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A Modern Perspective: Venus and Adonis and Lucrece

By Catherine Belsey

Both of Shakespeare’s narrative poems are about nonconsensual sex. In Lucrece a man desires a woman who resists his advances, he rapes her, and the consequences are tragic. The gender roles work the other way around in Venus and Adonis, but the physiological difference between the sexes prevents any simple reversal of the plot. Instead, Venus makes every effort to seduce the reluctant object of her desire, and the poem is by turns comic, lyrical, and sad. Each event turns out to have consequences beyond the fate of the protagonists. The rape of Lucrece founds the Roman Republic; the unrequited passion of the goddess of love explains the waywardness of all human desire.

Published in 1593 and 1594, when Shakespeare had written no more than a handful of plays, the narrative poems are legitimately seen as a display of the young poet-playwright’s talents and literary allegiances. And, contrary to modern expectation, these new versions of stories already familiar to most of their original readers were exceptionally popular in their own period. (Only with the publication of the collected plays in the First Folio of 1623 would the poems, excluded from the collection, begin their relative eclipse for subsequent generations.) But poetic narrative is no longer much to our twenty-first-century taste. Moreover, we have come to think of Shakespeare primarily as a dramatist and only incidentally a poet. Are the poems any more, then, than historical curiosities?

It is not inconsistent with a regard for history to suggest that these texts bring into new focus questions that were obscured by the proprieties of Victorian values. Can women do everything men can? How far are human beings bound by the constraints of sexual difference? Is love the moralizing force our popular romances long to make it? Why do women find rape more damaging than other forms of violence? What is the appropriate response to sexual violation?

Venus and Adonis was published first. Shakespeare’s predecessors here clearly include Ovid, the Roman poet of love, who recorded a version of the tale and whose stories of desire continued to influence medieval and early modern Europe. Shakespeare also drew on Marlowe, whose Hero and Leander shows how an Ovidian love story in English could be at once sexy, lyrical, and tragic. Even so, there had never before been anything quite like Shakespeare’s first narrative poem, where one mood disconcertingly succeeds and displaces another as the goddess of love herself is shown to be capable of frustration.

An earlier generation of critics, anxious to find a handhold in this slippery text, clung to the moment when Adonis pronounces on the antithesis between love and lust. Here at last was a simple and familiar moral:

“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 forgèd lies.”


In this light, the intemperate behavior of Venus could safely be declared reprehensible, though it was not always clear whether the main critical objection was to the sexual harassment of young men or to women who acknowledge the intensity of their desires.

This reading presents its own difficulties, however. In the first place, it makes the chief authority on the love story a figure who gladly affirms his own ignorance of love itself (409), claims that he is too young to respond to sexual advances (524–28), and acknowledges himself “too green” to develop this “old” truism (806). Indeed, Adonis wittily distances himself not only from Venus but also from the tears and tantrums of love itself. He prefers a good night’s rest, he says: “my heart longs not to groan / But soundly sleeps while now it sleeps alone” (785–86). We might therefore be inclined to treat his synoptic opposition of love and lust as, at the very least, premature. And in the second place, it is hard to connect such an obvious moral with a work so popular that it had run to twelve editions by the 1620s.

Moreover, moral anxiety about the antics of Venus misses the high comedy of the encounter between the passionate goddess and the pouting boy. As the poem makes clear, the real danger to Adonis is not from the attentions of Venus, who has no tusk to sheath in his soft groin (1115–18). In fact, this, or something like it, is precisely her problem: “Would thou wert as I am and I a man” (369). The goddess of love is accustomed to having her way in her own sphere, and she finds herself baffled by the indifference of Adonis. Much of the narrative concerns her increasingly desperate efforts to elicit his desire. She reasons, coaxes, and threatens, recounts her past triumph over the god of war (97–114), insists on her own beauty (133–44), and offers her body (229–40). If poetic skill alone could generate love, Adonis would surely succumb:

“Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear,

Or like a fairy trip upon the green,

Or like a nymph, with long disheveled hair,

Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen.”


This is a goddess who lies, without crushing them, on banks of violets and primroses (125, 151)—early, delicate flowers, like Adonis himself.

Alongside the lyrical Venus, however, a more energetic figure emerges, who urgently maneuvers the young man into position, though still to no avail: “Backward she pushed him as she would be thrust, / And governed him in strength though not in lust” (41–42). She plucks him from his horse, and pulls him to the ground on top of her, but none of this vigorous activity does her any good. Instead, she remains tantalized by a physical proximity that offers no gratification: “He will not manage her, although he mount her” (598; compare 548, 564, 605–7). While Adonis is also intelligible as an object of homoerotic desire for Shakespeare’s male readers, the recurring joke about Venus’s frustration shows how far the story is from depicting her as a drag queen. On the contrary, when it comes to the heterosexual love that is its theme, Venus and Adonis indicates, bodies make all the difference.

Much of the comedy depends on the contrast between a brisk narrative that moves the action along at speed and a prolix Venus, whose “over-handled theme” (770) can become “tedious,” not only to Adonis but also to anyone else who is not in love (841–86). Where the speeches are self-consciously poetic, invoking all the resources of analogy and witty antithesis, the narrative voice often appears artless. A simultaneous element of pathos also depends on the text’s capacity to summarize in the most unassuming vocabulary its central paradox: “She’s Love, she loves, and yet she is not loved” (610).

Indeed, amid the mock-heroic comedy an elegiac strain is perceptible from the beginning. Venus’s description of Adonis as “the field’s chief flower” (8) anticipates, for a reader who already knows Ovid’s story, the blossom that he is to become. After his death the sadness of Venus is surely unequivocally sympathetic. Now that she has no ulterior motive, no one to convince or seduce, simple sorrow prevails:

“Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost!

What face remains alive that’s worth the viewing?

What tongue is music now? What canst thou boast

Of things long since, or anything ensuing?

The flowers are sweet, their colors fresh and trim,

But true sweet beauty lived and died with him.”


Abandoning the high style, at this moment Venus could be anyone mourning a dead lover. But the story does not end here. As the goddess of love she also remains, she has the power to characterize the condition she personifies. From now on, Venus declares, love will always be “perverse” (1157), recalcitrant, obtuse, wayward. Lovers will experience the condition as unequal, inconstant, distrustful, sure to end in tears. Love will lead to war (1159), a prophecy Venus herself was to vindicate in another story familiar to early readers, when she gave Helen to Paris and indirectly caused the fall of Troy.

Like so many good fables, then, Venus and Adonis recounts a myth of origins: the story explains how love came by its nature. But the poem’s conclusion is unexpectedly inconclusive. On the one hand, Venus gently cradles the flower which is all that remains of Adonis; on the other, she names the tragic effects of a fierce imperative that seems remote indeed from the moral antithesis between love and lust he so fluently defined. Love has many modes. In that sense, the stylistic discontinuities of Venus and Adonis surely go some way toward enacting the ambiguities that define its theme.

If Venus and Adonis displays a degree of indulgence toward the goddess’s attempts at seduction, Lucrece shows no sympathy whatever with rape. Unwilling to listen to Lucrece’s efforts to placate or deter him, gagging her instead with her own nightgown, Tarquin abruptly puts paid to all dialogue. The rape is over in almost no narrative time, but the stark account, in conjunction with imagery so familiar from both the Bible and pastoral poetry that it seems barely metaphoric, leaves in no doubt the brutality of the act and the innocence of the victim:

The wolf hath seized his prey; the poor lamb cries,

Till, with her own white fleece her voice controlled,

Entombs her outcry in her lips’ sweet fold.

For with the nightly linen that she wears

He pens her piteous clamors in her head,

Cooling his hot face in the chastest tears

That ever modest eyes with sorrow shed.

O, that prone lust should stain so pure a bed!


Not dwelling on the events of the rape itself, the text reserves its detailed attention for the states of mind that precede and follow this moment, just over one-third of the way through the narrative. After the rape Tarquin slinks away. From now on the emphasis will be on the grief of Lucrece and her efforts to decide on an appropriate course of action.

It makes good sense to see the two long narrative poems as linked. In the prefatory letter dedicating Venus and Adonis to the earl of Southampton, Shakespeare promises “some graver labor” in due course. The publication of Lucrece a year later looks very much like the fulfillment of this undertaking. And despite the antithetical moods of the two works, there is common ground. Both depict the irrepressible force of desire. In each case, the main protagonist is a woman, and the action is seen primarily from her point of view, for better or worse. Once again, Lucrece draws on classical sources, in this instance retelling the story of a Roman woman’s legendary chastity. And despite its debt to the existing tradition of complaint poems, it too remains unprecedented in the ambitious nature of its project.

Part of the interest of Lucrece for a modern reader willing to overcome the unfamiliarity of the complaint form lies in its treatment of rape as an abuse of power, making sexual politics continuous with the politics of the state. Tarquin is driven by the impulse to take possession of what does not belong to him as much as by a passion for beauty. According to Lucrece herself, this constitutes improper behavior for a man who is to be king: good rulers reign by love, not fear (610–11); they do not break the law but embody it, and constitute in the process a model for their subjects (612–16). Unable to deflect Tarquin himself by this account of good government, Lucrece nevertheless resolves to make herself a model for a Rome oppressed by the royal family’s misuse of power: “How Tarquin must be used, read it in me” (1195). The men grasp the lesson she teaches them by her death, and go on to overthrow the institution of monarchy itself.

In other words, the rape is shown to have implications at three closely related levels: for Lucrece herself, for her family, and for the state. Her own immediate reaction to the event produces a night of intense grief, spent in a turmoil of sometimes conflicting thoughts, with shame probably uppermost. Although the text has made very clear that she has nothing to reproach herself with, she feels dishonored (1030–36). The “disgrace” is of course “invisible” (827), but it appears to Lucrece that everyone must know what has happened: “Revealing day through every cranny spies / And seems to point her out where she sits weeping” (1086–87). The image of the morning peering and pointing at her through cracks and keyholes draws attention to the way the sense of guilt, however undeserved, makes her feel as if she is under surveillance. Even the servant who comes to take her letter seems to her to be blushing with embarrassment (1338–58). She fears for her good name; people everywhere will tell her story, coupling her guilt with Tarquin’s (813–19).

This degree of shame might seem unaccountable, since we know that the rape took place entirely against her will. Lucrece puts that issue to the men she has assembled to carry out her planned revenge:

“What is the quality of my offense,

Being constrained with dreadful circumstance?

May my pure mind with the foul act dispense[?]”


They are happy to exonerate her on the grounds that “Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears” (1710). But Lucrece knows that the implications of rape are more complex than this simple mind-body dualism implies:

       . . . with a joyless smile she turns away

The face, that map which deep impression bears

Of hard misfortune, carved in it with tears.


This smile, however sorrowful, cuts across the distinction between mind and body. A state of consciousness is registered in a physiological event; the expression reveals a mental condition; material tears are the marks of an inward sorrow. In the same way, rape deconstructs the opposition between spirit and flesh: the physical violation affects a speaking being who is neither pure mind nor all body.

Lucrece’s shame includes the sense that Tarquin’s act has defiled her blood (1029, 1655). In consequence, she is no longer a good wife (1048–50). This is a society where the family constitutes the guarantee of lineage, and the fidelity of a wife ensures the purity of the line. But who can be certain of the fatherhood of her next child? Addressing Collatine in her imagination, she assures him:

“This bastard graff shall never come to growth;

He shall not boast who did thy stock pollute

That thou art doting father of his fruit.”


The dynastic family as the poem presents it is a place above all of possession. The idea of woman as property recurs through the early stages of the narrative: Collatine is happy in the “possession” of a beautiful wife (18); he ought to shelter the jewel he “owns,” not boast about it publicly (27–35); indeed, perhaps it was envy of “so rich a thing” that led Tarquin to desire Lucrece as a “prize” (39–42, 279), and so to take her body from its “owner” (413). At the end of the story her father and her husband are still busy disputing which of them has a stronger claim to have owned Lucrece (1793–1806).

The text makes no direct comment on the implications of all this, but it is an outsider, Junius Brutus, who now takes over the initiative, impatient with the competing claims that seem to preoccupy the family. His case is that Roman citizens not only should avenge the “true wife” that Lucrece has shown herself to be but should also cleanse a Rome that is equally “disgraced” by the crimes of the Tarquins (1833). The death of Lucrece is made the occasion to put an end to an autocratic regime: with the expulsion of the Tarquins, Rome becomes a republic.

In retrospect, we can see that the poem foreshadows Junius Brutus’s recognition in its account of Sinon. The fall of Troy features indirectly in Lucrece, just as it does in Venus and Adonis. Looking for a way to pass the dismal time of waiting for Collatine, Lucrece remembers a painting that turns out to expand the domestic sphere, demonstrating the public significance of private wickedness (1478–84). At first it seems that the connection between the picture and Lucrece’s situation is the rape of Helen as the cause of the Trojan War. But then her attention is caught by the suffering and bloodshed so minutely depicted, especially the pain of Hecuba, Priam’s widow. And finally she lights on the lying Sinon, who pretended to befriend Troy only to release the invading Greek soldiers from the Trojan horse, so causing the sack of the city. Sinon’s hypocrisy reminds Lucrece of Tarquin’s (1536): at the same time, for the reader it links the domestic narrative with the fall of a regime. Tarquin’s crime, we might reflect, betrays not only his friend but Roman values; the tyrannical assertion of his will issues in an intrusion not just into the home and into a woman’s body, but also into the good relations that should obtain in a well-ordered community.

In this context, it can hardly be accidental that the rhyme word in the final couplet of this poem about rape and despotism is “consent” (1854). Lucrece, who, despite the patriarchal relations the text records, declares herself mistress of her fate (1069), goes on to inaugurate by her death a new and more equal regime. Like Venus and Adonis, then, this “graver labor” is also a myth of origins. But paradoxically, while the lyrical poem depicts the installation of desire’s reign of terror, the tragedy of Lucrece ushers in a more consensual world.