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Introduction: The Merry Wives of Windsor

James Harriman-Smith - May 11, 2012 in Introduction

This is indeed a merry play, possibly the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies in which all’s more or less well that ends more or less well. Getting there is, except for poor Falstaff and the jealous Master Ford, a wildly funny romp.

The Sir John Falstaff we see here is not the same one we first met in Henry IV Part One. There he was humorous, rambunctious and profoundly wise. Here he is actually unlikeable and (even though one feels a little sorry for him at times) he gets what he deserves.

The story is this: Falstaff needs money and likes the company of ladies. Foolishly, he writes the same love letter to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, proposing a tryst. These two resourceful ladies, upon discovering this silly double-booking, decide to teach him a lesson by pretending to agree to receive him. In a complicated farce of go-betweens, disguises, and subplots, during which Master Ford becomes insanely jealous, Falstaff is first stuffed unceremoniously into a laundry basket and carted off to be thrown into the filthy Thames, and then beaten and chased from the premises disguised as an undignified old woman. Not satisfied with this, the two ladies, together with their now informed husbands and the other townspeople, stage a midnight revel involving children, fairies, legends, dancing and, ultimately, the public embarrassment of poor Sir John.

One of the several subplots also culminates in the midnight revelries. Mistress Anne, daughter of the Pages, is being wooed by the dull young Slender (favored by her father as the best match), by the flighty French Dr. Caius (favored by her mother), and the impoverished nobleman Fenton (favored by Anne herself). Both parents connive to have their chosen son-in-law steal Mistress Anne away to clandestine weddings during the pageantry but Anne and Fenton fool them both by eloping and returning to the festivities as husband and wife. The parents bow gracefully to their daughter’s choice, Falstaff recovers quickly from his public embarrassment, and they all head to the Page residence for a celebratory and reconciliatory dinner.

The only Shakespearean comedy to be set in England, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s more popular but at the same time obscure and least analyzed plays in spite of the rich potential for analysis of class, gender, language and more. A less than scientific but revealing investigation shows over 60 million Google hits in a search for Hamlet, 27 million for Romeo and Juliet and a mere 912 000 for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Interestingly, “Falstaff” gives over five million hits all by itself: admittedly, many of these are for the Verdi opera, the Henry plays and the various pubs and whatnot bearing the fat knight’s name; but Sir John nevertheless remains one of Shakespeare’s most appreciated characters, in spite of his misfortunes in this play.

Contributed by Ruby Jand

Introduction: The Comedy of Errors

James Harriman-Smith - March 16, 2012 in Introduction

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, following The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI cycle and Richard III, but preceding A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. It is also one of his funniest, but like all of his comedies there is a dark undertone.

The story is deceptively simple. Two sets of identical twins are separated as small children. One set, both named Antipholus, are sons of a wealthy merchant, the other their servants, both named Dromio. They grow up in separate cities and the fun begins when one Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Syracuse where the other Antipholus and Dromio have lived since childhood. Antipholus of Syracuse is married to Adriana and is an established and well-respected citizen. What is comical, often side-splittingly so, is how these two sets of twins, Adriana, her sister Luciana, and the townspeople of Syracuse all keep running into each other, but never the twins together, so that all manner of confusions arise. “Who are you?” is answered by “you’ve known me all my life”; “I just gave you a bag of money” is answered by “I’ve never seen you before in all my life”; “I love you” is answered by “But you’re married to my sister”, which is answered by “I’m not married”, then by “Oh you cad”…

Things all work out in the end of course, with the twins astounded to confront their exact lookalikes. What isn’t so funny, though, is the anguish the characters go through as their sense of identity is warped out of all recognition. In the process marriages and lives are threatened, power is used and abused, servants protest against cuffs and kicks, and women struggle against oppression by husbands and the church. In other words, though the characters are as individually quirky yet universal as Shakespeare’s characters always are, the depth in the play is based on what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in the introduction to the Norton edition, “the hidden strangeness of ordinary existence” and the “alienation and existential anxiety” found in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Comedy of Errors is not one of the most widely performed of the Shakespeare collection, nor have many movies been made based on it. It did, however, rate a musical, The Boys from Syracuse (1940), and several productions of the play have been televised, most notably one directed by Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench in the 70′s, and the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare version in the 80′s with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing the two sets of twins. In 2003 a Japanese film version, directed by and starring Mansai Nomura, was released. It’s time for a new English language version. With the rich potential of interpreting the class and gender conflicts within the power struggle between the church and state and the basic hilarity of the play, Kenneth Branagh or Julie Taymore could create another masterpiece to bring Shakespeare alive once again to young (and old) audiences.

