Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Reading the Allegorical IntertextChaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton$

Judith H. Anderson

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780823228478

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823228478.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM FORDHAM SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.fordham.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Fordham University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in FSO for personal use (for details see www.fordham.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 12 December 2018

Venus and Adonis: Spenser, Shakespeare, and the Forms of Desire

Venus and Adonis: Spenser, Shakespeare, and the Forms of Desire

(p.201) 13. Venus and Adonis: Spenser, Shakespeare, and the Forms of Desire
Reading the Allegorical Intertext

Judith H. Anderson

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Modern editors say that Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis was written 1592–1593. It is also the precise period in which Shakespeare is thought to have written Richard III, a play full of memories of the 1590 Faerie Queene. In Venus and Adonis, Venus switches from being a manhandler to being a pathetic mourner over the body of dead Adonis. This kind of switch becomes a major problem because it is hard to rationalize the transition specially when convincing. Although passion and grief are twinned conditions of wanting, the shift in this poem from an aggressive to a helpless, pathetic one challenges credible mimesis and human credibility. Instead of a mythic rationalization, Venus and Adonis is a seriocomic meditation on the landscape of desire or wanting.

Keywords:   Richard III, Spenser, Faerie Queene, desire, wanting, Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare, poem

In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, the switch from Venus as manhandler to Venus as the pathetic—some would say tragic—mourner over the body of dead Adonis has always been problematical. Although passion and grief are twinned conditions of want(ing), the shift in this poem from an aggressive, comic mode to a helpless, pathetic one proves larger than life and challenges credible mimesis and, otherwise put, human credibility. Or perhaps I should say balanced human credibility, since Venus' behavior makes sense as an obsessive fixation transferred from hunger to loss. Yes, Venus is a goddess and a figure of myth for whom excess is appropriate, yet her passion also verges too close to human passion and sexual realities to make such a rationalization wholly convincing. Fixation, after all, is the basic given of personification allegory and, correlatively, of the demonic, and neither designation quite suits her.

* * *

In what follows, I would suggest that, instead of a mythic rationalization, Venus and Adonis is a seriocomic meditation on the landscape of desire, orwanting—on passion and grief—and on the kinds of figures desire generates in the third book of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Shakespeare's poem explores the effects of folding into characters Spenser's multiple refractions of desire that are expressed in numerous allegorical figures and thus the effects of folding the multiple refractions of Book III into more fully and materially realized constructs. These effects and indeed this process bear on the gendered depiction of wanting, of passion and grief, over time.

The consensus of modern editors is that Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis was written in 1592–93, precisely the period in which Shakespeare is thought to have written Richard III, a play full of memories of the 1590 Faerie Queene, as I have earlier noted. Harold Brooks has persuasively identified recollections of Spenser's Books II and III in the terror and riches of Clarence's dream of drowning—the Cave of Mammon (II.vii), the Bower of Bliss (p.202) (II.xii), and Marinell's Rich Strand (III.iv)—and elsewhere I have identified a striking allusion to the Garden of Adonis (III.vi) in Richard's words to Queen Elizabeth when he seeks her daughter's hand in marriage. I have suggested as well the plausibility of another Richardian memory in the same scene of passages in Spenser's Book III concerning an unavoidable destiny.1 The first of these passages occurs in Spenser's tale of Venus and Adonis in Malecasta's tapestry, and the second, equally relevant to the present chapter, comes in the story of Marinell's downfall for being, like Shakespeare's Adonis, “loues enimy” (III.iv.26); the story of Marinell also furnished one of the Spenserian recollections demonstrated by Brooks. All these associations and allusions indicate that Spenser's poem was much in Shakespeare's mind at this time and that his familiarity with it was extensive and detailed.

