It also intends to deal with its controversial subject matter, which has always been a topic of interest for scholars and critics. Venus and Adonis has been interpreted as everything from a noble love poem to an obscene tale of lust. Its debatable theme has been interpreted as going far beyond the story of how the goddess of love -Venus – fell in love with a young man, Adonis. Scholars often show a particular interest in Venus’ attempts to make love and Adonis’ refusals. The plot follows as Adonis abandons her and sets off to hunt a boar. When Adonis is finally mutilated by a wild boar, Venus is left alone suffering the bitter loss of her juvenile love.
We will also try to prove why Venus and Adonis has demonstrated to be one of Shakespeare’s most distinguished narrative works, mainly deriving from its dealing with a theme concerning the primarily human subject of sexual love.
Finally, the objective of this investigation is to examine the sources in which Shakespeare inspired to achieve his narrative work and to mention the ways in which the author has depicted one of his magnificent literary achievements.
Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem that has been written by the greatest dramatist ever, William Shakespeare. The poem tells the story of goddess Venus’ passion for Adonis, a young hunter. Venus courts him, and further on, she aims at making love with him. Adonis refuses her, considering her too lustful. Instead, he decides to go hunting, and ends up being killed by a wild boar. Venus finds the dead corpse and laments herself because her beloved has passed away.
The poem begins with a contrasting introduction of the two characters: in the first stanza ‘rose cheek’d Adonis’ is contrasted to ill-thought Venus:
“Rose cheeked Adonis hied him to the chase…” (Line 3)
“Sick thoughted Venus makes amain unto him…” (Line 5)
He is presented as an innocent young man, that ‘hunting (he) loved, but love he laught to scorn’ (line 4). On the contrary, Venus is presented as a perverted female who ‘gins to woo him’ (line 6).
In this poem, the standard romantic convention, where the lovesick male pursues uninterested women, is reversed, as it is Venus who courts and harasses Adonis. It can also be noticed that Shakespeare takes every opportunity to emphasise this role inversion.
Venus is a parody of a typical male suitor, while Adonis is presented in a traditionally feminine role, and is regarded as a mere sex object.
“And having felt the sweetness of the spoil,
With blind fold fury she begins to forage;
Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage;
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack…”
“He now obeys, and now no more resisteth…” (line 564)
Venus’ overbearing seizure of Adonis is a virtual parody of male aggressiveness, emphasising role inversion:
“With this she seizeth on his sweating palm,
The precedent of pith and livelihood,
And, trembling in her passion, calls it balm”
Venus draws the attention in the poem due to her many attributes as the great goddess of love, as seen in the following lines:
“Her arrival on earth is sudden and mysterious. She has put on a woman’s form, yet she is strangely incorporeal, neither naked nor clothed, neither young nor old, with perennial beauty that ‘as the spring doth yearly grow’. The sensuality of her courtship is only apparent: her hand if touched would ‘dissolve, or seem to melt’; the primroses she lies on support her ‘like sturdy trees’.
Venus might be the idealisation of beauty and love, but to Adonis she is no more than an lustful older woman who does not see that he is too young, as ‘the text is old; the orator to green’.
Venus’ repeated enthusiasm for physical love can be noticed in lines 229-240, where there is an erotic characterisation of Venus’ own body as landscape. In lines 19-24, it can be seen that Venus’ attraction to Adonis is completely physical and passionate:
“And yet not cloy thy lips with loathe’d satiety,
But rather famish them amid their plenty,
Making them red and pale with fresh variety;
Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty:
As summer’s day will seem an hour but short,
Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport”
Moreover, Venus argues that love is the most appropriate human activity because it leads to reproduction (lines 163-174).
As for Adonis, Venus views the common adolescent as ‘the very archetypal pattern and substance of which beautiful things are but shadows’. Adonis is described as a tiny, terrified waterbird in lines 86-87.
Adonis is also associated with the imagery suggestive of woman’s physical charms:
” Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,
More white and red than doves or roses are.”
“Doth quench the maiden burning of his cheeks.”
