Abbreviations: Venus = Venus and Adonis; Pilgrim = The Passionate Pilgrim; “Phoenix” = “The Phoenix and Turtle”
Bashar, Nazife. “Rape in England between 1550 and 1700.” In The Sexual Dynamics of History: Men’s Power, Women’s Resistance, edited by London Feminist History Group, pp. 28–42. London: Pluto Press, 1983.
Through a detailed examination of available records, Bashar historicizes rape in England over a period spanning 150 years. Originally understood as the theft of female property belonging to a husband or father, and thus an offense against male ownership, rape was separated from abduction in statutes of 1555 and 1597, when the legal issue slowly and tentatively began to be understood as one of consent. Such statutes notwithstanding, Bashar located only 274 cases of rape in English assize records from the five home counties over the period, and from these there were only 45 guilty verdicts, all of them involving some element of property in the form of virginity. “Whether regarded as a crime against property or a crime against the person, rape was a crime by men against women, and the law as an intrinsic and powerful part of the patriarchy operated for men against women.”
Belsey, Catherine. “Love as Trompe-L’Oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 257–76.
Belsey reads Venus in light of Jacques Lacan’s definition of “trompe-l’oeil” as the promise of a presence that is not delivered. This Lacanian sense of the term as a trick that not only deceives but tantalizes is present in the poem’s reference to a painting in which the depiction of grapes is so enticing that birds, deceptively promised oral gratification, find no pleasure for their stomachs (ll. 601–2). Similarly, Venus is drawn to the provocative image of Adonis, whose beauty evokes an unsatisfied longing for his reciprocal desire; holding Adonis in her arms but eliciting no response only intensifies her longing. Because the narrative “prompts in the reader a desire for action that it fails to gratify”—very little actually happens on the level of plot—critics have tried to locate a moral center in Adonis’s attempt to distinguish between love and lust (ll. 799–804) that would at least provide meaning on a thematic level. But historically the terms love and lust were changing in relation to one another, and the poem, especially in its lack of closure, marks this differentiation in the taxonomies of desire as an important “moment in the cultural history of love.” Venus is itself a literary trompe-l’oeil: “a text of and about desire . . . [that] promises a definitive account of love but at the same time withholds the finality that such a promise might lead us to expect.”
Belsey, Catherine. “Tarquin Dispossessed: Expropriation and Consent in The Rape of Lucrece.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52 (2001): 315–35.
Focusing on the instability of the term rape, which defines the victim “as at once passive object and resisting subject,” Belsey argues that Lucrece marks “a moment of early modern cultural redefinition, which is registered in the story of possession and dispossession it recounts.” Although the poem does not overtly equivocate in its endorsement of women as property—even at the end, Lucrece’s father and husband compete for the right to lament her death based on ownership of her—the tragedy that unfolds depends precisely on “the expropriability of all property.” Collatine’s treasure is precious precisely because it can be stolen. The poem’s image of Tarquin beside himself (ll. 157, 160, 596–97), having lost his faculties and his kingdom in taking possession of Lucrece, underscores the paradox underlying the insecurity of ownership: “the king’s son, dissatisfied with what he already possesses, wants what, because it is forbidden, will destroy him and all he possesses.” Just as the term rape equivocates between the passive and resistant, so does Lucrece’s suicide: “the object of violence is simultaneously the subject as agent of her own judicial execution.” The effect of the heroine’s independently chosen course of action is “a change of regime to one based on consent: propriety will no longer be synonymous with property.” Belsey argues that sexual politics and state politics are interwoven in the poem and finds, in the installation of the republic resulting from Lucrece’s deliberative action, an affirmation of a model of state politics that is also based on consent. “If we read the text as a critique, what it criticizes is a model of both marriage and government that works to no one’s advantage, not the husband’s and not, in the end, the tyrant’s.”
Berry, Philippa. “Woman, Language, and History in The Rape of Lucrece.” Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992): 33–39.
