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Reading Shakespeare's Language: Venus and Adonis and Lucrece

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

Venus and Adonis and Lucrece share many features of the language of the Sonnets, particularly at the level of the word, the sentence, and the figure of speech. (We therefore encourage you to read, in conjunction with this essay, our “Reading Shakespeare’s Language: The Sonnets.”) However, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece also use a remarkable quantity of elaborately patterned language, often achieved through word repetition. Such verbal patternings, called rhetorical schemes, are concentrated in the passages in which emotion is most intense. After briefly noting some of the similarities between the Sonnets and these poems, we will focus on the poems’ rhetorical schemes.

Shakespeare’s Words and Sentences

As in the Sonnets, Shakespeare occasionally uses words that are no longer used today. Among those we find in Venus and Adonis are sick-thoughted (lovesick), forceless (weak), fondling (pet, love), and limning (painting). In Lucrece we find entitulèd (entitled), parling (parleying, speaking), margents (margins), and welkin (sky). Again as in the Sonnets, some of the words he uses in the poems are ones that we still use but use with different meanings. In Venus and Adonis, for instance, we find enraged (ardent), miss (offense), and sprite (spirit); and in Lucrece we find let (refrain), publisher (public proclaimer), securely (unsuspectingly), and ill (evil).

In the Sonnets, as we pointed out in “Reading Shakespeare’s Language: The Sonnets,” Shakespeare fits his sentences to the structure of the sonnet; similarly in Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, he often adapts his sentences to his choice of stanza for each poem. Venus and Adonis is written in sixains. Each stanza contains a quatrain that rhymes abab, followed by a couplet that rhymes cc. Shakespeare’s use of this stanza was so successful and influential that it has come to be known as the “Venus and Adonis stanza.” For Lucrece, he chose the rhyme royal or Chaucerian stanza. Such stanzas are seven lines long and rhyme ababbcc. In both poems Shakespeare occasionally overrides the stanza form by using sentences of very different lengths. A few exceed the bounds of a single stanza and run over into the following one. Sometimes he puts a half-dozen or so short sentences into a single stanza. However, on the whole, he tends to match sentence structure to the form of his stanza, writing most stanzas as single sentences or as pairs of sentences.

To achieve this match of sentence and stanza, to maintain the iambic rhythm and the rhyme scheme, and to achieve other effects, Shakespeare often modifies normal word order. He inverts subject and verb when he describes Venus leading Adonis’s horse and carrying the boy. He writes “Over one arm the lusty courser’s rein, / Under her other was the tender boy,” instead of ending the line lamely and missing the needed rhyme with “the tender boy was” (lines 31–32). In Lucrece, Shakespeare again finds an emphatic conclusion for a line through the same inversion of subject and verb, “Now stole upon the time the dead of night” (line 162). In Venus and Adonis, he reverses the usual order of subject-verb-object and puts the objects first: “Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn” (line 4). Through such inversion, he can emphasize what Adonis loved and what he scorned by according “hunting” and “love” emphatic initial positions in successive clauses. In Lucrece, Shakespeare has Tarquin illustrate how pain pays for the arrival of “each precious thing” (line 334) by giving the example of a merchant whose fortune rides in the ship on which he sails: “Huge rocks, high winds, strong pirates, shelves [i.e., sandbanks], and sands / The merchant fears ere rich at home he lands” (lines 335–36). By putting the list of dangers, real or imagined, first, Shakespeare can emphasize rather than bury them, as he would have done had he put them in the usual position of the object—after the verb “fears.”

Besides inverting customary word order, Shakespeare, in the narrative poems as in the Sonnets, often separates words that ordinarily are put together in sentences. Venus and Adonis begins with the separation of a subject from its verb: “the sun with purple-colored face / Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn” (lines 1–2). Here Shakespeare provides the color of the sun, bright red or crimson, before he offers the verb “Had ta’en” and thus displaces the verb from its ordinary position immediately after the subject. Early in Lucrece as well, Shakespeare separates the subject from its verb, this time when describing Tarquin’s motive for seeking to rape Lucrece, a motive that sprang from her husband Collatine’s boasting: “For he the night before, in Tarquin’s tent, / Unlocked the treasure of his happy state” (lines 15–16).

