Introduction: Venus and Adonis

July 31, 2010 in Introduction

In Venus and Adonis (1593), Shakespeare is at his most verbally dexterous, revelling in word play and elaborate linguistic devices. The poem is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, and takes its story from Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1567). Venus, the goddess of love, attempts to seduce Adonis, a young hunter: “Backward she pushed him, as she would be thrust” (41). In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare inaugurates the tradition of erotic narrative poetry by luxuriating, almost voyeuristically, in the poetry and comedy of seduction. The depiction of sexuality here is in marked contrast with the violent language of rape in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Rape of Lucrece (See for example TGOV, V.iv.59 and ROL, 723).

Like the sonnets, which were begun at around the same time, Venus and Adonis charts the powerful effects of passion. Venus is “Mad in pursuit, and in possession so” (Sonnet 129) – she nimbly darts, smothers, murders, sweats and plucks, “devouring in all haste” (l. 57). When the narrator comments early in the poem, “O how quick is love” (l. 38), he refers both to love in the abstract, and to the goddess herself. Adonis, however, is more reluctant, and is given less description, rendering him passive; he appears lifeless (l. 211) and “like a lazy sprite” (l. 181).

Words here are powerful. They persuade and deny — so much so that Venus is keen to silence Adonis altogether:

Now doth she stroke his cheek, 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 (l. 45 – 8).

When he does speak, it is mainly in aphorism, as in lines 419 – 420: “The colt that’s back’d and burden’d being young, / Loseth his pride and never waxeth strong” (l. 419 – 20). Although his words are fewer than Venus’, they are carefully constructed and memorable, incorporating interesting comparisons and reinforcing the poem’s themes of hunting and nature.

The dense rhetorical effect of the poem’s pithy statements is heightened by many puns, such as the description of how Venus “hearkens [...] for his horn” (l. 868). Such verbal wit makes the poem comic at times, although its conclusion takes a tragic turn – Adonis is killed in a hunting accident, and an unsatisfied Venus is left mourning. Some critics claim that the ending demands unqualified pathos (John Roe, 2006), while others have been less sympathetic (Lewis, 1954). However, there has been an effort to avoid moralising or determining a single conclusion for the text and instead “demonstrat[ing] that the poem embodies a multivalency of meanings leading nowhere beyond itself” (Klause, 1988).

The poem has an important place in the canon of English literature – it is often compared to Marlowe’s unfinished Hero and Leander (1958), cited as an example of Sidney’s poetic ideals, and looked to as an inspiration for the vigour and imagination found in Coleridge’s writing. Elsewhere, the famous description of the snail “whose tender horns being hit, / Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain” (l. 1033 – 1034) gave rise to Keats’ memorable comment about a poet at once inspired and defeated by the success of Venus and Adonis: “[Shakespeare] has left nothing to say about nothing or any thing”.

Contributed by Rachel Thorpe

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