Since Venus and Adonis is the subject at hand, Shakespeare's allusion in Richard III to Spenser's Garden of Adonis, the earthly paradise where Adonis becomes “eterne in mutabilitie,” is of particular interest (III.vi.47). Beyond the obvious purpose of increasing the likelihood of an intertextual relation between Shakespeare's erotic epyllion and Spenser's mythic Garden, it indicates something of Shakespeare's response to this complexly nuanced site and to the 1590 Faerie Queene more generally. In the fourth Act of the play, Richard replies to Queen Elizabeth's bitter rehearsal of the fates of her murdered sons that when he marries her daughter, “the liquid drops of tears that you have shed / shall come again, transform'd to orient pearl” (iv.321–22). Suggestively close to a description of Shakespeare's hopeful but apprehensive Venus, whose tears are “prison'd in her eye like pearls in glass, / Yet sometimes falls an orient tear beside,” Richard's highly rhetorical promise of transformation from tears to pearl and from grief to art fails at this stage to persuade the Queen (980–81). Before long she again reminds Richard flatly, “Yet thou didst kill my children,” and he quickly counters,

  • But in thy daughters womb I bury them;
  • Where in that nest of spicery they will breed
  • Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.
  • (IV.iv.423–25)

Here the memory of Spenser's Garden of Adonis is striking: the boar, Richard's heraldic device and thus metonymically Richard, would root in its fertile soil.

In the Renaissance, a Garden of Adonis, from ancient times the term for a forcing bed or place of heightened fertility (and therefore also of transience), became by etymological confusion of Adonis with Eden a “ioyous (p.203) Paradize,” as Spenser calls it, and the seminary of all created things.2 At the center of Spenser's Garden is the mount commonly identified as a mons veneris and directly beneath it the deadly boar is imprisoned in a cave.3 Therecycling babes returning through a gate of death “in that Garden planted be againe; / And grow afresh, as they had neuer seene / Fleshly corruption, nor mortall paine” (III.vi.33: my emphasis). On the Mount itself, Venus “takes her fill” of Adonis' “sweetnesse,” and

  • There yet, some say, in secret he does ly,
  • Lapped in flowres and pretious spycery [my emphasis]
  • By her hid from the world, and from the skill
  • Of Stygian Gods. …
  • (III.vi.46)
Similarity of situation, explicit verbal echoes, and Richard's otherwise unmotivated rhetorical flourish leave little question that Shakespeare's “nest of spicery” alludes to Spenser's Garden.

An earlier passage in the same Shakespearean courtship scene had already played on the association of womb and tomb so noticeable in the allusion to Spenser's Garden. In it, Richard objects to the resistant Queen, “Your reasons are too shallow and too quick,” and she delivers the punning rejoinder, “O no, my reasons are too deep and dead—/ Too deep and dead, poor infants, in their graves” (363–63). Like Richard, Elizabeth refers to her reasons for resisting his suit, but her reasons come between the two explicit linkings of womb and tomb in the scene and evoke this link as well. Her reasons glance ironically at the Renaissance commonplace of the rationes seminales (seminal reasons), “the germs of those things which were to develop in the course of time”—the potentialities implanted by God in the creation to develop by temporal unfolding.4 In this way, they suggest a further associative link with that seminary of created forms in Spenser's Garden of Adonis, to which withered things return to be planted anew.

In the Richardian context, of course, such references to the seminary of life are heavy with negation. The point I would stress, however, is that their irony is directed not at Spenser's Garden as such but at Richard's outrageous hypocrisy and his presumption of the ultimate gullibility of the Queen. Richard's irony in this scene invites recoil by the audience rather than sympathetic (or cynical) complicity. The irony of his reference to the Garden is chilling precisely because it invokes, by contrast, the safety, pleasure, and renewal of Spenser's mythic site of fertility and regeneration. Yet metaphorically (or metadramatically, which amounts to the same thing), it could be (p.204) said also to mock a naive misreading of the Garden. It responds to—if it also overemphasizes—the threats, darkness, chaos, and death that are in both senses contained in and by the Garden itself, not to mention the rest of Book III and without which an approach to the Garden violates its very nature. In question here is not merely the relation of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis to Spenser's focal use of this myth but also the way Shakespeare might have read antecedent texts and in particular allegorical ones.

