Sunday, January 15, 2012

Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays maybe where all his glory lies but you cannot discount his poems. He was a very prolific poet with 154 sonnets, 2 narrative poems and several smaller poems.  He isn’t called The Bard for nothing. It must have been a natural progression for him since most of his plays are also written in verse. I haven’t read too many of his sonnets yet, but a narrative poem like Venus and Adonis is very like his plays. Complex characters, lyrical dialogue, a tragic bent to the story and those evocative Shakespearean metaphors.

Venus and Adonis is the story of the goddess Venus and her love for the mortal Adonis. The poem begins with Venus wooing a reluctant Adonis. She praises him very eloquently and tries to persuade him to sit by her and accept her kisses. But Adonis is unmoved and impatient to go hunting, so he shrugs her off and goes in search of his horse. His horse however, being of a more romantic temperament, runs off with a pretty mare leaving a frustrated Adonis without a ride. Venus returns to his side and redoubles her efforts to try and seduce him. Finally Adonis relents slightly and gives her a kiss but he will go no further. His heart and mind are set at hunting a boar. Hearing this, Venus is alarmed and tries to dissuade him. She advices him to hunt a less ferocious beast but Adonis is adamant. The next day the hunt is on and Venus follows along to make sure Adonis is alright but seeing the raging and frothing boar brings back all her worst fears. I’ll leave you to read the rest for yourself.

Obviously, Shakespeare didn’t think this one up all by himself. It is based on a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Shakespeare did however introduce several twists and new elements here. For one, Metamorphoses portrays Venus and Adonis as lovers but Shakespeare makes Venus lovesick and Adonis ‘frosty’ so there is a whole other kind of chase and hunt going on here in addition to the obvious hunting scene. There is also a very beautiful interlude when Venus, believing her lover to be dead, admonishes and riles against death (Hateful divorce of love,’—thus chides she Death,—Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean-To stifle beauty and to steal his breath,) then, hopeful again, she placates death and tries to flatter him into leaving Adonis alone. Venus and Adonis is also the most sexually charged work by Shakespeare that I've ever read.  I don’t know the tone Ovid takes on this so I can’t compare but Shakespeare’s Venus is not coy about her passion for Adonis.

The foreword of the poem had a very flattering dedication to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was at the time, the bard’s benefactor. Shakespeare assures Wriothesley that he will soon come up with a graver piece of work if Venus and Adonis earns his patron’s approval. The graver work turned out to be The Rape of Lucrece, another narrative poem based on another Roman legend from Ovid’s book. Although The Rape of Lucrece is generally considered the more superior poem, I really like Venus and Adonis much better. It is less action-packed but far wittier I thought. I leave you with one of my favourite couplets from the poem.

"For where Love reigns, disturbing Jealousy
Doth call himself Affection's sentinel;
Gives false alarms, suggesteth mutiny,
And in a peaceful hour doth cry `Kill, kill!'
Distemp'ring gentle Love in his desire,
As air and water do abate the fire.

"This sour informer, this bate-breeding spy,
This canker that eats up Love's tender spring,
This carry-tale, dissentious Jealousy,
That sometime true news, sometime false doth bring,
Knocks at my heart, and whispers in mine ear
That if I love thee I thy death should fear;


  1. The only poems by Shakespeare I have ever read are some of the sonnets. I'm familiar with the story of Venus and Adonis and it's a great one :)

    1. I too had only read a few of his sonnets until now. Venus and Adonis was a real treat to read.

  2. This is a new one for me. I must go and look it up.

    1. its pretty easily available online. Hope you enjoy it.

  3. It never occurred to me to read his poems. If they take the formation of a tale though it sounds up my street. I also think I would read Ovid first just to compare them. Will work my way through his plays for now though.

    1. When you do read Ovid's version of Venus and Adonis or Rape of Lucrece, I'd love to know what you thought of it and how these myths are played out in that version. I'm afraid I only had the time to read the summaries of the Ovid versions.

  4. I actually had never heard of this poem until the other day. I'm not sure if I'll get around to reading it this month or not, but I hope to.