|Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Texts That Explain Difficult Words and Passages
The Venus and Adonis Study Guide
Table of Contents
Type of Work Composition and Publication Sources Epigraph Dedication Format of the Poem
Stanza and Rhyme Scheme Meter Setting Narration Characters Plot Summary Climax and Conclusion
Main Goal of the Poem Figures of Speech
References to Mythology Themes
Complete Annotated Text of the Poem
Left: Painting of Venus and Adonis by English artistVenus and Adonis is narrative poem (a poem that tells a story). It centers on the infatuation of Venus, the goddess of love, with a young mortal named Adonis. The story originated in Greek mythology. Over the centuries, poets and other writers retold the story, interpreting it in new ways and adding new details.
Sidney Harold Meteyard (1868-1947)
Because the poem contains several characteristics of ancient epic poems, such as Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid, it has sometimes been referred to as an epyllion, or “little epic,” by scholars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) was said to have invented the word epyllion.
Among characteristics that Venus and Adonis shares with ancient epics are (1) it tells a story, (2) it portrays or alludes to mythological beings, and (3) its lines are in verse. The chief difference between Shakespeare's poem and ancient epics is length: Venus and Adonis has 1,194 lines. By comparison, the Iliad has approximately 12,000 lines and the Aeneid 9,900.
Venus and Adonis in 1593. Later that same year, Richard Field, a printer with an outstanding reputation for workmanship, published the poem in London. Field had been a boyhood acquaintance of Shakespeare when they were neighbors in Stratford, where Shakespeare was born. The poem became highly popular, and Field reprinted the book in 1594, 1595, and 1596. By 1640, twenty-four years after Shakespeare's death, the poem had gone through sixteen printings.
The main source for Shakespeare's poem was the story of Venus and Adonis as retold in the tenth book of Metamorphoses (Transformations), by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD). Metamorphoses, one of the great works of Western literature, was studied in schools of Shakespeare's time. Although Shakespeare was no doubt familiar with Ovid's original Latin rendering of the text, he probably relied more heavily on the English translation of it by Arthur Golding (1536-1606), published in 1567. Revised editions of Golding's translation appeared in 1575, 1587, and later years. Shakespeare may also have consulted Book III of The Faerie Queen (1591), by Edmund Spenser (1553?-1599); Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589), by Thomas Lodge (1558-1625); and the unfinished manuscript of Hero and Leander, by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).
Venus and Adonis begins with the following Latin epigraph from lines 35 and 36 of Elegy 25 in Amores (The Art of Love), by Ovid:
Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus ApolloThis study guide translates the quotation as follows: Let the common people admire vile things. May golden Apollo serve me a cupful of water from the fountain of Castalia.
The fountain of Castalia was at the foot of Mount Parnassus in south-central Greece, near Delphi, site of a temple honoring the sun god Apollo. Apollo dedicated the fountain to his disciples, the nine muses. As goddesses of the arts and sciences, the muses inspired the work of writers, painters, musicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and so on. Apollo and the muses were believed to congregate at the fountain and elsewhere in the vicinity of Mount Parnassus. Their association with the fountain gave rise to the belief that drinking its water would stimulate creativity.
Thus, Shakespeare's use of the Ovid quotation referring to the fountain of Castalia is a proclamation that Venus and Adonis is an inspired work, one worthy of the attention of sophisticated readers. Conveying this message was important to Shakespeare, for he was a young man struggling to make a name for himself. He had written several plays by this time (1593), but refined Londoners tended to regard works for the theater as entertainment for the boisterous masses. Many of them probably had never seen a Shakespeare play. And surely they had never read one, for Venus and Adonis was his first published work. But educated Londoners generally doted on good poetry. If Shakespeare could engage the cultured elite with his poetry, he might well win them over to his stage plays.
Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley (RIZE le), the Third Earl of Southampton. While still a teenager, Wriothesley (1573-1624) inherited his father's property and money. When Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis, Wriothesley was twenty, wealthy, well-educated, and an influential patron of the arts. Wriothesley's name at the beginning of the poem would signal to well-to-do aristocrats that the poem was worthy of their attention. It would also help put a jingle in Shakespeare's pocket. Several other writers dedicated works to him in the 1590s, including Barnabe Barnes (1571-1609), Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), William Burton (1575-1645), Henry Lok (1553?-1608?), and Gervase Markham (1568-1637).
