The Poet in His World that with the dissemination of Venus and Adonis, "The author at once received recognition and respectful notice, even among those who despised, or affected to despise, the work of the common stages."
Venus and Adonis certainly merits comparison with Shakespeare's drama; at nearly twelve hundred lines, the poem is fully two-thirds the size of his shortest play, The Comedy of Errors. Given the poem's complex and nuanced treatment of its universally appreciated subject matter—love, lust, and desire—it has perhaps received more critical attention and praise. In his introduction to the play, Jonathan Crewe speaks of its "rhetorical brilliance and showiness," its "conventional yet extraordinarily sophisticated reflection on relations between nature and art," and its "densely layered allusion to other texts and literary traditions." Venus and Adonis also received a great degree of immediate popular attention, as some sixteen editions were produced between its initial publication in 1593, and 1640.
Venus and Adonis is often referred to as an epyllion, which is a narrative poem in the style of an epic poem but shorter. It is largely based on the work of the ancient Latin poet Ovid, whose Metamorphoses contains not only a seminal version of the story of Venus's courtship of Adonis but also other myths that shaped Shakespeare's portrayal of the pair. Crewe also refers to the work as an "etiological poem," in that it describes the origins of some axiomatic truth; specifically, at the poem's conclusion, Venus condemns the relationships of all future lovers to confusion and strife. The figurative heart of the poem is its depiction of the ambling discourse between the aggressive Venus and the withdrawn Adonis. That depiction has received a wide variety of interpretations—perhaps unsurprisingly, as where love is concerned, beauty as well as truth are in the eye and mind of the beholder.
In the opening stanza of Venus and Adonis, the narrator establishes the basis of the poem: the young Adonis has gone out hunting and is indifferent to romance, while the lovesick Venus has become infatuated with Adonis and has begun to boldly court him. They are understood to be meeting each other somewhere in the forest. Venus compares Adonis's beauty to that of a flower and asks him to dismount so that she can kiss him. Indeed, she takes his hand, "plucks" him from his horse, holds him under her arm, confines his horse, and finally pushes him to the ground.
With the two lying down beside each other, Venus caresses Adonis, who begins to protest but is cut off by Venus. Adonis grows ashamed of the compromising situation, but Venus kisses him repeatedly, in various places, nevertheless. As he lies still, "forced to content," she delightedly inhales his breath. Adonis is likened to a bird caught in a net; he remains sullen, even as she constantly entreats him. She then declares that she will never remove her hand from his chest if he does not help dry her tears by returning just a single kiss. He seems to agree, raising his chin—but at the last moment he turns away, leaving Venus hot and bothered.
Venus launches into an extensive plaint to Adonis. She mentions how Mars, the god of war, had once wooed her and had essentially become her slave, giving her the chance to teach him to be more light-hearted. Still, Adonis had somehow mastered her. She looks him in the eyes and asks once more for a kiss, saying that if he feels ashamed, he can always simply close his eyes. She says his youth and beauty should not be wasted in want of romance, and since she has no defects of person, physical or psychological, why should he refuse her company? She has her own youth (of an immortal kind, of course) and beauty and merely in speaking with him she would transport him to a wonderful place. Love itself is deemed something "light," such that she herself can be supported by mere flowers and doves. She eventually wonders if he is simply infatuated with himself, like Narcissus, and thus incapable of love. She concludes that as a living creature he is obliged to reproduce, particularly so that his beauty can be passed to his offspring.
As the sun passes overhead, Adonis declares that he must give no more thought to love and remove himself from the heat. Venus assures him that with her immortal powers she can cool him, and regardless, the heat of the sun is no stronger than the passion that he inflames her with. She laments his hard-heartedness and again begs for kisses, eventually declaring that he must not be a man if he has no romantic inclinations. Venus then can speak no more, as she is overwhelmed by her tears.
Venus is beside herself, gazing and clutching at Adonis, while he tries to free himself from her grasp. She compares herself to a park, him to a deer, imploring him to graze wherever he will, as he will need live or roam nowhere else. Still, Adonis smiles disdainfully, producing dimples in his cheeks that nevertheless only enchant Venus further. As she pleads, he hastens toward his horse.
Just then, a lusty young female horse emerges from a nearby copse, provoking Adonis's horse to break free from his reins, which were tied to a tree. Adonis's horse leaps and bounds about, breaking his saddle straps and crushing his iron bit in his throes of passion. The stallion's display seems intended to exhibit his strength to the mare, and indeed, the horse appears fitter than any a painter might conceive: he is perfectly proportioned and, as the narrator states, lacks only a "proud rider." The stallion continues frolicking about, neighing to the mare, while the mare, herself proud, resists his courtship. At length he grows agitated—and the mare finally relents and grows kinder toward him. When Adonis, then, tries to recapture his stallion, the two horses run off together.
Thoroughly angered and sorrowed, Adonis sits down and curses his horse—perhaps leaving him ripe to finally be courted by Venus and her sweet words. Indeed, she approaches him and he is emotionally revived, although he lowers his hat to hide his anger and pretends not to notice her. She kneels before him, raises his hat and strokes his cheek. Still, he resists her wooing looks, leading her to again shed tears. She takes him by the hand.
Venus resumes entreating Adonis, offering him solace, but he asks her to release his hand—and so she asks him to release her heart. He then grows agitated himself, blaming her for his lost horse and declaring that he can think only of how to get the stallion back. In turn, she advises him to learn something from his stallion and give priority to matters of love; indeed, the stallion was inspired to free himself from confinement at the sight of the beautiful mare. Venus cannot understand Adonis's coldness, but he affirms that he simply does not intend to "know love," which he understands to mark the end of the youthful, adventurous hunting life he treasures. He beseeches her again to release his hand. She laments that his words would be so unkind, especially in that his voice is yet so melodious to her. She adds that she would need but any one of her five senses to appreciate and love him.
Adonis opens his mouth to speak, and in anticipation Venus feels the sting of his words even before they emerge; in fact, his look alone causes her to fall to the ground. Believing she has actually died, Adonis softens at heart and claps at her cheek; he even kisses her to revive her, but she remains cunningly still. At length, she opens her eyes, and only his vexation clouds the shining of their met gazes.
Venus exclaims that she has been brought back from death by Adonis's kiss and begs for more, declaring that she would essentially sell herself for his affection. She goes so far as to detail the number of kisses that will purchase her heart. Still, he declares that he simply cannot love until he knows himself; he believes himself metaphorically too unripe to be eaten. As it is late, he suggests that they finally part, offering one last kiss—and in kissing, they fall back to the ground together.
Finally, Venus has the chance to draw as much treasure from Adonis's lips as she can, and like an infant lulled by rocking, he fully submits to her advances. Indeed, Venus would not have gained love's rewards had she not been so insistent in courting him.
After a while, Adonis yet demands that he be allowed to leave, and Venus has decided to no longer hold him by force. He declares that she will remain sorrowful until they meet again, which she hopes will be tomorrow—but he announces his intent to instead hunt boar with his friends. At this she grows fearful and throws her arms around his neck, pulling him atop her as she lies back on the ground. As he fails to take advantage of the situation, she seeks to kiss him again, but he only again demands his release.
To begin a lengthy speech, Venus declares that hunting boar is like courting death, given the boar's sharp tusks and his warlike disposition. The boar is well insulated from attack and even lions avoid him, and a boar will pay no heed to Adonis's beauty. She has grown very apprehensive at the thought of him hunting, and in her mind, she sees an image of Adonis slain, gored by a boar—and indeed, she prophesies that if he hunts tomorrow, he will die. She urges him to chase some harmless creature instead: The hare, for one, is cunning and can use the scents of other animals deceptively, making for a worthy chase. Venus conjures the image of a hare standing on a hilltop and growing sorrowful at the sound of the hounds resuming their chase of him, to then be scratched by the thornbushes he runs through.
When Venus pauses, Adonis declares that he wishes to hear no more. Venus states that the moon is clouded over because she is shamed in being less beautiful than Adonis. Indeed, the moon, as a goddess, has arranged for destiny to sometimes overtake nature's beautiful creations, through such "mischances" as smaller illnesses and plagues alike; even the most beautiful, then, might be stuck down by some misfortune. As such, to ensure humanity's survival, Adonis should feel obliged to breed before exposing himself to mortal danger.
Adonis declares that he is not at all swayed by Venus's unending entreaties, as he is unaffected by her mermaid song. He asserts that his heart rests peacefully alone at night and that he is averse not to love itself but to Venus's wantonness. Indeed, though she speaks of reproducing, he deems her overly lustful, and lust to him is the very opposite of love. He again declares that he shall leave, ashamed and saddened by her conduct.
Adonis indeed runs off, and Venus chases him, but he is eventually obscured by the night. Venus then lies down, lost and overcome with woe, and sings to herself throughout the rest of the night, until the lark signals the coming of the new day's sun, which Venus greets with words of Adonis's own shining beauty.
At length, idling in a grove, Venus hears the hounds and horn of Adonis's hunt. She runs toward them, hindered by the bushes, and then hears that the hounds have cornered some wild animal, stoking her anxiety. She is certain that they have found some dangerous animal, as it is not running but making a stand. She finds herself frozen with fear, and in trying to calm herself she sees the boar itself, its mouth frothing and bloody. Now maddened with fear, Venus knows not which way to run.
Venus then comes across a few hounds, all licking their wounds and sorrowful, then all howling. Seeing the bleeding creatures, Venus grows certain that Adonis has been taken by death, which "grim-grinning ghost" she rebukes for claiming so fair a youth. Tears storm onto and over her face again and again, stricken as she is with countless sorrows.
Suddenly, Venus hears a huntsman call out, and she imagines that the man is Adonis, stemming the flow of her tears. Indeed, the narrator notes that those in love often suffer from extremity of emotional reaction. In Venus's mind, Adonis most definitely lives, and Venus instinctively retracts the unduly harsh words she spoke of death. She blames the boar for having provoked her to such vengeful anger and flatters death greatly. She calls out to Jove, declaring her own foolishness in believing that such a beautiful youth would be allowed to die. She hears a horn.
Venus rushes off in the direction of the horn—to suddenly happen upon Adonis, slain after all, sending her eyes reeling back into her head, unable to see anything more. But her wounded heart groans, causing parts of her body to quake and her eyes to open again—and she again sees the deceased Adonis, who had been gored in the flank, leaving the ground drenched with his blood. Venus is left in disbelief, her mind distorting and multiplying the sights of the wound, his face, and his limbs.
She exclaims in despair that not one but two Adonises are dead and that her heart has been turned to lead: the most beautiful thing on earth has ceased to exist. She passes blame to the sun and wind, who had sought to rob him of his fairness. Even the most feral animals, she notes, had been enchanted by him. Fish and birds, likewise, favored him. But the boar, she posits, had been looking groundward and had not seen him; or if it had seen Adonis, it had only gored him in trying to kiss him. She realizes that she, too, would have gored him had she been so naturally armed. She falls to the ground and embraces him.
Venus touches and speaks to the slain Adonis, opening his eyes to witness the absence of light there. Having lost her own love, she prophesies now that ever after, love will ultimately bring jealousy and strife, afflicting people of all sorts with foolishness and confusion and even causing wars.
Adonis then melts away, leaving only a flower of mottled purple (or blood-crimson) and white. Venus plucks the flower, to keep it always near her heart, treating it as Adonis's only kin. Venus is then carried off into the skies by her silver doves to Paphos, her home.
Although he says far less than his counterpart in the tale, Adonis merits as much attention by virtue of his character's complexity. In fact, where Venus's speeches leave little doubt in the reader's mind as to her nature, Adonis's comparative silence has provoked many commentators to proffer elaborate explanations regarding his state of mind. In fact, comparatively few analyses revolve around the major speech he delivers from lines 769 to 810, in which he seems to relate that his reluctance simply stems from his low opinion of the genuine nature of Venus's "love." (Nevertheless, these lines have been highlighted by Belsey, among others, as revealing much about the Elizabethan conceptions of love and lust.)
