CHAPTER 11

VENUS AND ADONIS

This poem of 30 printed pages was the first work published under the name of William Shakespeare. It is dated 1593. The title page begins by quoting a popular phrase from Latin poetry which shows considerable arrogance as it means something like

Let the lower classes gape at depravity; the god Apollo has given me the gift for fine poetry.

Then comes the dedication to the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield. So already we have some information. Shakespeare must have had at least some acquaintance with Latin assuming he, and not the publisher, put the quote there. As the quotation sneers at the lower classes it at least suggests that the poet is not a commoner. And he's dedicated his poem to an Earl. Why this particular Earl?

Southampton (1573 - 1624) was 20 years of age when this poem was published. He was the 2nd son of the 2nd Earl of Southampton and his wife Mary Browne, daughter of the 1st Viscount Montague. He succeeded to the title in 1581 when he became a royal ward in the care of Lord Burghley. He entered St. John's College Cambridge in 1585, graduated MA in 1589 and his name was entered in Gray's Inn (for legal training). At 17 he was presented at Court, and received 'extraordinary marks of the Queen's favour.' He became a 'munificent patron of poets.' As a royal ward he was ordered by Burghley to marry de Vere's eldest daughter (who was Burghley's grand-daughter). Southampton refused, and for this was fined £5,000 by Burghley.

The poem is dedicated in the usual modest way from a mere poet to a nobleman, except for the last half of the last sentence. Here's the last sentence:

I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart's content, which I wish may always answer your own wish and the world's hopeful expectation.

Somehow that doesn't seem to me like a poor poet addressing an Earl. Those few words, 'which I wish may always answer your own wish,' tell me there is something going on here that we don't know about. We don't know what the underlying circumstances are, and so have to take the meaning at face value, which is only part of what's really being said here. However, it does seem to me that this sentence is spoken more as an equal than a subservient poet to a nobleman. Even the phrase 'the world's hopeful expectation' is a little presumptuous from poet to earl, and suggests an older man speaking to a younger one.

In this dedication the poet also refers to the poem as

The first heir of my invention

This cannot mean his first poem. What we have here is a poem of 1,194 lines. It's in stanzas of 6 lines each with iambic pentameters rhymed ab ab cc. There are very few false rhymes or awkward iambics. For example line 422 'chat' to rhyme with 424 'gate.' We don't know how Elizabethans pronounced words, but that rhyme seems a bit remote.

This is a very finished, polished work. It shows a very wide vocabulary, most of it is remarkable for its felicitous use of language, it is not forced, the rhymes and rhyme scheme flow quite naturally. It never descends into doggerel.

Why did the poet pick the Venus and Adonis story to write about? It must be because it's a vehicle for what he has to say. Here's the story in a nutshell:

Adonis, son of Cinyras and Myrrha was the favourite of Venus. Being fond of hunting, he disregarded her advice not to hunt wild beasts and was mortally wounded by a wild boar. Venus changed him into an anemone. Persephone restored him to life on condition that he spend six months in the year with her and the rest with Venus.

The first 814 lines are devoted to the love scene. That's 68% of the whole poem. So whatever motivated the poet to write it is probably contained in that part of the poem.

To get a taste of how this poem runs, here's the first stanza complete, which sets out the theme:

EVEN as the sun with purple-colour'd face

Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase;

Hunting he lov'd, 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.

This poet is deceptively concise. It's part of his genius. If you don't believe me, try to write all that he's said in that stanza, in fewer rhyming words. We can't repeat the whole poem here of course, but need a number of snippets to follow along the unfolding of the story.

For Venus:

...desire doth lend her force

Courageously to pluck him from his horse...

She makes advances to him time and again for the first 252 lines while he continually resists her. Then line 253

Now which way shall she turn? What shall she say?...

'Pity.' she cries, 'some favour, some remorse!'

Away he springs, and hasteth to his horse.

However, he cannot get away because

A breeding jennet, lusty, young and proud

is seen by Adonis' 'strong necked steed.' The poet is knowledgeable about horses. He describes the behaviour of both mare and steed in some detail. The two animals run off together. This continues to line 324 when Adonis is left sitting there alone, frustrated and angry. Venus now 'came stealing to the wayward boy.' She begins her advances again, then line 379

'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.'

She persists. He replies

'I know not love,' quoth he, nor will not know it,

Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it;

She continues until line 463

And at his look she flatly falleth down...

The silly boy, believing she is dead,

Claps her pale cheek, till clapping makes it red;

He tries everything he can think of to revive her, and finally

Her two blue windows faintly she upheaveth...

...whose beams upon his hairless face are fix'd.

This one word, 'hairless' tells us he is very young

'O! Where am I?' quoth she, 'in earth or heaven..'

And she renews her love-making attempts. Then line 523

'Fair queen,' quoth he, 'if any love you owe me,

Measure my strangeness with my unripe years:'...

This is our first clue as to what's going on behind this poem. This is either a faux pas or intentional slip, because Venus is not a queen, she's a goddess. But there was a contemporary queen. It begins to look as though the poet when young had an encounter with the wanton Queen Elizabeth. If so, that means the poem must have been written by some poet who knew the Queen. This would explain his reluctance to get involved. Here's line 535, Adonis speaking,

'Now let me say goodnight, and so say you;

If you will say so, you shall have a kiss.'