One method of reading—perhaps, more accurately, of utilizing—texts in this period that has lately received renewed attention involves the culling of textual nuggets, whether based on a moral, rhetorical, topical, or other principle of selection. This method, evident in the ubiquitous commonplace book and in other forms of anthologizing, can be highly insensitive to textual or historical context. But another important way of reading texts that is based on biblical interpretation and its controverted (hence publicized) methods is acutely aware of context, nuance, and detail. Here, rather than exclusively in the rhetoric books, is the parallel to modern close reading, whose popular dissemination religious training, conventicles, printed polemics, and sermons all furthered. There is, then, no necessary reason to assume that Shakespeare would have played Venus and Adonis off against a single episode of The Faerie Queene while ignoring a conspicuously relevant larger context with which we have every reason to suppose he was familiar. Within that context, the episodes to which Venus and Adonis is usually linked look different from the way they do in isolation, and the relation of the epyllion to the epic looks less like parody and critique and more like dialogue and complement.

The critical tradition has too often assumed rivalry or anxiety as the only possible relation between poets and precursors, whereas in a historical setting in which the mentality of a lingering manuscript culture coexisted with the incipient culture of print capitalism, there were other, more mixed and interesting possibilities. Shakespeare, after all, did not even bother to prepare his plays for publication, and his relation to his sources and analogues often looks less competitive than culturally assimilative or even comfortably dependent. As earlier mentioned, at times this relation looks like the one Gerald Bruns ascribes to a manuscript culture, in which the appropriation and “embellishment” of another text “is an art of disclosure, as well as of amplification. Or rather, amplification is not merely supplementation but also interpretation: the act of … eliciting from it [the earlier text] that which remains unspoken.”5 Put otherwise, it is at once an act of reading and of (in)habitation.

(p.205) The relation of Venus and Adonis to the 1590 Faerie Queene has certainly been explored and documented these many years. A glance at the Shakespeare Variorum shows that the first canto of Book III has been the primary candidate for a Spenserian analogue or occasionally for a source (“a certain resistance on the part of Adonis”) simply on account of its subject matter, namely, the Ovidian rendering of Venus' love of Adonis depicted in Malecasta's tapestry.6 Ellen Aprill Harwood also calls our attention to the 1590 ending of The Faerie Queene in which Scudamour and Amoret are described as if merging in a hermaphroditic union similar to that of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Embracing, “lips together glued,” Shakespeare's pair seems “incorporate[;]… face grows to face” (540, 546).7 As thirsty as Shakespeare's Venus, Spenser's Scudamour embraces Amoret, who “in sweete rauishment pourd out her spright: / No word they spake, nor earthly thing they felt, / but like two senceles stocks in long embracement dwelt.” Harwood does not notice, however, that Spenser's “senceles stocks” share with Shakespeare's images of gluing and facelessness a rejection of such amoebic blending for human beings; significantly, Britomart, Spenser's most fully realized female figure, is never allowed it.

Aside from such peripheral analogies between Shakespeare's and Spenser's poems, the fullest, most provocative essay on their relation, Harwood's, argues that Spenser actually rejects an Ovidian rendering of the sort Shakespeare was to write simply by situating his in Malecasta's lustful domain, where, I would object, Britomart, the heroine of Book III, is wounded and thus touched by and vulnerable to what this domain represents. In the main, however, Harwood concentrates her contrast not on Malecasta but on the Garden of Adonis, asserting that “much of Venus and Adonis can be read as a repudiation [and parody] of the erotic philosophy expounded” there (52). Considering Shakespeare the exception, Harwood notes in this essay published in 1977 that “all the critics have praised the union of Venus and Adonis in the garden as an ideal, the very image of nature”; then she marvels, “that there the ‘great mother Venus’ ‘possesseth’ and ‘takes her fill’ of a ‘boy’ produces neither the least discomfort nor the smallest giggle,” responses, I hasten to add, the Garden has produced since Harwood wrote, notably from the pen of Harry Berger (53).8 For Harwood, however, it originally took Shakespeare to appreciate the possibilities of comedy and paradox unrealized in Spenser's myth of regeneration and to combine not merely a generative Venus with a heavenly one (Venus Pandemos with Venus Urania), as Spenser does, but a generative Venus with one both passionate and sexual (p.206) (Venus vulgaris). In contrast to Spenser's, Shakespeare's Venus, she observes, would be equally at home in Acrasia's lusty Bower of Bliss or in the fertile Garden of Adonis, although she also acknowledges that his chaste Adonis would decline the pleasure of either place (59–60). That Acrasia's Bower is also and equally Spenser's Harwood seems momentarily to forget.

