An introduction to one of Shakespeare’s earliest poems, the romantic narrative piece “Venus and Adonis”.
Venus and Adonis is among the earliest of Shakespeare’s poems to have survived. It appears to have been written in 1593 and may have occupied Shakespeare because of a temporary closure of all theatres and playhouses owing to an outbreak of the plague or else as a means of earning additional income by dedicating it to a wealthy patron (in this case, Henry Wriothesley the third Earl of Southampton). In any case, only a comparatively small number of his poems survive (apart, of course, from the Sonnets) and the quality of his verse indicates the heights to which he might have reached had he not dedicated so much of his efforts to the stage.
The poem itself consists of 1,194 lines divided into 199 six line verses. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter for the poem, which is the same metre used for the majority of his dramatic work. An iamb is a two-syllable piece of language with the stress placed on the second syllable. The pentameter part means that this two-syllable group is repeated so that it happens five times per line. For example, in the line ‘If love have lent you twenty thousand tongues,’ the stresses fall on love, lent, twen, thou, tongues. The regular verse structure and metre give a rhythmical feel to the poem and help both in reading aloud (and, in some cases, singing) and in understanding the main points. It is also easier to remember the lines, which is more important for the plays, when actors need to memorize their lines. The rhyming scheme is ababcc, meaning that the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth and the fifth and sixth.
The story of the poem is one which would probably have been well-known to contemporary readers. It is derived from the Metamorphoses of Ovid and also appears in different versions in various other places. In its original form, the goddess Venus falls in love with the mortal youth Adonis and they become lovers until the latter is killed by a boar, which they had been jointly hunting. In Shakespeare’s version, Adonis is reluctant to reciprocate the goddess’s advances and she spends some time trying to convince him of the benefits of a liaison. At its simplest level, therefore, this is love story with some proto-psychological elements and a humane approach to the two characters – the action concerns only the two lovers and is framed approximately according to the classical Greek unities. It is easy to see deeper levels of meaning, including for example a spiritual layer of meaning in which nature (the boar) rejects and destroys an unnatural union of man and the divine (i.e. Adonis and Venus). Whether the reader enjoys deeper meanings or nor, the vision of the lustful goddess trying to seduce the bashful youth is an entertaining and entrancing one.