Contributed by Ruby Jand

Introduction: Henry VIII

James Harriman-Smith - January 18, 2012 in Introduction

The First Folio provides Henry VIII’s only authoritative text (1623), probably a clerical copy and not a performance script. It provides a sequel to the triumph of Henry VII which ends Richard III, using episodes from the careers of his son Henry VIII and other descendants of figures in that earlier play. The script shares Richard III’s cyclical structure, borrowed from the Fall of Princes theme in earlier chronicle plays, specifically the falls of the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey – followed by Archbishop Cranmer’s escape from a similar fate through intervention of King Henry VIII, as the king increases in political skill. Henry’s later tyrannical aberrations are not presented. Beyond the trial scenes, the play stresses pageantry: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the crowning of Queen Anne Boleyn, and the baptism of the future Queen Elizabeth, whose prominence is forecast by Cranmer in the play’s coda. Such historical content somewhat justifies the play’s initial title: All Is True.

The first production destroyed the original Globe Theatre on 29 June 1613, through over-elaborate staging: at Wolsey’s banquet (1.2.49): canons fired blanks with wadding which set fire to the thatched roofing. The production could have transferred to the King’s Men’s indoor theatre at Blackfriars, location of the historical divorce trial in the play, which uses the Queen’s original words. This realistic production offended Sir Henry Wotton (who described the fire): “The King’s Players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the Reign of Henry 8, which was set forth with many extraordinary Circumstances of Pomp and Majesty, even to the matting of the Stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and Garter, the Guards with their embroidered Coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous.” Supposedly, after playing Henry VIII, John Lowin passed on Shakespeare’s directions to his godson, Sir William Davenant, for a Restoration revival. This tradition, preserved by Kean, Irving, and Tree, favoured Holbein’s images of King Henry’s court; but stage dominance passed from Henry (Betterton) to Queen Katherine (Siddons) to Wolsey (Irving, Tree). Siddons intensely identified with her role, like Ashcroft (Nun, R.S.C., 1969) .

Samuel Johnson rated the dying Katherine’s scene (4.2) “above any other part of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and perhaps above any scene in any other poet, tender and pathetic, without gods, or furies, or poisons, or precipices, without the help of romantic circumstances, without improbable sallies of poetical lamentations, and without any throes of tumultuous miseries.” Though often produced for British coronations, the play suffered discrediting censure after James Spedding questioned its authorship (1850). Since then, on stylistic, not historical grounds, many scenes have been attributed to John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as the King’s Men’s dramatist. Such views discouraged the play’s appreciation and production until Tyrone Guthrie’s (R.S.C.,1949). However, scholars judged Henry VIII as the best play in the BBC Shakespeare series (with Claire Bloom as Katherine; 1979).

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Introduction: The Merchant of Venice

James Harriman-Smith - August 2, 2011 in Introduction

The Merchant of Venice contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable and complex characters. While Antonio is central to this play — after all, he is normally considered the person for whom it is named — audiences are inevitably fascinated by Shylock, the Jew who sues Antonio for a lethal “pound of flesh” in return for unpaid loans, and by Portia, the wealthy heiress, who marries Antonio’s friend Bassanio and saves Antonio’s life in a dramatic courtroom scene.

Although Shylock is the villain of this play, Shakespeare departs from the Elizabethan caricature of the cruel, hated Jew, as exemplified by Marlowe’s Barabas in The Jew of Malta (1589-90). His creation is more complex, fusing humanity with unrelenting cruelty and a strict adherence to the letter of the law. In this way, the Jew-figure becomes something impossible to define, performable as the clownish, evil, red-haired Elizabethan devil (a precursor to Dickens’ Fagin), or as the sympathetic Jew of our modern, post-holocaust view. Whether his ultimately cruel punishment is his redemption or his humiliation just does not matter when a broken Shylock murmurs his last line: “I am not well.”

Despite being on a more comic trajectory, Portia, like Shylock, is also bound by strict adherence to the law. First, she faithfully submits to the terms of her father’s will, which force her to select her future husband according to their choice of gold, silver or leaden casket (a passage famously discussed by Freud in 1913). Second, once Bassanio has chosen the correct box, she displays a brilliant understanding of the law to free Antonio from Shylock on a technicality. Yet for all her brilliance in the courtroom, Portia must dress as a man there, and, again like Shylock, this rich heiress’ actions demonstrate the prejudices and limitations of Venetian society.