Stanza and Rhyme SchemeWhenever two successive lines in the same meter rhyme, they are called a couplet. Thus, the last two lines in the above stanza—and in every other stanza in the poem—are couplets.
Venus and Adonis. An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing. Not only does he witness all the action, but he also sees inside the minds of the characters and reveals their thoughts and feelings. He is like a movie camera that plays back all the action in a film, including a scene in which a character is trapped on an elevator, is parachuting to earth, or is having a nightmare that the audience sees on the screen. In the following stanza from Venus and Adonis, the narrator tells the reader that Venus focuses her attention on flowers that seem to be in sympathy with Adonis, who has just been killed by a boar. He then describes her outward appearance, her feelings, and her thoughts.
This solemn sympathy poor Venus noteth,
Over one shoulder doth she hang her head,
Dumbly she passions, franticly she doteth;
She thinks he could not die, he is not dead:
Her voice is stopp’d, her joints forget to bow,
Her eyes are mad that they have wept till now. (1057-1062)
The narrator also frequently quotes Venus word for word when she speaks to Adonis or to herself. Less often, he quotes Adonis, who is shy and does not have much to say in the first place. Following is an example of a stanza in which the narrator quotes Venus:
"Had I no eyes but ears, my ears would love
That inward beauty and invisible;
Or were I deaf, thy outward parts would move
Each part in me that were but sensible:
Though neither eyes nor ears, to hear nor see,
Yet should I be in love by touching thee. (453-458)
No quotation marks appear at the end of the stanza because the quotation has not ended; it continues in the next stanza.
Several times in the poem, the narrator refers to persons or things that did not exist in the age of myth. Placement of such persons or things in the wrong historical era is called an anachronism. Here is an example.
Now is she in the very lists of love,
Her champion mounted for the hot encounter:
All is imaginary she doth prove,
He will not manage her, although he mount her. (595-598)
Lists were barriers enclosing the area where jousting tournaments were held in the Middle Ages. The word may also refer to the enclosed area itself. Champion mounted refers to a knight on a horse. Both lists and champion mounted are part of a metaphor comparing Venus's passion to lists and Adonis to a mounted knight. (He is "mounted" because he has fallen on top of her.) But there were no lists, knights, or jousting tournaments in ancient times.
The narrator also uses the word nuns (752) and the phrase deadly bullet of a gun (461). Nuns (members of Roman Catholic religious orders), bullets, and guns did not exist until many centuries after the age of myth.
Adonis (uh DAHN ihs): Young mortal with extraordinary good looks. He was the offspring of an incestuous union between a daughter and her father. He is shy and naive. Adonis steadfastly refuses to engage in sex with the voluptuous goddess even though she offers herself to him unconditionally. He regards her as lustful, not loving.
Huntsman: Hunter who shouts “holla” from afar when Venus thinks a boar has killed Adonis. The shout enkindles hope in Venus that Adonis is still alive, for he could be the shouting hunter.
Venus unhorses him, so that they lie side by side, and she strokes his cheek. Whatever words of protest he musters, “she murders with a kiss” (54). When he breathes, “she feedeth on the steam as on a prey” (63). She woos him further—on and on, relentlessly—with honey-coated words. But Adonis does not respond. Eventually, he says, “Fie, no more of love! / The sun doth burn my face: I must remove” (185-186). After his horse—a handsome palfrey—runs off to woo a jennet (female donkey), Adonis scolds the love goddess:
'For shame," he cries, 'let go, and let me go;Venus tells him he should take a lesson from his horse, which "welcomes the warm approach of sweet desire." But Adonis's only desire is to hunt, to chase a boar, and he begs release. He promises a kiss if she allows him to go his way. When they embrace, “face grows to face” (540). When he draws backward, she presses in.
Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey,But by and by, as day succumbs to evening, he resists again and she no longer restrains him.
'Sweet boy," she says, "this night I'll waste in sorrow,He leaves, disappearing into the darkness.
