Shakespeare wrote three kinds of texts, in descending order of popularity for modern audiences: plays, sonnets, and lengthy narrative poems. Of the latter he wrote two: “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. Both were composed and quickly published in 1592-1593, dedicated to the same nobleman in hopes of securing favor, and perhaps patronage. With the theaters closed for nearly two years due to plague, Shakespeare needed help if he was to remain a professional writer.
While something written
during the plague is not necessarily about the plague, I want to argue here that “Venus & Adonis” reflects Shakespeare’s early-career focus on the relationship between desire and death. This is a prominent theme of the sonnets, most likely composed in the same period, as in #147:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Desire is death. There’s no physic, no cure, for it. Desire isn’t like death, or related to it in some abstract way: desire is death. It’s during times of crisis, such as a plague or pandemic, that we’re reminded of something usually hidden from us. Our wanting necessarily forces us into contact with things, people, the economy, the world (social, cultural, natural). Made acute by deadly objects, plague materializes the kind of desire that kills. And, for Shakespeare in the early 1590s (and perhaps beyond), that death-in-desire is made manifest by the plot of “Venus & Adonis”, as well as the couplet of sonnet 147.
Let’s turn to the long poem to see how death and desire are linked.
For his two long narrative poems, Shakespeare went back to classical stories and characters. From Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he took the brief tale of Venus and Adonis and transformed it into something more substantial, more erotic, and more strange.
The set-up is right there in the title: The Goddess of Love Meets The Beautiful Young Man. This offers about as much pornographic draw as the 1590s would allow. It’s tempting to account for the stupendous sales success of this poem (reprinted 15 times before 1640) by assuming that it was the classiest dirty thing young men, and perhaps women, could get their hands on.
Before you race off to see how steamy it gets, I have bad news for you. There’s plenty of aggressive, relentless, and desperate seduction, but no sex. It’s an exercise in frustration. And in a surprising, gender-inverted way. Adonis is just not into it.
For 800 lines, Venus uses all her seductive energy, physical strength, and rhetorical skill to persuade Adonis to get busy with her. In this scenario, if girls just want to have fun, boys just want to hunt.
What the reader is treated to is erotic rhetoric, and little else. And so, you might be wondering whether “Venus & Adonis” is anything more than a long, tedious poem. What makes this work, written during plague, promising sex it doesn’t deliver, worth puzzling over?
The answer is provided by sonnet 147: desire is death.
Venus’s seduction of Adonis, as I mentioned, takes up 800 lines of the poem’s 1,200. In the final 400, Adonis leaves her to go on a boar hunt, against which Venus previously warned him. The boar is dangerous, she points out. Couldn’t he instead hunt the fox or the hare?
But hold on, when did this seduction poem introduce desire and death? Early and often. When Venus coaxes a kiss out of Adonis, it’s described in language that is clearly predatory:
Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey,
And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth.
Her lips are conquerors, his lips obey,
Paying what ransom the insulter willeth,
Whose vulture thought doth pitch the price so high
That she will draw his lips’ rich treasure dry,
And, having felt the sweetness of the spoil,
With blindfold fury she begins to forage.
Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack. (547-558)
In the poem, this mauling kiss directly precedes his response to her invitation to meet the next day. I can’t, he says, because I’m going boar hunting with friends. She throws herself on him, knocking him down, in order to deliver an 82-line exhortation to avoid the perils such a hunt presents. Her reasoning is not about hunting, or the lethal qualities of Sus scrofa, but instead that the boar will fail to note Adonis’s beauty and will “root these beauties as he roots the mead[ow]”.
The boar attack Venus euphemistically describes is suspiciously close to her own “foraging” in the lines above. There, her fury is similarly unseeing (“blindfold”), her “careless lust” compelling her to mix desire (love, lust, sex) with violence.
Shakespeare might have stopped there. Sex and violence aren’t unknown companions. A little rough and tumble, the titillation of the woman performing the seduction after so many failed attempts by men across hundreds of Petrarchan sonnets. But the warning Venus announces ends with a vivid and, it will turn out, entirely accurate premonition of Adonis’s fate:
And, more than so, presenteth to mine eye
The picture of an angry chafing boar,
Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie
An image like thyself, all stained with gore,
Whose blood upon the fresh flowers being shed
Doth make them droop with grief, and hang the head. (661-666)
Adonis leaves her a few stanzas later and is killed by the boar.
What happened? Was this a hunting accident?
The poem leaves it to Venus to answer these questions. We stay with the goddess throughout, never leaving her point of view. She spends what’s left of the night lovesick, singing tedious songs about her beloved. Morning dawns. She hears Adonis’s hounds at bay, runs toward the sound, encounters a boar “Whose frothy mouth, [is] bepainted all with red….” (901) She “[be]rates the boar for murder” (906), discovers a wounded trail of hunting dogs, and chides Death.