More recently, Gordon Williams' highly suggestive reading of the death of Shakespeare's Adonis as a “violent sexual awakening” in which sex is collocated with death—indeed, just as the familiar pun on dying would have it—conversely would signal the later poet's approval of both sites and pointedly of Spenser's Garden, where grows “euery sort of flowre / To which sad louers were transformed of yore” and where, “in euerlasting ioy,” Adonis finds the continuity of dying with the perpetuation of life. (III.vi.45–47, 49).9 Here indeed is “a life in death,” though in quite a different sense from the meaningless, immediate alternation of laughter with weeping, the living death, that Shakespeare's prim Adonis has in mind (413–14). In Spenser's pleasure Garden, even more clearly than in Malecasta's tapestry, the poet of romance epic revises Ovid's story of Venus and Adonis to feature the explicit sexuality of consummation.10

Although Harwood ranges outside the Garden to glance at the Bower of Bliss and the figure of Mutability (not published until 1609), as well as at Malecasta's tapestry, her reading of Book III remains far too selective. While offering evidence of the bearing of the Garden on Shakespeare's poem, it neglects not only the Garden's dark shadings but also the implication of the Garden in the rest of the 1590 poem, including the rest of the canto in which it exists. Spenser's is a poem that conspicuously and often uses a kind of refraction to relate largely disparate figures to a single type, such as Venus; as Peter Hawkins has observed, in such figures we recognize less the presence of the original type than the “degrees” of its presence.11 Whereas an older criticism at ease with oppositions and clean boundaries between them confidently saw such refractions as invitations to read in malo or in bono, more recent ones have instead seen in them complex mixtures, receding depths, and indefinition. As I have argued at length in my chapter on “Refractions of a Veiled Venus,” Spenser, like his “father” Chaucer and unlike the Neoplatonizing philosophers with whom some readers of Venus and Adonis would exclusively group this filial poet, does not keep a “good” Venusand a “bad” one sharply, safely, and simplistically distinct. Instead, he insists on their connection, even while insisting on a difference between them. If briefly I might invoke a perspective beyond the publication of Shakespeare's epyllion, much of Spenser's 1609 Faerie Queene is set between Acrasia's (p.207) Bower and Nature's arbor, and thus between two Venerean figures, both veiled. Books III and IV, the pivotal books in the epic as we have it, most fully explore what lies beneath the veil, what relates and what differentiates these figures, which is actually the same question.

Characteristically, Spenser's cantos are units, and what is within them is in some way related. Within a single canto, the Garden of Adonis is preceded and introduced by a story that comes in two stages: the first concerns the birth of the twins Belphoebe and Amoret, and the second, which dovetails with the first, the search of Venus for a wayward Cupid, or desire. The second stage allots Belphoebe, or chastity, to Diana and allots Amoret, or love, to Venus, thus separating these consanguineous twins; Venus then takes Amoret, “in her little loues [Cupid's] stead” to the Garden of Adonis, “Where most she [Venus] wonnes, when she on earth does dwel” (III.vi.28–29). The birth of the twins is described in such a way as to ensure the continuity of heavenly influence with physical process—of a conception “Pure and unspotted from all loathly crime, / That is ingenerate in fleshly slime” with a very physically pregnant “belly so vpblone” (3, 9).12 The second stage traces a Venus seamlessly and successively transforming herself from a heavenly manifestation to a more generalized social one, with more than a trace of Venus vulgaris evident, and in the process managing to mollify Diana, whom Actaeon-like, Venus has surprised in disarray. The first half of the canto thus shows the relatedness of higher and lower, ideal and physical, although the subsequent separation of the twins pulls against the apparently temporary rapprochement of Venus and Diana to suggest future problems for both the goddesses' young charges. Nonetheless, this entrée to the Garden emphatically figures relation—the desirability and actuality of a relation that is inclusive—rather than an otherworldly flight from the physical. And it remains Amoret's seemingly fortunate fate to be taken to the Garden, Venus' “ioyous Paradize.”