In the morning, the hunt is on. Hounds bark and bay. Attracted by the din, Venus spies the boar, “whose frothy mouth [is] bepainted all with red, / Like milk and blood being mingled both together” (901-902). The dogs run about in a frenzy, bleeding. And Adonis? Where is Adonis? She fears the worst. When she hears a “merry horn” (1025), her heart quickens with hope, and she hurries toward the sound.
And in her haste unfortunately spiesAdonis has been gored. He is dead. Venus is devastated. She says:
"Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost!From his blood, a purple flower with white dapples springs up. She plucks it so that she can keep it close to her heart. Then, tired and careworn, she leaves in her chariot, drawn by silver doves, “to immure herself and not be seen” (1194).
Venus and Adonis? To define frustration? To condemn lust? To profile a sexual predator? To argue for (or against) Venus's philosophy of living for the moment? To entertain voyeuristic readers? To compare virtue with transgression, or naivete with experience? To compare pagan ideals (represented by Venus) with Christian ideals (represented by Adonis)? To demonstrate the complex tangle of emotions generated by male-female relationships?
Scholarly essays have centered on all these questions. No clear consensus has emerged except on two points: Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis (1) to showcase his ability to write with verve and sophistication for educated and cultured audiences and (2) to make money. Shakespeare apparently succeeded on both accounts, for the poem abounds in dazzling imagery and wordplay that made it a commercial triumph with his target audience—going through four printings by the end of 1596—while bolstering his reputation as a writer. In fact, it is the wizardry of the wording—rather than the character development or plot—that is the most praiseworthy ingredient in the poem. It deftly describes the shifting moods of the characters, the sounds and sights of nature, and the tension between the goddess and the mortal. Through comparisons, passion turns into fire, angry words into prickly flowers, a heartbeat into an earthquake, anxiety into a cankerworm, a fleeing hare's zigzag path into a labyrinth. English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) says of the writing:
In the Venus and Adonis, the first and most obvious excellence is the perfect sweetness of the versification; its adaptation to the subject; and the power displayed in varying the march of the words without passing into a loftier and more majestic rhythm than was demanded by the thoughts, or permitted by the propriety of preserving a sense of melody predominant. The delight in richness and sweetness of sound, even to a faulty excess, if it be evidently original, and not the result of an easily imitable mechanism, I regard as a highly favourable promise in the compositions of a young man. The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. (Biographia Literaria. London: Fenner, 1817, Chapter 14. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6081/6081-h/6081-h.htm)
Katharine Eisaman Maus observes:
The language of Venus and Adonis is especially good at capturing the confusing, contradictory array of sensations produced by another person's unfamiliar body close to one's own, a sensation simultaneously grand, comic, oppressive, arousing, and repellant. (Qtd. in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997, page 605)
Although scholars generally praise the writing in the poem, they tend to criticize the plot and the characterization. The plot is simple and maybe even simplistic. Venus tempts Adonis to engage in sex with her. He does not yield. Later the boar kills him. That's it; that's the whole story. As for characterization, Adonis is static, lacking personality and vigor—which Shakespeare, through Venus, acknowledges:
'Fie! lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,And Venus? She's a motor-mouth. In her campaign to conquer Adonis—to bring the statue to life, as it were—she bombards him with flattery and other verbal inducements. For example, she tells him he is “thrice fairer than myself” (7) and “the field's chief flower (8).” When flattery fails, she tries another approach—that he has an obligation to beget children.
'Torches are made to light, jewels to wear,When this ploy also fails, she tells him how much she loves him.
'Had I no eyes but ears, my ears would loveBy and by, Adonis finally agrees to kiss her. The narrator then takes over to describe the encounter.
Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey,However, Adonis breaks off the kiss. Nevertheless, Venus's lips keeping moving, warning him of the dangers of the vile boar. Even after Adonis goes home, she continues to chatter—to the gods, to herself, to death.
Meanwhile, all of Venus's talk—and all the narrator's passages—enable Shakespeare to demonstrate his command of the language; he is a verbal sorcerer. His words alone, without extended plotting and characterization, can enthrall the reader or listener.
Alliteration: Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or syllables
Earth’s sovereign salve to do a goddess good. (28)Anaphora: Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other.
Now doth she stroke his cheek, now doth he frown. (45)Apostrophe: Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing an absent entity or a person; addressing a deceased person.
