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Shakespeare & Beyond

Aphrodite (Venus): The oft-invoked goddess of love

Venus and Cupid. Thomas Trevilian, Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608.

Our “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series continues this week with the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who is referred to most often in Shakespeare’s works by her Roman name, Venus. A major member of the pantheon, she is the goddess of love, beauty, desire, and procreation, among other related areas.  As we have found in past posts, the myths that Shakespeare and his audiences were familiar with included a number of contradictory variations, depending on the different sources—and Shakespeare himself contributed to a significant adaptation of Venus’s story.

The predominant version of Venus’s birth has her emerging, fully formed, from the sea, a moment encapsulated in Boticelli’s famous 15th-century painting, The Birth of Venus.

Venus is sometimes identified as the wife of Vulcan, but she is consistently linked to Mars, the god of war with whom she shares an irresistible passion.

MARDIAN: Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.
Antony and Cleopatra (1.5.20-21)

A story in Homer’s Odyssey tells how the sun god, Helios, spies the two divine lovers in an embrace while he is tending to the skies. Upon hearing this, Vulcan devises a net of gold and catches the illicit pair in the act, displaying and humiliating them in front of the other gods. This interlude leads to Venus sometimes being connected with wantoness and adultery.


[…] The last major goddess we will explore in this “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series may have been Shakespeare’s favorite, based on the frequency with which he references her. Artemis was the goddess of chastity, hunting, and the moon, often depicted with her trusty bow and arrow and a short tunic to aid in running through the woods. Her maidenly virtue—for she swore never to marry—was presented in counterpoint to the passionate and fiery Aphrodite. […]

Artemis, a fierce and fickle goddess - Shakespeare & Beyond — January 21, 2022