Venus and Adonis
Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Complete template (Sonnet numbers)
When Shakespeare published the mythological poem Venus and Adonis in
1593 he was in his late twenties. Up until that time he had written a few
plays and may have experimented with writing sonnets. Yet, as will become
evident as Venus and Adonis is considered in detail, he was already conscious
of the principal elements of his mythic philosophy. The definitive form of
the philosophy, articulated in the 1609 edition of the Sonnets, gives a
coherent and comprehensive expression to the philosophic position he had
arrived at least 20 years earlier.
The commentary then, shows why Shakespeare’s version of Ovid’s The
Story of Venus and Adonis (from the 1567 translation by Arthur Golding) is
a mere precursor to the mythic philosophy of the Sonnets. By applying the
Sonnet logic to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis his reasons for deviating from
Ovid’s story become apparent. By 1609 Shakespeare’s mature appreciation
of the logic of myth allowed him to dispense with references to classical or
biblical gods, typical of the works of Ovid and others, and still express a
mythic level of understanding.
In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare takes the example of an inconsistent
expression of myth in Ovid and rectifies it. He purposely uses a familiar
mythological story to demonstrate the consistency of his mythic philosophy.
He recovers the natural logic of the mythic level of expression corrupted
by the idealist expectations in biblical and Platonic thought.
Generations of editors have analyzed the differences between the
Ovidian and Shakespearean versions of Venus and Adonis. While they have
noted the modifications, they have failed to appreciate the natural logic that
makes Shakespeare’s version so distinctive. The commentary that follows will
conclude by showing how the logic of the Sonnets corrects the defective
logic of Ovid, and explain why critics have felt so frustrated when they have
sought correspondences between Venus and Adonis and the Platonic/biblical
Shakespeare’s appreciation of mythic logic ensures he never forgets that
a poem is a poem, just as in the plays he never forgets that a play is a play.
No poem or play has priority over Nature and no story can substitute for
the logical requirement to increase, as all myth is erotic or a product of the
mind. So in Shakespeare’s version of Ovid’s story, the logical interrelationship
between Venus and Adonis remains singularly erotic, or void of sexual
Throughout Venus and Adonis the sexual dynamic in Nature is a given
for the multiplicity of words and phrases whose logic accommodates the
descriptive within the erotic. As a consequence Shakespeare is never vicariously
bawdy or lewd but rather is pre-eminently aware of the logical basis
of language. His use of pun, for instance, recovers, for his consistent mythic
purpose, the eroticism proscribed by orthodox belief in the biblical myths
of Genesis and the Gospels.
By adhering to the erotic basis of myth, Shakespeare’s verse has an
unequalled veracity. It appeals to readers who have begun to recover aspects
of the natural logic of their lives, but it infuriates pedants who wish the
writing conformed to their hybrid expectations out of the inadequate apologetic
A consistent application of the Sonnet logic is the only way to appreciate
the long poems (and all the plays). The Sonnets were organised into a
coherent set expressly to articulate Shakespeare’s lifelong philosophy – the
philosophy behind his plays and poems.
Analysis of Venus and Adonis
The first two stanzas of Venus and Adonis distinguish Shakespeare’s poem from
other versions of the myth.
Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face,
Venus approaches Adonis in the morning, or when the day is still young
or immature. The association of Adonis with the ‘weeping morn’ anticipates
the end of the poem where his truculent immaturity is addressed in
graphic terms. The boar kills him because he cannot reconcile his adolescent
idealism to the natural logic of life. The characterisation of Adonis as an
immature male has its equivalent in the Sonnets where the Master Mistress
is an adolescent youth or ‘boy’.
Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn, (1-2)
Rose-cheeked Adonis hied him to the chase;
Adonis, the immature youth who is ‘rose-cheeked’ like the breaking day,
‘loved’ to hunt but scorns the pursuit of love. He ‘laughed’ at the ‘bold faced’
suit of Venus who is made ‘sick-thoughted’by his immaturity. As the female
who appreciates that love and thought have their logical basis in the increase
dynamic in Nature, Venus is about to assert her priority as a female.
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn.
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold fac’d suitor ‘gins to woo him. (3-6)
Consistent with the introduction of the logic of beauty and truth in the
Mistress sequence of the Sonnets, and in keeping with her priority over the
male, Venus speaks first. For 28 stanzas Venus introduces the increase
argument, and only then (in line 185) is Adonis permitted to respond.
‘Thrice fairer than myself ’, (thus she began)
Venus immediately identifies Adonis as more than a male or ‘man’.
Because his feminine traits are evidence of his derivation from the priority
of the female in ‘Nature’, he is ‘thrice fairer’ than herself.
‘The field’s chief flower, sweet above compare;
Stain to all Nymphs, more lovely than a man,
More white, and red than doves, or roses are:
Nature that made thee with her self at strife,
Saith that the world hath ending with thy life’. (7-12)
Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis are archetypes for the human female and
male. His argument for the logic of their existence is an argument basic to
all human beings. By writing a poem about the logic of the relationship of
a ‘goddess’ and a ‘god’, he generalises his argument. He went further in the
Sonnets when he replaced mythological beings with logically determined
Shakespeare introduces ‘Nature’ in the second stanza of Venus’ opening
speech. Nature provides the logical basis for the philosophy of the whole
poem. It is the determining element in Shakespeare’s philosophy. Even a god
such as Adonis is subject to Nature’s audit: ‘Nature…saith that the world
hath ending with thy life’. When the female and male were divided in Nature
(which is logically feminine), a ‘strife’ was engendered that could only be
resolved either with the death of the male, Adonis, or, as argued in lines
157-174, through increase.