This begins to sound like actual dialogue between the poet and someone already mentioned as a queen. It did not seem worth mentioning as we passed it by, but as far back as line 139

she says

'Thou canst not see one wrinkle on my brow;

Mine eyes are grey and bright, and quick in turning;

My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow;

My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning;...

This may also be actual dialogue between them. If she were young, like him, she would not need to say this, it would be self-evident. So the queen is an older woman, not an immortal goddess. Line 553 shows her desperation for sexual love after his kiss

And having felt the sweetness of the spoil,

With blindfold fury she begins to forage;

Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,

And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage;...

Finally, line 581

For pity now she can no more detain him;

The poor fool prays her that he may depart: ...

but she asks can they meet tomorrow. Line 587

He tells her, no; to-morrow he intends

To hunt the boar with certain of his friends.

This sounds like more real life dialogue between them.

'The boar!' quoth she; whereat a sudden pale, ...

...she trembles at his tale,

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.

Now is she in the very lists of love,

Her champion mounted for the hot encounter:

All is imaginary she doth prove.

He will not manage her, although he mount her; ...

The poet's choice of metaphor here is the tournament lists, perhaps not what most people would have used to describe the situation. And so to line 611

'Fie, fie!' he says, 'you crush me, let me go;

You have no reason to withhold me so.'

There follows her description of the boar

'Being mov'd, he strikes whate'er is in his way,

And whom he strikes his crooked tushes slay.'

She continues warning and pleading with him not to go boar hunting. She sees in her imagination under a boar's sharp fangs 'an image like thyself, all stain'd with gore.' And line 671

I prophesy thy death, my living sorrow,

If thou encounter with the boar tomorrow.

She says if you must hunt, then hunt on foot the 'purblind hare.' (Purblind mens with dim sight). Then follows a lengthy, detailed and accurate description of the habits of a hunted hare; criscrossing its own track, running through a flock of sheep, or a coney (rabbbit) patch, or among a herd of deer

'For there his smell with others being mingled,

The hot scent-snuffing hounds are driven to doubt,

Ceasing their clamorous cry till they have singled

With much ado the cold fault cleanly out; ...'

'By this, poor Wat, far off upon a hill,

Stands on his hinder legs with listening ear,

To hearken if his foes pursue him still: ...'

Having said all this and more Venus continues, line 709

'Lie quietly, and hear a little more;

Nay, do not struggle, for thou shalt not rise: ...'

Line 715

'Where did I leave?' 'No matter where,' quoth he;

'Leave me, and then the story aptly ends:

The night is spent.' 'Why, what of that?' quoth she.

'I am,' quoth he, expected of my friends;'...

That rings true as part of a real dialogue in the poet's life. 'Venus' continues, talking about night, then

'Therefore, despite of fruitless chastity,

Love-lacking vestals and self-loving nuns, ...

Be prodigal...

But gold that's put to use more gold begets.'

Adonis replies now you're back to your theme again; and line 771

'The kiss I gave you is bestow'd in vain.'

Line 785

'No, lady, no; my heart longs not to groan,

But soundly sleeps, while now it sleeps alone. ...

I hate not love, but your device in love,

That lends embracements unto every stranger.'

He says this isn't love, it's lust.

Line 811

With this he breaketh from the sweet embrace

Of those fair arms which bound him to her breast;...

Leaves Love upon her back deeply distress'd.

She vocalizes her distress which echoes to her. She sings a 'woeful ditty.' Eventually the lark rises to wake the morning and the sun comes up. Venus 'salutes' the sun, and 'hasteth to a myrtle grove, listening for her love's hounds and his hunting horn. Finally she hears them and follows the cry. Then she hears the hounds at bay. Line 881

The timorous yelping of the hounds at bay

Appals her senses, and her spirit confounds.

For now she knows it is no gentle chase

Because the cry remaineth in one place,' ...

...she spied the hunted boar,

whose frothy mouth bepainted all with red, ...

A second fear through all her senses spread,

She runs back and forth, 'treads the path that she untreads again.' She finds a hound, and then another, licking its wounds, and another scowling who replies to her with howling. Line 920

Another flap-mouth'd mourner, black and grim,

Against the welkin volleys out his voice;

Another and another answer him,

Clapping their proud tails to the ground below,

Shaking their scratched ears, bleeding as they go...

She chides Death, then hears far off some huntsman holla. She hopes against hope all is well, and thinks it's the voice of Adonis. She hears a 'merry horn' and is at once cheerful again. But, line 1029

And in her haste unfortunately spies

The foul boar's conquest on her fair delight

Which seen her eyes, as murder'd with the view,

Like stars asham'd of day, themselves withdrew.

Or, as the snail, whose tender horns being hit,

Shrinks backwards in his shelly cave with pain,

And there, all smother'd up, in shade doth sit,

Long after fearing to creep forth again,

So, at his bloody view, her eyes are fled

Into the deep dark cabins of her head:

She mourns her loss and the description continues to line 1135, when

'Since thou art dead, lo! here I prophesy,

Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend:

It shall be waited on with jealousy,

Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end;'

'It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud,'...