To the contrary, Adonis is generally understood to shy away from Venus's advances simply because he has not yet reached a state of manhood. Shakespeare establishes early on that Adonis is but a "tender boy," and throughout the poem he blushes and pales with embarrassment and shame in treading what is evidently unfamiliar romantic territory. Many critics have invoked the language of psychology in discussing Adonis's character, making reference to theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. In psychological terms, Adonis's youth and reluctance can be understood to signal that he has yet to form his own identity; without an identity, he would not be able to cope with the merging of selves brought about by sexual union. Coppélia Kahn elaborates, "The Adonis of Shakespeare's poem is caught between the poles of intimacy and isolation: intimacy with Venus, which constitutes entry into manhood, and the emotional isolation of narcissism, which constitutes a denial of growth, change, and the natural fact of mortality that underlies them."
• The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Little Angel Theatre collaborated to produce an hour-long marionette version of Venus and Adonis in 2004. The production was directed by Gregory Doran. A video was recorded by, and is held at, the Theater Museum of the United Kingdom's National Museum of the Performing Arts.
Indeed, Adonis's evident narcissism, or excessive self-love, may be understood to stem in part from his exceptional beauty. Just as any other young man or woman might, Adonis seems to perceive his beauty as enhanced by his purity, which would be "lost" were he to lose his virginity. William E. Sheidley, for one, contends that the poem's conclusion—Adonis's death at the tusks of the boar—signifies that the author has, to a certain extent, sided with Venus, who argues all along that sexual love is simply necessary for the propagation of the human race. Sheidley writes, "The chaste and sexless beauty of Adonis shadows forth an ideal perfection that precludes the phallic. But the poem reveals that, no matter how attractive it may be, the notion of its existence in the temporal world is an illusion that must be exploded."
Although making only the briefest appearance—receiving one stanza of description upon its appearance before Venus—and though not even human, the boar plays so significant a role in the poem as to merit recognition as one of its characters. Indeed, critical works such as William E. Sheidley's "'Unless It Be a Boar': Love and Wisdom in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis" and A. T. Hatto's "Venus and Adonis—and the Boar" reveal that the boar may be seen as the symbolic key to the entire story. Sheidley views the boar as "the locus of the missing phallic impulse"—that is, where Adonis refuses to provide Venus with the sexual gratification she desires, the boar intrudes and with his tusk inflicts that "phallic impulse" on Adonis, killing him. Hatto draws on a long history of boars symbolizing sexual potency in literature, citing works by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio and the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer, to make a similar argument. Sheidley, in turn, furthers this line of argument by citing the various instances in Shakespeare's plays where mention is made of the boar, such as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline, and As You Like It, all of which give the boar sexual connotations.
Succinctly summing up other critical perspectives on the poem's violent beast, Sheidley writes, "The Boar has received various interpretations, ranging from his role as winter or the advent of winter in the seasonal explication of the myth, through a generalization upon his function that renders him Death personified, to the iconographical gloss through swine as gluttony." Considering the historical context, M. C. Bradbrook notes that the boar "may be a direct symbol of the plague, for the wound is in the flank or groin, where the dreaded plague spots, the 'bubos,' appeared—under the armpits and at the crotch." Overall, no single interpretation of the boar's role need be favored to the exclusion of the others, as Shakespeare may very well have had all of the suggested meanings in mind—or, consciously, none at all—as he wrote.
The horses, in turn, are given enough attention by Shakespeare—the episode of their courtship constitutes a full sixty-six lines—to merit discussion. In general, critics assert that the romantic display provided by the horses serves as a contrast to the romantic attention that Adonis fails to bestow on Venus. Indeed, Venus says to Adonis with regard to his horse, "learn of him … / To take advantage on presented joy," and, shortly afterward, "learn to love; the lesson is but plain." Even the narrator, who insinuates himself into the action of the poem only subtly—such as by occasionally offering comparisons between the main characters and animals—remarks that all the virile stallion lacks is "a proud rider on so proud a back." Indeed, continuing his comprehensive analysis of the poem's beasts, Sheidley remarks of the horses, "By painting that picture of sexuality untrammeled by obstacles or perversions, Shakespeare provides a standard by which the defects in the relationship between Venus and Adonis may be precisely measured and defined."
As she speaks something close to half of the poem's twelve hundred lines, Venus has been the focus of much of the critical attention devoted to the work. In fact, Venus's convictions, expressions, and actions are doubly significant in that she is the mythical personification of Love, such that Shakespeare can be understood to be commenting upon that most central of all human emotions through his depiction of her. Much of the discourse between the two, of course, concerns their impressions of love and lust.
Perhaps Venus's most prominent trait is her sexual aggression, a fairly unique feature among romantic heroines even in modern times. Catherine Belsey notes that Shakespeare did not shy away from highlighting this aspect of the story, as "the text makes witty capital out of the scandal it creates when Venus draws explicit attention to the role reversal." In line 369 Venus imagines how the situation might be improved if their positions were reversed back to the traditional ones, remarking, "Would thou wert as I am, and I a man." In taking note of the goddess's assertiveness in a broader sense, Christy Desmet states that Venus can be viewed as "the earliest Shakespearean woman to have beauty, passion, and a golden tongue," such that she merits comparison alongside such characters as Isabella from Measure for Measure and Helena from All's Well That Ends Well.
Venus's aggression seems to account for much of Adonis's reluctance to engage in a physical relationship with her; he remarks in line 789, "I hate not love, but your device in love." Indeed, with her forcible restraint of Adonis and her single-minded persistence in gaining his favor, Venus has been noted as aggressive to the point of comedy, nowhere more pointedly than when she first "plucks" Adonis from his horse. Making reference to this aggression, Jonathan Crewe offers an assessment of her characterization: "Venus as an older woman implies the threat stereotypically experienced by young men of being overwhelmed by demanding, suffocating mother figures." In fact, Venus refers to herself with maternal connotations in several instances, most notably when she compares herself to a park and Adonis to a deer which should feed there, evoking the idea of her providing sustenance. This reference is made more explicit when she speaks of her "pleasant fountains," the breasts that would provide nourishment to her infant. The scholar Peter Erickson, for one, has noted that Shakespeare may have portrayed Venus as maternal in part because he was thereby making subtle political reference to Queen Elizabeth.
The nature of desire is a major theme in Venus and Adonis, especially as represented by Venus and as absent in Adonis. Indeed, Shakespeare has portrayed the personification of love as simply overflowing with desire, and many commentators have thus seen Venus's characterization as largely negative and fairly comical. Catherine Belsey provides a survey of other critics who have used terms such as "sick excess," "unnatural and disorderly," and "perverse" to describe Venus's emotional state. Belsey contends that the desire itself is given more blame than the woman who embodies it: "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." Thus, Venus is not just overflowing with, but also dominated by, her desire for Adonis.
Belsey notes that a key passage is the one in which the narrator compares Venus to the legendary birds who were deceived into thinking that grapes painted by Zeuxis, an ancient Greek, were real. Belsey writes, "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." When she cannot conjure Adonis's desire, Venus only craves his company all the more. Belsey concludes by noting that Adonis's metamorphosis after his death is the culmination of the discussion about desire: "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." That is, in that the flower cannot be permanently possessed by anyone—once plucked, it is bound to wither and die—it represents all objects of affection which ultimately fail to return that affection.
With respect to Adonis, his failure to exhibit any desire is equated with his enduring boyhood. As Coppélia Kahn notes, "In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare is saying that the life apart from eros is death, and that for a man, sexual love of woman is vital to masculinity." Thus, rather than depending in any way on Venus's actions or exhortations, Adonis's desire for the opposite sex may be seen as simply not yet existing.
Outside of the levels of desire exhibited by the title characters, accounts of the poem may take into account the desire of a third personage: the reader. Indeed, some critics have noted that one function of the poem, which is widely referred to as "erotic" literature, is to spark desire in the reader. Bruce R. Smith remarks of Venus and Adonis and two contemporary works, "Sexual arousal in these poems is as much the reader's as the protagonists'." Sheidley, in turn, notes, "Fruition is denied in Venus and Adonis, but Shakespeare makes sure that it exists in his reader's mind as a ready potentiality." He adds that the reader's experience with the poem necessarily includes "desires orchestrated by Shakespeare and substantiated by the philosophy of Venus"; that is, Venus effectively argues that without desire—and more to the point, without the consummation of desire—the human race would cease to exist. And the reader is perhaps more likely to agree with this hypothesis when moved by desire of his or her own.
In that the entire story of Venus and Adonis originates in Roman mythology, Shakespeare's poem is worth examining not only as an individual work but also alongside that myth and others from which the author drew. Shakespeare did not exclusively adhere to the facts of the primary myth, which he is understood to have learned from Ovid's Metamorphoses, written around 8 C.E. Most notably, Ovid depicts Venus as fairly reserved in terms of her sexuality. John Doebler notes of Ovid's Venus, "Dressed as a virginal Diana hunting harmless game, she is content to haunt the presence of Adonis," while "her love is protective, reserved, and maternal, in no way rapacious." The goddess does bestow kisses on the youth, but she otherwise simply sits with him and relates the tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes.
In fact, Shakespeare's exclusion of the retelling of the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes is also significant, as in Ovid's version the tale may be understood to illustrate the danger of seeking to satisfy lust. In roughly the same place in the framing tale of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare inserted the episode of the horses' courtship, which, to the contrary, endorses the notion of allowing oneself to be guided by animalistic attractions. Shakespeare also omitted other aspects of Ovid's tale that seemed to warn against the satisfaction of lust. He failed to mention the fact that Venus and Mars were ridiculed by the other gods when Vulcan, Venus's husband, exposed the two, and he makes no mention of the fact that Adonis was conceived through incest between father and daughter. As Doebler notes, in Ovid's tale, "The fate of Adonis completes a cycle of retribution arising from illicit passion." In Shakespeare's work, meanwhile, only Adonis's own words—and some of the narrator's—reflect the notion that excessive passion might cause any woe.
Shakespeare is understood to have borrowed from several other classical myths in shaping his characters in Venus and Adonis. The manner in which Adonis rejects Venus is reminiscent of the rejection of Echo by Narcissus, who loves himself so much that he has no affection to offer to anyone else. Coppélia Kahn notes that Adonis also fairly resembles Hermaphroditus, who likewise refused to love a woman and subsequently met with an unkindly fate. Further, Shakespeare's Venus is quite similar to the character of Salmacis, the woman who forcibly embraces Hermaphroditus, resulting in the merging of their sexualities. Kahn observes that while the fates of the two women are distinct, "Venus's style of wooing is, in general, inspired by that of Salmacis, who first offers herself to Hermaphroditus boldly, but in carefully controlled rhetoric." Overall, Shakespeare drew on classical mythology in various inventive ways to achieve precisely the effect he desired in his own retelling of the story of Venus and Adonis.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Birds are mentioned in a variety of contexts throughout Venus and Adonis. In an essay, discuss the nature of these references and their relevance to the poem as a whole.
- Some critics have suggested that Shakespeare portrayed Adonis as refusing Venus's advances because he had homosexual leanings. Research and write a report on the history of the gay rights movement in the United States.
- Discuss how modern American concepts regarding love, lust, and chastity are reflected in movies, on television, and on the Internet.
- In Ovid's version of the myth of Venus and Adonis, Venus relates the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes; Shakespeare may have excluded this digression because it did not fit with his interpretation of the overall story. Read Ovid's version of the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes, then write several stanzas to be included in the appropriate location in Venus and Adonis in which Venus relates that myth. Alter that myth however you choose so that it best fits into Shakespeare's narrative poem.