The same argument is presented to the idealistic youth in the Master
Mistress sequence of the Sonnets. In sonnets 14 and 126, he is warned that
the ‘world’, and human posterity, ends if his life comes to an unfruitful end.
He will be reabsorbed into Nature and his destiny will be to push up
‘flowers’. Venus ironically calls Adonis a ‘flower’ in line 8.
Venus the goddess of love, true to Shakespeare’s natural logic, acknowledges
Nature as the determiner of ‘life’. As the representative of the human
female, Venus also takes the role of the protagonist for Shakespeare’s philosophic
position. As the poem continues, she presents the increase argument
and the logical relation of truth and beauty, as does the Poet in the Sonnets.
Adonis, the immature male, does not stand a chance if he seeks ‘love’ only
in the thrill of the hunt.
So, Nature apart, Venus and Adonis has only two protagonists compared
with the three protagonists of the Sonnets in the Mistress, the Master Mistress,
and the Poet. The Poet of the Sonnets, as the one who appreciates and
expresses the natural mythic logic of the female/male relationship, argues
with the youth on behalf of the Mistress. By the time Shakespeare wrote
the Sonnets, he had deepened his appreciation of the logic of myth and was
able to move beyond the mythological language of Ovid and the Bible.
Also, in the second stanza, Venus alludes to the logic of truth and beauty.
The distinction between the ‘red’ and the ‘white’ and the image of the ‘rose’,
with its thorns is symptomatic, as it is in the plays and the Sonnets, of the
dynamic of language. The conflict of the red and white roses in 1 Henry VI
symbolises the inability of Somerset and York to negotiate a concord. And
throughout the Sonnets the ‘Rose’ is a symbol for the logic of beauty and
indirectly of truth.
So Venus, with her first words, introduces the major elements of the
If, as argued in the Introduction, Shakespeare had the basic elements of his
lifelong philosophy in place before he began to write the early plays and the
two long poems of 1593 and 1594, then the presence of the basic elements in
the first few lines of Venus and Adonis bears witness to their early development.
Shakespeare makes significant changes to Ovid’s poem by re-orientating
its idealism toward the natural logic articulated precisely in the Sonnets.
For the next twenty-four stanzas (lines 13 to 156) Venus persists in her
attempt to convince or ‘entreat’ Adonis to take heed of her plea to
acknowledge the priority of sexual ‘love’over the desire to hunt for the sake
of the chase. She reins in his horse, seizes ‘his sweating palm’ (25), which
she calls the ‘precedent of pith, and livelihood’ (26) or ‘earth’s sovereign salve’
(28), tosses him to the ground, and lies alongside him. He responds by
offering her a kiss but pulls away when she tries to meet his lips (90). His
resistance is to the endgame and not to the chase. He has hot desire but it
is directed to the sport and not the finality of the sexual tryst sought by
Venus. Contrary to her intent that he breed through increase, he ‘bred more
beauty in his angry eyes’ (70).
The distinction between red and white, as an image of the logical
dynamic of beauty and truth, is sustained through the stanzas. Adonis is,
Twixt crimson shame, and anger ashy pale.
Venus’s description of her sexual encounter with Mars, recalls both ‘his
‘sinewy neck’ from the ‘jar’ (100) of battle, and the power of the ‘red rose
chain’ (110). Her use of ‘jar’ anticipates its use in Troilus and Cressida where
Ulysses considers ‘the endless jar’ between ‘right and wrong’ (1.3.575-6).
Being red she loves him best, and being white,
Her best is better’d with a more delight. (76-8)
The connection between the red and white in Venus and Adonis and the
relation of truth and beauty to the eyes in the Sonnets is evident in lines 115
‘Touch but my lips with those fair lips of thine,
Shakespeare gave the logic of the ‘eyes’ and ‘truth and beauty’ its definitive
expression in sonnet 14. Sonnet 14 establishes the logical relationship between
the eyes of sight and the eye of the sexual organs. The interrelation of
eyes persists throughout the Sonnets as in sonnet 104 with its ‘your eye I eyed’.
Though mine be not so fair, yet are they red
The kiss shall be thine own as well as mine,
What see’st thou in the ground? hold up thy head,
Look in mine eye-balls, there thy beauty lies,
Then why not lips on lips, since eyes in eyes?’ (115-20)
In line 130 Venus continues the pressure on Adonis by invoking aspects
of the increase argument, which will be presented in full 30 lines later. She
reminds Adonis that,
‘The tender spring upon thy tempting lip
The elements of the increase argument introduced at this point in the
poem resemble the arguments in the early increase sonnets. Then the final
three stanzas of Venus’ introductory speech conclude with a clear statement
of the increase dynamic.
Shows thee unripe; yet mayst thou well be tasted,
Make use of time, let not advantage slip;
Beauty within it self should not be wasted.
Fair flowers that are not gathered in their prime,
Rot, and consume them selves in little time’. (127-32)
‘Is thine own heart to thine own face affected?
The three stanzas, and the third particularly, are striking for their presentation
of the increase argument. Its development since the introduction of
‘Nature’ in the second stanza, has been quite deliberate and is consistent with
the logic of the Sonnets.
Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left?
Then woo thyself, be of thy self rejected:
Steal thine own freedom, and complain on theft.
Narcissus so him self him self forsook,
And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.
‘Torches are made to light, jewels to wear,
Dainties to taste, fresh beauty for the use,
Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear.
Things growing to them selves, are growth’s abuse,
Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty;
Thou wast begot, to get it is thy duty.
‘Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed,
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?
By law of nature thou art bound to breed,
That thine may live, when thou thyself art dead:
And so in spite of death thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive’. (157-74)
The use of the word ‘increase’ (169), which anticipates its appearance in
the first line of the increase sonnets, is reinforced in Venus’ concluding stanza
when she states that it is by a ‘law of nature that thou art bound to breed’
(171). Shakespeare’s appreciation of the logical priority for human persistence,
which in Venus and Adonis is given the status of a ‘law of nature’, will become
in the rigorous logic of the Sonnets a given without which humankind and
the possibility of truth and beauty would meet their doom and date. Sonnets
11 and 14 particularly are explicit in their presentation of Nature’s logic.
Yet 400 years of orthodox commentary have not acknowledged the
significance of the increase argument of the early sonnets, much less considered
their implications for Shakespeare’s other works. When a comparison
is drawn between the first 29 stanzas of Venus and Adonis and the 14 increase
sonnets and the 5 poetry and increase sonnets, it is evident Shakespeare had
a coherent philosophic understanding worked out by 1593 that is contrary
to the expectations of his earnest critics.
Shakespeare gives the same priority to Nature and the increase argument
in 1593 as in 1609. In Venus and Adonis he introduces Nature and the sexual
division in Nature in the first few stanzas. In the Sonnets he structures the
whole set of 154 sonnets and its two subsequences to present Nature and
its sexual division. In both the poem and the Sonnets, he gives the increase
argument first to establish the logical priority of increase over truth and
beauty, or the dynamic of understanding.
In the first 126 sonnets, the Poet confronts the Master Mistress with the
same logical conditions for life that Venus presents to Adonis throughout
Venus and Adonis. So it is informative to compare the amount of verse given
to the increase argument in the 126 sonnets with the opening stanzas of the
long poem. In the poem, 29 of the 199 stanzas bring the increase argument
to a pitch, and in the youth sequence 19 of the 126 sonnets argue for the
priority of increase over truth and beauty for the Master Mistress. In each
case, Shakespeare devotes a similar number of the verses to making the male
aware of the logical basis of human persistence.
He then devotes the remaining stanzas and sonnets to the implications
for the human mind of the increase dynamic out of Nature, and ultimately
to the logical conditions of death for Adonis or the Master Mistress. Not
surprisingly, a number of themes that occur in the sonnet sequence to the
Master Mistress appear throughout the remaining stanzas of the poem.
Once Venus lays down the definitive condition for persistence through
increase out of Nature, Nature and increase become the ground from which
Adonis’ attitude to life and the consequences of his attitude are graphically
addressed. Shakespeare turns Ovid’s tale into an uncompromising demonstration
of the logical implications for youthful idealism if it is unable to
mature into a regard for the natural logic of life. He uses the classical story
to critique any form of excessive idealism, but particularly the dogmatic
religious idealism of his day.
Only after Venus has articulated the logical condition, or natural law, for
human persistence is Adonis allowed to speak. His first words are a response
to his inability to confront the ‘burning eye’ (178) of the sun.
(Adonis) … cries, ‘fie, no more of love,
The erotic identification of the ‘eye’ and the ‘sun’ intensifies Adonis’
rejection not just of the advances of Venus but of the natural state of the
world. Venus responds by characterising his response as immature. He is old
enough to make excuses but too conditioned by youthful expectations to
appreciate the logic of her argument.
The sun doth burn my face I must remove’. (185-6)
‘Ay, me’, (quoth Venus) ‘young, and so unkind,
And in line 201 she asks him, in the words of sonnet 3, ‘Art thou a
What bare excuses mak’st thou to be gone?’ (187-8)
Shakespeare is supremely conscious that his poem is no more than a work
of art. Ironically, Adonis, in rejecting Venus’ arguments and settling selfsatisfied
for the single life, in effect becomes a living work of art. Venus
addresses his status in the final stanza of her response.
‘Fie, liveless picture, cold, and senseless stone,
This is a recurring theme throughout the poem.
Well painted idol, image dull, and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone,
Thing like a man, but of no woman bred:
Thou art no man, though of a man’s complexion,
For men will kiss even by their own direction’. (211-16)
Look when a Painter would surpass the life,
The possibility of speaking is tied to the logic of ‘love’.
In limming out a well proportion’d steed,
His Art with Nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed: (289-92)
Even so poor birds deceiv’d with painted grapes,
Do surfeit by the eye, and pine the maw:
Even so she languisheth in her mishaps,
As those poor birds that helpless berries saw, (601-4)
For lover’s say, the heart hath treble wrong,
Shakespeare’s awareness of the natural logic of life also means he is
conscious of the logical relationship that exists between the body and the
mind. He bases his understanding on the realisation that the mind is derived
from bodily dispositions. This is conveyed eloquently when Venus next
speaks. She uses her body as her argument.
When it is barred the aidance of the tongue.