'It shall be suspect where is no cause of fear,'...

This curse on love runs on for almost 30 lines. Then line 1165

By this, the boy that by her side lay kill'd

Was melted like a vapour from her sight,

And in his blood that on the ground lay spill'd,

A purple flower sprang up, chequer'd with white;

She plucks the flower, says 'within her bosom it shall dwell' and the poem ends with

'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.'

Thus weary of the world, away she hies,

And yokes her silver doves by whose swift aid

Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies

In her light chariot quickly is convey'd;

Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen

Means to immure herself and not be seen.

. . . . . . . . . .

As de Vere is our first candidate for Shakespeare, let's look at this poem and test de Vere's life experience against it as the poet tells the story.

You may remember de Vere was returning from his European tour when he was told that his wife's child was not his. He was completely devastated, humiliated, and in a torment of suppressed rage, all at the same time. He stalked unseeing past the welcoming Burghleys at the dockside when he disembarked at London, and apparently went directly to the Queen at Court. This was in 1576. He was now 26, she was 17 years older, about 43.

Queen Elizabeth must have been moved by this agonized young man with his pitiful tale of suspected infidelity and what to do about it in a marriage forced on him by Burghley with the Queen's assistance. To judge by the Venus poem, his Queen was more than touched, she became sexually aroused. Gradually as they talked she became more and more aroused, but he was too mortified in his present state of shock to be interested in her advances. She was much older than he was, and she was his Queen. She should have been untouchable and inviolate, yet here she was trying to seduce him.

The poem, in line 175, calls Venus a love sick queen. She is called a queen twice more in the poem, line 503, and the penultimate line just quoted above. But she wasn't a queen, she was a goddess. It seems the poem isn't about a goddess, but a wanton sexually aroused queen. Further, she's an older woman who protests that she doesn't have wrinkles and still has soft plump flesh and 'marrow burning.' The Immortal goddess Venus would not have needed to say any of this.

Next, the boar. If the poet is De Vere, it's a perfect match, which no other poet could have, the blue boar being the family insignia, crest and badge. Sir Nicholas Bacon, father of Francis Bacon, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, an office with high precedence, but none of this made him a member of the nobility. Bacon could not use the boar as a crest on a coat of arms, or as a badge, an emblem to mark possessions and retainers. But the 'Bacon gold cup,' still surviving, features a sculpted boar. Apparently the only other contemporary usage is by the Scottish family of Gordon, Earls of Huntly, who had a blue shield with three gold boars' heads. The death of Adonis being caused by a boar would be a strong reason for de Vere to have chosen this particular classical tale to use to vent his feelings on what happened when he went to the Queen for help and advice, if he was the poet.

In the poem Venus tells Adonis that Mars, the god of War, lusts after her, then why does Adonis refuse her. In classical mythology the love between Mars and Venus was famous, although she was 'married' to Vulcan, who devised a strong net which entrapped the lovers in bed, making them an object of ridicule among the Immortals. There's a real life parallel here. The Earl of Leicester, the Queen's 'sweet Robin' and life long love, was also her military man. He was in charge of all the land forces in England at the time of the Armada.

The Queen could well have drawn the same parallel for de Vere, if he was Adonis.

There are various phrases in the poem that seem to be real life words in the original meeting between the distraught de Vere and his Queen:

'Tis but a kiss I beg, why art thou coy?'

'Be bold to play, our sport is not is sight'

'Fie, no more of love.'

He blames his 'unripe years.'

'I am', quoth he, 'expected of my friends.'

Her prophesy regarding love certainly parallels de Vere's experience:

'It shall be waited on with jealousy'

'It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud'

The description of the boar and hounds fits well with de Vere's experience in hunting. These incidents are well described.

The Venus poem as it develops seems to lack the early fire of the lengthy love scene, but continues at a high level of art with the sorrow of Venus and the death of Adonis. This part resorts to poetic imagery to carry it along. It lacks the direct impact of the encounter between them.

The ending seems typical of the conduct of the 'wanton Queen'. 'Away she hies.' That probably well expresses her lack of understanding and thoughtlessly going from him and his misery to whatever she's about to do next. But this amorous encounter with his Queen must have been one of the traumatic events in his life, coming so soon after the incident of Anne Cecil's reported infidelity, when he was vulnerable.

Why is this poem 'the first heir of my invention'? If de Vere is the poet, the answer seems obvious. This poem could not possibly be published by de Vere under his own name. Everyone at Court and in the world of playwrights and poets would know at once who Venus and Adonis were, and probably what the incident related to. They would probably still know, even though 'Shakespeare' wrote it. It was a best seller. But the anonymity would satisfy the law and the Privy Council, and it was now 17 years later.

It seems to me that the evidence we've found in this poem does not disqualify de Vere as the elusive Shakespeare, in fact it tends to substantiate it. But this is just the beginning of Shakespeare's work, and we need far more evidence than this to come to a reasonable conclusion.


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