Red and White
As in all of Shakespeare's longer works, recurring imagery plays a substantial role in the poetic construction. The most prominent image motif in Venus and Adonis features what Coppélia Kahn calls "the beauteous war of red and white." Those colors are mentioned, individually and together, in various contexts throughout the poem. Most frequently, red represents love, passion, and emotion, as when Venus is "red and hot as coals of glowing fire" over Adonis, or when she speaks of leading Mars by a "red-rose chain." Adonis is associated with red almost exclusively when he blushes—that is, when he is overcome with emotion. White, on the other hand, represents virtue, coldness, and to a certain extent, chastity. Adonis, of course, is often referred to as pale or white in some respect, Venus less frequently so. Still, Venus seems to contain more "white" than Adonis contains "red"; two significant lines related to this topic come early in the poem: "Being red, she loves him best, and being white, / Her best is bettered with a more delight." These lines might be interpreted as an assertion that passionate feelings and virtue are compatible and are embodied by Venus. However, a later passage seems to indicate that while the sentiments or traits symbolized by the two colors can coexist, they cannot do so peacefully. When Venus approaches Adonis after his horse has fled, the narrator mentions "the fighting conflict of her hue, / How white and red each other did destroy! / But now her cheek was pale, and by and by / It flashed forth fire, as lightning from the sky."
The colors red and white appear in two of the poems most important scenes: on the boar's "frothy mouth, bepainted all with red, / Like milk and blood being mingled both together," and on the flower that Adonis becomes, "Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood / Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood." Indeed, Kahn highlights the relevance of this last intermingling of the two colors: "His transformation to a purple (from Lat. purpureus, a variety of red) and white flower represents the ending of the war of white and red mentioned so often. Adonis's pale coldness opposes Venus's fiery ardor; in death, his red blood stains the perfect whiteness of his skin."
The Elizabethan Concept of Love
The most prominent reason for examining Venus and Adonis in its historical context is that conceptions regarding love—and lust—in Elizabethan times were vastly different from those in modern times. As Russ McDonald notes in his Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, marriage frequently had little, if anything, to do with the degree of love shared by the partners in question. Especially among upper class families, who possessed capital and estates that potential brides could give to their suitors as dowries, the agree-ability of the financial arrangement and the effect the union would have on the social status of each were frequently the most important matchmaking factors. While "love" certainly sprang from such arrangements over time, the unions often functioned more as partnerships than as marriages.
William E. Sheidley notes that the story's conclusion—Adonis meeting death after spurning Venus—can, and perhaps should, be read as his punishment for failing to give himself over to the goddess of love. Sheidley frames his discussion in part around the contrast between religious and secular points of view, which he differentiates as "the mystical neoplatonic vision of love as the pathway to God, and the somewhat less exotic and more characteristically Shakespearean understanding of love, through its consummation in marriage and procreation, as the ordering principle and unifying bond of the cosmos." That is, without love—and sex—the human race would cease to exist. Taking note of the literary climate, he states, "English poets of the era, like many members of the Christian humanist intellectual community in general, frequently express ambivalence or perplexity about the traditional poetic vision of love." Indeed, some Elizabethan writers came to adopt "anti-love" standpoints, which better accorded with contemporary religious views touting the virtues of chastity. Shakespeare, to the contrary, perhaps recognized that humans, like all earthly mammals, could certainly enjoy physical love outside of the context of a spiritually pure romantic relationship. Sheidley asserts that in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare "conveys his realization that sexual love is not composed entirely of soft sweetness and warmth, but involves an untender element, an element even, as with human nature itself, of the bestial." He concludes, "The properly ordered human being must acknowledge and integrate this lower nature."
Catherine Belsey frames her discussion on the subject around the Elizabethan connotations of the words love and lust. Adonis, of course, draws a very fine distinction between the words, concluding several stanzas of comparisons with the twin declarations, "Love is all truth, lust full of forgèd lies." Yet Belsey notes that this distinction is not played out in the rest of the text, with love and lust used interchangeably to describe Venus's emotional state. Belsey states, "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 … has proved formative for our own cultural norms and values." That is, in modern times, love and lust largely have precisely the connotations that Adonis assigns them. Belsey draws on a wide variety of sources to show that at the time of the publication of Venus and Adonis, lust quite often had perfectly positive connotations, as associated and coupled with virtuous "true love." The years afterward witnessed a gradual shift, such that "by the mid-seventeenth century the term had acquired a primarily sexual and strongly pejorative meaning."
While the powerful and manipulative woman was not a common character in literature in Shakespeare's time, one would not have to search very hard to find a prime example of just such a personage: Queen Elizabeth herself. Commentators have noted that Shakespeare would certainly have been conscious of the possibility that comparisons would be drawn between his female lead and the nation's, especially because Elizabeth never married or produced an heir, such that her possible romantic relations were ever on the mind of the public. Indeed, as Peter Erickson notes in his essay on the topic, "Venus evokes the erotic flirtation in Elizabeth's practice of courtship." Erickson highlights the fact that Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis—as well as the subsequent Rape of Lucrece—for the Earl of Southampton, a subordinate to the queen. As such, both poems can be seen to evidence a "responsiveness to the latent gender tension involved in male reaction to female rule."
Erickson goes on to note, "Venus's domination evokes Elizabeth's control, and this undercurrent helps to account for the poem's unstable tonal mixture of defensive jocularity and genuine alarm." That is, while some critics have lamented that the poem itself seems unsure as to whether it wishes to be comedic or tragic, Erickson asserts that both of these moods result naturally from the historical context. He concludes that the pair of narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece—which, as indicated by the title, entails the ultimate subordination and violation of a woman—together amount to a literary fantasy of revolt: "The primary wish fulfilled by the overall progression of the two poems is the elimination of the threat of Elizabeth's power." Heather Dubrow draws very similar conclusions, stating, "Venus's assertions of power may well reflect resentment of Elizabeth herself." Dubrow, too, takes note of the poem's alternating tone and the associated alternately favorable and unfavorable depictions of Venus: "Ambivalence about an unsuccessfully manipulative heroine encodes ambivalence about a brilliantly manipulative queen."
In that Adonis, a perfectly healthy young male, remains unstirred by Venus's advances, some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare intentionally depicted him in a way that left his sexuality in question. To begin with, Adonis is repeatedly described not merely as an attractive or powerful male but as a beautiful male. His blushing shyness, in turn, is more typically a feminine trait. In Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England, Bruce Smith notes that owing to "their androgyny," or combination of traditional femininity and masculinity alike, Adonis and two other male figures in contemporary works "embody, quite literally, the ambiguities of sexual desire in English Renaissance culture and the ambivalences of homosexual desire in particular. They represent, not an exclusive sexual taste, but an inclusive one. To use the categories of our own day, these poems are bisexual fantasies."
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1590s: England, a nation that is primarily patriarchal both legally and socially finds itself under the rule of a woman, Queen Elizabeth, for over forty years.
Today: A nation whose laws generally provide for the equal treatment of the sexes, the United States of America, has yet to be led by a female president.
- 1590s: The words love and lust have yet to receive wholly distinct connotations, such that lust is often referred to positively.
Today: Lust is widely recognized as one of the "seven deadly sins," in the United States. But the proliferation of health programs preaching abstinence rather than the use of condoms suggests that lust is to be ignored.
- 1590s: As the word homosexual would not be coined for some three hundred years, people are not categorized according to their sexual desires.
Today: For many, the question of "sexual identity" is crucial and must be answered in some definitive way to allow for full maturation. While some social scientists have suggested that all people fall not into a category but somewhere along a range of sexuality, fewer than 2 percent of Americans identify themselves as bisexual.
Other critics have drawn different conclusions regarding the perspective on sexuality revealed in the poem. C. L. Barber has raised the possibility that the boar's goring of Adonis with his tusk can be interpreted as representing an act of homosexual rape. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, G. P. V. Akrigg discusses the possibility that the earl and literary patron was in fact homosexual. Peter Erickson then notes that if the poem itself is meant to express frustration over the rule of the female monarch, it was perhaps also intended to reveal "ambivalence about Southampton in the role of Adonis-like courtier." Erickson concludes, "Adonis's refusal can be read as heterosexual impotence that implies a homosexual motive, toward whose fulfillment the poem expresses reservations as strong as its restiveness about female power." Regardless of what interpretation of Adonis's sexuality is favored, Shakespeare's treatment of the subject can be understood to reflect the cultural realities of the era.
Critical opinions of Venus and Adonis have varied greatly over the years, especially because earlier critics invested less energy in what was long considered a minor Shakespearean work. Indeed, Heather Dubrow notes of both this poem and the subsequent Rape of Lucrece,
The habits of not reading them sensitively and of not reading them at all both stem from the same preconception: these poems are a mere 'gorgeous gallery of gallant inventions.' We are prone, in other words, to consider them literary samplers: we assume that their author is principally involved in displaying the tropes and other formal devices that he, like his contemporaries, had so thoroughly learned in grammar school. This assumption shapes what critics find—and, more to the point, fail to find—in the poems.
Although some critics have found fault with a seeming lack of moral clarity to the poem, others have interpreted that lack of clarity as utterly intentional and relevant in literary terms. William Sheidley cites, "Kenneth Muir, for instance, taxes the poem with an 'ambivalence' which 'is caused partly by the poet's own acceptance of conflicting feelings about love.'" Similarly, Catherine Belsey describes early critics as having been "tantalized by the poem's lack of closure," such that they "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." To the contrary, Sheidley himself declares, "The poem's seeming contradictions result from the multiplicity of its viewpoints on its subject. Shakespeare generates a dialectic between ideals and possibilities, developing the recognition that, with love as with everything else, it is self-defeating to demand perfection in an imperfect world." Sheidley concludes that "with a brilliant stroke," Shakespeare puts forth "a compelling poetic argument with important moral, philosophical, and artistic implications."
Coppélia Kahn likewise refers to Shakespeare's improvisation on several tales by Ovid as "brilliantly" done. Like Dubrow and Sheidley, Kahn gives the poem greater praise than she had seen given by her predecessors: "Venus and Adonis has long been seen as a young man's poem for relatively superficial reasons: its erotic subject matter and sensuous playfulness. But Shakespeare deserves more credit than he has been given for his understanding of youth's deeper conflicts, of how eros shapes the growing masculine self."
Shohet provides an analysis of the "different poetic and erotic modes" found in Venus and Adonis. The critic argues that past criticism of the poem has adequately failed to compare the work's treatment of love with its poetic language. In particular, she addresses the "range of disagreements between Venus and Adonis—sexual, linguistic, and representational."
In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, when Venus solicits Adonis, he famously turns away, Venus entreats:
"Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed,
And reign his proud head to the saddle-bow;
If thou wilt deign this favor, for thy meed
A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know."
Adonis rebuffs her, because "Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn" (line 4). The critical tradition has discussed in great detail Adonis's refusal to love. But, importantly, this line does not begin with a refusal. Rather, it introduces Adonis with a positive predicate: he "loves" hunting. Moreover, the "but" that conjoins his predilection for hunting with his antipathy to love has dialectical overtones: Adonis would seem to scorn "love" more as an alternative to the hunt than as an independent proposition.
The two characters thus articulate distinct forms of "love" that present competing models of desire. Furthermore, the poem provocatively interrelates models of desire and language. In the stanza cited above, if Adonis alights, Venus will reward him with "'a thousand honey secrets.'" Not only does Venus promise the linguistic reward of "'secrets'" for erotic surrender, but her proposal of "'honey secrets'" as "'meed'" ("reward," punning on "mead" [honey liquor]) also intertwines these linguistic treats with the honeyed sexual "'secrets'" also on offer ("'honey'" denoting moreover sexual bliss). And while Adonis straightforwardly "loves" hunting, he does not simply "scorn" Venus—as grammatical parallelism would have him do—but rather "laugh[s] to scorn" her (my emphasis). Metrical contingency aside, this doubled verb adds a layer of complexity to Adonis's response to "love." Whereas hunting elicits an unmediated affective response ("hunting he loved"), the poem's evocation of eros emphasizes the mode through which Adonis (unlike Venus) distinctively expresses his response of affective withdrawal.