The Garden itself, while dominantly benign, is a place that includes time and death, containing them mythically, impersonally, and cyclically. Creatively, it also draws out of “the hateful darkenesse and … deepe horrore, / [of] An huge eternall Chaos … The substances of natures fruitful progenyes” (36). Albeit in one aspect a Garden of forms, the Garden is preeminently an organic and physical place and therefore not one that for long respects individual subjects or gendered egos; it is, in short, a myth of generation, situated, when once the relatively more individuated figures of Venus and Adonis are reached, clearly on and in the body:

  • (p.208) Right in the middest of that Paradise
  • There stood a stately Mount, on whose round top
  • A gloomy groue of mirtle trees did rise,
  • Whose shadie boughes sharpe steele did neuer lop,
  • Nor wicked beasts their tender buds did crop,
  • But like a girlond compassed the hight,
  • And from their fruitfull sides sweet gum did drop,
  • That all the ground with precious deaw bedight,
  • Threw forth most dainty odours, and most sweet delight.
  • (III.vi.43)

For several stanzas, the description of this landscape of erotic desire (“And from their fruitfull sides sweet gum did drop”) affords a topos analogous to that of Shakespeare's Venus, who offers to be a deer park for Adonis, where he might feed at will, “on mountain, or in dale” and “Graze on … [her] lips, and if those hills be dry, / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie” (231–34). She continues,

  • 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. (235–40)

Shakespeare's deployment of the topos is, of course, quite different from, as well as analogous to, Spenser's: the trace of mystery, secrecy, shade, or darkness—Berger calls it gynephobia—that the Spenserian description incorporates into the landscape with such words as “gloomy” Shakespeare here embodies both in an allusion to Scylla's barking dogs and, as elsewhere, especially in the disdainful Adonis.13 But where Spenser's landscape belongs mainly to myth and is even suggestively ambisexual, Shakespeare's belongs mainly to the social world. What the Spenserian landscape intimates, Shakespeare makes explicit, comic, and more troubling. His wily, resourceful Venus attempts to seduce Adonis with the kind of anatomical topos that many a poet has fantasied, but this youthful representative of manhood responds to her plea of “Pity … some favor, some remorse” by springing away in fearful disgust and hastening, ironically, to his sexually aroused horse (257–58). A final tie of Shakespeare's Venus to the Garden canto involves (p.209) the likely allusion in Spenser's boar encaved beneath the mons veneris to the mythic vagina dentata. In Shakespeare, this myth reappears in Venus' fantasy that the boar's tusking of Adonis was meant as a kiss, which, had she “been tooth'd like him … With kissing him … [she would] have kill'd him first” (1114–18).14

Aside from the association of dying with life and of female desire with generation, the Garden also impinges on the rest of Book III and on Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis in the figure of a female bending over a recumbent male. This silhouetted pieta` is present in The Faerie Queene from the Bower of Bliss at the end of Book II through nearly the end of Book III: Acrasia, Cymoent, Belphoebe, Venus (twice), Argante, and Britomart (twice) are all found in such a memorably refractive, relational, Venereal posture.15 In a conspicuous allusion to the Bower of Bliss that is inescapable in the first canto to follow it, Venus leans over the sleeping Adonis in Malecasta's tapestry just as Acrasia leaned over the sleeping Verdant in the Bower, and as Venus will lean over Adonis' recumbent form in the Garden. While the lustful Acrasia and Venus, similarly lustful, voyeuristic, and motherly in the tapestry and dominant, contented, and contenting in the Garden, have immediate thematic relevance to Venus and Adonis, three of the other refractive figures, Cymoent, Belphoebe, and Argante, may be of even greater interest.