Set in Venice and Portia’s home in Belmont, the play moves from a fraught mix of cosmopolitan bustle and casual antisemitism to a fairytale land of riddles, music and poetry. At the play’s conclusion, all the main characters (save Shylock) enter the idyllic world of Belmont in a happy ending, which is nevertheless tainted by memories of Portia’s rejected suitors and Shylock’s earlier exit. Such ambiguity was brought out notably in a 2010 performance at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, just one of many performances of this popular Shakespeare play, perhaps now best known through the Al Pacino film of 2004.

Originally contributed by Richard Rose Adapted for publication by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: Henry VI, Part 3

openliterature - January 23, 2011 in Introduction

The quarto edition of this play was printed in 1595 as The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke, but appears in the highly revised version of the First Folio as The Third Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Duke of YORKE. Its popularity is indicated by its reprinting in quarto (1600) and folio format (1619). Following the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, it is principally concerned with the vicissitudes of the Wars of the Roses, with the alternating defeats and triumphs of Yorkists and Lancastrians. In the course of these struggles both titular heads, the Duke of York and Henry VI, are murdered, together with many of their supporters, leaving Edward IV as king. The widowed Queen Margaret ends exiled and childless, despite her remarkable tenacity for her son’s interests in the face of her husband’s weakness. Many of the scenes are gruesome in the extreme, such as the torture of the captive Duke of York by Margaret after the killing of his son. This scene is followed later by the murder of her own son by the three Yorkist brothers in her presence, after her military defeat. While captive in the Tower of London, King Henry VI is crudely assassinated by Richard of Gloucester.

Unfortunately for the finally triumphant Yorkists, Richard Duke of Gloucester has already become alienated from their cause by the disloyalty of his brother George Duke of Clarence, and by the sexual vagaries of his other brother, King Edward IV. The king’s foolish marriage to a commoner wrecks plans for a more diplomatic alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. Richard’s enormous soliloquy (III.ii. 124-94) about his alienation and ambition to rule is a tour de force evoking a whole new Machiavellian personality which is to dominate the next play in the tetralogy, Richard III. The role will be considered among Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. Indeed, such virtuoso parts of Richard’s role in Part 3 are often transposed to the start of Richard III to reinforce that play’s fascination.

Editors continue to debate the exact relationship of the quarto and folio texts, and the sequence of composition of the three parts now entitled ‘Henry VI’. Critical debates about Part 3‘s sustained brutality often suggest that it exploits popular bad taste, but it has been increasingly revived since Peter Hall’s and John Barton’s production of it as part of their sequence of seven history plays (1963 and 1964): by Terry Hands (1977), Michael Bogdanov (1986), Adrian Noble (1988), Katie Mitchell (1994), Edward Hall (2000) and Michael Boyd (2000, 2006).

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Introduction: Henry VI, Part 2

openliterature - January 16, 2011 in Introduction

On March 12, 1594, a quarto play was entered in the Stationers’ Register by bookseller Thomas Millington, and printed by Thomas Creede later that year, under the title The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the Crowne. A revised version of this play appears in the First Folio in 1623 under the different title of The second part of Henry VI. The Quarto version may be either an early draft of the Folio script or a reported text provided by actors (or both) – either form explains improvements in the Folio and its correction of Quarto errors.

The full Quarto title covers major elements of the plot but does not identify the central relationship between the weak, if well-meaning King Henry VI and his extraordinarily dynamic French Queen Margaret of Anjou, whose concerns govern much of the action: particularly her competition for court influence with Duke Humphrey and his wife Eleanor, both of whom she destroys with the aid of her lover the Earl of Suffolk, only to lose him by murder on his way to exile. Following the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, the play’s ultimate political concern is the king’s failure to control the rise of Richard, Duke of York, whose family’s claims to the throne, usurped by the Lancastrians, are justified by primogeniture and the incompetent king’s loss of France. The play ends with the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses at the Battle of St. Albans, won by followers of the White Rose of York.

The play was clearly designed as the first of a two-play sequence but there are many striking episodes in the progression of Queen Margaret’s tense conspiracy with the Earl of Suffolk, which involves the witchcraft conjuration that destroys Duchess Eleanor as prelude to the discrediting and murder of her husband, Duke Humphrey. Involvement in this plot evokes the hysterical death scene of the Machiavellian Cardinal of Winchester. The sardonic anti-establishment activities of the rebel Cade are disruptions sponsored by the Yorkists. All are phases in a conflicted society’s progress towards self-destruction. However, for centuries the play survived in fragments and adaptations, emerging separately only in the mid-nineteenth century, but still reinforced later as a part of combined performances with Parts 1 and 3 in the twentieth century. Its full recognition was greatly aided by its inclusion in The Wars of the Roses staged by Hall and Barton to celebrate the fourth centennial of Shakespeare’s birth, with Peggy Ashcroft brilliantly exploiting the mercurial role of Queen Margaret as its supreme creation.

