What evidence does Venus and Adonis provide agains

What evidence does Venus and Adonis
provide against the idea that
sexual identities were stable
in the early modern period?

Cover picture: Campbell, see: Venus and Adonis, 929.In Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It Jaques, the second Son of Sir Rowland the Boys, realises that every human being has to pass through various stages in life, each of which has an archetypal function. This means that in each phase of life we are expected to behave in a certain, almost inescapable manner. This, Jaques brings home to the reader in a vivid description of ‘the seven stages in a man’s life.’

One man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
And all the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(2.7. 140 - 167).

Jaques sees life as a stage - play with seven acts, each act representing an important phase in life. Stage one, he describes as infancy, followed by stage two defined as childhood. In stage three we find the sighing lover and in stage four the swearing soldier. Stage five deals with man following a profession, stage six with man at an advanced age and, finally, stage seven, with man in the last stages of life. This system is clearly laid out and represents a kind of order in our lives. Every one of us has to undergo these changes, one after the other. However, by ridiculing man’s preposterous behaviour, Jaques also realises that in real life it is a sheer impossibility to conform to this expected pattern. Real life is not like a romance with a happy ending, but people are puzzling, inscrutable human beings, who always have to be prepared for new changes, since ‘[they] know what [they] are, but [they] know not what [they] may be.’ (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 4.5. 44).

Now, archetypes are not only present in real life but also occur in the fictitious world of a play in the form of certain character patterns. The picture that we, as the reader, get of a character is, on the one hand, a reflection of what he says, and, on the other hand, of how he says it. This is one way of analysing a character’s personality. Another way, one that complements the first one, occurs by means of expectations. This simply means that we already have a pre - conceived notion or idea in our minds of how a certain character should behave or act. This is based on our personal experience as well as on the force of habit. We have learned that in a play a whole range of characters exist which are all organised in a particular pattern. There is the protagonist of the play usually a young, beautiful, innocent person; then a mean, wicked scoundrel known as antagonist, a brave soldier, a foolish lover, a lonesome father, an uneducated fool, etc. We all have an idea of how these types of characters ought to behave. In other words, we place them in different categories, where each category represents one archetype. By making his speech a caricature, Jacques wants us to become aware of the fact that life does not always take its normal course, neither in real life nor in the fictitious world of a play. He states that, although certain archetypal patterns are imposed on every individual, he does not believe in the existence of an archetypal character, since every single character is as much an individual as those in life itself. It’s impossible to find any two alike.

When we look at stage four of Jaques’ speech - ‘and then the lover, Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow;’ (Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7. 148 - 150) - it becomes obvious that Adonis, in Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, violates this archetypal pattern. Throughout the poem Adonis behaves in every possible way contrary to how a 16thcentury reader would expect him to. And so does Venus in her way. In Petrarchan works we would normally expect to find - as Jaques suggests in stage four of his speech - a male playing the active part in a desired relationship. We would expect him to woo his beloved and to declare his love by reciting interminable speeches. Very often men would also attempt to coerce coy and innocent women into sexual relationships.

Venus and Adonis, a poem written by William Shakespeare between August 1592 and April 1593, opposes this seemingly fixed pattern of sexual identities of the early modern period, for Venus and Adonis do not represent this traditional Petrarchan concept. Their sexual roles are completely reversed. Instead of a male wooing a female, the 16thcentury reader was approached with a most unusual theme for that time: Venus, a desiring female, attempts to seduce Adonis, a resistant male. Bate refers to this uncommon reversal as ‘a dissolution of the conventional barriers of gender, for ... women take the active role usually given to men and young men always look like girls.’ (Bate, 88). Already the opening lines of Venus and Adonis tell us that something most unusual is taking place, something that was by no means prevalent in the early modern period. On our first encounter with the characters of the poem, Adonis is described as ‘Rose - cheek’d’ (3) and Venus as ‘a bold - fac’d suitor’ (6), and by stanza four at the latest, the reader is in the picture about what is happening, realising that ‘a woman [is] taking the role that society conventionally assigns to the man’ (Clark, xxxvii). Shakespeare’s non - compliance with the fixed archetypal pattern of those days appears to the reader in both the characters’ outward appearance and their behaviour.

In stanzas two to four Venus addresses her ‘object of desire’ with the words ‘Thrice fairer than myself’ (7) and she continues to praise Adonis’ beauty. She does her utmost to convince Adonis of her insatiable desire for him by informing him of her urge to kiss him.

Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses,
And being set, I’ll smother thee with kisses.
(17 - 18).

The intense wooing of Adonis is further elaborated on a few stanzas later. As many as eighty lines are devoted to this second speech, where in an inexorable stream of words Venus gives vent to her feelings. Once again she does her utmost to make Adonis give her a return of her feeling. Before Adonis is overcome with Venus’ third torrent of words, he eventually utters ‘Fie, no more of love! The sun doth burn my face; I must remove.’ (185 - 86). This utterance comprises exactly 14 words, which is compared to Venus’ exceptionally long discourses extremely brief. Adonis is not in the least interested in Venus and pleads to be left alone by rejecting her advances. Venus, who regards Adonis’ behaviour as ‘unkind’ (187) in the sense of ‘unnatural’, is not to be put off so easily and so she continues to pursue her intention. These unbalanced talks make it quite clear that in Venus and Adonis the role of the wooer is assigned, contrary to the 16thcentury custom, to a female.