Like Shakespeare's Venus in one of her aspects and the Venus of Spenser's Garden, the sea nymph Cymoent figures motherhood. When she learns of her son Marinell's wounding, she rushes to his side, where her lament over his fallen body begins, “Deare image of myself,” and suggests her possessive narcissism, which is also evident in her earlier warning to her son to avoid the love of women (III.iv.36). She subsequently takes the helpless Marinell to her own home in the sea, a state of primal flux, where he remains virtually captive until the 1596 edition, in which he is reborn in his love for a woman and reemerges from the sea of birth. Cymoent's well-meant but engulfing, infantilizing possession bears a suggestive relevance to the Shakespearean Venus' relation to Adonis, her “froward infant” and “fondling,” who is “smother[ed],” “hemm'd” in, and manipulated both psychologically and physically by her (18, 229, 562). As I have earlier noted, the referent of two allusions in Richard III to Spenser's Book III is the story of Marinell, in which “loues enimy” Marinell is felled by Britomart, the heroine of a quest for love. Britomart spears, or symbolically tusks, him.

Spenser's beautiful Belphoebe likewise assumes the aspect of motherhood, among other aspects, in a refraction of the death of Adonis in Book (p.210) III. The double nature of Amoret's twin, who is also the poem's chief symbol of virginity, becomes evident when the young squire Timias, who has been wounded by a lustful forester, wakens from his swoon and, as Belphoebe bends over him, addresses her in words that align her at once with Spenser's lustful Acrasia and with Venus herself disguised as Diana in the Aeneid. “Mercy deare Lord,” Timias asks, “what grace is this, … To sendthine Angell from her bowre of blis,” and then, echoing Aeneas, he continues, “Angell, or Goddesse do I call thee right?” (III.v.35). A strange, not fully realized amalgam of mother, lover, and virgin Queen, Belphoebe ministers to a youth who has been attacked by lustful villains armed with a boar-spear and arrows and who, Adonis-like, has been badly wounded in the thigh. So wounded, he seems about to turn into a flower, thus participating in a major motif in Book III:

  • His locks [of hair], like faded leaues fallen to grownd,
  • Knotted with bloud, in bounches rudely ran,
  • And his sweete lips, on which before that stownd
  • The bud of youth to blossome faire began,
  • Spoild of their rosie red, were woxen pale and wan.
  • (III.v.29)
Throughout this book, beginning with the story of Venus and Adonis in Malecasta's tapestry, characters and episodes have variously and destructively been identified with one or another bipolar term, even as the fading flower of Timias (from Greek time [τιμή], “honor”) is here: sensuousness and brutality, withdrawal or attack, passive loveliness or hostile aggression, the Venerean flower or the boar. It is Britomart's quest as a Venus armata to seek their tempering and accord, not simply their suppression or separation, and in the House of Busirane, where she stands wounded but with sword erect between the captive Amoret and her felled captor Busirane, she is at once a figure of concord and yet another refraction of Venus.

The most outrageously provocative Venerean figure in Book III with respect to Shakespeare's poem is the monstrous Giantess Argante. Like her incestuous twin brother Ollyphant (destructive phantasy: Greek ollyo [ολλύω], “destroy,” phantasia [φαντασία], “imagination”), Argante shares with Shakespeare's Venus a taste for boys, ranging over the countryside to find them, and

  • Whom so she fittest finds to serue her lust,
  • Through her maine strength, in which she most doth trust, (p.211)
  • She with her brings into a secret Ile,
  • Where in eternall bondage dye he must,
  • Or be the vassall of her pleasures vile,
  • And all in shamefull sort him selfe with her defile.
  • (III.vii.50)

