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William Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

Rubens (Peter Paul), Venus and Adonis (detail)
Rubens, Venus and Adonis (detail)

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.

Overall Impression: I enjoyed this beautiful poem—its language, imagery, and wry humor.

Per Bevington: Venus and Adonis was written early in Shakespeare's career, in c. 1592-3, and draws on the vogue of Ovidian and erotic poetry of the 1580s and 1590s. It combines three passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses: the story in Book 10 of Venus' pursuit of Adonis, and the bashful reluctance of a young men (male coyness) as exemplified by Hermaphroditus (Book 4) and Narcissus (Book 3). Other disdainful Adonises are found in Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" and in Spenser's "Faerie Queene". Adonis is the son of Myrrha and her own father Cinyras, with whom she fell desprately in love (Cinyras in turn is the son of Paphos, son of Pygmalion and Galatea). Myrrha lusted after her father and tricked him into sleeping with her. As she fled her father's wrath, she was turned into a weeping myrrh tree, from which was born Adonis. He has grown up in the woods, is very fond of hunting, and has not yet attained manhood. 

The poem is aimed at a sophisticated, aristocratic and intellectual audience and presents contrasting ideas about love. Both characters speak in aphorisms as does the narrator. It exhibits a characteristically Ovidian blend of irony and pathos. It utilizes many rhetorical devices: parison (parallel phrases), isocolon (phrases of equal length and grammar), antimetabole (phrases repeated in inverted order), epanalepsis (phrases repeated at the beginning and ending of the line), etc.

(1) It is late morning and Adonis prepares to do hunt, what he loves best-he scorns love.

(5) Venus has fallen in love (or lust) with him and approaches him, comparing him to a flower in beauty. 

(30) She plucks him off his horse and carries him away under her arm. 

(43) She pushes him down and lies on the ground next to him and begins an elaborate series of arguments justifying his seduction. He protests she is immodest and he is ashamed. 

(84) She initially asks only for a kiss, to which he seems to consent, but turns away as she approaches.

(97) Venus brags she has been wooed even by the god of war, who has been her captive. 

(127) She notes his undeveloped beard, but nevertheless says he is ready to be tasted.

(133) If she were ugly and old, she could understand his reluctance. She emphasizes her beauty, how even the frail flowers support her weight, and the doves draw her chariot through the sky. Is he attracted mainly to himself as was Narcissus? 

(167) She says humans are by nature destined to breed. (It is midday and she is getting hot.)

(185) But Adonis spurns her impatiently, saying the sun burns his face. 

(200) Cannot he feel a woman's love, as like a mother's, and the torment she experiences for its lack? 

(211) He is like a lifeless idol or statue. She weeps. 

(231) She offers: "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" But Adonis remains disdainful. His cheeks dimple, further attracting her.

(259) He springs up to rejoin his horse, but (conveniently for and perhaps arranged by Venus) his stallion pursues a mare in heat, breaking its reins. The mare is coy, the stallion frustrated, but at last the two horses run off leaving Adonis stuck again with Venus. 

(325) He sits down angrily. She is sexually frustrated, like an oven stopped up or a river held back. He feels her heat and begins to glow. 

(344) She steals back toward him, kneeling before him. They have a war of looks, she trying to woo him with her eyes. She takes his hand and asks that he put himself in her place and be sympathetic with her needs. He repels her again irritably, taking back his hand.

(389) Her desire, unlike even the sea, knows no bounds. He should take advantage of the possibility of joy being presented to him and learn to love while he has the chance, using his horse's amorous actions as an example set for him.

(409) But he loves only hunting the boar. He has heard that love is a life in death. He wants her to release him. 

(433) She appeals to his five senses through which she would love him, describing how she would appeal to each.

(464) When he further disdains her with killing looks, she falls down and lies on the grass as if dead. He attempts to revive her and kisses her, after which she reopens her eyes. 

(494) She asks where she is, in earth or heaven? She wants to be kissed again. 

(523) He argues that if she truly loves him, she should respect his unripe age. 

(529) The sun has set and he wants to go. He offers to kiss her goodbye-they kiss, and he is drawn into her passionate embrace. 

(546) Still kissing, they fall together to the ground, sending her into gluttonous feeding and foraging on him, oblivious to all other concerns.

(564) She takes all she can from him, though not sufficient to satisfy her desire. She is not deterred in her passion by his frown, since love breaks through all obstacles.

(580) She bids him farewell, and asks if they will meet the next day-but he intends to hunt the boar with his friends. She breaks into tears and draws him down on her belly. He still refuses to "manage her" though he has mounted her in this position. She has been unable to elicit a sexual response in him and he pulls away. 

(615) She continues to warn him about hunting the boar-the boar has no appreciation for his beauty. Does he not see her fear of his death? 

(667) She prophecies his death in the hunt. He should hunt animals that run away, such as the hare (here she imagines how the hare will run). It is now dark night. His friends await him. 

(724) She concludes it is dark and cloudy because even Diana could not resist him and must in shame hide herself from him, thus obscuring the moon in darkness.

(751) She wants him to be prodigal, not like the love-lacking vestals. The body is but a swallowing grave. But Adonis likes her less and less and is immune to her pleading. He says his heart is sleeping. 

(789) He hates not love generally but her indiscriminate lust, her cunning and deceitful attempts to seduce him. Her feeling is not true love but lust, and he contrasts these two feelings, expressing his shame.

(811) He breaks away from her embrace and runs away in the night, led on by a shooting star. She runs after him a short ways. 

(829) She beats her heart and wails. 

(854) The sun rises and she salutes the sun. 

(869) She hears the hunting hounds, and as she runs toward them, she hears them at bay, having cornered an animal. She knows from the sound indicates it is not a gentle animal that has been cornered.

(899) She spies the boar, whose mouth is frothy with blood. Then she finds the hounds, some injured, some howling. 

(937) She wonders if Adonis is dead. She hears some huntsmen, and believes Adonis lives. 

(998) She talks as if to Death, saying she had but jested before about Adonis' death and asks Death's pardon for the jest. She hears a hunter's horn. 

(1029) Then she chances upon Adonis' bloodied body and turns her eyes away, then looks again on his body. The wide wound in his flank has drenched the flowers and grass, which seemed to bleed with him. 

(1064) She gazes steadfastly at him, her tears multiplying the images of him. At last, she cannot shed any more tears. She laments the treasure the world has lost-true beauty has died with him. She envisions the admiration or respect the animals had for him.

(1105) She condemns the boar, but rationalizes that the boar had only wanted to kiss Adonis and killed him inadvertently.

(1121) She falls at his side and stains her face with his blood, looks into his empty eyes, takes his hand, whispers into his ear. 

(1135) She prophecies that "all love's pleasure shall not match his woe", that sorrow and jealousy, falseness and fraud, suspicion, war and dire events, and strife between father and son will hereafter attend love-"they that love best their loves shall not enjoy". 

(1165) His body miraculously melts away and a purple flower checkered with white [the anemone], springs up. She picks it and compares its purple to blood, its scent to his breath, and its sap to his tears. She says she will have it dwell in her bosom where its father [Adonis] once lay, and she will rock it and kiss it day and night. 

(1190) Weary of the world, she has her silver doves convey her chariot away to Paphos for a period of seclusion.