According to Traub ‘a desiring woman is masculine because activity is a male prerogative’ (Traub, 521) and, indeed, Venus with regard to her outward appearance and her physical abilities mirrors the very portrayal of a man. Venus does not depict the picture of a fair, slender, immature and chaste maid as we are accustomed to reading about in a 16thcentury poem. Quite the contrary, she is a ‘comic, pathetic, ridiculous, humiliated, exulting, self - deceiving, playful, devious, repulsive, aggressive ... helpless’ (Lindheim, 193) and, in my opinion, also most unattractive man - like creature. Venus, however, regards herself as beautiful and irresistible, as can be observed within the following lines:

Were I hard - favour’d, foul, or wrinkled - old
Ill - nurtur’d, crooked, churlish, harsh in voice,
O’erworn, despised, rheumatic and cold,
Thick - sighted, barren, lean, and lacking juice,
Then mightest thou pause, for then I were not for thee;
But having no defects, why does abhor me?

Thou canst not see one wrinkle in my brow;
Mine eyes are grey, and bright, and quick in turning:
My beauty as the spring does yearly grow,
My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning,
My smooth moist hand, were it with thy hand felt,
Would in thy palm dissolve, or seem to melt.
(133 - 44).

Venus tries to expose her beauty and charms by listing all features she does not possess. This does not make a great impression on either the reader or Adonis, for it can hardly be doubted that this female wooer is an unattractive and aggressive woman, who is obsessed with love and desire for a handsome youth. Venus’ manliness is not only shown in her looks but also in her physical strength. She has no difficulties ‘pluck[ing Adonis] from his horse’ (30) and pushing him backwards. Adonis has not the slightest chance to free himself from her, since ‘how a bird lies tangled in a net, So fasten’d in her arms Adonis lies;’ (87 - 88). In lines 592 - 94 Venus clamps her hands so tightly around Adonis’ neck that both lose their balance and fall over.

And on his neck her yoking arms she throws.
She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck,
He on her belly falls, she on her back.
(592 - 94).

Shakespeare’s main character is simply a ‘panting, sweating, teeming giantess of a Venus’ (Brown, 210) resembling anything but an adorable, gorgeous 16thcentury woman.

It seems to me that the beauty Venus is lacking, Adonis is in surplus of. However, it is important to note that it is only through Venus’ eyes that Adonis is identified and addressed as a beauty. If we are to believe her, Adonis must have been the very embodiment of manly beauty. Already in the opening - lines of her first speech she makes a reference to his good looks and as the narrative progresses, we are told by Venus about Adonis’ ‘fair lips’ (116), his unripe and yet beautiful body (127 - 130) and his ‘mermaid’s voice’ (429), to name only a few examples. Not only does Adonis’ outward appearance resemble that of a woman but his way of acting does as well. When Venus tears him from his stallion, Adonis blushes and when she then tucks him under her arms, he is too faint to break loose. Adonis is furthermore an immature and innocent young male, who is ‘on the threshold of sexual maturity’ (Bate, 89). Evidence of Adonis’ youthfulness, which expands itself from childishness to petulance, runs through the whole poem: He is ‘sullen, still he lours and frets’ (75). Upon another occasion he also behaves in a most child - like manner, when he pretends not to see Venus by hiding his face behind his bonnet.

He sees her coming, and begins to glow,
Even as a dying coal revives with wind,
And with his bonnet hides his angry brow,
Looks on the dull earth with disturbed mind:
Taking no notice that she is so nigh,
For all askance he holds her in his eye.
(337 - 342).

Adonis keeps rejecting Venus’ advances. He is fully aware of the fact that he is not mature enough to give himself to a woman. ‘His governing principle ... is immaturity. He is simply too young to value another experience more highly than his games and his sleep’ (Lindheim, 196).

Fair queen (quoth he), if any love you owe me,
Measure my strangeness with my unripe years;
Before I know myself, seek not to know me;
(524 - 526).
I know not love (quoth he) nor will I know it,
Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it.
(409 - 410)

Shakespeare was not the first to stand ‘the convention on its head and [to make]...Venus play the part of the male lover’ (Shakespeare, The Narrative poems, 8). Venus and Adonis, which Shakespeare dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, is mainly based on Ovid’s stories of Venus and Adonis and of Hermaphroditus and Salmacia in the Metamorphoses. It is severely doubted that Shakespeare knew the original, but he had certainly read Arthur Golding’s translation, which was published in 1567. Shakespeare’s narrative of Venus and Adonis is mainly based on the tenth Book of the Metamorphoses. There, Ovid tells the story of a woman called Venus, who is accidentally touched by Cupid’s arrow, thus, falling in love with Adonis. She then accompanies him on his hunting trips. Ovid’s text provides no evidence that Adonis disapproves of Venus’ company or that he considers her to be repulsive. Although Adonis is fond of hunting, he does not seem to have an object to love.