An Oven that is stopp’d, or river stay’d,
Burneth more hotly, swelleth with more rage:
So of concealed sorrow may be said,
Free vent of words love’s fire doth assuage;
But when the heart’s attorney once is mute,
The client breaks, as desperate in his suit. (329-36)
‘Fondling’, she saith, ‘since I have hemm’d thee here
The theme continues with Adonis disdainfully rejecting Venus’overtures.
The reversal of expectation leads to the abrogation of natural law and the
curtailing of ‘words’ and ‘increase’.
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’. (229-40)
At this Adonis smiles as in disdain,
Adonis’ attitude turns Venus’ body into a tomb, kills her words and
increases her woes by denying her desire to increase to posterity. Although
the crux of the increase argument was presented a few stanza’s previously,
because it is the logical pivot point for female/male persistence and hence
the logical foundation for all expression, Shakespeare makes frequent
reference to it as the poem considers Adonis’ problem with love, and demonstrates
the consequences he faces if he refuses to heed Venus’ advice.
That in each cheek appears a pretty dimple;
Love made those hollows, if him self were slain,
He might be buried in a tomb so simple,
Foreknowing well, if there he came to lie,
Why there love liv’d, and there he could not die.
Those lovely caves, these round enchanting pits,
Open’d 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.
Now which way shall she turn? what shall she say?
Her words are done, her woes the more increasing, (241-54)
The same pattern occurs in the Sonnets. In Volume 1, it was shown that
after the definitive argument for increase in sonnet 14, the sonnets frequently
refer or allude to the logic of increase by way of bringing the Master Mistress
to focus on the natural logic of life. He is also faced with the inevitable
consequences of his attitude if he refuses.
Adonis’ ‘steed’ then becomes the focus of the sexual logic. With its introduction,
the argument shifts from Venus and Adonis to an allegorical
interlude that represents Venus’ concerns in terms of Adonis’ ‘steed’ and a
‘breeding jennet’. By introducing an allegory within his poem, Shakespeare
heightens the relationship between the artifice of poetry and the natural
world of increase. The horses in the allegory do not have the human facility
with language that can pervert mythic logic by taking it literally. But, ironically,
to mock Adonis, the jennet ‘puts on outward strangeness, seems
unkind’ (310) but then relents when the steed responds with ‘melancholy
The example of the horses’ reconciliation and mating incites Adonis to
note how the ‘white and red’ in Venus’ cheek ‘each other did destroy’ (346).
The fleeting rapprochement is captured in the literal/erotic relation of their
Oh what a war of looks was then between them,
When Adonis speaks for the second time in the poem, he reiterates his
desire to be free of increase.
Her eyes petitioners to his eyes suing,
His eyes saw her eyes, as they had not seen them,
Her eyes woo’d still, his eyes disdain’d the wooing;
And all this dumb play had his acts made plain,
With tears, which Chorus-like her eyes did rain. (355-60)
‘Give me my hand’ (said he,) ‘why dost thou feel it?’
Then, when he speaks again, he makes the first mention of the boar that
will, at the end of the poem, kill him. In the stanza, which introduces the
boar, Adonis reveals something of the rationale behind his refusal. He will
only use ‘love’ to ‘disgrace’ it because he has ‘heard’ that sexual love is part
of the cycle involving death, as it makes life ‘but’ a ‘breath’.
‘For shame’, he cries, ‘let go, and let me go,
My day’s delight is past, my horse is gone,
And ’tis your fault I am bereft him so,
I pray you hence, and leave me here alone,
For all my mind,my thought,my busy care,
Is how to get my palfrey from the mare’. (375-84)
‘I know not love’ (quoth he) ‘nor will not know it,
In the Sonnets Shakespeare argues that the logical basis for valuing love
is the acceptance of the continuation of human life. Its rejection is consistent
with the role of Adonis in Venus and Adonis. It is not surprising that Adonis
rejects Venus’ presentation of the same argument. Instead, religious teaching,
which Adonis has ‘heard’, has convinced him that there is another form of
‘life’ after ‘death’. His youthful idealism inclines him to believe in an afterlife.
As will become apparent, his preference to hunt the boar, the most brutish
of animals, is directly proportional to his unrealistic idealism. As Shakespeare
demonstrates in Measure for Measure, the greatest evil comes from those who
believe they are pure of mind. The theme is emphasised as the poem
Unless it be a Boar, and then I chase it.
’Tis much to borrow, and I will not owe it:
My love to love is love, but to disgrace it,
For I have heard, it is a life in death,
That laughs and weeps, and all but with a breath’. (409-14)
Adonis’ inability to comprehend the logic of Venus’ argument leads her
to question his ability to trust his senses. As in the Mistress sequence of the
Sonnets, which features a sonnet devoted to the sensation of music (128) and
then evokes the five senses as basic to the logic of beauty in sonnet 130,
Venus delivers Adonis a lesson in the relation between the senses and the
possibility of ‘using his tongue’ to make sense.
‘What, canst thou talk’ (quoth she) ‘hast thou a tongue?
To highlight the inconsistency in Adonis’ understanding of love and life,
Venus dramatically collapses and feigns death. Adonis responds automatically
by attempting to revive her and, to ‘mend the hurt, that his unkindness
marred’, he kisses her willing lips (478-480). His willingness to save her from
immediate death contrasts with his unwillingness to give the kiss that would
acknowledge the persistence of himself or her through increase. When she
pretends to revive she plays sarcastically with his misunderstanding of the
logical interrelationship between life and death.
