Friday, March 4, 2011

Venus and Adonis - What's Going On?

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 loved, but love he laugh'd to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-faced suitor 'gins to woo him.
Over one arm the lusty courser's rein,
Under her other was the tender boy,
Who blush'd and pouted in a dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy;
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire,
He red for shame, but frosty in desire.
(Venus and Adonis, 20-26, 50-56)

(Venus and Adonis - Jusepe de Ribera, 1637)

Welcome to Shakespeare's poetry. So far we've just read his plays, which besides prose include a lot of poetic elements: iambic pentamenter in blank verse, and (in some plays more than others) rhyming couplets or various other rhyming elements. However, here we've got a full blown lengthy narrative poem with an unrelenting ababcc rhyme scheme!

We want another play! Why did Shakespeare do this to us?
(Not that we mind. We're tough. We can take it.)

Well, some scholars speculate, given its original 1593 publication date, that Shakespeare wrote the poem to keep himself busy and to bring in some cash and publicity when the London theaters were closed for a while due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Nothing like the Black Death to get the poetic juices going, right?
Surprisingly to those of us who are used to our present age's historically uncharacteristic disinterest in narrative poetry, this poem was very popular and often re-printed within Shakespeare's lifetime. We tend to prefer his plays. For the Elizabethans, this was not necessarily the case.

Shakespeare based his plot on one of the classical stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which all involve things - usually people - turning into something else. The stories tend to be rather disturbing, with gods often chasing after or messing with humans in some way that causes them not to be human any more. :(  

So, quick synopsis of the story.
Venus, the goddess of love, sees this gorgeous young kid (Adonis) and goes crazy with desire. She grabs him in a vice-like grip and for the next 800 lines of poetry holds him captive against his will, kisses him A LOT, tells him that he is really beautiful, and tries to convince him that he should like her and want to be with her because she is really beautiful too. He, however, is pouty, exasperated and scornful, and rebuffs all her advances. She won't let him go for a WHOLE DAY, but finally relents, but tells him that she has a really bad feeling that he's going to die! He doesn't care! And goes boar hunting with his friends! A boar kills him! (OH NOES!) Venus finds his body wallowing in blood! Then the corpse transmogrifies into a flower! Venus looks at the flower, says "I know you want to live, little flower, but I don't care, I'm going to pick you anyway," and then she does. The End.


In my next post, I'll pick up on the theme of Adonis as victim. Why does Shakespeare give us yet another portrait of desire forcing itself upon an unwilling subject?

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