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Venus and Adonis (Shakespeare poem)

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Venus and Adonis (Shakespeare poem)

Title page of the first quarto (1593)

Venus and Adonis is a poem by William Shakespeare, written in 1592–1593, with a plot based on passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a complex, kaleidoscopic work, using constantly shifting tone and perspective to present contrasting views of the nature of love.


Venus and Adonis was entered into the Stationers' Register on 18 April 1593; less than two months later[1] the poem appeared in a quarto edition, published and printed by Richard Field, a Stratford-upon-Avon man and a close contemporary of Shakespeare. Field released a second quarto in 1594, then transferred his copyright to John Harrison ("the Elder"), the stationer who published the first edition of The Rape of Lucrece, also in 1594. Subsequent editions of Venus and Adonis were in octavo (O) format rather than quarto; Harrison issued the third edition (O1) probably in 1595, and the fourth (O2) in 1596 (both of Harrison's editions were printed by Field). The poem's copyright then passed to William Leake, who published two editions (O3, O4) in 1599 alone, with perhaps four (O5, O6, O7, and O8) in 1602. The copyright passed to William Barrett in 1617; Barrett issued O9 that same year. Five more editions appeared by 1640 – making the poem, with 16 editions in 47 years, one of the great popular successes of its era.[2]

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's Venus and Adonis, Wallace Collection, London


As Adonis is preparing to go hunting, Venus "seizeth on his sweating palm" and "Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust" (for purposes of sexual intercourse). We find next that "Panting he lies, and breatheth in her face", while Venus tells him "Be bold to play, our sport is not in sight." She persuades him to kiss her, although Adonis is not very interested, thinking he is too young, and cares only for hunting. After they part, Adonis is soon killed in a hunting "accident".

The poem contains what may be Shakespeare's most graphic depiction of sexual excitement.

Historical background

In 1593, an outbreak of the plague in London caused the city authorities to close all the public playhouses. Shakespeare had by this time written perhaps the first five or six of his plays, and was building a reputation. He set about what he would publish as "the first heire [sic] of my invention"[3] – that is, the first legitimate offspring from his "muse".[4] He dedicated the work to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

In 1594, Shakespeare dedicated The Rape of Lucrece to Southampton as the "graver labour" promised in his dedication to Venus and Adonis. Southampton was in financial difficulties, but it is still possible that this patron was extravagant enough to reward these irresistible overtures with a substantial amount of money. Shakespeare from somewhere acquired enough capital to become a one-twelfth sharer in his theatre company's profits from performance. It was thereafter apparently more lucrative for him to write plays than long poems.[5]

Literary background

Titian's Venus and Adonis, 1554, Prado Museum and Art gallery, Madrid

Venus and Adonis comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 10, known to Shakespeare in the translation by Arthur Golding (1567, with subsequent revisions). Ovid told of how Venus took the beautiful Adonis as her first mortal lover. They were long-time companions, with the goddess hunting alongside her lover. She warns him of the tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes to dissuade him from hunting dangerous animals; he disregards the warning, and is killed by a boar.

Shakespeare developed this basic narrative into a poem of 1,194 lines. His chief innovation was to make Adonis refuse Venus's offer of herself. It has been argued (by Erwin Panofsky) that Shakespeare might have seen a copy of Titian's Venus and Adonis, a painting that could be taken to show Adonis refusing to join Venus in embraces. However, Shakespeare had already shown a liking for activist heroines, forced to woo and pursue an evasive male in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The other innovation was a kind of observance of the Aristotelian unities: the action takes place in one location, lasts from morning till morning, and focuses on the two main characters.


...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,
Who when he liv'd, his breath and beauty set
Gloss on the rose, smell to the violet?''
  • A theatrical adaptation, William Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis, with an original score and songs by Christopher Reiner, was performed by Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood, California, for five weeks in August and September 2006. LA Weekly described it: "six women, clothed in black, recite the poem while weaving around the stage in a sensual, interpretive dance".[8]

See also



  1. ^ Schoenbaum: William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, p. 175.
  2. ^ Halliday: A Shakespeare Companion, p. 513.
  3. ^ Quoted in Caldecott: Our English Homer, p. 7.
  4. ^ This has often been interpreted as referring rather to his first-ever literary work. Elzea's Life contends that "[i]t is very likely that the poem was Shakespeare's first production in the actual sense of the word, and that he brought it with him from Stratford to London."
  5. ^ Gurr: The Shakespearean Stage, p. 76.
  6. ^ "Why is the RSC staging Venus and Adonis with marionettes?". the Guardian. 
  7. ^ at theVenus and Adonis Boston Metro Opera
  8. ^ Review by Stephanie Lysaght in LA Weekly, August 31, 2006.


  • Caldecott, Harry Stratford: Our English Homer; or, the Bacon-Shakespeare Controversy (Johannesburg Times, 1895).
  • Gurr, Andrew: The Shakespearean Stage: 1574–1642 (Cambridge, 1992).
  • Halliday, F. E.: A Shakespeare Companion: 1564–1964. (Penguin, 1964).

External links

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