O would thou hadst not, or I had no hearing,
Thy mermaid’s voice hath done me double wrong,
I had my load before, now press’d with bearing,
Melodious discord, heavenly tune harsh sounding,
Ears’ deep sweet music, and heart’s deep sore wounding.
‘Had I no eyes but ears, my ears would love,
That inward beauty and invisible,
Or were I deaf, thy outward parts would move
Each part in me, that were but sensible,
Though neither eyes, nor ears, to hear nor see,
Yet should I be in love, by touching thee.
‘Say that the sense of feeling were bereft me,
And that I could not see, nor hear, nor touch,
And nothing but the very smell were left me,
Yet would my love to thee be still as much,
For from the stillitory of thy face excelling,
Comes breath perfum’d, that breedeth love by smelling.
‘But oh what banquet wert thou to the taste,
Being nurse, and feeder of the other four,
Would they not wish the feast might ever last,
And bid suspicion double lock the door;
Lest jealousy that sour unwelcome guest,
Should by his stealing in disturb the feast?’ (427-50)
‘O where am I’ (quoth she,) ‘in earth or heaven,
Adonis, to justify his actions, resorts to the defense of immaturity. The
irony is that Venus is attempting to provide the necessary antidote to his
Or in the Ocean drenched, or in the fire:
What hour is this, or morn, or weary even,
Do I delight to die or life desire?
But now I liv’d, and life was death’s annoy,
But now I died, and death was lively joy’. (493-8)
‘Fair queen’, (quoth he) ‘if any love you owe me,
In Venus and Adonis, and throughout his works, Shakespeare critiques the
consequences of excessive idealism, so the reference to the ‘fisher’s’ preference
for immature minds is a direct attack on the inadequacy of Christian
idealism. The charge of the boar that kills Adonis is the return in evil that
such blindness invokes.
Measure my strangeness with my unripe years.
Before I know myself, seek not to know me,
No fisher but the ungrown fry forbears,
The mellow plum doth fall, the green sticks fast,
Or being early picked, is sour to taste’. (523-8)
Venus’ final attempt to embrace Adonis takes advantage of his weariness.
He seems to ‘obey’ (563) yet, despite her efforts, he refuses consummation.
She challenges the ‘rose’ with ‘prickles’ and the ‘beauty under twenty locks
kept fast’ (575) (foretelling Tarquin’s assault on Lucrece) but does not prevail.
He tells her no, tomorrow he intends,
She ‘mounts’ him again but ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’. (597) The
mythic pivot of Shakespeare’s tale is located at this point. As the written
poem can only be a poem and not a child, then his imaginary protagonists
cannot consummate their relationship.
To hunt the boar with certain of his friends. (587-8)
Just as Christ in the Christian myth was born of a virgin, conceived
without intercourse, and died without issue, so Venus and Adonis, as an
imaginary Goddess and demi-God disporting on the page must respect the
logic of words to sustain their status as fictional entities. Venus presents the
increase argument as the logical precursor to the possibility of writing, but
increase is not a function of words in verse.
Shakespeare’s clarity about the distinction between myth and Nature gives
his work its remarkable veracity. The logical clarity of his understanding
informs all the plays and poetry. And the logical conditions for any mythic
possibility explored in Venus and Adonis are articulated precisely in the Sonnets.
Conventional interpretations of Venus’ speeches vilify her as an irrational
love-mad goddess. But the opposite is the case. When she articulates the
natural logic of the increase argument, and its implications for the logical
relation of body and mind, she is arguing for a natural understanding of the
logic of love. She does not so much seek sexual gratification from Adonis
but rather to awaken in him an awareness of the natural basis of life. Her
love is the deepest love possible from one sexual being to another because
it is based in a consistent understanding of life: ‘She’s love; she loves, and yet
she is not lov’d’ (610). When she accepts that Adonis is blind to her
entreaties, after he obtusely says, ‘You have no reason to withhold me so’
(612), she characterises his seeming innocence as the logical opposite to the
‘Alas, he naught esteems that face of thine,
The boar ‘digs sepulchers’ (621), just as Christ’s idealism led to his
untimely sepulcher. And, in an image used frequently in the Sonnets to
characterise the relation between truth and beauty, the boar is a ‘canker that
eats up love’s tender spring’ (656). Shakespeare’s insights into human nature,
because of his understanding of the logical relation between the natural
world and human truth and beauty, enables Venus to ‘prophesy’ Adonis’
death. Because of his excessive adolescent idealism he will die if he has an
‘encounter with the boar tomorrow’ (671-2).
To which love’s eyes pays tributary gazes,
Nor thy soft hands, sweet lips and crystal eine,
Whose full perfection all the world amazes,
But having thee at vantage (wondrous dread!)
Would root these beauties, as he roots the mead. (631-6)
Venus advises Adonis to hunt less dangerous animals, animals he would
be happy to engage with if his disregard of natural logic was not so extreme.
When Venus momentarily loses the plot of her argument (because she begins
to generalise the quality of love, 714) Adonis cuts her short with a pithy
rejection of her mythic sensibility.
‘Leave me, and then the story aptly ends,
If Venus leaves, he knows her ‘story’ will ‘end’. He intuitively appreciates
that her ‘story’ is based on the logic of the female/male relationship. But
his refusal to consider the natural logic of his existence leaves him ignorant
of the consequences of his Narcissistic self-interest. He will soon
experience its logical consequences in his untimely death.