On several occasions, Venus’ wooing exposes the comic indignity of the situation. Venus ‘sweats’ with heat and effort, she pleads Adonis, but he claims:
‘ ‘For shame,’ he cries, ‘let go, and let me go;
My day’s delight is past, my horse is gone,
And ’tis your fault I am bereft him so.”
Adonis rejects not only Venus herself but also her idea of love, which he equates with lust in lines 787-798:
“Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled,
Since sweating Lust on earth usurped his name”
Therefore, it can be said that Venus and Adonis represent opposing points of view, as “the goddess finds fulfilment in the delights of sensuality, while the mortal man conceives of an ideal spiritual state”
“The poem simultaneously views love in contradictory ways. Though love is the noblest of imaginable states of mind, as Adonis insists, it is also utterly dull, even ridiculous, grounded, as it is in the physical desires embodied by Venus’ lust. Love’s complicated blend of opposing qualities is asserted in the description of love in Venus’ closing lament (1136-1156). The vision of destruction takes in not only the central figures of the poem, but also its natural setting. Venus and Adonis has also conveyed a profound sense of the tragic side of existence.” (Boyce)
Venus and Adonis was dedicated to Shakespeare’s long time patron Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton. He is believed to have been a young noble of “more than pleasant aspect”, who is also thought to be the subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In the poem’s dedication, Shakespeare calls his work ‘the first heir of my invention’, and it is sometimes said that Venus and Adonis was written before any of the plays. However, most scholars agree that it is much more likely to have been written between June 1592 and April 1593.
Venus and Adonis was first published in 1593 by the printer Richard Field, and it was so popular that eight more editions were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is said that Venus and Adonis’ style is richer and more glowing than that of the poet’s earliest Histories and Comedies.
Venus and Adonis owes its inspiration to “the works of the Latin Master of erotic poetry, Ovid” (Boyce), including Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X) in particular but with elements from other sections of Ovid’s work as well parts of Spenser’s Faerie Queen (IIIi), and, perhaps, Marlowe’s Hero and Leander.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Adonis reciprocates Venus’ love, but Shakespeare followed a variant of the tale, incorporating elements from other Ovidian stories and portraying the mortal’s rejection of the goddess.
It has been stated that by associating his work to Ovid’s, Shakespeare intended to be similarly witty and resourceful. Some details, especially the episode of the stallion and the mare, were said to be probably inspired by passages in the Georgics of Virgil, a renowned Latin poet.
A third Ovidian love story on which Shakespeare draws is that of Narcissus, another hunter, pursued by the nymph Echo.
Other Ovidian touches include the reference to Adonis as a ‘statue contenting but the eye alone’, which recalls that Ovid’s Pygmalion:
“Offended with the vice, where of great shore is packed within
The nature of the womankind, he led a single life,
And long it was ere he could find in heart to take a wife.”
The poem is not mainly a praise of sexual love, it is also an illustrated and psychological study of the physical and emotional attitudes of wooing, lust, and repulsion, which is extended after Adonis’ death to the goddess’ anguish, reflected in her postures showing sadness and sweetness.
At the end of Venus and Adonis, the goddess puts a curse on love, saying that it shall be full of paradoxes:
“It shall be waited on with jealousy
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end…”
“It shall be sparing and too full of riot,
Teaching decreipt age to tread the measures…”
“It shall be raging mad, and silly mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child…”
(The Wordsworth Poetry Library, The Poems
& Sonnets of William Shakespeare, page 113)
Some scholars state that not one of Shakespeare’s narrative poems has mastered its stanza. They affirm that he seems no to have been interested in the matter of mechanical form. Some of the stanzas of Venus and Adonis are weak, and it is the concluding couplets that have failed, as rhyme seems to have been forced:
“Dismiss your vows, your feigned tears, your flattery;
For where a heart is hard they make no battery.” (425-6)
” This way she runs, and now she will no further,
But back retires to rate the boar for murther.” (905-6)
” For from the stillitory of thy face excelling,
Comes breath perfumed, that breedeth love by smelling.”
” This beauteous combat, wilful and unwilling,
Show’d like two silver doves that sit a-billing.”