Shakespeare, again as in the Sonnets, often delays his presentation of the essential elements of his sentences, their subjects and verbs, until he has given us something else. Shakespeare’s opening to Venus and Adonis is marked by delay as well as by the separation already noted:

Even as the sun with purple-colored face

Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheeked Adonis hied him to the chase.

(lines 1–3)

Here Shakespeare postpones his introduction of his principal male character until after presenting the sunrise, perhaps because it is a convention of the epic elaborately to describe the sunrise and Shakespeare wants to announce immediately that he is writing a minor epic. Lucrece, too, begins with a delay in the presentation of subject and verb:

From the besiegèd Ardea all in post,

Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,

Lust-breathèd Tarquin leaves the Roman host[.]

(lines 1–3)

This time the delay serves chiefly to propel us into the poem with violent rapidity by doubly emphasizing Tarquin’s speed as “all in post” (in all haste) and “borne by . . . wings.”

Figures of Speech

Both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are heavy with the explicit comparisons that we call similes and the implicit comparisons called metaphors. However, as critics have noted, similes predominate in Venus and Adonis and metaphors in Lucrece. In a simile typical of Venus and Adonis, we are told that as Adonis lies “[p]anting . . . and breatheth in her face,” Venus “feedeth on the steam [i.e., his breath] as on a prey” (lines 62–63). The comparison of his breath to a creature that she longs to devour as “prey” is thus made explicit. As Lucrece endeavors to dissuade Tarquin from raping her, she is given a series of metaphors typical of that poem:

“Mud not the fountain that gave drink to thee.

Mar not the thing that cannot be amended.

End thy ill aim before thy shoot be ended;

He is no woodman that doth bend his bow

To strike a poor unseasonable doe.”

(lines 577–81)

First she compares herself to a fountain that has already extended hospitality to Tarquin (“gave drink to thee”) and that is vulnerable to pollution. Then she compares herself to something that can be damaged (“marred”) and never again repaired (“amended”). Finally she compares herself to a “doe,” out of season for hunting, standing as the target of an unsportsmanly hunter (“woodman”).

Common to both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are their many uses of the colors white and red in similes and metaphors. In his early play Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare emphasizes the conventionality of this poetic convention in the poem recited by Armado’s page (1.2.98–105). Yet Shakespeare himself seizes on this convention throughout Venus and Adonis, employing it three times in the poem’s first one hundred lines. First Venus praises Adonis’s complexion as “More white and red than doves or roses are” (line 10). The next two uses might appear simply descriptive rather than figurative, were it not that each is a reference to a long-standing convention in love poetry and is thus an allusion, a figure of speech that refers to an earlier text, whether historical, biblical, mythological, or, in this case, literary. In the first of these allusions, Venus promises Adonis that her kisses will make his lips “red and pale with fresh variety” (line 21). Then Shakespeare, in the role of the poem’s narrator, wittily reduces the embarrassed and petulant Adonis’s conflicted emotional state to the same literary convention:

Still is he sullen, still he lours and frets,

’Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy pale;

Being red, she loves him best, and being white,

Her best is bettered with a more delight.

(lines 75–78)

The most extensive figurative reference to red and white belongs to the “silent war of lilies and of roses” that is fought out in Lucrece’s face when Tarquin first appears at her home, Collatium:

When at Collatium this false lord arrived,

Well was he welcomed by the Roman dame,

Within whose face Beauty and Virtue strived

Which of them both should underprop her fame.

When Virtue bragged, Beauty would blush for shame;

When Beauty boasted blushes, in despite

Virtue would stain that o’er with silver white.

But Beauty, in that white entitulèd

From Venus’ doves doth challenge that fair field.

Then Virtue claims from Beauty Beauty’s red,

Which Virtue gave the golden age to gild

Their silver cheeks, and called it then their shield,

Teaching them thus to use it in the fight:

When shame assailed, the red should fence the white.

This heraldry in Lucrece’ face was seen,

Argued by Beauty’s red and Virtue’s white.

Of either’s color was the other queen,

Proving from world’s minority their right.

Yet their ambition makes them still to fight,

The sovereignty of either being so great

That oft they interchange each other’s seat.

(lines 50–70)

In this allusion, red, in the first stanza, is associated with Lucrece’s personified Beauty and white with her Virtue. By the second stanza, Lucrece’s face has metaphorically become both a battlefield and the surface of a heraldic shield on which colors are displayed. As the metaphor extends across the second and third stanzas, it appears that Beauty and Virtue each enjoy a claim on both red and white (though the claim that Beauty owns white and Virtue red depends on the then-current link between silver and white, on the one hand, and gold and red, on the other). Shakespeare, in these stanzas and elsewhere, is competing in his display of “red and white” with the many poets who used the convention before him and with his contemporaries still using them.

Rhetorical Schemes

Rhetorical schemes include anaphora, antanaclasis, antimetabole, antithesis, epistrophe, polyptoton, repetitio, symploce, and synoeciosis. While these terms may seem forbiddingly challenging, derived as they are from Greek and Latin, their meanings are relatively simple, as we hope will be clear as we list them below. After providing examples of each, we then show how Shakespeare depends on combinations of them in those moments when the feelings of his characters are most intense.

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive verse-lines or at the beginning of successive phrases or clauses in the same verse-line. Shakespeare uses anaphora in describing Adonis’s attempts to revive Venus:

He wrings her nose, he strikes her on the cheeks,

He bends her fingers, holds her pulses hard,

He chafes her lips[.]

(lines 475–77)

Shakespeare uses the same scheme in a more elaborate form as Lucrece wishes a series of retaliatory evils on Tarquin:

“Let him have time to tear his curlèd hair,

Let him have time against himself to rave,

Let him have time of Time’s help to despair,

Let him have time to live a loathèd slave,

Let him have time a beggar’s orts to crave[.]”

(lines 981–85)

Antanaclasis is the repetition of a word, but in a different grammatical form or different sense. When Venus tells Adonis to “Speak, fair, but speak fair words” (line 208), her first fair is a noun meaning “beautiful one,” her second fair an adjective meaning “pleasing” or “flattering.” Shakespeare’s use of the same scheme with the word fair in Lucrece is even more dazzling as Tarquin prays that his “thoughts might compass his fair fair” (line 346)—that is, “his unblemished beautiful one.”

Antimetabole is the repetition of words, but in reverse order. An example from Venus and Adonis is “looks kill love, and love by looks reviveth” (line 464). Lucrece supplies “one for all or all for one we gage” (line 144).

Antithesis is the balanced opposition of terms, often through negation and sometimes through repetition. Using antithesis by negation, Shakespeare tells us that Venus is more powerful than Adonis and can control him by force, but that she cannot control him by arousing desire in him:

Backward she pushed him as she would be thrust,

And governed him in strength though not in lust.

(lines 41–42)

In Lucrece, Shakespeare uses antithesis through repetition of “kings”/“king” (more precisely, polyptoton) and through the negation of “nor”:

. . . kings might be espousèd to more fame,

But king nor peer to such a peerless dame.

(lines 20–21)

The greater “fame” to which “kings” are figuratively married is balanced against the matchless woman (the “peerless dame” Lucrece) to whom no king and no nobleman is literally married—except the noble Collatine.

Epistrophe is the use of the same word at the end of successive verse-lines or at the end of successive phrases or clauses in the same verse-line. One instance appears early in Venus and Adonis:

Sick-thoughtèd Venus makes amain unto him

And, like a bold-faced suitor, gins to woo him.

(lines 5–6)

Again, Lucrece uses the scheme in a way that is somewhat more elaborate in one of the threats issued by Tarquin just before the rape:

“If thou deny, . . .

. . . some worthless slave of thine I’ll slay,

To kill thine honor with thy life’s decay,

And in thy dead arms do I mean to place him,

Swearing I slew him, seeing thee embrace him.”

(lines 513–18)

Polyptoton is repetition, within a short space, of words that have the same root. Shakespeare uses it in Venus and Adonis with “She’s Love, she loves, and yet she is not loved” (line 610). In Lucrece, within a single stanza he employs this scheme in every line, uses it twice in the stanza’s fifth line, and adds yet a ninth use within the third and fourth lines with “pitiful” and “pity”:

“Disturb his hours of rest with restless trances.

Afflict him in his bed with bedrid groans.

Let there bechance him pitiful mischances

To make him moan, but pity not his moans.

Stone him with hard’ned hearts harder than stones,

And let mild women to him lose their mildness,

Wilder to him than tigers in their wildness.”

(lines 974–80)

Repetitio is simple repetition of a word, such as occurs in Venus and Adonis when Adonis uses love as a noun three times in the same line to mean approximately “desire” every time: “My love to love is love but to disgrace it” (line 412).

Symploce is repetition of a word at the beginning of successive lines (anaphora) combined with repetition of another word at the end of successive lines (epistrophe). This comparatively rare scheme appears in Venus and Adonis in the lines

Give me my hand,” saith he. “Why dost thou feel it?”

Give me my heart,” saith she, “and thou shalt have it.”

(lines 373–74)

Synoeciosis is defined by a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, George Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589) as “the cross-couple because it takes . . . two contrary words, and tieth them as it were in a pair of couples, and so makes them agree like good fellows, as I saw once in France a wolf coupled with a mastiff, and a fox with a hound” (Book 3, chap. 19; spelling modernized). Venus uses this scheme repeatedly in illustrating her prophecy that “Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend” (line 1136):

“The strongest body shall it make most weak,

Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak. . . .

It shall be raging mad and silly mild,

Make the young old, the old become a child.”

(lines 1145–46, 1151–52)

Lucrece, too, displays this scheme repeatedly, most simply when, for example, it brings contraries immediately together in “Against love’s fire fear’s frost hath dissolution” (line 355).

At climactic moments in each poem, Shakespeare presents the extreme thought and feeling of his characters by relying on combinations of the schemes just defined and exemplified. When Venus first speaks after she has viewed her Adonis dead, the stanza is marked by highly patterned language:

“My tongue cannot express my grief for one

And yet,” quoth she, “behold two Adons dead.

My sighs are blown away, my salt tears gone;

Mine eyes are turned to fire, my heart to lead.

Heavy heart’s lead, melt at mine eyes’ red fire!

So shall I die by drops of hot desire.”

(lines 1069–74)

Shakespeare employs anaphora in the repetition at the beginning of successive lines and clauses: “My tongue . . . My sighs . . . my salt tears . . . Mine eyes . . . my heart.” He uses repetitio in “Mine eyes . . . mine eyes” and polyptoton in “heart . . . heart’s.” Finally, he uses antithesis in “one . . . two Adons dead.”

When Lucrece, after debating her course of action following the rape, decides upon suicide, her language is even more schematic:

“Thou, Collatine, shalt oversee this will;

How was I overseen that thou shalt see it!

My blood shall wash the slander of mine ill;

My life’s foul deed my life’s fair end shall free it.

Faint not, faint heart, but stoutly say, ‘So be it.’

Yield to my hand; my hand shall conquer thee.

Thou dead, both die, and both shall victors be.”

(lines 1205–11)

In this stanza there is anaphora with “My blood . . . ; / My life’s,” and epistrophe with “free it. / . . . ‘So be it.’ ” There is also repetitio in “My life’s . . . my life’s,” as well as in “my hand; my hand.” The latter case of repetitio also goes by the name anadiplosis, because words at the end of one clause are immediately repeated at the beginning of the next one. Antanaclasis may be found in “Faint not, faint heart,” in which faint is first a verb and then an adjective. Polyptoton begins and ends the stanza: “oversee . . . overseen . . . see” and “dead . . . die.” Antimetabole too begins the stanza: “Thou . . . shalt . . . oversee . . . overseen . . . thou shalt.” Synoeciosis brings the stanza to a close, tying together the conquered dead and the victors by identifying them with each other: “Yield to my hand; my hand shall conquer thee. / Thou dead, both die, and both shall victors be.”

Modern critics and readers have sometimes been impatient with the obvious contrivance of these rhetorical schemes. The use of such patterns has sometimes even been blamed on the characters into whose speeches Shakespeare worked these verbal arrangements. Yet it is Shakespeare who is to be credited with the artifice, a display of his talent in bringing language to the limit of intelligibility while still rendering it generally comprehensible. If we are to begin to understand the resources of language that Shakespeare and his contemporaries evidently regarded as the means for presenting the extremity of passion and thought in their fictional creations, we must identify (and, ideally, learn to admire) rhetorical schemes. Along with word choice, rhyme schemes, and figurative language, they provide the poetic richness and complexity that have kept these poems alive when the many works with which they competed have long since disappeared.