Sunday, August 1, 2010

Discussion: Early Narrative Poems

The reading: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece

The plot tweet: Venus loves Adonis, but he spurns her and is gored by a boar; Lucretia is true to husband Collatine but gets raped by king, kills herself.

My favorite line:
Make use of time, let not advantage slip;
Beauty within itself should not be wasted:
Fair flowers that are not gather'd in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time.


These two poems make an interesting set, don't they? In Venus and Adonis, the female heroine is overcome by lust, but she is rejected by her would-be lover, who is then destroyed. In The Rape of Lucrece, the female heroine is chaste, but the king is overcome by lust and rapes her, thus destroying them both. Nobody in these poems actually falls in love, but Shakespeare offers us many examples of lust and objectification.

I am not a feminist critic, but if ever I were to invoke that line of criticism, I would do it here. Why does Lucretia blame herself for being raped, and why does she find it necessary to kill herself? Does her society expect that kind of reaction? Does she truly have no other options? If so, her society is a very backward one, and her situation is a travesty. (I had the same reaction to Lavinia's "honorable" murder in Titus Andronicus.)

And what are we to think of Venus, the goddess of love who throws herself at a chaste boy? Like Tarquin, she certainly forces herself upon her object of lust. Are we supposed to feel sorry that she is rejected? Or, rather, are we supposed to criticize her forwardness and lack of modesty?

My favorite part of these two poems is Venus's 30-line prophecy about the nature of love, which promises jealousy, pain, deception and discord: "Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy / They that love best their loves shall not enjoy." This reminds me of God's casting out of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: Because two people broke the rules, mankind is destined to suffer forever after. Likewise, because Venus's love is thwarted, mankind is destined to suffer in love forever after. (Of course, she takes a few liberties to call her experience love rather than mere lust.)

This is the first time I have read these poems, and I must admit that I find them less engaging than the plays. However, these two poems, written during the plague-related theater closure in 1593-4, certainly go a long way toward establishing the young Shakespeare as a legitimate, talented writer -- not a mere theater hack.


  1. I am still looking forward to re-reading Lucrece (which I read many years ago and found very powerful) - and was surprised by the "Venus," which was new to me. One of the most interesting moments I found in it was the passage in which Adonis looks at her askance and basically says "THAT isn't Love! You're just talking about lust. And I'm not interested." Rather backward from our modern-day assumptions about men & women. Ancient Greco-Roman thought (and Hebrew and early Christian thought) saw them the other way around, as reflected in this poem. I wonder when we shifted? What was the more typical view in Shakespeare's time? Venus? or Lucrece?
    While I appreciate feminist criticism, I am certainly far from well-versed. But I am always concerned to see whether the critique comes from applying 21st century norms to 16th century texts, or whether the text can be critiqued within the norms of the world within which it was written. I don't know what sort of commentary would result on these two poems, but it would be VERY interesting indeed!

  2. (And if I may be so bold as to make a small correction - the villain of "Lucrece" is the son, Sextus, not the king, Lucius Tarquinius.)

  3. I was watching The Muppet Show yesterday and noticed a similarity between Miss Piggy-Kermit and Venus-Adonis