When first sighted in Book III, Argante has athwart her horse and “before her lap a doefull Squire”—a perverse pieta` if ever there was one (vii.37). Argante is an incestuous predator like the Venus of one facet of Shakespeare's imagination, the latter of whom resembles a vulture or “an empty eagle” that tears “with her beak on feathers, flesh, and bone, / Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste” (555–57, 551). Argante, similarly compared to a hawk with a dove trembling in her talons, is forced to abandon her “quarrey,” the subjected squire, to ward off the attack of the mature knight who, like an “Eagle,” would capture or kill her (III.vii.39). But she soon stuns her would-be conqueror, “And on his collar laying puissant hand, / Out of his wauering seat him pluckt perforse … and laying thwart her horse, … She bore him fast away” (43). Argante's manhandling is a rare match for Shakespeare's Venus, who

  • Being so enrag'd, desire doth lend her force
  • Courageously to pluck him [the hapless Adonis] from his horse.
  • Over one arm the lusty courser's rein,
  • Under her other was the tender boy.
  • (29–32)
For those critics who suspect that Shakespeare's poem might have a satirical relation to courtship, especially under a Queen who affected a Petrarchan role, Argante's name affords further tantalizing connections with Spenser's poem: in Arthurian legend, this is the name of the Faerie Queen to whose island the mortally wounded Arthur is taken. Etymologically, the name of this legendary precursor of Spenser's Faerie figure of his own Queen could also be read as an allusion to the idle/idyll, unproductive life at court of an aspiring courtier: Greek argos(ἀϱγÌς).16

While the cast of Venerean refractions in Book III has not quite been exhausted, their range and relatedness should be evident by now. Evident as well, perhaps, is the relevance to Spenser's third book of Catherine Belsey's description of the burden of Venus and Adonis, namely, “an understanding of sexual desire as precisely sensual, irrational, anarchic, dangerous but also (p.212) at the same time delicate, fragile, and precious.”17 Yet it would be misguided to see in Shakespeare's Venus, the major vehicle of Belsey's perception, an achieved equilibrium between life-enhancing and anarchic sex, as Harwood does, or, in Spenser's symbolic terms, to see such an equilibrium between the flower and the boar; and it would be equally misguided to see in Shakespeare's Venus merely the one or the other of these extremes. Describing Venus and Adonis as both polyphonic and indeterminate, Belsey is again ontarget, although a case with more positive and productive implications might as readily be made for over- as for indeterminacy.

Where Spenser typically channels his polyphony into separate, if also related, figures in Book III, however, Shakespeare gathers most of his into the single character of Venus. As Heather Dubrow has noted, Shakespeare's Venus speaks 537 of the poem's 1,194 lines, with the petulant Adonis speaking only 87 in my count and the narrator another 570.18 In view of the dominance of Venus' role as a dramatized speaker, which is further augmented by the active and affective roles the poet assigns her, it is not surprising that readers tend to concentrate on her figure and to conceive of it in theatrical terms: this epyllion, after all, has even been acted, and Philip Kolin's collection of essays on it assigns a whole section to “Venus and Adonis in Production.”

Just such a lingering conviction of Shakespeare's theatrical “realism,” however, has led us to downplay or misjudge the relation of his poem to Spenser's. Rather than a “repudiation” of Spenser's “erotic philosophy,” as Harwood would have it, Venus and Adonis looks like a reveling in Spenserian eros. Shakespeare's recreative poem explores the effect of transforming a number of Spenser's allegorical figures into a relatively more realized character—more exactly, what would result from the folding of its unfolded refractions into a more fully fleshed-out version.19 At the same time, however, Spenser's interlaced refractions represent a variety that actually exceeds and challenges such a concentration, defying containment by it, at least until Shakespeare's creation of the infinitely various Cleopatra, in whose figure I would discern a memory of his Venus, albeit further modified in both a testimony to the poet-dramatist's own development and to that of the developing taste of the early Jacobean period.