Berry partially accepts the reading of Lucrece as a battle between men fought over a woman’s body (see Kahn and Vickers below), but she questions the view that Lucrece is never depicted as “posing any contradiction, any aporia, within patriarchal discourse.” Focusing on the long rhetorical performance from lines 575 to 1722, the author argues that the heroine’s private use of a language charged with “magical, incantatory properties” challenges any interpretation of Shakespeare’s Lucrece as being “simply history’s victim”; instead, she is shown to be an “independent, if somewhat unorthodox (and confused) historical agent, who uses an Orphic private utterance to initiate historic change.” What comes through her apostrophes to Night, Time, and Opportunity and her meditation upon a painting of the fall of Troy is an attempt to replace the loss of a “specifically feminine ‘virtue’ with a virtù” that can empower her to take control of her tragic destiny. Berry, however, cautions against overestimating Lucrece’s understanding of her own relationship to language and history, since her desire for universal justice is at times confusedly mingled with concern for her husband’s honor, and she herself underestimates the power of her language of grief to effect historical and political change.
Bowers, A. Robin. “Iconography and Rhetoric in Shakespeare’s Lucrece.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 1–21.
In contrast to those who criticize Lucrece for her “typically feminine” rhetorical excesses and what some consider her “moral waywardness,” Bowers attempts to show (1) that in keeping with his literary and artistic contemporaries, Shakespeare develops the legend to demonstrate Lucrece’s virtue and (2) that the rhetorical techniques used by both the heroine and narrator consistently emphasize the violence of rape and Lucrece’s resulting mental anguish. The aesthetic result of the poem’s forensic structure combined with its psychic stress on lamentation is pity for Lucrece’s tragic demise, not “scorn for her prolixity or duplicity.” Through an “ever-expanding series of debates pitting will against reason, illogic against logic, and despair against hope,” Lucrece confirms the early modern view of its heroine (found in the poetry and iconography of the time) as an exemplum of chastity, fidelity, and constancy, while at the same time “requiring its readers to tackle the more significant questions of the personal and social implications of rape.”
Bromley, Laura G. “Lucrece’s Re-Creation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 200–211.
For Bromley, Lucrece is not a pawn in the male struggle for possession but a strong woman who directly faces the loss of her personal honor and integrity by declaring “I am the mistress of my fate” (l. 1069). Once the reader accepts as fact what Lucrece and her society, along with Shakespeare and his, accept—namely, that she has indeed been corrupted as a result of Tarquin’s violent act—it becomes clear that Lucrece is confronted with a moral dilemma. Underlying the poem is the common Renaissance belief that all things are balanced against their opposites; when Lucrece is raped, she loses her own interior balance. But what the rest of the poem shows are the heroine’s attempts to re-create herself in a “wilderness where are no laws” (l. 544). Sensing the past as present in the painting of Troy before her, Lucrece sees herself as part of a historical context and recognizes how “private sin . . . become[s] public plague.” Lucrece’s suicide—a deliberative act meant to restore order within and outside herself, thus satisfying both personal and societal demands—should be read as “positive, constructive, and self-creative.”
Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1, pp. 161–76 (Venus) and 179–99 (Lucrece). 1957. Reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
Bullough discusses Venus and Lucrece as companion pieces describing, respectively, “desire unaccomplished against reluctance” and “desire accomplished by force.” Ovid was the primary source for both: the Metamorphoses as translated by Arthur Golding (1567) for Venus, and the Fasti for Lucrece. Bullough reprints excerpts from Ovid’s tales of Venus and Adonis (10.585–651, 826–63), the amorous water nymph Salmacis and the unresponsive Hermaphroditus (4.347–481), and the self-absorbed Narcissus (3.427–542, 635–42). Shakespeare used the hostility of Hermaphroditus and Narcissus to female charms in his discussion of Adonis because the poem “was conceived as a study in the coyness of masculine adolescence [and] the frenzy of female longing.” Along with portions of Ovid’s Fasti in its original Latin (2.721–852), supplemented by a 1640 translation, Bullough includes parts of “The Second Novell” of The Pallace of Pleasure by William Painter (1566) as a translation of a definite source, Livy’s Historia (chapters 57–60), and a portion of The Legende of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer (ll. 1680–1885) as a probable source. Shakespeare expanded Ovid’s brief account of Lucrece “by filling out the outline of the Roman’s sophisticated simplicity into long disquisitions on the physical and emotional states of the main figures.” The two Ovidian poems, in which Shakespeare “transformed Roman style and matter with . . . rich if tedious eloquence, were not only a springboard to his imagination but gave him topics, myths and allusions” to which he would often return.
Cheney, Patrick. Shakespeare, National Poet-Playwright. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
The volume includes separate chapters on Venus, Lucrece, Pilgrim, and “Phoenix.” (Chapter 7 reprints the essay annotated in the Cheney entry of the Further Reading section for the Sonnets.) Because Shakespeare was known among his contemporaries as both a poet and a man of the theater, it is possible to trace in his work an intertextual line of descent that positions him as the national poet-playwright, successor not only to Marlowe but also to Spenser. In Venus, the form of desire depicted by Ovid and Marlowe prevails over Spenserian chastity; Lucrece marks a shift from pastoral in the direction of epic, while at the same time calling into question the celebration of empire that marks the epics of Virgil and Spenser. These two poems—but Lucrece more so—are “imbued with the discourse of both the theatre and the print shop,” and both concern the issue of authorship itself. The poems, a corpus in their own right, together with the plays that they complement, “record a sustained conversation not merely on theatre but also on the art of poetry. . . . By listening in on this conversation, we can become attuned to a particular Shakespearean language of authorship that we might not have known existed.”
Donaldson, Ian. “ ‘A Theme for Disputation’: Shakespeare’s Lucrece.” In The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations, pp. 40–56. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
In this book-length study of the story of the rape of Lucretia from Ovid to Giraudoux, Donaldson devotes the third chapter to Shakespeare’s poem, which he finds, despite “many local subtleties and felicities,” ultimately incoherent as it wavers between the conflicting ethics of ancient Rome and those of Christianity in addressing the dilemma of a “dishonored” woman. For all the psychological insight Shakespeare introduces into the story—no other version is more attentive to the mental processes of the two central characters—one is left with the sense that moral issues are “talked around, but seldom through.” Whereas in Ovid and Livy there is a stress on the superiority of deeds to words, in Shakespeare Tarquin’s decision to rape Lucrece and her decision to kill herself are logically and morally indefensible because they seem to be undertaken only to end the interminable process of debate. In the end, disputations are neither concluded nor finely poised in their inconclusiveness. Atypically, Shakespeare “does not take moral repossession of the older story, confidently charging it with new depth and intricacy.”
Dubrow, Heather. Shakespeare and Domestic Loss: Forms of Deprivation, Mourning, and Recuperation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
This reexamination of several of Shakespeare’s texts, including Lucrece (pp. 45–61), centers on their engagement with forms of deprivation that threatened domestic security in early modern England: namely, the loss of goods through burglary, the loss of one’s dwelling place, and the loss of parents when a child is still relatively young. Loss pervades Lucrece in that the heroine loses her chastity and her life; Tarquin, his integrity; and Collatine and Lucretius, their wife and daughter, respectively. But it is the losses resulting from burglary that are the most significant. In making this claim, Dubrow intends not to minimize Lucrece’s suffering but rather to put the rape in a new perspective that illuminates “the assignment of guilt and responsibility[,] . . . a problem with many implications for the workings of male subjectivity and other questions about gender.” Dubrow’s focus leads her to conclude that Shakespeare’s poem emphasizes not only the wife’s duty to protect the threatened dwelling place but also her incapacity to do so under some circumstances; significantly, it holds Collatine culpable for failing to guard and protect the home and all it holds. The figurative language in lines 834–40 and 848–49 presents “the nexus of intrusion, robbery, and contamination that recurs in the actual rape.”