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Introduction: Henry VI, Part 1

openliterature - January 9, 2011 in Introduction

Henry VI, Part 1 invites controversy. The First Folio prints it chronologically among Shakespeare’s histories, first of three Henry VI plays, diverging from order of composition. Thereby Heminge and Condell imply an intended sequence, but Henry VI, Part 1 may be a ‘prequel’ after The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster (2 Henry VI) printed in 1594 and The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke of 1595 (3 Henry VI). In A Groatsworth of Wit (1592) Robert Greene attacks Shakespeare as “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” who “is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” Greene parodies an already well-known line from Tragedie of Richard, so when Henslowe’s Diary lists a new titled play performed at this time called, “harey the vj”, it appears to be Part 1. Confirming Henslowe, in Piers Pennyless (1592 ) Thomas Nashe celebrated the current impact of this Henry VI, saying that its hero, Talbot, would be “joyed” that “hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators, at least (at severall times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.”

Perhaps Shakespeare, only partly involved in the composition of these plays, claimed a greater role than other contributors – possibly Greene and Nashe. Composite authorship invites critical uneasiness about the scripts, reinforced by Part 1‘s harshness to Joan of Arc. While based on chronicles of Henry VI’s reign by Hall and Holinshed, the plays are not unified by this ineffective king, who succeeded his father as an infant, though his incompetence leads to the loss of England’s French possessions and the Wars of the Roses. After the funeral of Henry V the self-destructive English factions in Part 1 put themselves at risk, partly from the energies of three Frenchwomen: the Countess of Auvergne, who is out-witted by Talbot; Jeanne la Pucelle, who defeats and kills him only to be captured and executed herself; and Margaret of Anjou, who introduces a new amatory interest by Act V as the intended spouse of Henry VI. Jeanne d’Arc called herself “la pucelle” (the virgin), which permits puns on this phonetically as “puzel” (whore) as part of hostile presentation. In the script she conjures up devils, and lies freely, as well as exhorting the French powerfully. Yet, feminists to the contrary, hers is the most incisive, complex and paradoxical character in the play, She comes close to being a tragic figure comparable to Lady Macbeth, despite the script’s nationalist overtones.

Though not favored by critics, the play contains iconic scenes, such as the Temple Garden one (II.iv), where factions choose roses providing heraldry for the Wars of the Roses: white for Yorkists, red for Lancastrians. The play revels in action in the French wars: duels showing the actors’ fighting skills. Latterly the play has vindicated its stage-worthiness, often in the three-play series, as with Benson’s Stratford performances of 1906. The script provoked Bernard Shaw’s recension with similar characters in St. Joan (1924). Much modified, Part 1 featured in the notable Barton-Hall series celebrating the fourth centenary of Shakespeare’s birth at Stratford (1964). Its multiple authorship does not preclude stage effectiveness.

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Introduction: Coriolanus

openliterature - August 26, 2010 in Introduction

Written about 1608, Coriolanus maintains the mature Shakespeare’s shift in historical settings from the Middle Ages to earlier periods. It is one of Shakespeare’s most relentlessly political plays, with a hero’s personality that seems almost as schematic as Timon of Athens’ (also derived from Shakespeare’s favored source in Plutarch’s Lives). This hero of the early Roman republic is an extreme example of those generals, such as Othello and Macbeth, whom Shakespeare shows to mesh awkwardly with civilian society and its values, including their relationships with women. Coriolanus reflects his mother Volumnia’s preoccupation with masculine virtues, despising domestic politics in comparison to battlefield success.

While his aristocratic assertiveness infuriates the Roman Tribunes, representatives of proletarian values, it serves Rome well in his defeat of its Volscian enemies from the rival city of Corioles, a victory that earns Coriolanus his name. However, this success intensifies the Tribunes’ fears: they subvert the election of Coriolanus as Consul, leading to his sentence of exile as an enemy of Rome. When, in revenge, he leads the Coriolans against Rome, he resists the pleas of friends to make peace, but finally negotiates a reconciliation, after his mother’s entreaty, only to be murdered by the resentful Coriolan general, Aufidius, whose leadership he has usurped.

