Sunday, March 6, 2011

Venus and Adonis - Love or Lust?

'Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled,
Since sweating Lust on earth usurp'd his name;
Under whose simple semblance he hath fed
Upon fresh beauty, blotting it with blame;
Which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves,
As caterpillars do the tender leaves. 

'Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust's effect is tempest after sun;
Love's gentle spring doth always fresh remain,
Lust's winter comes ere summer half be done;
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies.
(Venus and Adonis, 815-826)

(Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis by Benjamin West, 1768. This painting seems be of the Ovid version, as it all seems much more peaceful than Shakespeare's interpretation)
There is a lot of discussion of different aspects of love in this poem, even down to one of the title characters - Venus, a personification of love - being referenced by "love" as a name. But is the story about love or lust? 
 And does Venus even understand the difference? Despite - or perhaps because of - Venus' intense passionate response to Adonis, I find the general tone and treatment of love in the poem to be mocking and even bitter, ending as it does with a comparison between love and murder.

Adonis sees Venus' pursuit of him, as she continues to press her unwanted advances on him, as lustful and not loving at all - and this angle is only in Shakespeare's version of the story, as this is a change from his source material. In Ovid, Adonis responds to Venus and is happy to have an affair. In this poem, this is not the case - Adonis never relents from his position of angry, offended virtue.

Venus' attack on Adonis seems to have slightly familiar echoes, though. This theme of "love" or desire that won't take no for an answer seems like something that Shakespeare was very interested in exploring - we've seen rape and near-rape in Titus and Two Gentlemen, and the very next poem we're reading is, of course, The Rape of Lucrece. Venus is different from Shakespeare's other would-be rapists in that she is female, and her kidnapping and would-be seduction of her victim is also troubling - probably even more so to modern audiences - because of Adonis' obvious extreme youth: "Measure my strangeness with my unripe years:/ Before I know myself, seek not to know me;/No fisher but the ungrown fry forbears" (545-47). The transgressiveness of all this - powerful older dominating female, etc., etc. - is exciting in a kind of sick way, and the poem is (literally) steamy, but I think deliberately awkwardly so: "Panting he lies and breatheth in her face;/She feedeth on the steam as on a prey,/And calls it heavenly moisture, air of grace" (82-84). Um, ew?

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