O thou clear god, and patron of all light,Assonance: Repetition of the same vowel sound preceded and followed by different consonant sounds
But through the flood-gates breaks the silver rain. (959)Chiasmus: Reversing the order of words in the second of two parallel clauses or phrases.
Hunting he lov’d, but love he laugh’d to scorn. (4)Hyperbole: Exaggeration or overstatement.
My boding heart pants, beats, and takes no rest,Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
flint-hearted boy (95)
I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer. (231)
Affection is a coal that must be cool’d. (387)Onomatopoeia: Figure of speech in which (1) a word mimics a sound or (2) an arrangement of words in a rhythmic pattern that suggests a sound or an image
Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses. (17)Personification: A type of metaphor that refers to a thing or an abstraction as a person
Bid Suspicion double-lock the door,Simile: Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
She [is] red and hot as coals of glowing fire. (35)
Comparison of the intensity of Venus's desire to the heat of a glowing coal
Upon this promise did he raise his chin
Like a dive-dapper peering through a wave. (85-86)
Comparison of Adonis to a bird
His louring brows o’erwhelming his fair sight,
Like misty vapours when they blot the sky. (183-184)
Comparison of Adonis's brows to vapors
Synecdoche: Figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole.
What face remains alive that’s worth the viewing? (1076)These two lines foreshadow the rest of the poem—in particular, Venus's distress at Adonis's continual rejection of her. Other references to mythology are explained in the notes that follow the stanzas. (To read the first two lines or the first stanza, see the complete annotated text.)
Face represents the entire body.
Why does Venus fail to seduce Adonis? Apparently because he knows that her real motive in pursuing him is to satisfy her intense sexual craving for him. She is the goddess of lust, not love, attracted to Adonis's delicious exterior. He is a ripe apple newly fallen from the tree, and she wants a bite. She does not care about abstract qualities that he may or may not possess, such as courage, loyalty, generosity, or integrity. And she does not care about where he comes from, whom he befriends, what he eats or drinks, or what he wants to do with his life. It is his body that intrigues her.
She uses her every charm and wile, and an ever-flowing cascade of honeyed words, to win him over. But he steadfastly refuses to do anything but kiss her—once to pacify her and once to assuage the guilt he feels after she faints (or pretends to faint). To engage in sexual intimacy merely to gratify passion, he says, is wrong. Adonis lectures her on what real love is:
‘Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,In the end, it is a dumb animal that conquers Adonis, and the goddess curses love in a bitter tirade extending from line 1135 to line 1164. True, she laments the death of Adonis with beautiful words. But it is really the death of her opportunity to couple with this beautiful creature that brings tears to her cheeks.
In her effort to seduce Adonis, Venus brags to him early in the poem that she once enslaved the mighty god of war, Mars, making him beg to sleep with her. But, she says, Adonis can have her without even asking.
I have been woo’d, as I entreat thee now,This appeal to Adonis is just another of her ploys to manipulate him into becoming a sex pawn. Ironically, though, it is he, a puny mortal, who holds the real power here. He has the wherewithal to control his emotions; she does not. Consequently, she becomes Adonis's slave, just as Mars was her slave. However, whereas Venus yielded to the war god's desire for her, Adonis never yields to her desire for him. And she is powerless against his obstinacy.
Venus seems never at a loss for stratagems to get Adonis to surrender to her. Here are three examples.
Live for the moment. Venus uses a carpe diem (seize the day) argument to try persuade Adonis to accept pleasure when it presents itself, as his horse does when he sees the jennet. She says,Two
Beget children. The goddess tells Adonis he has an obligation to father children to perpetuate the human race.Three
Explore. Venus suggests that Adonis explore her body as if she were a public park.Gender Reversal
Shakespeare's poem is noteworthy for its depiction of Venus in the traditional male role as sexual aggressor and Adonis in the traditional female role as shrinking violet. Venus asserts herself early in the poem when she pulls Adonis off his horse, pushes him to the ground, and positions herself next to him. Throughout the poem she and the narrator refer to Adonis as delicate and fragile and call him beautiful rather than handsome. Line 50 uses the term "maiden burning of his cheeks" to describe their redness when he blushes. A maiden is a virginal young girl. Lines 307-312 metaphorically compare Adonis's male horse to Venus and the female donkey to Adonis.
He looks upon his love, and neighs unto her;