Dubrow, Heather. “ ‘Upon Misprision Growing’: Venus and Adonis” and “ ‘Full of Forged Lies’: The Rape of Lucrece.” In Captive Victors: Shakespeare’s Narrative Poems and Sonnets, pp. 21–79, 80–168. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
In the first two chapters of this study, the author focuses on Venus and Lucrece, poems that are often misread and more often left unread, largely because of their elaborate rhetorical ornamentation, often seen as an impediment to characterization. The author admits that not all of the poems’ rhetorical devices are skillfully used and that Shakespeare does not, as he does elsewhere in the canon, vary meter to show nuances of emotion and personality. Nevertheless, she contends that it is precisely through the extensive use of rhetorical figures that Shakespeare “unlocks, anatomizes, and variously condemns and admires the hearts of his protagonists,” producing in the poems a “subtle exploration of human emotion, a coherent analysis of human character.” Following Fineman (see below), Dubrow explores how Lucrece, a poem about rape, is fittingly structured around synœciosis (the conjoining of contraries to form an expanded oxymoron), a figure “grounded in conflict and contradiction” and hence evocative of tension. In Venus, the author focuses on the goddess’s “predilection for conditionals,” which reflects the other ways “she attempts to reshape and manipulate experience.” Dubrow advocates reading the two narrative poems in connection with the Sonnets (the subject of her final chapter titled “Conceit Deceitful”), because all three works are deeply concerned with character and the ways in which people respond to flux. In raising similar questions about love, power, powerlessness, and the use and abuse of language, Venus, Lucrece, and the Sonnets reveal “the multiple and indissoluble links between the art of rhetoric and the art of living.” In none of them do rhetorical figures “upstage human ones.”
Ellrodt, Robert. “An Anatomy of The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Shakespeare Survey 15 (1962): 99–110.
In order to demonstrate Shakespeare’s original treatment of the phoenix theme, Ellrodt examines the poem’s symbolism and philosophical assumptions in light of both earlier critical interpretations and Renaissance adaptations of the phoenix myth from Petrarch to Donne. Shakespeare’s originality lies in focusing attention on the birds not as individuals but as universals, their union (in contrast to Donne) being solely spiritual; using imprecision and ambiguity to underscore a sense of mystery; and withholding any assurance or even hint of survival in a world beyond, for nothing is born of Shakespeare’s mutual flame. In fact, the lyric’s painful sense that “Truth may seem, but cannot be” for “Love and constancy is dead” (ll. 62, 22) is strikingly similar to the mood of Hamlet. What the poem celebrates is not true lovers and beautiful creatures but the abstractions “Love and Constancy, Truth and Beauty, straining after the highest intensity,” in which lies the perfection of all art.
Empson, William. “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Essays in Criticism 16 (1966): 147–53.
Calling the poem “exquisite but baffling,” Empson touches on biographical matters surrounding the two men most concerned with Love’s Martyr, the book in which Shakespeare’s poem appears: Sir John Salusbury, whose knighthood Love’s Martyr celebrates, and Robert Chester, the main contributor to the volume. Empson argues for an earlier compositional date than 1601, the date of publication. In contrast to Ellrodt (see above), Empson proposes 1598 or early 1599, which would place the poem’s genesis around the time of Henry V rather than Hamlet. Reading “Phoenix,” Shakespeare’s “only consistent use of the Metaphysical style,” in the context of the other contributions sheds light on his puzzling praise of the mythical bird for extinguishing its breed through “married chastity,” the theme of the entire volume.