The night is spent’; (716-7)
Venus then makes her last plea by reasserting the argument of the poem
to this point. To Adonis’ suggestion that ‘the night is spent’ and in ‘going I
shall fall’ she quips that, from the vantage of love, ‘in night desire sees best
of all’ (720).
So, if he falls, she suggests he ‘imagine…the earth in love’ with him, and
that all it wanted was a ‘kiss’. She argues that his own beauty has corrupted
him just as ‘Rich preys make true-men thieves’ (724).
She identifies Adonis’ false condemnation of ‘nature’ as the real ‘reason’
for his resistance to her arguments. It is ironic that idealists blame Nature
for ‘stealing’ (730) Adonis’ seemingly ‘divine’ or ‘heavenly’ attributes. And
idealists like Adonis accuse Nature of mingling ‘beauty with infirmities, and
pure perfection with impure defeature’ (735-6) so making Adonis ‘subject
to the tyranny’ (737). The illogical consequence is that they ‘swear nature’s
death, for framing thee so fair’ and so subvert ‘beauty’ (746).
Venus reinvokes the increase argument to counter Adonis’ imaginings.
She makes a withering attack on the ‘fruitless chastity of ancient Greek
‘vestals’ and Christian ‘nuns’.
‘Therefore despite of fruitless chastity,
Adonis is allowed a parting word before he sets off to hunt the boar.
Shakespeare puts in his mouth many of the lame objections to Venus’
arguments that, ironically, have been used by traditional commentators to
counter the natural common sense of his works. Adonis first calls her
increase argument an ‘idle over-handled theme’ (770). For those who
imagine life is a gift of the Gods, the reminder that they were conceived of
parents and will persist only through increase threatens their illusions. The
typical response is to denigrate the increase argument as carnal. For Adonis,
Venus’ ‘treatise makes me like you, worse and worse’ (774). He fends off the
unpalatable truth of her argument.
Love-lacking vestals and self-loving Nuns,
That on the earth would breed a scarcity,
And barren dearth of daughters, and of sons;
Be prodigal, the lamp that burns by night,
Dries up his oil, to lend the world his light.
‘What is thy body but a swallowing grave,
Seeming to bury that posterity,
Which by the rights of time thou needs must have,
If thou destroy them not in dark obscurity?
If so the world will hold thee in disdain,
Sith in thy pride, so fair a hope is slain.
‘So in thy self thy self art made away,
A mischief worse that civil home-bred strife,
Or theirs whose desperate hands them selves do slay,
Or butcher sire, that reaves his son of life:
Foul cank’ring rust, the hidden treasure frets,
But gold that’s put to use more gold begets’. (751-68)
‘If love have lent you twenty thousand tongues,
Adonis’ ‘reasons’ are but denigrations of Venus’ unanswerable logic.
And every tongue more moving than your own,
Bewitching like the wanton Mermaid’s songs,
Yet from my ear the tempting tune is blown,
For know my heart stands armed in mine ear,
And will not let a false sound enter there.
‘Lest the deceiving harmony should run
Into the quiet closure of my breast’, (775-82)
‘I hate not love, but your device in love,
He then identifies his notion of love with the disembodied love of the
Platonic transcendent reality of the Christian heaven.
That lends embracements to every stranger,
You do it for increase,O strange excuse!
When reason is the bawd to lust’s abuse. (789-92)
‘Call it not love, for love to heaven is fled,
His preference for an ethereal form of love leads him to think Venus is
only interested in ‘lust’. He claims that ‘Love is all truth, lust full of forged
lies’ (804). Yet her argument has been aimed at providing a consistent basis
for love. Her intent has been to remove the contradictions inherent in the
heavenly variety, which lead to the consequence Adonis is about to suffer,
ironically at the erotic tusk of the thick-necked boar.
Since sweating lust on earth usurp’d his name’, (794-5)
With Adonis’ gory fate Shakespeare puts the lie to idealistic love as
‘simple truth’ (sonnet 138.8). Instead, he argues for the ‘simple-Truth
miscalled simplicity’ (sonnet 66.11) that provides the ability to understand
the natural logic of life.
The parting of Venus and Adonis is captured in the eroticism of Adonis
‘gliding’ from her ‘eye’.
So glides he in the night from Venus’ eye. (816)
She wails the woe of his departing and asks rhetorically, in another attack
on idealistic desires,
How love makes young-men thrall, and old men dote,
Anticipating the response of orthodox critics to his poem, Shakespeare
describes the effect of Venus’ arguments on the pre-mature impatience of
How love is wise in folly, foolish witty. (837-8)
Her song was tedious, and out-wore the night,
In sonnet 76 Shakespeare expresses the same awareness of the effect of
Their copious stories oftentimes begun,
End without audience, and are never done. (841-6)
Why is my verse so barren of new pride? (sonnet 76.1)
Venus follows Adonis until she hears a ‘dismal cry’ (889) and then,
…she spied the hunted boar.