The play fits reasonably well into the formal mould of neoclassical tragedy in topic and values, so it was not ignored in the eighteenth century though heavily adapted, which led to celebrated productions by John Philip Kemble, with his sister Sarah Siddons as Volumnia, beginning in 1789. An alternative, modern approach was developed by psychoanalytic criticism, pursuing an Oedipal fixation on dominant mothers such as Volumnia (perhaps why T. S. Eliot favoured it over Hamlet). Modern political extremism and cynical manipulation have made the play’s focus on exploitive politics more relevant, as with Brecht’s interest in recreating the script. None of these approaches greatly endears the play to current audiences. In Peter Hall’s notable production at Stratford in 1959, Laurence Olivier managed to inject sardonic humor into the contemptuous comments of Coriolanus, but this wry note left his highly emotional treason and final self-sacrifice out of tune for such a skeptical mind.

However, examined objectively, the play shows that Coriolanus usually fails to carry through his obtuse views, submitting (for example) to the rigors of election, only to be falsely accused of treason and exiled. Similarly, at the play’s climax he reluctantly resolves his dilemma of divided loyalties by enforcing compromise on both adversaries, knowing full well that by making peace he may expose himself to fatal hostility from aggressors on either side. To attribute his achievement to mere mother-fixation destroys tragic interest in the play, with its typical Shakespeare hero who intuits a higher moral order too late to save his own life. Modern productions often attempt a more sympathetic approach, for example, by stressing a youthful idealism in the hero, like the deft modernization of him by Toby Stephens as a Bonaparte figure in a revolutionary age, in the brilliantly successful RSC production in 1994, directed by David Thacker. The script’s brutality and absolutism plausibly fitted a Revolutionary Age, gaining modern relevance as well as colorful costumes and sets.

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Introduction: Much Ado About Nothing

openliterature - August 16, 2010 in Introduction

Much Ado About Nothing dates from around 1598, grouped with Shakespeare’s sophisticated middle comedies As You Like It and Twelfth Night, but sharing Merry Wives’ more realistic use of prose. Its traditional plot (resembling the twenty-second of Bandello’s novelle, and the fifth book of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) presents the disruption of the marriage of Claudio, protégé of the Spanish ruler Don Pedro. Don Pedro’s envious half-brother, the Bastard Don John, fakes promiscuity by the prospective bride, Hero, daughter of the Italian governor of the Sicilian city of Messina. After another false report, of her death from grief, her reputation is saved by the bumbling city watchmen, Elizabethan ‘Keystone Kops’, led by the comically incompetent Dogberry.

This plot line is catalyst for a theme of greater audience interest: the complex evolution of the affair between Benedick (Claudio’s friend) and Beatrice (Hero’s cousin). This pair is at odds after their antecedent relationship was broken off by Benedick’s obtuseness – and Beatrice displays her resentment in a witty war with her ex-lover. Their companions intervene with a plot of staged over-hearings to convince each that the other’s love is merely repressed. These over-hearings govern the play’s punning title, for “nothing” is a homonym of “noting” – and also an Elizabethan term for female genitalia. While others accept Hero’s guilt, Beatrice and Benedick join to defend her. After Claudio’s devotion to her revives, they wryly admit their own recommitment: Benedick’s becoming “engaged” to Beatrice (4.3.331 in Riverside) anticipates our modern premarital contract.

This paradoxical progression of the love/hate relationship of Beatrice and Benedick delights audiences: Leonard Digges versifies for the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s Poems: “let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice / The Cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full.” Later vividly dueling pairs include John Gielgud with Peggy Ashcroft, and Kenneth Branagh with Emma Thompson. Critics often censure what they consider “the main plot” concerning Hero and Claudio for weak characters and melodramatic effects, but the feigned deaths of beloveds recur in Shakespeare, from Juliet to Hermione. Plausibly Hero resists Beatrice’s domination via a plot analogous to that against herself, while Claudio resembles misled lovers Romeo and Bertram.

The exchanges of Beatrice and Benedick match courtly battles of the sexes in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron (Fourth Tale), Castiglione’s Courtier, and those between Shakespeare’s own couples, from Berowne and Rosaline to Antony and Cleopatra. Beatrice seems a proto-feminist in defying the patriarchal Spanish rulers of Sicily, who victimize dutiful women like Hero. Macabre Don John resembles the historical Bastard Don John of Austria (half-brother of King Philip II) who also resided in Messina, after defeating the Turkish fleet at Lepanto (1571). He notoriously planned to offset his bastardy by raising an Armada to conquer and rule Britain, and then marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Later love/hate pairings akin to Beatrice and Benedick include Mirabell and Millamant in Congreve’s The Way of the World, Elizabeth and Darcy in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Introduction: Venus and Adonis

openliterature - 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