Love, Death, and the Hunt
in Venus and Adonis
Since death itself is ultimately inconceivable to us, the metaphors used to substantiate it reveal as much about the constructive imagination as about death itself. The metaphors that kill Adonis and thereby govern the meaning of Venus and Adonis seem to me especially significant, for they define a historical moment in which the Elizabethan fantasy of aristocratic heroism began, under stress, to reveal the social and psychic conflicts that inspired and perpetuated it. Like the histories treated in the previous chapter, Venus and Adonis expresses a larger cultural drive to ground authority in cosmic heroism. The poem, however, makes heroism erotic and female as well as violently masculine, and tries to capture the treacherous vitality released when these different values come together.
The poem celebrates the death of the hunter Adonis as the mythic origin of love's sorrow in the world. This is an elegaic epyllion. Yet death in the poem takes sublimely metaphorical forms. One critic, for example, invokes "paradise regained in the union of love and death," and goes on to assimilate Venus and Adonis to Antony and Cleopatra in a crescendo of affirmation: "In the last analysis ... Chaos is an illusion; the Boar and Caesar are not fortune, but fortune's knaves. And Venus and Adonis, fallen and risen as Cleopatra and Antony, live in triumph in the kingdom of the second chance." 1 Despite its mystification, this is useful insight: that Adonis's demise and reunion with Venus at Paphos are tacitly a play-death and apotheosis. The final tableau of Adonis transformed into a flower at the breast of the goddess makes the apotheosis especially suggestive, evoking a nursing mother or even a pietà.
Much of the critical consternation over Venus and Adonis stems from