The commingling of red and white suggests the confusion of truth and
beauty typified by idealistic expectations. Adonis gets his just deserts at
the mouth of the wild boar. Venus’ frenzied activity at seeing evidence of
the threat to Adonis’ life is consistent with her concern that he, as the
representative of the male dynamic, could be dead. If that were so then the
possibility of increase is dead, as the course of events bears out. She asks,
Whose frothy mouth bepainted all with red,
Like milk, and blood, being mingled both together, (900-2)
‘Why hast thou cast into eternal sleeping,
The logical relation of the sexual ‘eyes’ and the eyes of sight are compounded
and confounded by Adonis’ misguided act.
Those eyes that taught all other eyes to see?
Now nature cares not for thy mortal vigour,
Since her best work is ruin’d with thy rigour’. (951-954)
When she hears a huntsman ‘holla’ (973) it revives her hopes for the
persistence of her kind.
A nurse’s song ne’er pleased her babe so well’, (974)
Relieved, Venus reconsiders her initial response.
Now she unweaves the web that she hath wrought,
She identifies the condition that would save her from her uncontrolled
Adonis lives, and death is not to blame: (991-2)
‘Grief hath two tongues, and never woman yet
Shakespeare gave the Mistress of the Sonnets the required perspicacity.
His Venus is a precursor of the Mistress who combines the number 2 and
the number 10 = 1+0 = 1. Meantime Venus revisits the logic of death.
Could rule them both, without ten women’s wit’. (1007-8)
‘O Love’ quoth she, ‘how much a fool was I,
Venus is ‘silly’ to ‘wail’ the death of someone still alive because until
Adonis dies there cannot be an overthrow of ‘mortal kind’. Mortal kind,
for whom Adonis and Venus are the archetypal representatives, can only be
reduced to ‘chaos’ if one or other of female or male dies. And that, it seems
to Venus, has not happened yet.
To be of such a weak and silly mind,
To wail his death who lives, and must not die,
‘Till mutual overthrow of mortal kind?
For he being dead, with him is beauty slain,
And beauty dead, black Chaos comes again’. (1015-20)
But then she ‘sees’ the body of Adonis, and her ‘eyes’ are ‘murdered’
(1031). In keeping with the erotic nature of Adonis’ offence against natural
logic, the boar’s tusk has gored him in ‘his soft flank’ (1053). As she gazes at
his single wound she imagines she sees ‘three’ wounds or ‘two’ Adonis’,
parodying the trinity or duality of the dead Christ. The reason for such
idealistic confusion is psychological.
For oft the eye mistakes, the brain being troubled. (1068)
Yet, in her grief Venus is conscious of the salient fact that Nature persists
despite his death.
‘The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh, and trim,
Adonis’ potential for a progression to a mature understanding of the logic
of truth and beauty has ‘died with him’. In sonnet 14 Shakespeare makes
the same prognostication. If the Master Mistress fails to appreciate the
priority of increase over truth and beauty, then that will be ‘truth’s and
beauty’s doom and date’ (14.14). Without increase there will be no humans
and so no truth and beauty. Because of the self-concern of the idealistic
Master Mistress, a wonder of the world will be dead.
But true sweet beauty liv’d, and died with him’. (1079-80)
Venus then recalls the youthful qualities that can be appreciated genuinely
for their beauty but come to nothing if the logic of Nature is ignored. Even
Adonis’ narcissism is remembered fondly, ‘when he beheld his shadow in
the brook’ (1099). She goes as far as to extemporise that the boar may have
been snuggling up to him and only inadvertently ‘sheath’d unaware the tusk
in his soft groin’ (1116).
Again, because Shakespeare understands the logic of life, and hence the
inherent logic of truth and beauty he is able to allow Venus to ‘prophesy’.
The denial of natural logic by Adonis, and by implication the whole biblical
tradition, generates a psychological malaise in which love is ‘waited on with
jealousy’ (1137). It has a ‘sweet beginning, but unsavoury end’, shall be
‘fickle, false, and full of fraud’, ‘strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to
speak’ (1146), and other false hopes and dissensions so that even ‘they that
love best, their loves shall not enjoy’ (1164). The litany of complaints is
consequent on the adolescent idealism typical of Adonis and is borne out
by the more mature appreciation of love that finds its greatest expression in
In keeping with the mythic logic of Shakespeare’s reworking of Ovid’s
poem, Adonis ‘melted like a vapour from her sight’ (1166). From his blood
‘a purple flower sprung up, checker’d with white, resembling well his pale
cheeks’ (1168-9). Venus ‘compares’ the smell’ of the flower to ‘Adonis’
breath’ and picks it (1171-5).
What follows is critical to the meaning of the whole poem. Traditional
commentary has been united in misinterpreting the next two stanzas.
‘Poor flower’ (quoth she) ‘this was thy father’s guise,
Contrary to what so many would like to think, the flower is not Adonis
reincarnated, but is the progeny of Adonis. Adonis has effectively ‘sired’ a
flower instead of a child. It becomes his only ‘issue’. ‘Grief ’ arises because
he desired to be reborn but failed to realise that the only way to be reborn
as anything like Adonis is through issue or increase. Venus assures the flower
that resting on her breast is as good as being in Adonis’ blood. This follows
because, now that the male of the archetypal sexual pair Venus and Adonis
is dead, the only recourse is to be reabsorbed back into Nature and be
expressed as a flower growing in Nature.
