With the plague closing theatres between 1592-4, Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis on 18 April 1593 as an attractive Quarto to seek an income from book sales and patronage. He dedicated his epyllion (an erotic minor epic) to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton who joined the ill-fated Essex rebellion in 1601.
Venus and Adonis is preoccupied with the theme of hunting. In the narrative, Adonis is out hunting boar and Venus’s desire for Adonis is predatory – an irony Shakespeare enforces with powerful imagery:
“Fondling”, she saith, “Since I have hemmed thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain, or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
“Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest, and from rain:
Then be my deer, since I am such a park.
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.”
Having pinned Adonis to the ground, Venus attempts to seduce him by referring to her sexualised body as a ‘park’, which is not a public recreational area. In the late sixteenth century, a ‘park’ is an enclosed space owned by the nobility for keeping animals caught during a hunt. Venus imagines Adonis as her trapped ‘deer’, a pun on ‘dear’, that is not fenced in by oak but by ‘ivory pale’ or her white arms. Yet, instead of feeling imprisoned, Venus encourages Adonis to enjoy her ‘lips’, ‘pleasant fountains’, ‘Round rising hillocks’, and ‘brakes obscure and rough’ (her pubic hair) before devouring him herself.
William Keach rightly observes that Shakespeare makes ‘Venus…aggressively lustful’ and has ‘Adonis actively resist her advances’ (Keach 53). However, I like to propose, that Adonis’s reply to Venus makes him the hunter once more. Not only is he the love object, Adonis also instigates love in a Cupid-like manner that strikes the love-sick Goddess of Love dead twice:
At this Adonis smiles, as in disdain,
That in each cheek appears a pretty dimple;
Love made those hollows, if himself were slain,
He might be buried in a tomb so simple,
Foreknowing well, if there he came to lie,
Why there love lived, and there he could not die.
These lovely caves, these round enchanting pits,
Opened their mouths to swallow Venus’ liking:
Being mad before, how doth she now for wits?
Struck dead at first, what needs a second striking?
Poor Queen of Love, in thine own law forlorn,
To love a cheek that smiles at thee in scorn. (Lines 241-52)
The power of Adonis’s smile, the lead arrow so to speak, is that he does not reciprocate Venus’s love. The Goddess of Love is effectively trapped within her ‘own law’, a ‘park’ of her own making. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis (1 A.C.E)(Shakespeare adapted the Venus and Adonis story from Book Ten), Coppélia Kahn identifies a ‘paradigm of eros that…certainly drives Venus and Adonis: frustration, conflict, perversity (Kahn 77). Love becomes like the hunt in which Adonis aims to pit his wits against the boar, a beast that Venus warns ‘[w]hose tushes [tusks] never sheathed he whetteth still,/Like to a mortal butcher bent to kill’ (Lines 617-8). Instead, Adonis is more weary of Venus’s provocative advances. However, the final irony of Shakespeare’s epyllion is that the boar is the most effective hunter:
“‘Tis true, ’tis true, thus was Adonis slain:
He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear,
Who would not whet his teeth at him again,
But by a kiss thought to persuade him there,
And, nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine
Sheathed unaware the tusk in his soft groin.
“Had I been toothed like him I must confess
With kissing him I should have killed him first;
But he is dead, and never did he bless
My youth with his. The more am I accursed.”
With this she falleth in the place she stood,
And stains her face with his congealèd blood. (Lines 1111-22)
Venus likens the boar’s act of self defense to a kiss by admitting that if she had the boar’s tusks, she would have also killed Adonis through her overpowering corporeal passion for him. Yet, denied his youth, Venus appears to reenact Adonis’s slaughter by falling to the ground, and covering herself in his blood. Although immortal, Venus then commits a kind of suicide by hiding herself away in Paphos to be never seen again.
Venus and Adonis not only warns about the dangers of forbidden love (in this case between a young mortal man and an immortal goddess) but, by using the boar as a symbol, incorporates an anti-hunting theme in which the hunter can easily be the hunted.
Kahn, Coppélia. ‘Venus and Adonis’. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry. Ed. Patrick Cheney. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Keach, William. Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries. Hassocks: The Harvester Press, 1977.
Shakespeare, William. Venus and Adonis. 1593. The Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.