For as the armed Cupid kist Dame Venus, unbeware
An arrow sticking out did raze hir brest uppon the bare ...
The beawty of the lad Inflaamed hir ...
Shee loved Adonis more
Than heaven. To him shee clinged ay, and bare him companye ...
But now unwoonted toyle hath made
Mee [Venus] weerye: and beholde, in tyme this Poplar with his shade
Allureth and the ground for cowch dooth serve too rest uppon.
I prey thee let us rest heere. They sat them downe anon,
And lying upward with her head uppon his lappe along,
Shee thus began: and in her tale shee bussed him among.
(Golding, Bk. X, 606 - 07; 610 - 11; 614 - 15; 642 - 47).

This is where Shakespeare differs from Ovid and many other versions in that Adonis rejects Venus’ advances. He seems to be too immature and young to be interested in Venus, whereas Ovid’s Adonis is certainly mature enough to see through Venus’ intentions, as told in Book X. There it says that Adonis advances from ‘The beawtyfullest babe’ to ‘a stripling’ and becomes ‘by and by a man’. (Golding, Bk. X, 601 - 03). As shown above, Shakespeare has altered the concept of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the latter Adonis does not mind getting involved with Venus, and Venus is depicted in a far less aggressive and threatening way.

However, Shakespeare was not the only one who made use of Ovid’s original by imitating parts of it. Abraham Fraunce’s Amintos Dale was published in 1592, one year before Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. In Fraunce’s version, as opposed to Shakespeare’s, Venus and Adonis have a sexual relationship, as do Venus and Adonis in Spenser’s The Fairy Queene. In Book III the characters even appear twice: first in the Castle Joyous, where Adonis becomes Venus’ ‘Paramoure’ (Spenser, Bk. III, i 34 4), and second in the Garden of Adonis, where Venus ‘reape[s] sweet pleasure of the wanton boy’ and enjoys ‘Her deare Adonis ioyous company’ (Spenser, Bk. III, vi 46 2 - 3).

All these stories based on Ovid have one thing in common: they all result in the loss of one or the other character. In Thomas Lodge, Glaucus woos unwilling Scylla, then Scylla woos reluctant Glaucus. Both eventually retreat in despair and Scylla is transformed into a rocky isle. In Shakespeare, Adonis would not listen to Venus’ advice and hence ends up dead after having encountered a boar, who ‘thought to kiss him, and hath kill’d him so’. (1110). In Marlowe, Hero and Leander are in love with one another but Leander drowns. It seems to me that regardless of whether the characters allow passion to happen or not, love will make them suffer. Bate says that ‘this inevitable future repetition is what gives the story its mythic, archetypal quality’. (Bate, 87). This is, however, the only way in which these narratives based on Ovid can be regarded as archetypal, for with regard to the 16thcentury concept of sexual identities, they all deviate from the archetypal pattern. This leads me to the assumption that the observance of sexual identities was perhaps strived for, but was by no means stable. However, none of the authors violates the perception of sexual identities to so great an extent as Shakespeare does. Within his poem the male is the wooed and, furthermore and contrary to all Petrarchan regulations, a sexually inexperienced and indifferent young man, and the female is the wooer and, what is more, a lascivious, desirous and at some times belligerent older woman[1]. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s drastic pictorial representation of Venus and Adonis was a popular story in the early modern period and generally greeted with intense enthusiasm on the part of the public.


Bate, Jonathan, "Sexual Perversity in Venus and Adonis", Yearbook of English Studies, 23 (1993), 80 - 92.

Brown, Sarah Anne, "Shakespeare’s Ovid", The Cambridge Quarterly, 25:2 (1996), 208 - 212.

Campbell, Oscar James, ed., Shakespeare Encyclopaedia, London: Methuen & Co LTD, 1966.

Clark, Sandra, ed., Amorous Rites: Elizabethan Erotic Verse, London: Everyman, 1994.

Golding Arthur, trans., Shakespeare’s Ovid, ed. by Cohen, J. M., London: Cantaur Press, 1961.

Harbage, Alfred, Conceptions of Shakespeare, London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Lindheim, Nancy, "The Shakespearean Venus and Adonis", Shakespeare Quarterly, 37:2 (1986), 190 - 201.

Keach, William, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives. Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and their Contemporaries, The Harvester Press, 1977.

Shakespeare, William, As you like it, ed. by Oliver, H. J., The New London: Penguin Shakespeare, 1968.

Shakespeare, William, The Narrative Poems, ed. by Evans, Maurice, London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. by Sch├╝cking, L. L., William Shakespeare Complete Edition, 4 vols. Darmstadt, 1996.

Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, ed. by Roche, Thomas P., London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Traub, Valerie, "Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy", Shakespeare Quartely, 38:4 (1987), 520 - 522.

[1] In a letter to Mistress Agnes, Shakespeare refers to Venus as an ‘older woman‘. He writes: ‘I well remember that thy only word was to ask me if I had made Adonis to scorn Venus because she was an older woman.‘ (Harbage, 140).

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