Sweet issue of a more sweet-smelling sire,
For every little grief to wet his eies;
To grow unto himself was his desire;
And so ’tis thine, but know it is as good,
To wither in my breast, as in his blood’. (1177-2)
The next stanza reinforces the reading. Again, the flower is identified as
the child or ‘next of blood’ of Adonis and not a reincarnation of Adonis
‘Here was thy father’s bed, here in my breast,
The Sonnets provide the complete logic for these events. The youth is
warned in sonnet 14 to reconcile his self love with the priority of increase
out of Nature over truth and beauty, particularly the tendency to idealise
aspects of the truth and beauty dynamic. Then in sonnet 126, the youth is
brought to ‘Audit’. He is told that if he cannot accept the Poet’s natural logic,
then Nature will render him back into herself unbred. He will be returned
to Nature without human issue. In being returned to Nature he will be
reabsorbed back into the processes of Nature from which he was originally
derived as a human being.
Thou art the next of blood, and ’tis thy right.
Lo in this hollow cradle take thy rest,
My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night:
There shall not be one minute in an hour,
Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love’s flower’. (1183-88)
The Mistress of the Sonnets is identified as being logically at one with
Nature in her 28 sonnets. So, when Adonis dies and Venus is bereft of the
option to propagate, she reverts to her originary status as part of Nature. As
the Mistress and Nature are undivided, she can reassure the ‘flower’ that it
is as safe in her breast as it is in the ground with its father’s blood.
The final stanza captures the remove from the ‘world’ that is consequent
on Adonis’ refusal to adhere to natural logic. It also looks forward to the
Sonnets where the female equivalent of Venus is called the Mistress.
Thus weary of the world, away she hies,
Shakespeare employs a traditional mythological conceit to convey the
idea that Venus has been sundered from her potential place on earth as a
reproductive being by Adonis’ actions. By the time Shakespeare came to
organise the Sonnets into a coherent set and had them published in 1609 he
had dispensed with the mythological characterisations of the logical entities
to convey his philosophy. He was aware, though, that his reformed mythic
expression of Ovid’s Story of Venus and Adonis was logically correct. At the
end of the Sonnets, he affirms his insight with the inclusion of the mythological
Cupid and Diane in sonnets 153 and 154.
And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid,
Their mistress mounted through the empty skies,
In her light chariot, quickly is con0veyed,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure her self, and not been seen. (1189-94)
The relation of Venus and Adonis to the Sonnet template
It should be evident from the above account that the philosophy of the 1609
Sonnets is the only text required to comprehend the meaning of Venus and
Adonis. It should also be apparent that Venus and Adonis represents
Shakespeare’s first attempt to articulate systematically his early insights about
the natural logic of human life.
This commentary is unique in that it uses the Sonnet logic to interpret
another of Shakespeare’s works. Because all other attempts to understand
the intent of Venus and Adonis have been based in the inadequate
Platonic/Christian paradigm, it should not surprise that the reading given
here is contrary to received opinion but is consistent with the words of the
text it examines.
When the template derived from the Sonnets is recalled, the correspondences
to the themes in the poem are glaringly obvious.
Complete template (Sonnet numbers)
Nature is evoked very early in the poem, and the first 29 stanzas develop
the increase argument that is consequential on the sexual division in Nature.
Venus and Adonis represent the Mistress and Master Mistress in the template.
The argument of stanza 29 states that it is a law of Nature that increase has
priority over all else if humankind is to survive.
Shakespeare correctly understands beauty both as sensory input to the
brain in terms of all the senses, and as the possibility of generating ideas in
the mind that are singular in their effect (such as God or the self). But the
greatest confusion for Adonis is his misapprehension of the logical relation
between the true and the false when determining his relation to Venus and
the world around. His inability to appreciate the logical connection between
truth and beauty and the sexual dynamic, because of the inconsistent expectation
of truth and beauty as a dynamic confined to the mind, causes him
to misconceive natural logic, which inevitably leads to his downfall.
Ironically, all the commentators who have attempted to interpret Venus and
Adonis over the last 400 years have perpetuated Adonis’ mistake.
As an early expression of Shakespeare’s philosophy, Venus and Adonis has
the principle themes in place. Only the role of the Poet, who is a distinct
entity in the Sonnets, is absent from the poem. Venus performs his role. In
the Sonnets, the separation of the role of the Poet generates the ‘rival’ poets.
Their presence in Venus and Adonis can be seen in the single reference to
Adonis’ friends with whom he hunts the boar. They represent what in the
Sonnets becomes the internal plurality of the Master Mistress, numerologically
characterised as the number 9.
Shakespeare’s awareness of the reception of his work will receive in the
following centuries is captured in the objections voiced by Adonis in his
last words before he leaves to hunt the boar. The rejection of Nature and
increase as a basis for worth and meaning by generations of critics acting
out of their Platonic/biblical expectations is ‘prophesised’ by Shakespeare.
Yet, while the critics turn away in disgust from the poem’s focus on the
sexual, ironically they rate Venus and Adonis as the greatest poem of its type
The philosophy Shakespeare articulates, somewhat experimentally in
Venus and Adonis and then definitively in the Sonnets, is the logic from which
he wrote at the mythic level throughout his career as a poet and a playwright.
The backhanded acknowledgement of his achievement by commentators
is a consequence of the prejudice generated by their faith in an inconsistent
mythology. In 1593 Shakespeare made his first substantial assault on the
inconsistencies and contradictions in traditional thought.
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Venus and Adonis
Rape of Lucrece
The Phoenix and the Turtle
A Lover's Complaint
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure