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.
Dean Alai (Claudio), James Denvil (Don Pedro), Jim Jorgensen (Don John), and Tiffany Fillmore (Hero), Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Nick Hutchison, Folger Theatre, 2005. Photo by Carol Pratt.
CLAUDIO: But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pampered animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
—Much Ado About Nothing (4.1.60-62)
Whether illicit or innocent, Venus and Mars’s relationship is said to have resulted in a number of children, including Cupid, the god of sexual desire whom Shakespearean lovers bemoan for their romantic predicaments or swear by to show their fidelity.
Detail from title page. The first five bookes of Ovids Metamorphosis. 1621.
ROSALIND: No, that same wicked bastard of Venus, that was begot of thought, conceived of spleen, and born of madness, that blind rascally boy that abuses everyone’s eyes because his own are out, let him be judge how deep I am in love.
—As You Like It (4.1.224-228)
HERMIA: My good Lysander,
I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.1.171-175)
Mentions of Venus and her associates pepper Shakespeare’s plays and poems, but one tale particularly captured his imagination: that of the goddess and Adonis. In mythology the two are linked from the time of Adonis’s birth, which involves Venus placing a curse on his mother and then later taking the boy to the Underworld to be raised by Persephone. Adonis grows up to be an exceptionally handsome young man, leading to a custody battle between the two now-smitten goddesses and capturing the fancy of a number of deities, both male and female.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you
Detail from Samuel John Stump, Venus and Adonis. [Early to mid 19th century].
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses
, Adonis is Venus’s willing lover, balancing his passion for the goddess with a passion for hunting. In this allusion from The Taming of the Shrew
, Shakespeare calls her Cytherea, a name derived from Cythera, one suggested location of her birth.
SECOND SERVINGMAN: Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight
Adonis painted by a running brook,
And Cytherea all in sedges hid,
Which seem to move and wanton with her breath,
Even as the waving sedges play with wind.
—The Taming of the Shrew (Induction 2.49-53)
William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis. 1599.
While dallying with the gods often can lead to disastrous consequences, it is actually the hunting that does Adonis in. He is killed by a wild boar, and his death results in the goddess of love being connected to anemones, a flower that is said to have bloomed wherever Adonis’s blood fell.
Shakespeare took this story and wrote his own version in the form of a long poem, altering it by introducing a comedic through line in which Venus is desperate for Adonis, while he would really rather just go hunting.
“Sweet boy,” she says, “this night I’ll waste in sorrow,
For my sick heart commands mine eyes to watch.
Tell me, Love’s master, shall we meet tomorrow?
Say, shall we, shall we? Wilt thou make the match?”
He tells her no, tomorrow he intends
To hunt the boar with certain of his friends.
—Venus and Adonis (lines 577-583)
Adonis’s repeated rejection of the goddess of love turns the myth on its head and proved hugely popular when Venus and Adonis was first published in 1593. It would be Shakespeare’s most popular published work for the rest of his life.
As with so many myths, the story of Venus and Adonis continues to echo through history and art. Read about John Blow’s opera on this blog or listen to Charles Coleman’s musical piece Venus lamenting her lost Adonis, which is performed in Folger Consort’s currently available online concert, Henry Purcell and Music of 17th-Century London.