With Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare in 1593 launches his career as a poet. The poem is a minor epic, a genre chosen by a large number of poets in the 1590s for their first efforts, each attempt at the genre self-consciously imitating the others. The genre is a marginal one, its characters usually drawn from the periphery of mythology or legendary history. Its interest is not in the matters of state that inform major epics but in eroticism, sophistication, and verbal wit. Among these poems, Venus and Adonis was such a notable success that it was, during his lifetime, Shakespeare’s most popular published work, going through ten editions by 1616 and quoted in numerous journals, letters, and plays of the period. In 1598 a critic wrote that “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis.”
Shakespeare found the story of the encounter between the Roman goddess of love and the boy hunter in book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid, the beautiful Adonis is the willing lover of Venus, and his death is an accident of the hunt. Shakespeare transforms the story by having his Adonis reject Venus’s advances in a way that, for his early readers, was clearly both ironic and comic. Shakespeare makes his Venus highly verbal, a seemingly endless source of arguments for making love. He makes the boy Adonis capable of only brief and petulant protests against her advances. The immense popularity of the poem in Shakespeare’s lifetime shows that his transformation of the myth into a struggle between an overheated goddess and an extremely reluctant boy was seized on eagerly. For readers today who might forget that Venus is a goddess—not a woman, not subject to aging—it is easy to focus on Adonis as the uneasy object of desire on the part of a matron. As Adonis squirms and blushes, some of today’s readers may squirm and blush as well, as the poem seems to skate along the edge of mother-son incest or give off a faint whiff of pedophilia. Other readers today may find Adonis’s smug coldness as unattractive as Venus’s ardor, while yet others may find sympathy for Adonis’s powerlessness in the embrace of Venus alternating with sympathy for Venus in her erotic frustration, the goddess of love denied satisfaction in her own realm. In other words, for anyone who reads the poem in terms of the characters’ emotions rather than as a display of the wanton made sophisticated and rhetorically eloquent, only when Venus suffers grief at the end of the poem does she become sympathetic. As readers today, then, it is important that we remember that this poem is a retelling of a familiar myth in a form that is deliberately artificial, deliberately playing with the notion of what would happen if the goddess of love were herself stricken with the torments of love—and were refused.
Venus and Adonis is also true to the conventions of the minor epic in featuring an elaborate digression from its main plot, focusing attention instead on Adonis’s horse as it escapes to be with a wild mare. In another gesture toward convention, the poem takes a turn toward the assignment of cause to a phenomenon, or what is known as aetiology. Venus identifies the death of Adonis and its impact on her, the goddess of love, as the reason why the human experience of love will, from that moment on, be always disruptive, attended by jealousy and sorrow. It has now been some centuries since the minor epic and its conventions fell out of fashion. However, Venus and Adonis still commands appreciation for its dazzling verbal surface. It is a fine example of baroque art. Further, the emotions felt by Venus and by Adonis, though deliberately made rather ridiculous in the poem, are much like the emotions explored in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies (think, for example, of Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This poem, then, lets us see the young Shakespeare stretching his wings as a poet, competing with the other poets of his day, and not only winning the competition but also exploring romantic love in a way that will yield his remarkably enduring romantic comedies.
After you have read this poem, we invite you to read “Venus and Adonis and Lucrece: A Modern Perspective,” written by Professor Catherine Belsey of Cardiff University.