Enterline, Lynn. “ ‘Poor Instruments’ and Unspeakable Events in the Rape of Lucrece.” In The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare, pp. 152–98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Enterline’s examination of the complex, often violent, connections between body and voice in narrative, lyric, and dramatic works by Ovid, Petrarch, Marston, and Shakespeare focuses on the trope of the female voice in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and on early modern attempts to “ventriloquize” women’s voices that are indebted to Ovid. In the chapter on Lucrece, she connects “the problems haunting Lucrece’s voice with the poem’s representation of authorship” and claims that in order to examine the consequences of Petrarchan rhetoric, Shakespeare “stages a return to Ovid’s text that differs profoundly” from Marston’s Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image, which is discussed in an earlier chapter, and even from the Lucrece story as found in Ovid’s Fasti. Unlike Marston’s mute statue, not only does Lucrece cry out at length before and after Tarquin’s crime, but she does so in a number of Ovidian voices, including those of Orpheus, Philomela, and Hecuba. It was as if Shakespeare did not find Ovid’s Lucrece Ovidian enough and rewrote her voice “in the vein of the poet.” Using Shakespeare’s language of musical instruments and of the borrowed tongue, Enterline analyzes the unraveling of voice, authorial agency, and gender “identity” in the poem’s various Ovidian figures. While the narrative may produce a sense that we know what we mean by the words man/woman, male voice/female voice, and male desire/female desire, its “figural language of imitation and ventriloquism continue to disturb that seemingly self-evident knowledge.”
Fineman, Joel. “Shakespeare’s Will: The Temporality of Rape.” Representations, no. 20 (Fall 1987): 25–76. Reprinted in The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition: Essays toward the Release of Shakespeare’s Will, pp. 165–221. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.
Fineman gives Lucrece an extremely close and detailed reading that takes as its springboard the poem’s dedication to Southampton in which Shakespeare writes, “The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous moiety.” The poem, starting in medias res, may be said to be “without beginning”; and the systematic completeness between the extremes of “without beginning” and “without end” hints at the rhetorical device around which the poem is structured and which the author explores in terms of erotic movements of crossing and folding: synœciosis (the union of contraries to form a paradoxical truth), first glimpsed in line 8 (“Haply that name of ‘chaste’ unhapp’ly set”). The image of a liquid portion overflowing—the meaning of superfluity—“is quite central to [Lucrece], figuring not only the rape but also its motivation and consequences.” As he does elsewhere, Fineman probes the interaction between the “contingent personality” of Shakespeare and the literary phenomenon of “Shakespearean characterology”—i.e., the relation between “the personal and the . . . person who creates literary personae.” By making “such a vivid issue of the relation between “Will” and “writing,” Lucrece “provides a clear-cut illustration of the way the impression of psychologistic person in Shakespeare’s texts characteristically effects and is effected by the mark of Shakespeare’s person.” For an annotation of the author’s related study of the Sonnets, see Shakespeare’s Sonnets Further Reading.
Kahn, Coppélia. “Lucrece: The Sexual Politics of Subjectivity.” In Rape and Representation, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver, pp. 141–59. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. (Incorporated in Kahn’s Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women [London: Routledge, 1997], pp. 27–45.)
Kahn considers “the representation of male and female subjectivities within a feminist problematic of rape, by looking closely at the language of power and the power of language” found in the discourse of Lucrece and Tarquin. While his rape of Lucrece violates Roman law, Tarquin’s shaking his sword at her is “congruent with the Roman martial ethos.” The brutality of his stifling of Lucrece’s cries during the attack notwithstanding, that act itself reinforces the dominant tendency of a patriarchal culture in concealing, sealing off, and muffling women’s speech. Lucrece’s resistance—couched in appeals to religion, social hierarchy, male friendship, marriage, and the law—in effect cancels itself out, “because it is inscribed within the same structures of power as the rape is.” Kahn concedes that rape gives Lucrece a voice, but it is the voice of a victim. Even her suicide, in which she uses the same blade that Tarquin had used against her, sanctions the militaristic ethos and male rivalry that led to the rape in the first place. Like the story upon which it is based, “one of the founding myths of patriarchy,” the poem is thoroughly and relentlessly grounded in a “stridently patriarchal ideology”: Shakespeare pities Lucrece for her “feminine weakness” and praises her for her “quasi-masculine” strength in dying like a Roman. Referring to her earlier essay (annotated below) in which she cited three stanzas of authorial comment in the narrator’s voice as evincing “Shakespeare’s sensitive understanding of the social constraints that force Lucrece into a tragic role” (ll. 1240–60), Kahn now claims that Shakespeare’s understanding of such constraints is itself “constrained by the basic assumption underlying the entire passage: that women are ‘naturally’ the weaker of the species.” For Kahn’s subsequent refinement of her position on Lucrece’s agency, see her “Publishing Shame: The Rape of Lucrece” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, vol. 4, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2003), pp. 259–74.
Kahn, Coppélia. “The Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrece.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 45–72.
In this foundational feminist reading of the poem as a competition between two men for possession of a woman—and hence insistently concerned with the relationship between sex and power—Kahn contends that Lucrece “must be understood in a psycho-social context which takes account of sex roles and cultural attitudes toward sexuality.” Observing that Shakespeare found in his Latin sources a story that mirrored the patriarchal system in England, Kahn locates the poem’s central metaphor in the stain repeatedly attached to Lucrece, the “perfect patriarchal woman,” with no sense of herself as an independent moral being apart from her role in marriage. Because the assumption of marital guardianship of a woman made her chastity a component of her husband’s honor, Lucrece judges herself guilty of a crime against Collatine. Deprived of being a truly chaste wife to him, her raison d’être, and seeing herself as a paradigm of female chastity for all ages, Lucrece can regain her social and personal identity as a chaste wife only by dying, a sacrifice that, on a larger scale, ensures the survival of marriage as the strongest bulwark against lust. Shakespeare’s sensitive understanding of the social constraints that force Lucrece into this tragic role is made explicit in three stanzas of narrative comment (ll. 1240–60). In conformity with the dictates of patriarchal ideology, Lucrece suffers for a crime she did not commit.
Kolin, Philip C., ed. Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1997.
This collection gathers together a great deal of material spanning the years 1774–1997. Along with an extract from Dubrow’s Captive Victors and Belsey’s full essay (both annotated above), Kolin excerpts chapters from Douglas Bush’s Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (rev. ed., 1963) and S. Clark Hulse’s Metamorphic Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (1981). Other reprinted pieces include commentaries by Gervinus, Coleridge, and Sidney Lee; Rufus Putney, “Venus Agonistes” (1953); A. C. Hamilton, “Venus and Adonis” (1961); Christopher Butler and Alastair Fowler, “Time-Beguiling Sport: Number Symbolism in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis” (1964); Coppélia Kahn, “Self and Eros in Venus and Adonis” (1976); W. R. Streitberger, “Ideal Conduct in Venus and Adonis” (1978); and Nona Fienberg, “Thematics of Value in Venus and Adonis” (1989). The volume also contains eight new essays: João Froes, “Shakespeare’s Venus and the Venus of Classical Mythology”; Patrick Murphy, “Wriothesley’s Resistance: Wardship Practices and Ovidian Narrative in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis”; M. L. Stapleton, “Venus as Praeceptor: The Ars Amatoria in Venus and Adonis”; Richard Halpern, “ ‘Pining their maws’: Female Readers and the Erotic Ontology of the Text in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis”; Robert P. Merrix, “ ‘Lo, in this hollow cradle take thy rest’: Sexual Conflict and Resolution in Venus and Adonis”; James Schiffer, “Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: A Lacanian Tragicomedy of Desire”; Joseph Wortis, “Venus and Adonis: An Early Account of Sexual Harassment”; and Georgianna Ziegler, “Picturing Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare and the Artists.” Kolin’s introduction provides an overview of criticism and theatrical reception; reviews of the poem in performance round out the volume.
Lindheim, Nancy. “The Shakespearean Venus and Adonis.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 190–203.
While not a great poem, Venus is still fully Shakespearean and merits attention as a pivotal work in the poet-playwright’s technical and intellectual development. An Elizabethan Ovidian poem that would take into account love’s darker side, salacious wit, and possibility of pain required of the poet new techniques involving shifts of tone, perspective, and sympathy. The first part of the essay emphasizes Shakespeare’s conceptual maturity in describing love’s emotional complexity, most obvious in the depiction of Venus not as “Love” in the abstract but “in the contradictory way [love] is experienced,” i.e., as both comic and pathetic; the second part focuses on technique, the author singling out the mastery of tonal shift that occurs with Adonis’s death. In a way not apparent in the stage works preceding Venus, Shakespeare deftly “integrates comedy with tragedy, parody with straight representation, all the while manipulating our response to Venus so that by the time she comes to fear and then know Adonis’s death, Shakespeare has moved us from ridicule to sympathy.” The paradox at the heart of Venus inheres in its being “a comic poem with a tragic action.”
Orgel, Stephen, and Sean Keilen, eds. Shakespeare’s Poems. Shakespeare: The Critical Complex Series. New York: Garland, 1999.
In addition to Colin Burrow’s introduction titled “Life and Work in Shakespeare’s Poems” and eleven essays on the Sonnets, this anthology includes six previously published studies of Venus and Lucrece: William Empson, “The Narrative Poems” (1966); Catherine Belsey, “Love as Trompe-L’Oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis” (1995), annotated above; Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Taking Tropes Seriously: Language and Violence in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece” (1986); Jane O. Newman, “ ‘And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness’: Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece” (1994); Richard A. Lanham, “The Politics of Lucrece” (1980); and Nancy Vickers, “This Heraldry in Lucrece’ Face” (1985)—an essay different from though related to that annotated below. Among the items dealing with the Sonnets are those by de Grazia, Dubrow, Fineman, and Stallybrass annotated in the separate Further Reading section on the Sonnets. Taken as a whole, the essays in the Orgel–Keilen collection present Shakespeare’s poetry as “the work of a poet fully conversant with the lyric and epic tradition, and one with a unique lyric and narrative sensibility.” The poems should not be considered “adjunct” to the plays.
Vickers, Nancy. “ ‘The Blazon of Sweet Beauty’s Best’: Shakespeare’s Lucrece.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey H. Hartman, pp. 95–115. London: Methuen, 1985.
In this influential feminist essay on Lucrece, Vickers merges the two traditions of the blazon—the conventional heraldic description of a shield and the conventional poetic description of an object praised or blamed by a rhetorician-poet—to explore the limits and insufficiencies of a descriptive rhetoric that, especially when used by a man in praising a woman, reduces her to an exquisite but “troubling . . . totality [of] . . . fragmentary and reified parts.” She argues that in Lucrece, “occasion, rhetoric, and result are all informed by, and thus inscribe, a battle between men that is first figuratively and then literally fought on the fields of woman’s ‘celebrated’ body.” Metaphors commonly read as signifying heterosexual battle emerge here from a male rivalry that positions “a third (female) term in a median space from which it is initially used and finally eliminated.” Although the narrative begins and ends with two men competing over a displayed Lucrece, Vickers focuses on the first part of the poem, where Collatine’s lavish description of his wife’s beauty (implicitly self-praise in owning such a creature) sets in motion the rape by Tarquin. Reading Lucrece in terms of the blazon not only reveals the rhetorical strategies generated by descriptive occasions but also “underlines the potential consequences of being female matter for male oratory.” Rape is the price Lucrece must pay for having her beauty blazoned.