Such intersections of desire and discourse have been remarked in various literary contexts—commentators include Michel de Montaigne and Michel Foucault—and have occasioned innumerable provocative analyses In criticism of the last two decades. Relatively less explored in Shakespeare studies have been the questions of whether different kinds of desire require different poetics, and whether, conversely, different modes of discourse produce different kinds of desire. I propose that we might fruitfully read Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis as addressing just these questions: as considering multiple and competing discourses of desire, and exploring how different poetic and erotic modes might inflect one another.
Previous criticism of Venus and Adonis certainly has remarked on the poem's engagement with love on the one hand and language on the other. But most scholarship on Venus and Adonis focuses either on questions of desire and subjectivity or on issues of language and representation. More significantly, the limited number of analyses that bring these areas together tend to take only one of the two categories as a complex and multiple field. In considering the poem's "taxonomy of desire," for example. Catherine Belsey argues that the poem innovatively distinguishes between the concepts of love and lust. But while her focus on the difference between these terms has discursive implications. Belsey's interest lies in contrasting modes of desire, not modes or representation. Similarly, Heather Dubrow connects Venus's "linguistic" and "psychological" "habits," but relies on a unified notion of "language itself," whereas I would propose that the poem encompasses multiple and competing notions of what language is. In one further example, James Schiffer remarks (in passing) that the poem illustrates the interdependence of economies of language and desire in Lacanian analysis ("Venus' prophecy-curse also reminds us of the relationship throughout the poem between language and desire"), but Schiffer distinguishes neither among kinds of desire (as Belsey does) nor kinds of language.
In this essay, by contrast, I want to focus particularly on the range of disagreements between Venus and Adonis—sexual, linguistic, and repre-sentational—to explore how these contrasting views come together into distinct (if asymmetrically articulated) discursive models of poetic subjectivity. Venus's amorous eagerness is met with Adonis's disdainful withdrawal; Venus's heteroerotic desire for Adonis with his homoerotic desire for the hunt; Venus's invocations of a mythic realm of abstraction, personification, and analogy with Adonis's emphasis on the historical realm of particular experience; Venus's reliance on literary convention with the narrative innovation of Adonis's erotic refusal. Wryly dissociating the seduction and "venery" ("hunting") linked in traditional puns and mythography, the poem distinguishes between Venus's views of language, desire, and selfhood—largely consonant with the dominant Elizabeth models Jane Hedley characterizes as "static, synchronistic, and centripetal"—and Adonis's desires, which sketch out a tentative exploration of alternatives. The vagueness of my last locution reflects the difficulty of definitively discerning Adonis's desires in a text largely controlled by the opposition. For Shakespeare's poem rearticulates the traditionally fecund venus genetrix in Venus's extraordinary volubility; she gushes forth stanza after stanza of erotic desire, hampering intrusions by her interlocutor or even, it seems, the narrator. Rather like the copious production of panegyric by Elizabeth's court. Venus's linguistic facility leaves little room for alternatives, effectively preventing Adonis's admittedly rather inchoate desires from coming fully into focus. Yet, as I shall argue below, the openendedness of Adonis's aims is an important part of what makes them distinctive.
For Adonis does formulate positive aims. To be sure, Adonis's first direct speech in the poem (not granted him until line 185) is "'Fie, no more of love!'": the next line adds to this wholesome rejection the intransitively negative "'I must remove'" (line 186). Adonis is, however, fleeing toward something as well. He actively "'removes'"—re-moves—to the homosocial alternative of the boar hunt. He prefers keeping faith with his male hunting band to tarrying with Venus: "'I am,' quoth he, 'expected of my friends'" (line 718). And, as we have seen, the poem's very first claim about Adonis reports. "Hunting he lov'd" (line 4). Although it might be possible to interpret "hunt-love" here as an ironic aggregation opposed to the second phrase's "love" ("love he laugh's to scorn"). Adonis protests in other lines as well that he does indeed "love" hunting, or perhaps the hunt, or even the deadly boar himself: "'I know not love,' quoth he, 'nor will not know it. / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it'" (lines 409-10).
Adonis's desire differs from Venus's both in its target and in the way it relates subject to object. Whereas Venus desires an eros that merges lover and beloved. Adonis desires the hunt, which depends upon boundaries between subject and object (albeit contingent and perhaps temporary ones). Adonis's desire fits somewhere along a homosocial-homoerotic continuum that is distinct in both its ends and its means from Venus's desires, as shown by three elements of his preference: Adonis's attraction to the boar itself his allegiance to the masculine hunting band and the ways in which the hunt suggests patriarchal order. The poem's presentation of the boar is, of course, quite phallic. Unlike Venus's suggested alternatives of foxes, hares, and roes (which Adonis spurns), the boar has tusks, a "'battle set / Of bristly pikes'" (lines 619-20), and a grave-digging snout. Adonis's keen interest in the boar hunt and simultaneous disdain for innocuous quarries betray some attraction to the deadly possibility of being penetrated by the boarish tusk. More significant than this genitally suggestive imagery are the abstract qualities linking the boar not merely to the penis but to the phallus, with the full weight of cultural privilege which that term connotes. For the poem emphasizes the boar's powers of intention, resolution, invulnerability, and efficacy. As Venus fearfully describes him.
Being mov'd, he strikes, what e'er is in his way,
And whom he strikes his crooked tushes slay.
"His brawny sides, with hairy bristles armed,
Are better proof than thy spear's point can enter;
His short thick neck cannot be easily harmed;
Being ireful, on the lion he will venter,
The thorny brambles and embracing bushes,
As fearful of him, part, through whom he rushes."
Moreover, Adonis's desire draws him to the more abstractly phallic order of the hunt: an activity that develops identity—what Lacan calls the "social I"—by projecting the power, knowledge, and autonomy that the subject hopes to gain onto the ever-receding Other who putatively commands this mastery (who, in Lacanian terms, possesses the phallus). Hence, whereas in discussing the boar as the "locus of the missing phallic impulse" William Sheidley uses "phallus" more or less synonymously with "penis," the Lacanian notion that the "phallus" is always illusory would suggest that the hunt itself, rather than the boar, embodies the "phallic impulse" that constitutes masculine self-realization. In the poem (as in culture generally), the compensation for the impossibility of these young men ever attaining full mastery—because no subject ever realizes complete autonomy—is nothing other than patriarchy: a fraternal band, excluding women and children by the nature of its mission, linked in the bonds of a common purpose made all the more permanent because the goal never can be definitively accomplished (i.e., because patriarchy operates without authentic patriarchs). "'Expected of my friends.'" Adonis is not only awaited by his friends, but also, partitively, expected to become "of" his friends: part of a masculine order based on perpetual quest.
Significantly, the poem articulates Adonis's desire not as finding, overcoming, or killing the boar, but rather as "chasing" him: "'I know not love,' quoth he, 'nor will not know it. / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it'" (lines 409-10). It is pursuit itself that attracts Adonis: a relation that depends upon preserving distance between desirer and object. By its nature, the ever-receding object of his desire is constitutively ungraspable. By contrast, Venus's erotics specifically seek to vanquish this distance: as Coppelia Kahn notes, Venus desires the "blurring of boundaries, an anonymous merging of eyes and lips." Merging and boundlessness characterize Venus's version of erotic idyll: "'My smooth moist hand, were it with thy hand felt. / Would in thy palm dissolve, or seem to melt'" (lines 143-4). Significantly, these same qualities prove fatal to Adonis, culminating in the images of commingling surrounding his death. The boar's mouth is painted with red, "Like milk and blood being mingled both together" (line 902); as the wound breaches Adonis's bodily boundaries, "No flow'r was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf, or weed, / But stole his blood, and seem'd with him to bleed" (lines 1055-6). Congruently, whereas Venus's erotics suspend time at the moment of consummation, pursuit rather than capture is endless in Adonis's "chase." (Accordingly, one of Adonis's two moments of erotic engagement with Venus comes at a point when he believes her to be similarly unattainable, in her deathlike swoon [lines 475-80]; In the other, he teases Venus with a kiss proffered and retracted [lines 88-90]). The proximity and the breaching of boundaries that constitute infinite and ecstatic fulfillment for Venus are inherently fatal in the hunt, an opposition emphasized by Venus's use of "'kiss[ing]'" to describe the boar's mortally wounding Adonis (line 1114). Indeed, the successful approach of hunter to quarry necessarily signals the end of the hunt, usually accompanied by the death of one or more participants.
Associated with these different modes of desire are different modes of poeisis. Venus's hermeneusis relies on mythic/conventional presentation; Adonis tends toward the palpable and the particular. Venus seeks to inscribe Adonis into an archetypal tale of seduction, speaking as the goddess of love who advocates eros and procreation as general principles:
"Upon the earth's increase why shouldst thou feed,
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?
By law of nature thou art bound to breed.
That thine may live, when thou thyself art end."
Near silent for most of the poem and dead at the end. Adonis struggles less than articulately to assert a character whose volition is undetermined by tradition or myth. Venus serves, perhaps, as the "straight" reader of Ovid, following the mythic script. Adonis resists this, but the sophisticated, ironic, self-reflective Ovid of the elite Elizabethan reader does not seem fully available to him either. Instead, eschewing both elegant rhetoric and erotic action, Adonis refuses to be written into the timeless seduction scene and insists on his present, idiosyncratic discomfort and lack of interest: "'Fie, no more of love! / The sun doth burn my face, I must remove'" (lines 185-6). In Adonis's narrative, particularity makes Venus and Adonis into personae with some degree of agency, rather than inherited figures whose desires are determined by the metatextual drama they enact.
The poem renders the mythic and realistic modes emphatically incompatible; indeed, the pointedly ridiculous effect of realistically narrating mythic action creates the poem's humor. Comically, the mythic/conventional narrative relishes a poetic eloquence that the realistic eschews. The meter of the poem's opening lines is unapologetically elegant:
Even as the sun with purple-color'd face
Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn.
The stanza's concluding couplet, on the other hand, introduces the seduction theme in a burlesque rhyme: "Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him. / And like a bold-fac'd suitor gins to woo him" (lines 5-6). The second stanza reverts to the stylishness of the first four lines, but in the third stanza, when Venus ceases lauding Adonis and begins soliciting him, singsong meter and comically overblown feminine rhyme return ("'Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses. / And being set, I'll smother thee with kisses'" [lines 17-8]). When Venus finally takes decisive action, in couplet lines, the metrical reinforcement of the plot is farcically pat: "Being so enrag'd, desire doth lend her force / Courageously to pluck him from his horse" (lines 29-30). The caesura trumpets dramatic suspense; the iambic regularity of the fast-reading, five-foot, mostly monosyllabic line 30 underlines the physical ease with which Venus accomplishes her kidnap, the melodramatic acceleration in tempo pointing up the ludicrousness of sweatily embodying the Goddess of Love.
More significantly, the poetic and narrative effects of the two discourses work to opposite ends. Venus's linguistic and erotic initiatives alike impede the diegetic progress of the suspended hunt narrative that Adonis desires to resume. For, although language serves many needs for Venus, narrative momentum is not one of them. Her discourse winds along digressive paths shaped by the figurative logic of her images or the forensic logic of her conventional arguments, interrupting the progression of the plot. In the opening stanzas discussed above, Venus addresses Adonis for three and a half figure-laden stanzas before seizing him. By contrast, the poem's so-called "action"—Adonis's sporadic bursts of motion away from Venus and toward the hunt—moves briskly forward precisely whenever Venus stops talking. Even Adonis's most extended speech, the seven stanzas that culminate in his narratively decisive departure,
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.
seems terse and active in comparison to the preceding twenty-five stanzas of Venus's attempts to dissuade him—a passage that confuses even Venus, who must ask in the middle "'Where did I leave?'" (line 715).