These scholars state that Venus and Adonis is a desperate narrative that has its freshness of colour. It is affirmed that most ideas are overdeveloped; that there is strain, exaggeration, and bad taste. Some scholars have sharply criticised Shakespeare as a result of the publication of Venus and Adonis.
Venus and Adonis has been thought as once too sensuous and too cold, too fleshly and too abstract, too absurd in its situations and yet too tragic in tone. Venus and Adonis includes a wide range of attitudes: elements of humour and passion, sensuous and intellectual perceptions have been combined within this controversial narrative. With some minor defects, the poem is said to be a triumphant example of diversity in unity.
Venus and Adonis may be only seen as insignificant entertainment intended to attract the patronage of a cultured Elizabethan aristocrat; or the poem may be given more weight and viewed as an example of Renaissance art.
However, the moral to be found in Venus and Adonis has proven elusive, and the poem has been assessed in many different ways, as has already been described. Some critics feel that Venus and Adonis is a failure, an immature effort that is confused and uncertain because the author himself was unclear about the nature of love and lust and therefore resorted to humour to patch up his undeveloped work. Others see the poem as a delightfully erotic comedy, a celebration of sexual passion. Although Adonis dies, his story is couched in humour, and his death is not a tragic one -his corpse vanishes into air and his blood becomes the goddess’ nosegay.
“By this, the boy that by her side lay kill’d
Was melted like a vapour from her side;
And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d,
A purple flower sprung up, chequer’d with white,
Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.”
(The Wordsworth Poetry Library, The Poems
& Sonnets of William Shakespeare, page 114)
Adonis’s death may be seen as the pathetic outcome of his cold and foolish aversion to love and sex. On the other hand, the horror of his death and Venus’ condemnation of love at the end of the poem may be thought to condemn lust as a primal source of destruction. Venus and Adonis deals with perhaps the most difficult emotion to understand: love, and presents an essential paradox: love, an obvious manifestation of an elemental life force, is often tied to a self-destructive inclination towards death.
One must analyse the fact that Venus and Adonis is unquestionably amusing and entertaining, and that it may be also regarded as funny.
Even when Venus first sees Adonis’ corpse, the famous simile of the shrinking snail offers an image that softens the situation:
“Or as the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit…”
Moreover, Venus seems reduced to the shameful action of plucking Adonis from his horse in order to convey her powers of seduction which prove to be rather inadequate. Furthermore, her description of herself as a landscape leads Venus to an even deeper humiliation. When Adonis smiles in disdain, she is reduced to helplessness by his dimples and states that ‘being mad before; how doth she now for wits?’ (line 249).
In spite of the fact that Adonis rejects the wild nature of the love that Venus demands from him; he is himself associated with animals throughout the poem. This can be seen from the early parallels between him and the birds and the symbolism of his runaway horse as a male lover, to his almost sexual union with the boar in mutual death.
In a similar spirit, the poem boasts frequent vivid and sensual representations of country life. This can be clearly noticed in the comparison of the captive Adonis to a trapped bird:
“Look how a bird lies tangled in a net,
So fasten’d in her arms Adonis lies…”
It also compares Venus to a ‘mild doe, whose swelling dugs do ache’ (line 875). The poem also makes reference to the wild boar:
“On his bow-back he hath a battle set
Of bristly pikes, that ever threat his foes;
His eyes, like glow worms, shine when he doth fret;
His snout digs sepulchres where’er he goes;
Being moved, he strikes whate’er is in his way
And whom he strikes his crooked tushes slay.”
As a conclusion, we believe that Venus and Adonis has often been considered as less relevant to Shakespeare’s modern readers, who prefer the author’s dramas. This work has often been regarded as weak and artificial, as its characterisation seems to be feeble if compared with the plays. In spite of what has been previously stated, Venus and Adonis contains many charming and entertaining passages. We think that less critical readers will be able to enjoy the way in which the myth is turned into a human story.
Like Shakespeare’s greater works, it is concerned with the human predicament, and it illuminates the young playwright’s attitude towards one of his most important concerns, sexual love. Moreover, some scholars state that Shakespeare was raising questions of major concern in his approach to life and love.
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis is interesting from the point of view of human emotions and attitudes, as it analyses human nature far beyond what may seem as a mere narrative story.