Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

On Venus and Adonis
DON CAMERON ALLEN

IT is possibly an error to think of Shakespeare Venus and Adonis as a legitimate child of the tenth book of the Metamorphoses even though some of its elaborate wit is plainly fathered by twists and turns in the Latin text. When the poem is broadly regarded, it is rather certain that in tone, purpose, and structure the two poems have little to share. To begin with, the true poet of the Latin poem is by artistic pretence not Ovid at all but widower Orpheus, whose personal tragedy quietly informs each one of the songs that he sings on his Thracian hill to an assembly of wild beasts and birds. We can also be sure that the literate Roman was perfectly aware of the alternate myth Adonis in which Pluto's queen contended with Venus for the love of the young hunter;1 for this knowledge must certainly have been assumed by Ovid to be in the possession of his readers and to make plainer than plain the connexion between the short life of Orpheus's bride and that of Venus's minion. The wind-flower which fragilely makes the lesson sets this forth: 'brevis est tamen usus in illo.'

In Shakespeare's version none of this pathos comes through, and the Ovidian music that the annotators have heard is ghost music. True enough, the Latin poet's description of Venus in the role of a rustic Diana is the germ of Shakespeare's finished caricature of the frustrate lady, flushed and sweating. Her advice on hunting to the rumpled Adonis, tersely expressed in Latin, becomes a sportsman's lecture in English. But, in the main, the two poets saw the myth differently. Shakespeare's Adonis, contrary to the whole tradition, scorns love. In the sonnets of The Passionate Pilgrim, if these be Shakespeare's, the boy is mocked for missing his chance, but the longer poem takes, I think, a different position. The legend of Atalanta and Hippomenes, which Ovid relates as a harmonious part of the central legend, is also omitted by Shakespeare and replaced by an animal diversion between Adonis's stallion and an eager mare. Actually Shakespeare's intent and plan is as different from that of

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1
Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, III. 14. 3-4.

-100-

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