But chiding death is not the same as discovering what happened. Venus’s lack of curiosity about Adonis’s death is at this point mildly provocative. It’s easy to dismiss this as swept aside by grief. Hold that thought.
Suddenly, in the distance, she hears “some huntsman hollo” (973). Despite evidence to the contrary, her hope is renewed and off she goes in pursuit. Then, before we can prepare ourselves for it, she spies Adonis’s body in the grass.
The scene revealed to us is restricted to Venus’s point of view. The narration offers no explanation of what happened. Venus’s interpretation links up with earlier moments in the poem to provoke our suspicion that Adonis’s death is more than a hunting accident.
Here is the description when she views his dead body:
And, being opened, threw unwilling light
Upon the wide wound that the boar had trenched
In his soft flank, whose wonted lily-white
With purple tears that his wound wept was drenched.
No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf, or weed,
But stole his blood, and seemed with him to bleed. (1051-1056)
There’s a hint here, in the anatomical imprecision that locates the wound in his “soft flank”, about the violent sexual crime that’s been committed. Adonis, the Goddess of Love’s object of desire, who possesses a potency she’s desperate for, but won’t deliver, is gored in the very place that has been in dispute for hundreds of lines of verse. The poetic conventions themselves call attention to this key moment of symbolic overdetermination: the contrast of white and purple, the empathy nature shows in bleeding with him.
Let’s pause here and revisit the point I raised in my opening, and let’s do so with some skepticism. Isn’t this just a hunting accident, romanticized by Venus due to her unrequited desire? I mean, look at the circumstantial evidence: dangerous animal, probably cornered, fighting for its life, a boar with a bloody mouth, and a dead Adonis, gored at tusk height.
This is enough to make a case.
But is it conclusive? Is there more to it? Let’s make a list.
• Classical versions of the story identify Mars (jealousy), Diana (revenge, envy), and Apollo (punishment) as responsible for Adonis’s death.
• Venus repeatedly warns Adonis that his perfection puts him in danger, and that procreating will give back to nature (“Things growing to themselves are growth’s abuse” ).
• When she warns him about the perils of the boar hunt, she adds that her love for him renders him vulnerable to a deadly jealousy, without specifying who she has in mind. As if the boar were the instrument of another’s jealous rage.
• A few stanzas later, as he’s about to leave her, Venus names names. Early on she brags that Mars had been her love slave, and here she puts the finger on Diana.
But if thou [Adonis] fall, O, then imagine this:
The earth, in love with thee, thy footing trips,
And all is but to rob thee of a kiss.
Rich preys make true men thieves; so do thy lips
Make modest Dian cloudy and forlorn
Lest she should steal a kiss, and die forsworn.” (721-726)
• Venus’s desire is predatory, and a real danger to Adonis, directly and indirectly. Indirectly through the involvement of others, as above, and directly due to the common fatal outcome when immortals and mortals come into conflict (the substance of Ovid’s Metamorphoses).
These elements conspire to move the needle from “accident” to “murder”. As detectives in crime dramas so often say, “Something just doesn’t add up”.
We left Venus standing over the dead body of Adonis, offering her reaction to his wound. After this, she imagines what happened, and it’s the only version of the killing of Adonis that we get.
But this foul, grim, and urchin-snouted boar,
Whose downward eye still looketh for a grave,
Ne’er saw the beauteous livery that he wore:
Witness the entertainment that he gave.
If he did see his face, why then, I know
He thought to kiss him, and hath killed him so.
“Tis true, ’tis true; thus was Adonis slain;
He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear,
Who did 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 congealed blood. (1105-1122)
This, pardon the pun, is the climax of the poem, its funereal, bloody orgasm. The goddess, narcissistic to the last, laments that she’s the one who has missed out, accursed for not having enjoyed sex with this perfect young man. And at the same time, the equation of her desire and the boar’s superimposes sex and violence, as she imagines herself as the boar, equipped with a tusk/phallus capable of dealing a penetrating death blow.
It’s difficult not to speculate about this poem’s relationship to the conditions in which it was produced: the grim reality of plague deaths, anxiety over the closure of the theatres at the precise moment Shakespeare’s career as a playwright was taking hold.
“Venus & Adonis” is a poem of frustration, of impotence, leading to death in the pursuit of desire. The worn trope—Time Devours All Things (tempus edax rerum)—is true for human beings, says Shakespeare: if you’re a mortal, death lurks at the heart of the very thing you most want. During a plague, or a pandemic, it’s wanting that endangers us.