Formally, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis has a mixed genealogy that conspicuously includes both drama and allegory, and instead of suppressing the opposite impulses this genealogy implies, it flaunts them. Not surprisingly in this tale of a goddess' infatuation with the son of a tree and great-grandson of a statue, efforts to interpret intermittently symbolic characters (p.213) realistically have faltered: a goddess who goes from burlesque to pathos is incongruously taken as “tragic,” although thus taken she has been. Efforts to read the poem allegorically have similarly faltered, although in this instance in the face of its realism. But the poem makes a good deal of sense as a seriocomic meditation on the landscape of desire and the kinds of figures it generates in Book III of The Faerie Queene. Correlatively, to read Venus and Adonis beside this Spenserian book is to realize the nuances it highlights and the potencies it heightens within Spenser's allegory, even while appreciating the interpretive license, indeed the creativity, of such a “Shakespearean” reading. Where Shakespeare's Venus truly embodies gynephobia, as does Spenser's Argante, and Argante has a refractive relation with Spenser's Venus in the Garden, there is also a profound difference between the first two figures and the last. What is in potentia—barely a hint, a shadow, a memory, a refraction within the mythic Garden—is fulfilled in Argante and in Shakespeare's Venus, and, in a pun on the popular expression, it makes all the difference in the world.


(1.) Richard IIIThe Faerie QueeneThe Faerie QueeneA. C. Hamilton's edition (London: Longman, 1977). I have discussed the Spenserian allusions in Richard III in Biographical Truth: (p.374) The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984)

(2.) See Hamilton, ed., 360n30–50.

(3.) I argue the bisexuality of the Garden's mons pubis in part 3, chapter 14: “Flowers and Boars: Surmounting Binarism in Spenser's Garden of Adonis.”

(4.) Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy (1950; rpt. New York: Newman, 1971), II, 76–77. Cf. Hamilton, ed., 360n30–50. For numerous additional examples of the seminal reasons in Renaissance thought, see James Nohrnberg, The Analogy ofThe Faerie Queene” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 537–54, and John Erskine Hankins, Source and Meaning in Spenser's Allegory: A Study ofThe Faerie Queene” (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 234–86.

(5.) Gerald L. Bruns, Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History

(6.) A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The PoemsHyder Edward Rollins (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1938)

(7.) Spenser,” The Journal of the Rutgers University Library, 39 (1977), 44–60,

(8.) Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 91–119.

(9.) Gordon Williams, “The Coming of Age in Shakespeare's Adonis,” Modern Language Review, 78 (1983), 769–76,

(10.) Cf. Lauren Silberman, “Singing Unsung Heroines: Androgynous Discourse in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 259–71, here 271. On sexuality and passion in the Garden, cf. also Katherine Eggert, “Spenser's Ravishment: Rape and Rapture in The Faerie Queene,” Representations, 70 (2000), 1–26

(11.) Peter S. Hawkins, “From Mythography to Myth-making: Spenser and the Magna Mater Cybele,” Sixteenth-Century Journal

(12.) limus terraeJohn Erskine Hankins, Source and Meaning in Spenser's Allegory: A Study ofThe Faerie Queene” (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971)

(13.) See also Eggert's discussion of “rapture” (in opposition to gynephobia) in the Garden, 9.

(14.) On the vagina dentata, “an icon of fearsome venereal power,” in Spenser's Garden cave, see Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV ofThe Faerie Queene” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 48.

(15.) Northrop Frye observes the pieta` analogue in relation to Spenser's Venus and Adonis: Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 82; Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 205.

(16.) See part 2, chapter 8, in this volume on “Arthur and Argante: Parodying the Ideal Vision” for further discussion.

(17.) Catherine Belsey, “Love as Trompe-L’oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in Venus and Adonis,” in Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, ed. Philip C. Kolin (New York: Garland, 1997), 281.

(18.) Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987), 537.

(19.) Pauline Kiernan's view in Shakespeare's Theory of Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Antony and Cleopatra