As judged by capriciousness, poetic versatility, facility, and claims on the reader's attention—i.e., by the standards of humanist sprezzatura—it is Venus who owns language in the poem. The poem associates Adonis's silences with his refusal of Venus's erotics: inverting this link. Venus's language is inextricably intertwined with the passion governing and governed by the goddess. Language and desire produce and magnify one another:
That all the neighbor caves, as seeming troubled,
Make verbal repetition of her [Venus's] moans;
Passion on passion deeply is redoubled:
"Ay me!" she cries, and twenty times, "Woe, woe!"
And twenty echoes twenty times cry so.
Kissing, speaking, the refracting and multiplying of Venus's speech, and the silencing of Adonis are simultaneously effects of a single gesture:
now doth he frown,
And gins to chide, but soon she stops his lips,
And kissing speaks, with lustful language broken,
"If thou wilt chide, thy lips shall never open."
Even the ruptures in Venus's speech—the kisses that render her "'lustful language broken'"—do not impede language so much as disperse it. Greedily inserting itself everywhere, Venus's language operates in an economy of lust that utterly overcomes Adonis's volition. When Adonis tries to articulate his refusal of Venus's arguments, her kiss prevents him: "He saith she is immodest, blames her miss: / What follows more, she murthers with a kiss" (lines 53-4). "Murthers" figuratively realizes the earlier threat that disobedient lips "'shall never open'" (line 48); "'smother[ing]'" Adonis (line 18), her kisses deny him both oxygen and argument.
Through conventional rhetorical strategies, Venus's discourse blurs temporal and rhetorical boundaries as well, to ends equally antipathetic to Adonis. Substitution of the figurative for the literal permeates Venus's arguments. She assures Adonis:
"The kiss shall be thine own as well as mine.
What seest thou in the ground? hold up thy head,
Look in mine eyeballs, there thy beauty lies;
Then why not lips on lips, since eyes in eyes?"
Departing from the Neoplatonic axiom that beauty lies in the beholder's eye, Venus advances a formal argument for acknowledging through action the commensurability between lips and eyes already established by conventional logic and by analogy. Erasing substantive difference between gazes and kisses, Venus's argument—like Scholastic or indeed Petrarchan reasoning—treats "'eyes'" and lips "'lips'" as interchangeable subjects of formal manipulation. This congruence rhetorically anticipates concession, further eroding distinctions between logic and volition, suggestion and acquiescence, wish and fulfillment. Furthermore, love's language propels its speakers out of narrative temporality into the timelessness of the mythic: "copious stories, oftentimes begun. / End without audience, and are never done" (lines 845-6). Accordingly, Venus's first declaration of passion for Adonis violates temporal boundaries by serving as prophecy, articulating the future in the present. The floral—and, inconguously, also apocalyptic—images she addresses to Adonis prefigure his eventual transformation in death: he is, ominously, "'more lovely than a man'" (line 9). Furthermore, "'Nature, that made thee with herself at strife. / Saith that the world hath ending with thy life'" (lines 11-2). As metaphoric comparison that also serves as literal prediction, this language of desire likewise dissolves the semantic distinction between vehicle and tenor.
Venus's reasoning from analogy, together with her characteristic equation of distinct categories, thus exemplifies what Foucault calls "analogical" thought, distinct from the "modern" disjunctions between words and things and among kinds of things. "Analogic" thought ponders a world that "fold[s] in upon itself, duplicate[s] itself, reflect[s] itself, or form[s] a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another"; this language "partakes in the worldwide dissemination of similitudes and signatures." Whereas Venus's discourse is predicated on proximity and analogy, Adonis's is more invested in separation and substitution—in Foucault's terms, with "modern" signification: that is, the "ordering of things by means of … fabricated signs" for a "knowledge based upon identity and difference." The poem figures Venus's affect through pathetic fallacies: her thoughts leach into nature as troubled "neighbor caves" murmur her longing (line 830) and "shrill-tongu'd tapsters" share her anxiety (line 849). Adonis's death, by contrast, is represented by signifiers requiring interpretation: the "sad signs" (line 929) the narrator associates with "apparitions … and prodigies" (line 926). Adonis's hunting hounds are saddened by his death, but not with the same kind of pathetic sorrow that Venus's caves express. Whereas the caves iconically participate in Venus's affect (in Roman Jakobson's sense of "icons" as signifiers that represent a signified by sharing its essence), the hounds suggest a signifying narrative. In their silence, wound licking, and scowling (lines 914-7). the hounds present information that is interpretable but not transparent, emphasizing disjunctions and incommensurabilities where the caves and tapsters emphasize contiguities. Hence the hunting hounds do not share a language with Venus, but rather preserve distinctions among species of discourse: "here she meets another sadly scowling, / To whom she speaks, and he replies with howling" (lines 917-8, my emphasis).
Adonis's death and metamorphosis further link him to semiotic habits associated with separation, distinction, and mediated "signification," as opposed to comparison, analogy and iconicity. The flower that Adonis becomes functions not as an icon but as a sign. To be more precise, it is a sign in the terms of his story: the meanings of the metamorphosis—indeed of metamorphosis in general—diverge significantly in the two logical frameworks. Venus attempts rather desperately to impose an analogical likeness onto the blossom: in her vision of the dead Adonis, the flower "Resemb[les] well his pale cheeks" (line 1169), and Venus informs the flower that it shares a kinship tie with Adonis: "'Here was thy father's bed'" (line 1183). But despite her insistence on the filial continuity between bloom and man, the point of view we can infer from Adonis's words as well as his representation in the poem makes the flower function as an incommensurable standin—like a sign—for the young man made absent by death. For existence as a flower, immobile and delicate, is utterly incompatible with existence as a hunter. Despite herself. Venus betrays the gap between Adonis and the flower by disingenuously suggesting that she has won the amorous contest. Claiming that her breast was "'thy father's bed'" and announcing with a certain compensatory triumph that "'There shall not be one minute in an hour / Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love's flow'r'" (lines 1187-8) Venus glosses over a crucial inversion of agency: she had begged for the live Adonis to kiss her. The conventional association of flowering with completion or fulfillment casts further ironic light on the phrase "'my sweet love's flower'"; Adonis's transformation hardly constitutes Venus's love come to flower, but rather its final frustration. Soon to wither, deprived of the potential to grant the acquiescence Venus craves, the blossom escapes Venus's erotics despite its imprisonment in the "'hollow cradle'"—we might emphasize "'hollow'"—of her breasts (line 1185).
Metamorphosis directly engages questions of contiguity and separation, sameness and difference, the object as Ding an sich and the object as contingent and mutable manifestation of first matter, ideal form, or similar early modern notions of the cosmic relatedness of all things. In its play on form as stable, autonomous identity versus form as signifier of other potential or erstwhile states, metamorphosis provides the poem another arena for working through the difference between the mythic/conventional and the historical/particular modes of narrative, desire, and subjectivity. Like the actual metamorphosis that closes the tale, other metamorphoses figuratively invoked earlier in the poem provide double interpretative possibilities. These transformations contrast metamorphosis as the transcendent instantiation of analogy (similarity among things) to metamorphosis as destruction (the annihilation of a thing, alienated when a profoundly different form overcomes it). As part of her seduction argument, for example, Venus suggests an extended analogy between Adonis and a deer:
"since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shall be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain, or in dale:
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie."
Within the logic of Venus's poetics, the deer figure allows Adonis to be both himself and something else. That is. Venus proposes a metaphor that provides an alternative lexical framework for actions—whether grazing or caressing—that are equally possible for a man or a deer. The easy continuity in Venus's discourse between vehicle and tenor underlines the full congruence between Venus-as-body and Venus-as-park, conveying the wholesomeness, the delightful variety, and the naturalness of habitat (she maintains) for hart and lover alike. Adonis's transformation into a fragile flower, whose inevitable demise Venus rudely hastens, retroactively suggests a dissenting view of this same image: the deer metamorphosis that Adonis refuses would transform the young man into an entity inimical and fatal to his self—in fact, into quarry for his proper self. The echoes of Actaeon in the metamorphosis Venus offers heighten the opposition Adonis seems to see between heteroerotic seduction and hunting. Such alienation would certainly follow from a deer grazing/gazing on a goddess: Actaeon's transformation turned him from hunter to hunted, and Adonis wants no part of it.
Adonis's metamorphosis simultaneously realizes and frustrates both Venus's and Adonis's aims. Adonis escapes Venus's logic only to be returned helplessly to her bosom: Venus finally sees Adonis's scrupulously defended boundaries breached only to render him incapable of satisfying her passion. In its traditionally tragic end, the myth of Venus and Adonis explores the impossibility of erotic satisfaction when mortals are involved; Shakespeare's text distills this aspect of the tale into Venus's version of the story. This poem's reluctant Adonis renders another kind of fulfillment impossible—a pleasure that depends on escaping Venus. The entire narrative has shown the two figures' desires to be incompatible: analyzing Adonis's metamorphosis shows that the mere existence of each desire undermines the other's conditions of possibility. On one side, Adonis's distaste for Venus's proposals, together with the ways the poem pokes fun at Venus's excesses, suggests her limitations. On the other, Venus's use of mythic logic, her assertions of infinite analogy, and her own identity as the personification of love operate as inherently self-evident and universal: hence, they cannot accommodate compromise. Notably, however, Adonis offers objections rather than alternatives: Venus's poetic dominance makes post-lively articulating other erotics, poetics, or values impossible.
Thus, whereas Peter Erickson and Patrick Murphy have interpreted the poem's cautiousness in representing alternatives to Venus's views as mere political circumspection, I would argue that the poem's recourse to indirect suggestions of vaguely delineated choices indicates more than strategic self-censorship. Adonis's hesitations also gesture toward emergent paradigms of subjectivity and semiotics that are not sufficiently manifest to be clearly represented: something akin to what Francis Barker characterizes as the "incipient modernity" of Hamlet's "anachronistic" longing for a more modern subject position than his historical moment permits. If we were to characterize the poem's competing modes of desire and representation historically, then, my understanding of Adonis's [proto] subjectivity would lead in the opposite direction from Nona Fienberg's conclusions. Fienberg associates Andonis with an aristocratic "fixity," "absoluteness," and "patriarchy" that she characterizes as essentially medieval, while her Venus evidences a "mutability and diversity" that "provid[e] … a way to reevaluate patriarchy." While I agree to an extent that the poem associates Adonis's desires with "fixity" and "patriarchy." I would argue that these do not, as Fienberg claims, constitute the status quo in the poem—nor, entirely, in its historical context. Rather, the Venus whom Fienberg argues to be fluid and "dynamic" uses this "flexibility" only instrumentally, within traditional humanist rhetorical practice, to ingeniously and irrefutably perpetuate paradigms based on rhetorical analogy, ontological continuity, and the authority of mythic and literary-conventional tradition. Whereas Fienberg (in a move medievalists might find oversimplifying) characterizes Adonis as "a relic of the time before the commercial and humanist revolutions, when value was a given" who "holds on to his old ways of measuring time, growth, maturity, and value." I would argue that through inclining in both his desires and his semiotics toward deferral, separation, and idiosyncrasy. Adonis emerges as something of a figure for protomodernity, or at least for resistance to the values Venus espouses. It is semiotic absoluteness, autonomous identity, and social patriarchy, I think, that the poem presents as constituting a departure.
The poem's simultaneous representation of different discursivities and subjectivities might, however, give pause to the project of firmly historicizing these modes as (a Foucauldean version of the Whiggish march to modernity). It might be more fruitful, and more accurate, to consider what I have called the poem's protomodern and nonmodern modes as simultaneous aspects of a typically mixed cultural moment. Indeed, particularly intriguing about this poem (and its milieu) are the differences between the modes and interests here aligned as congruent (femininity/status quo/speech for example, versus versus masculinity/marginality/silence) with our more expected aggregations. This is not to say that the poem celebrates a happy heteroglossia of Elizabethan culture. By confining its represented action to what Venus witnesses, and by demonstrating the limitations of her practices, the poem thematizes the difficulty of representation competing models (whether we trace this difficulty to an authoritarian queen, the poetic demands of generic convention, a watershed moment in the history of subjectivity, covert cultural contests between masculinist poetic culture and propagandists for the Cult of Elizabeth—or concede it to be overdetermined). The hunting band provides the locus for alternatives to Venus's authority, in a way that may have been particularly satisfying for the primary 1590s (male) readership at the Inns of Court or indeed the royal court—but precisely what these alternatives would be remains pointedly oblique. In the end, the poem draws much of its energy from this obliqueness, creating an epyllion about what Ovidian poetry cannot represent—a gushing epideictic on an overbearing queen, a camp triangulation of a Venus who does not realize she is in a poem, an Adonis who half realizes and does not want to be, and a reader who smugly knows the score. And in this obliqueness, I suggest, Adonis's positions come closest to a kind of realization, insofar as the poem's silences draw the reader into fleshing out what the text occludes. Venus argues her familiar positions all too thoroughly, leaving the reader no task but assent. But drawing the reader into chasing an alternative that is not fully visible, traceable from two steps behind through prints left between the lines, does not the poem invite the reader into the oppositional hunting band?
Source: Lauren Shohet, "Shakespeare's Eager Adonis," in Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 85-102.
In the following excerpt, Mortimer examines how Shakespeare drastically altered the story line for Venus and Adonis from the original source for the tale, Ovid's Metamorphoses. However, contends Mortimer, Shakespeare stayed true to the original tale in one crucial respect: the ending.
For much of Venus and Adonis Shakespeare seems careful to avoid direct confrontation with his source for the tale in the Metamorphoses, Book X. It is not simply that he omits all the antecedents that Ovid provides (the incestuous union of Cinyras and Myrrha, the miraculous birth of Adonis, the wounding of Venus with Cupid's arrow) and modifies the whole situation by making Adonis resist the advances of the goddess. The striking fact is that most of the frequent Ovidian echoes seem to derive from anywhere in the Metamorphoses except the passage which gave him the story in the first place. The sexually aggressive female and the reluctant youth recall Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (IV. 285-388) and, to a lesser extent, Echo and Narcissus (III. 339-510); the Lament of Venus owes little to Ovid's goddess, but a great deal to his long line of desperately eloquent human heroines (including those of the Heroides); the episode of Mars and Venus harks back to Book IV (171-89): even the description of the boar takes its details not from the boar of Book X, but from the Calydonian boar of Book VIII. Shakespeare, while happy to plunder the riches of the Metamorphoses, is not writing the kind of paraphrase, adaptation or expansion that keeps sending his readers back to the original.
There is, however, one moment when the direct confrontation becomes unavoidable. However much of the Ovidian story Shakespeare might omit and however he might change the relation between the protagonists, the final metamorphosis had to remain: this was the moment his readers had been waiting for and, with Ovid in mind, they would expect a virtuoso performance. Shakespeare's task, briefly put, was to provide a metamorphosis that would rival Ovid's while still conforming to his own rereading of the myth.
The challenge, it must be said, was formidable. Here is Ovid in his most dazzling form and the passage must be quoted in full if we are to appreciate the significance of the Shakespearean revisions …
'But all shall not be in your [the Fates'] power.
My grief, Adonis, shall have an enduring monument,
and each passing year in memory of your death shall
give an imitation of my grief. But your blood shall
be changed to a flower. Or was it once allowed to thee,
Persephone, to change a maiden's form to fragrant mint,
and shall the change of my hero, offspring of Cinyras,
be grudged to me?' So saying, with sweet-scented nectar
she sprinkled the blood; and this, touched by the
nectar, swelled as when clear bubbles rise up from
yellow mud. With no longer than an hour's delay a
flower sprang up of blood-red hue such as pomegranates
bear which hide their seeds beneath the tenacious rind.
But short-lived is their flower; for the winds from
which it takes its name shake off the flower so
delicately clinging and doomed easily to fall.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- William Sheidley notes that Shakespeare likely gleaned certain notions regarding procreation from the poem Zodiake of Life (1543), by Marcellus Palingenius, which was translated by Barnabe Googe in 1976.
- Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, also retold the tale of Venus and Adonis, in the third book of his epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590).
- Many comparisons have been drawn between Venus and Adonis and Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander (1598)—which was completed by George Chapman—especially with respect to the two poems' erotic content.
- A world classic that deals with a woman who looks outside her marriage to satisfy her sexual needs is Anna Karenina (1877), by Leo Tolstoy.
Ovid's conclusion to the story is finely balanced between consolation and regret. Venus establishes an annual ritual (the Adoniazusae) to commemorate the death of her lover. She does not have the power to grant him anything like a full-blown apotheosis and she needs to invoke the precedent of Persephone in order to justify the metamorphosis. But she does, at least, bring into being a flower that will continue to embody his beauty and his fragility. The last two lines, with the wonderfully mimetic suspension of the syntax and the final sighing exhalation of venti, leave us with the consolation that beauty, in some form or other, will always be renewed and with the regret that its specific incarnations will always prove transient.
In turning to Shakespeare, the first thing we notice is that his Venus is incapable of offering Adonis even the limited form of perpetuation granted in the Metamorphoses. Ovid's Venus defies the Fates ('all shall not be in your power') first by creating the ritual and then by performing the metamorphosis. Shakespeare's Venus seems too overcome by events to think of such positive action. There is, first of all, no suggestion of an annual commemoration and this is hardly surprising if we consider the tone of the immediately preceding speech where, under the guise of etiological prophecy, she has pronounced a curse on love and lovers:
Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy,
They that love best their loves shall not enjoy. (1163-4)
A communal rite of mourning would, after all, be a way of coming to terms with death and a gesture of solidarity that Shakespeare's vindictive Venus, out of love with the world, is in no mood to make or accept.
Even more important is the fact that in Shakespeare the metamorphosis of Adonis appears as a natural miracle which owes nothing to the intentions or powers of the goddess:
By this the boy that by her side lay killed
Was melted like a vapour from her sight,
And in his blood that on the ground lay spilled
A purple flower sprung up check'red with white. (1165-8)
'By this' is typical of the poem's rapid transitions ('At this', 'With this', 'This said') and, as we can see from previous occurrences (175, 877, 973), indicates mere succession with no necessary suggestion of causality—especially since the preceding speech contains no reference whatsoever to metamorphosis. Venus, therefore, has no power over the natural world and the metamorphosis appears less as a consolation for the death of Adonis than as the last stage of the process that takes him from her. A number of details confirm that Shakespeare is, in fact, consciously undermining traditional readings of the myth. Not only is there no indication that Adonis embodies the vegetative and seasonal cycle (an aspect that is, in any case, barely perceptible in Ovid), but even the idea that the flower will somehow perpetuate his beauty is frustrated by the action of Venus herself.
She bows her head the new-sprung flower to smell,
Comparing it to her Adonis' breath,
And says within her bosom it shall dwell,
Since he himself is reft from her by death.
She crops the stalk, and in the breach appears
Green-dropping sap, which she compares to tears. (1171-6)
This gesture, absent in Ovid, is the one she has conventionally attributed to Death ('thou pluck'st a flower', 946), but it also recalls her own attempt to crop the flower of Adonis's virginity and her argument that flowers should be 'gath'red in their prime' (131). By now literalizing her own metaphor Venus inverts its significance. The metaphorical cropping of the youth's virginity would have ensured his perpetuation through offspring; the literal cropping of the flower cuts off any hope of regeneration. In this context, it may well be significant that Shakespeare does not identify the flower. Ovid specifies that, though it resembles the bloom of the pomegranate, it is, indeed, the flower that takes its name from the wind, the anemone (from Greek anemos) that his readers could recognize. By omitting to name the flower Shakespeare may be implying that it no longer exists; its beauty, like that of Adonis, has been lost without trace. We remember that Venus had urged on Adonis the reproductive example of 'sappy plants' (165), but here the 'green-dropping sap' of the Adonis-flower falls to the earth like wasted semen.
Shakespeare clearly modifies Ovid by depriving the metamorphosis of its consolatory function. And yet this modification remains in the spirit of Ovid where the metamorphosis usually involves two stages—first the progressive dissolution of the human identity and then the subject's reemergence in a radically simple form reflecting the status to which he or she has been reduced by the story. As Leonard Barkan remarks, 'the artistic effect of metamorphosis is to transform human identities into images'. Thus, to take only one example, the metamorphosis of Arachne (Met. VI. 1-145) eliminates all that made her an individual—her lowly birth, her professional pride, her irreverence towards the gods—and makes her simply a spider, the embodiment of skill in weaving. Even where the concluding image is more attractive, as with Daphne transformed into a laurel, admiration at the aesthetic solution is still tempered with a sense of human loss. Shakespeare's Adonis receives the same kind of treatment. Not only is the complex adolescent we have known reduced to a single image of beauty, but, in conformity with his role throughout the poem, it is a beauty that will not be reproduced.
Since Venus has not herself performed the metamorphosis, she remains uncertain as to how it should be understood. The radical ambivalence of her gesture in cropping the flower is reflected in a final speech that hovers between a recognition that it is no real perpetuation of Adonis and a desire to cherish it as his child.
"Poor flower", quoth she, "this was thy father's guise—
Sweet issue of a more sweet-smelling sire—
For every little grief to wet his eyes;
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.
"Here was thy father's bed, here in my breast;
Thou art the next of blood, and 'tis thy right.
Lo, 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". (1177-88)
The two stanzas complete Venus's rewriting of the story which, omitting all reference to her sexual aggression and his resistance, has already transformed the stubborn young hunter into a marvellous child who, like the child in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue restores Nature to a prelapsarian harmony where the lamb need no longer fear the wolf and where even the boar only wounds Adonis in a misguided attempt to kiss him (1081–1116). Now the Adonis-flower becomes both a child to be cradled at her breast and the lover that Adonis has never been. Jonathan Bate has argued persuasively that the image of the son who takes his father's place in the mother's bed is an 'adroit variation' on the Myrrha story in Ovid.
Ovid begins his tale with Adonis as a son issuing from a tree, Shakespeare ends his with a flower issuing from Adonis who thus becomes a father. Shakespeare's Venus acts out an extraordinary family romance. By imaging her lover as a father, she makes herself into the mother and the flower into the fruit of their union. But the logic of the imagery dictates that the flower is her sexual partner as well as her child, for it clearly substitutes for Adonis himself.
The birth of Adonis was the result of an incestuous father-daughter union (Cinyras and Myrrha); Venus exploits his death and metamorphosis to envisage a further incest which is that of mother and son. But even without reference to the Myrrha story, it would still be clear that incest is the only conclusion that can satisfy Venus's desire to possess Adonis both as child and as lover. Throughout the poem she has alternated between bouts of sexual aggression and moments of maternal protectiveness. She concludes with the only image that can reconcile her 'variable passions' (967).
Venus exploits the power that the living usually have over the dead, that of being able to transform them into self-flattering fictions. The Adonis-flower, unlike Adonis himself, cannot answer back to say that he is no longer a child and will not be a lover. But the passage suggests that Venus is not really convinced by her own rhetoric. The consolation involved in seeing the flower as the child of Adonis is undermined by her memory of the Adonis who refused procreation despite her argument that 'things growing to themselves are growth's abuse' (166).
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. (1180-2)
This, surely, is a recognition that the metamorphosis must be ultimately meaningless. Even cradled at her breast, the flower will still wither and is, therefore, no real perpetuation of Adonis. Only ironically can the flower be made to resemble Adonis by being rendered barren. There is a touch of the same vindictiveness that marked her curse on love. Adonis himself has vanished without trace, and so she condemns the flower to the same extinction. Venus had prophesied that the world and its beauty could not survive the death of Adonis (10-11, 1019–20); that prophecy has obviously not been fulfilled ('The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh and trim', 1079), but she does her best to take revenge for Nature's indifference by cropping whatever beauty comes to hand.
It is, finally, disgust with the world that gains the upper hand over the illusory consolations of the metamorphosis.
Thus weary of the world away she hies,
And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid
Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies,
In her light chariot quickly is conveyed,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure herself, and not be seen. (1189-94)
There is a fine irony in the suggestion that Venus, whose habitual imagery has been so all-embracing, so world-welcoming, (the metaphorical expansion of her body into a deer-park, 229-40) now intends, by immuring herself, to imitate the attitude of Adonis who yearned for 'quiet closure' and the solitude of his bed-chamber (781-6) As for the flight, the couplet may, as Roe suggests, contain an echo of Virgil …
She herself through the sky goes her way to Paphos, and joyfully revisits her abode, where the temple and its hundred altars steam with Sabaean incense and are fragrant with garlands ever fresh.
If Shakespeare is indeed inviting comparison with the Virgilian passage, then our attention is drawn to the difference between the role of the goddess in his poem and her very different status in the epic. Virgil's Venus leaves her son, Aeneas, with words of encouragement after demonstrating her power to protect him; Shakespeare's Venus leaves Adonis whom she regards as the son she has been unable to protect. Aeneas is destined to become the father of a great race; Adonis has no progeny. In the Aeneid Venus flies away in a joyful spirit to receive the homage of her worshippers and to be greeted with 'garlands ever fresh'; in Venus and Adonis she is 'weary of the world', 'means to immure herself' and carries a flower that will wither at her breast. For Virgil's Venus divinity involves a power to change the world; for Shakespeare's goddess divinity offers, at best, an escape from the world that she cannot change.
There is, of course, also a flight to Paphos in Ovid. After warning Adonis of the dangers of hunting, Venus leaves for Paphos and is recalled in mid-flight by the groans of the dying youth (Met. X. 717-20). Thus Ovid's story ends not with Venus abandoning the world, but with her returning to it, accepting her share of grief and offering the consolation of a ritual and a metamorphosis. Shakespeare's Venus has nothing to offer the world except her curse. Ovid's version concludes with a goddess who stands on earth, sharing our common human experience of transience and loss; but Shakespeare's goddess has already been all too human—frustrated, sweating and repeatedly falling to the ground. Being a creature of extremes, she reacts by a rejection of humanity. There is no trace here of the goddess who, according to Heather Asals, undergoes a Neoplatonic education and rises from lust to love. For most of the poem Venus has been descending not ascending the Neoplatonic ladder (see her inversion of the hierarchy of the senses, 433-50), and the sensuality of her last incestuous image does not suggest that she has changed very much. What has changed is that the goddess of love has discovered what it is like to be subject to her own law ('Poor queen of love, in thine own law forlorn', 251) and has not enjoyed the experience. It is precisely because her descent has ended in defeat that her ascent sounds so resentfully definitive.
The comparisons with Virgil and Ovid might lead us to think that Venus and Adonis ends with the desolate vision of a world deprived of divine sympathy or protection, overarched by 'the empty skies' and abandoned to the meaningless violence of the boar. But any sense of gloom is surely dispelled by the grace, swiftness and lightness of the imagery. Venus may intend to 'immure herself', but her actual movement is one of aerial and unrestricted freedom. There is, if anything, a sense of relief in seeing the goddess restored to her supernatural element of space and soaring flight, finally released from the gravity that bound her to earth and to the human condition. We respond this way because we too are released from gravity, freed from any temptation to read this ending as the conclusion to a real human tragedy. The burden of pathos that might have been imposed on the reader by seeing Venus as a mater dolorosa is lifted by this magical Venus whose silver doves draw her chariot through the skies. We need not feel too sorry for someone who can so easily shake off the weight of the world and we are, indeed, slyly encouraged to think that her protestations of eternal devotion to the memory of Adonis should be taken with a pinch of salt. We are not told that she will, in fact, 'immure herself, and not be seen', only that she 'means' to do so. Shakespeare does not go as far as Ronsard who reminds us that she will soon replace Adonis with the Phrygian shepherd, Anchises ('Telles sont et seront les amitiez des femmes'), but there is a hint of the same urbane cynicism.
Shakespeare's handling of the conclusion works on two levels: on the one hand, as we have seen, he undermines the positive significance or the metamorphosis as a perpetuation of beauty or as a myth of seasonal regeneration; on the other hand, he clears the atmosphere and lightens the spirit by finally restoring the tale to the realm of fable. And this procedure brings to the surface some of the assumptions that underlie Shakespeare's treatment of his Ovidian source. For all the portentous interpretations of classical myth offered by Renaissance Neoplatonists (some of them still plague criticism of Venus and Adonis), the Ovidian revival of the sixteenth century did not necessarily lend itself to solemnity. Though an occasional allegorical gloss might come in useful to deflect censorship, there is little evidence that Lodge, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Drayton and other authors of epyllia regarded classical mythology as a repository of universal wisdom. Given the reverence with which modern criticism usually uses the term 'myth', it might be better to speak of the Ovidian stories as 'fables'—fables which did not invite the reader to suspend his disbelief and which, therefore, allowed Renaissance poets to treat potentially serious sexual themes without committing themselves to seriousness. The ending of Venus and Adonis is consistent with this attitude. It is designed to distance the reader from the often hilarious but frequently uncomfortable psychological realism of the poem he has been reading. The real and final metamorphosis is that of a frustrated woman and a sullen youth into miraculous apparitions who vanish in the turning of a verse. Adonis is 'melted' from our sight and Venus disappears into 'the empty skies'. The whole poem, so fraught with unresolved tensions, so psychologically convincing, so solidly rooted in our earthly experience, dissolves like the masque in The Tempest, freeing us to regard as entertainment the disturbing passions it has entertained.
Source: Anthony Mortimer, "The Ending of Venus and Adonis," in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 4, July 1997, pp. 334-41.
Wayne A. Rebhorn
In this essay, Rebhorn examines the character of Venus in Venus and Adonis, arguing that previous scholarship has oversimplified her character. On the one hand, Rebhorn contends, Venus has been seen as a vehicle of female lust, and on the other as a symbol of sexual reproduction. Instead, the critic contends, Venus's love for Adonis "is really dominated by a strongly maternal response."
With few exceptions, readers of Venus and Adonis have either condemned Venus as lust, praised her as the spokeswoman for generation and propagation, or argued for her ambiguity as a representative sometimes of lust and sometimes of generation. In the last few years especially, there has been a tendency to evaluate her more positively and at the same time to criticize Adonis for self-centered egotism and for his refusal to accept his duty to propagate his kind, a refusal sometimes proposed almost as a kind of justification for his being killed by the boar. Yet the identification of Venus as lust or generation or both oversimplifies her character in the poem. It fails to deal adequately with her complex responses, both verbal and physical, to Adonis and ignores the very real and justifiable fears Adonis has of the particular sort of love she offers him. Although the element of sexual desire in Venus' attraction to Adonis cannot be denied, her love for him is really dominated by a strongly maternal response, which renders that love—and Venus' character generally—far more interesting than equations with lust and generation would suggest. The maternal nature of Venus' love explains Adonis' fear of her, is the source of the narrator's and reader's ambivalence about her character, and is the cause of a certain nervousness that infects the laughter produced by the poem's inversion of normal male-female courtship roles. Finally, by characterizing Venus' love for Adonis as primarily a desire to mother the boy, Shakespeare's poem reveals itself as something more than either a condemnation of lust or a celebration of generation; it offers a fundamental revelation concerning the nature of man's—and especially Renaissance man's—fear of women, a fear that lay behind the characterizations given to the enchantresses, whether human or divine, who appear in both courtly love lyrics and heroic romances.
From the start of the poem, Venus appears a creature of superior power who descends to woo a mere mortal, a member of a weaker, inferior order. Physically stronger than Adonis, able to pluck him off his horse and carry him easily under her arm, Venus seems a massive figure out of a canvas by Rubens. The flowers beneath her, though she claims to "trip" lightly upon them (146), really do seem to support her "like sturdy trees" (152). Despite her reference to her "youth" (1120), a term that included a period in life now referred to as mature adulthood, Venus has been perceived by readers of the poem as considerably older than the boy she courts, a middle-aged amazon at the very least. While there is no hard evidence in the poem for ascribing any particular age to this conventionally ageless goddess, such responses are sound intuitions. Venus does totally dominate Adonis in a physical way just as she overwhelms him with rhetoric, and she is consistently portrayed as a mature woman of wide sexual experience whereas Adonis is consistently seen as a virginal slip of a boy. The most important reason, however, why readers of the poem have been led to perceive Venus as an older woman is the consistency with which she is presented as a mothering figure in relation to Adonis, while he in turn is characterized as an infant or child.
In her first address to Adonis, Venus praises him as being "more lovely than a man" (9), an ambiguous phrase of courtship, which both elevates him above the status of mere mortality and suggests that his particular loveliness is really that of a boy. Later, Venus will make the true basis of her praise patent: she will reproach Adonis as "flint-hearted boy" (95), coax him to love her by calling him her "fondling" (229), a term of endearment usually reserved for infants, and finally rail against Death for blindly having cleft "an infant's heart" (942). When Adonis goes off to hunt the boar, Venus refers to him as a "son that sucked an earthly mother" (863), thus identifying him not as an adult lover or an object of sexual desire but as a nursing infant, an innocent and helpless babe. Moreover, like Venus, Shakespeare's narrator also characterizes Adonis in these terms, describing him as a "tender boy" (32) and comparing him, when he passively refuses to respond to Venus' desperate advances, to a "froward infant stilled with dandling" (562) Finally, Adonis himself, quite aware of his own immaturity, stresses it repeatedly in resisting Venus' attacks (415-20, 523 ff.), and his responses to her are frequently described in terms that suggest childish behavior: he blushes and pouts (33), frowns and frets (75), and petulantly chides Venus for having spoiled the fun he could have had that day (380).
The love Venus feels for this boy has a complementary maternal character. For instance, in her first speech to Adonis, Venus conjures up a childhood world to tempt him off his horse: the two of them will share a "thousand honey secrets" (16) together and will play at kissing, shortening long summer days with "time-beguiling sport" (24). Later, in a wittily erotic passage, Venus transforms her body metaphorically into a "park" (229 ff.) where Adonis can wander and play at will. This passage also underscores a second aspect of Venus' love, which defines its maternal quality: in her "park" she offers Adonis nourishment as well as a playpen. In fact, Venus' language throughout the poem is marked by gustatory metaphors: the secrets she holds out to Adonis are "honey" (16); her lips provide "plenty" (20); and when she transforms her body into a "park," she offers it as a feast for Adonis in which her breasts become fountains and he is invited to nibble her "sweet bottom-grass" (236). Finally, the maternal love Venus holds out to Adonis is characterized by a distinctively protective quality. No "serpent hisses" (17) at the spot where he is invited to sit down with her, and the secluded park of her body, with its "brakes obscure and rough, / To shelter thee from tempest and from rain" (237-38), is a secure retreat into which no dog could penetrate to harm her precious "deer" (239). Clearly, in offering a love that provides the innocence of sports and games, complete nourishment, and secure protection, and in being portrayed as the physically dominant and more widely experienced member of the pair, Venus plays mother to Adonis' infant. It is thus quite fitting that the narrator twice refers to the arms and hands with which she imprisons him as a "band" (225, 363), a term that meant a restrictive binding but was also a common ellipsis for a swaddling band.
If Adonis fails to realize the sexual element in his coy responses to Venus' advances, Venus hardly understands the maternal character of her responses to him. Her explicit arguments all focus on the pleasure and innocence of sex and on the duty of man to propagate children, but in her treatment of Adonis and in her frequent descriptions of him as a child or infant, she seems to want to mother him as much as—or more than—to have sex with him. Either Venus wants some sort of incest without knowing it (one should recall that Adonis himself sprang from an incestuous union), or she really wants an infant to cradle and confuses her maternal and sexual impulses, not seeing Adonis as the father of her child but as her child itself. There is a fine ambiguity in the last dramatic gesture she makes in the poem when she snaps off the flower that grew from Adonis' blood. She treats it like a child, placing it within the "hollow cradle" of her breasts to be rocked by her "throbbing heart" (1185–86). Although she addresses the flower as the "sweet issue of a more sweet-smelling sire" (1178), the flower is not Adonis' child but Adonis himself metamorphosed; he whom she called metaphorically the "field's chief flower, sweet above compare" (8) has literally become a flower and in this ultimately passive form can no longer avoid the cradling Venus has wanted to give him from the start. That Venus sees this flower as Adonis' child and not as Adonis himself is eloquent testimony to her ignorance of the real nature of her motives. This last gesture serves as a stunning conclusion, a final revelation in vivid terms of what Venus wanted all along.
The striking images of predatory animals with which Venus is associated in the poem (eagle, vulture, falcon) and her frequent references to Adonis as food, as a feast to devour, as the object of her gluttony, all appropriately have been summoned up as evidence to identify her as lust. Granting such an interpretation, it could be argued that Venus is involved in a fundamental self-contradiction. On the one hand, her maternal instincts lead her to wish to protect and nourish Adonis, while on the other, her lust moves her to want to devour and destroy him in an act of incestuous cannibalism.
But it could also be argued that these images essentially reveal a contradiction inherent in the maternal love Venus feels. This inherent contradiction can best be understood if the "park" receives a bit more scrutiny. As she describes that "park" to Adonis, it is both a world of security, nourishment, and play and unmistakably a trap or prison. It is walled by an "ivory pale" (230; Venus' arms), the means by which Adonis has been "hemmed" (229) in. In fact, until he leaves to hunt the boar, he is almost continuously "prisoned" (362) within the "band" Venus throws around him, and he twice is compared by the narrator to a bird tangled in a net, a wild creature eventually "tamed with too much handling" (560). The maternal security and nourishment Venus offers thus involve at the same time a surrendering of freedom and loss of autonomy, which imply the giving up of selfhood and personal identity. In loving Venus as she wants, not only would Adonis be returning to the innocent gaiety and security that mark the child's condition, but Shakespeare's images also suggest he would be totally engulfed by Venus, swallowed up in her embrace, smothered, as she herself says (18), beneath the awesome load of her kisses. Seen in terms of this perspective, Adonis really is a morsel for Venus to devour; the metaphors of eating not only suggest lust but also imply the swallowing up of Adonis' self that giving in to Venus' love entails. Adonis does indeed face the danger that Venus will "draw his lips' rich treasure dry" (552) a phrase that hints at vampire-like horrors, at loss of breath and vital fluid, perhaps even loss of soul.
The loss of autonomy involved in loving Venus is precisely the reason why Adonis finds that love so threatening and explains why the more she persists, the more adamantly he refuses her. To be sure, in rejecting Venus Adonis may be faulted for self-centeredness, a priggish refusal to dally with a charming female, and an insane rejection of generation in favor of loving the boar and all it represents. But just as surely, he must be granted some credit for sensing the danger Venus' love poses for him and for having wisely refused it. Though he may be accused of waxing puritanical in denouncing Venus as a "glutton" (803) because of her lust, as a caterpillar feeding on the leaves of his beauty (795-98), his images harmonize perfectly with those used by Shakespeare's narrator himself to characterize Venus' love throughout the poem. Moreover, Adonis' most persistent argument against Venus stresses that he is still "unripe" (524), still a "bud" (416) and not a flower, still a green plum that if "early plucked" would taste sour. (527-28) In all these images he responds directly to the predatory character of Venus' love, refuses implicitly the return to childhood that that love entails, and insists upon his need for freedom to grow up into manhood even if that means the risk of possible death beneath the tusks of the boar. However lacking in compassion Adonis may appear to be in leaving Venus, he is at least somewhat justified in rejecting an offer that promises his enduring infantilization. As he goes out to hunt the boar, he really does reject—though his phrase may be understood differently—a love he aptly calls a "life in death" (413).
The maternal character of Venus' love also generates the particular features she attributes to the boar in the poem. In fact, it should be noted that the reader largely sees the boar through her eyes, understands it in her terms. Adonis does not describe it when saying he likes to hunt it, and the narrator says relatively little about it, except on a few occasions when he may well be attempting to present how it looks from Venus' perspective. Venus, however, goes on about it at length. At what must be considered the turning point of the poem, startled by Adonis' announcement that he will hunt the boar (589), she describes it fearfully as a "butcher" (618), a beast whose snout digs sepulchers (622), which cannot be injured by spears (626), and which causes plants and animals—all of nature—to scurry terrified out of its way (629-30). Later, Venus' language suggests that she identifies the boar with Death: she sees both as aggressive creatures "striking" at whatever gets in their way (623, 938); both have piercing instruments of death, the boar's "tushes" and Death's "dart" (941); and both are ultimate powers that cannot be destroyed. Consistent with the image pattern established throughout the poem, where Venus is identified with predatory birds and animals and Adonis with deers and hares and helpless birds, the boar and Death are both personified, one as a "butcher" and the other as the "invisible commander" (1004). They are thus identified as humans whose superior force allows them to hunt down both predatory animals and their victims alike. Fittingly, as Venus runs off toward the sound of hunting horns to seek Adonis, she is compared to a falcon flying to a lure (1027), a bird of prey man has tamed and taught its ultimate impotence. Finally, Venus characterizes both the boar and Death as diabolic and serpent-like. The former is one of the "foul fiends" (638) and is frequently imagined as a snake: the wounds it gives the dogs are "venomed" (916); when Venus hears the cry of the hounds, she starts like one who has spied an adder (878); and at one point she imagines Adonis lying beneath the boar's "fangs" (663). Death is likewise berated as "earth's worm" (933), a frequent term for serpent. This distinctly diabolic characterization of the boar and Death relates directly to the world of maternal security Venus would offer Adonis. She would give him the garden of her body, an enclosure that barking dogs—and the hunters who follow them—could not penetrate. Almost the first thing Venus offers Adonis is security from diabolic evil: "Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses" (17). Unfortunately for her, Adonis refuses to return to the childhood garden of false innocence she offers him. From Venus' point of view, he has succumbed to the temptation of the serpent who rules this fallen world of experience, and his fall into death not only destroys Venus' illusory paradise but, according to her final prophecy, perverts love forever.
Ironically, the strength of Venus' maternal drive half-blinds her to the illusory nature of the paradise she offers Adonis. Clearly, she wants to present that world as though it were free from evil, time, and death. The "sport" Venus would have Adonis play is significantly described as "time-beguiling" (24), a phrase that suggests man's triumph over time, though it may also be interpreted as implying his self-deception about its passage. Whether at this point Venus recognizes the power of time over all things mortal, including Adonis and his beauty, may be doubted, but in her long speech attempting to persuade him into her embrace, when she sounds the carpe diem theme and stresses the importance of generation, she demonstrates a real schizophrenia concerning Adonis' exposure to time and death. At one point, she implicitly acknowledges his mortality:
By law of nature thou art bound to breed,
That thine may live when thou thyself art dead;
And so, in spite of death, thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive.
And yet, in the very same speech, Venus also argues in radically different terms, which hark back to her original identification of Adonis as a flower:
Fair flowers that are not gath'red in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time.
Clearly in these two passages Venus contradicts herself, both recognizing the law of mutability and decay that rules all earthly things and pretending to Adonis—and herself—that by being plucked he can paradoxically escape decay. Her last gestures in the poem reinforce the impression that Venus is more than a little self-deceived, perhaps seduced by the power of her maternal yearnings into imagining she can provide an enduring paradise for her "fondling." At the very moment she remarks to the flower she has plucked, "it is as good / To wither in my breast as in his blood" (1181–82) she also declares that her heart will rock it day and night, that there will be no "minute in an hour / Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love's flow'r" (1187–88). Finally, Venus' long prophecy of doom for love after Adonis' death testifies to her implicit self-deceiving belief that the childhood garden of love she offered him would have preserved his beauty intact and kept him from the fall that has taken the world and love down with him. Whatever Venus' personal version of the myth of the fall may be, however, the reader is directed by the implications of her carpe diem arguments to see it as personal projection rather than objective truth. Venus and Adonis dwell in this fallen world, where the earthly paradise is, for Venus, an illusory maternal fantasy and, for Adonis, an alluring, treacherous bower of bliss.
The smothering maternal love that appears negative from Adonis' point of view is not presented quite so negatively by the narrative as a whole. Though predatory and suffocating, threatening complete loss of personal autonomy through permanent infantilization, Venus' love, when looked at from the perspective of her motives, is considerably more ambiguous. The narrator deliberately shapes the reader's responses to emphasize this ambiguity, and the status of Venus and Adonis as a comi-tragedy, a work transformed from high comedy to pathetic drama somewhere near its middle, can be directly related to the ambiguity of Venus' love. During the first half of the poem, the narrator suppresses most of the positive elements in this love, repeatedly characterizing Venus as a predator and Adonis as her hapless prey. Even here, however, he roguishly praises Venus' cleverness in stopping Adonis' reprimands with a kiss (469-74) and criticizes Adonis for his "lazy sprite" (181), implying that he has failed to give Venus the sexual satisfaction a "real man" would offer her. Nevertheless, it is principally after Adonis announces his intention to hunt the boar that the narrator begins to shift his and the reader's sympathies markedly toward Venus.
In the second half of the poem, Venus' desperate pleading with Adonis to stay and her repeated references to him as an infant emphasize the truly protective and nurturing side of the maternal love she feels. Moreover, because the boar and Death are both depicted as all-powerful human or diabolic predators, Venus, who at first appeared an all-powerful, predatory mother, now experiences the genuine limits of her powers. The narrator, by means of a series of effective images, underscores the pathos of her inability to save the life of the infant she loves. Though she urges Adonis to hunt the hare, her lengthy description of the hunt reveals her identification with the pursued little animal and not the hunters. When she sees Adonis' dead body, she is compared to a snail, "whose tender horns being hit, / Shrinks backwards in his shelly cave with pain" (1033–34). The frothy-mouthed boar appears to her mothering vision as having "milk and blood" (902) mixed on its snout, in a stark suggestion of infant massacre. And in an absolutely wrenching image, which climaxes all those that render sympathetic the maternal element in Venus, the narrator describes her as a "milch doe whose swelling dugs do ache / Hasting to feed her fawn hid in some brake" (875-76). Here the brake is a real one, not the metaphoric brake of Venus' body, and it hinders this less-than-all-powerful goddess from reaching her love rather than serving as a place of protection and pleasure for him. Both Venus and the "fawn" she aches to feed are pathetic victims of forces beyond either's control. The effect of all these images and the narrator's shift of perspective on Venus, in seeing her first as a victimizer and later as a powerless victim, is not to obliterate but, rather, to qualify the previously presented negative features of her maternal drive and to characterize it as the paradoxical force it really is. If Venus' smothery mothering makes the reader's lustful laughter at her sexual forwardness rather nervous at times, Venus as a protective, pathetic maternal figure arouses the quite different response of pity and sympathy. Even though her last gesture of plucking Adonis' flower is an outrageous, though unconscious, fulfillment of her destructive side, her despairing prophecy of lost love, her grief over Adonis' death, and her final decision to retreat from the world, all balance that destructive gesture and leave the reader with a firm sense of the ultimate ambivalence of her character …
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"Venus and Adonis." Shakespeare for Students, 2nd ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/venus-and-adonis
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