A Biographical Remark in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis

An essay invoking the cognitive relationship between Shakespeare's biographical life and Shakespeare's poetical life found in his narrative poem: Venus and Adonis.

‘And lo I lie between the sun and thee’

(Venus and Adonis; line 194)

To see the poet in the act of composition, to hear his words tell not only the story, but with imaginative zeal, recount the inner movements of his life, makes prejudice relax, and involves the reader in a fantasy that was at one time lived and deeply felt. Be it that each successive experience, in time, becomes poetic, or that the perception of our thoughts be seen through poetry, the dull aspects of life are but a mask to our feelings and lead us into paths that give semblance to lesser hours. That we may see and find something true, not about the story, but about the man, testifies, in mind, to that in which all great poets have taken part, that in writing the story or the verses of another, he sees his spirit live in the exotic realms of his subject. What is hoped then is that from a close reading of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis we may see and understand the poet, and from that piece together a parallel moment in his life.

Venus and Adonis, the earliest written of the two (or three) narrative poems of Shakespeare, takes its plot from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a book which, if not his favorite, certainly held a special place in the young poet's heart. The story recounts the unrequited love of Venus for Adonis, wherein Venus, not being able to prevent Adonis from going on a hunt, soon hears of him being mortally wounded by a boar. For when Adonis, being pulled away from Venus by the vision of the hunt, says to her: 

‘The sun doth burn my face; I must remove.’ 

we first gain insight to the underlying theme of the poem, that Adonis has fallen into a situation from which he cannot free himself so easily. And when Venus replies: ‘And lo I lie between the sun and thee’, knowing that to take away his right to choose gives her hope of conquering, we become aware that as love lies between Adonis and the boar, his inability to hunt makes him impotent to love. The poem, coming to a close, finally sees Adonis setting out on the hunt with this wonderful and irrefutable piece of advice for Venus: ‘Before I know myself, seek not to know me’. For our purposes, it is through these above three lines of pure and harmonious inspiration that we may see Shakespeare in the act of composition; through the will and desire of Adonis to find the innocence of that which is in creation by bringing the image and memory of himself to life in searching for the untamed spirit of the boar.

In the year 1582, at the age of 18, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his elder, reminding us somewhat of the mature Venus and young Adonis of the poem; the only difference being that five months later Anne Hathaway bore him a child. A year or so later were born twins and from there on the new family could have fallen into obscurity but for one single event. 

After three years of domestic life, about the end of the year 1584-85, we find Shakespeare, Adonis-like, riding away from the woman who loved and bore him a family, with a sigh of relief. The young man's mind, for some time touched by a poetic vision, had become suffocated by the daily burdens of the household; for the first time, somewhere amongst those three years, he had reflected on his life, and more than once came to a striking conclusion resonating through their conjugal alliance. 

If we consider Shakespeare and the events of his life up to this point, he had  become a man before his time; for, being forced into parental and conjugal duty before he could take stock of the meaning of Elizabethan ideals, he came to a point where he felt overwhelmed; a rebellion had taken place, a struggle deep inside that, no doubt, laid the groundwork for all his future poetical works. On the one side we may see the pressure of his wife and her parents urging him to start earning money to support his family, to improve their position, as was the common thought of the day; and on the other, the sweet and altering thoughts of poetry consuming the ever heavy moments of his idle hours. It is here, in the cloudy realm of his marital life, that the Adonis-effect becomes true to us and to Shakespeare; for between him and his idea, the insurmountable difficulty of the love he owed to his wife and his new family, joined with a desire to create poetry, had made him impotent to both passions. The sun, the vision, had become too much, and as Adonis, his inability to create, to hunt the untamed spirit of poetry, had made him vow: ‘The sun doth burn my face; I must remove’. Now he must remove himself from the confines of domestic life, believing the urge, the poetic vision, too strong to be denied. But vaguely floating through his mind were those words: 'And lo I lie between the sun and thee' every time he was pulled away from the quiet loft of poetry, or when despair had gotten the better of him, forced in a sense to love what he could not, or was not yet ready to love, because he had not given expression to his vision. For who of us has not been ashamed of some silent and heartfelt idea finding the light of day, and then having the courage to go forth with it? Thus we see, perhaps after a long and bitter winter, William Shakespeare bidding farewell to Anne Hathaway in his haste for London, which, in the words of Adonis, find some resonance: 

‘If any love you owe me,

Measure my strangeness with my unripe years;

Before I know myself, seek not to know me’.

This departure marks the beginning of the seven lost years of Shakespeare’s life, from 1585 to 1592, when he is found satirized in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. The next year, 1593, Venus and Adonis is published; and in 1596, when we can say with close certainty that Shakespeare returns to his wife, he is a successful and wealthy playwright, but above all, a man. Venus and Adonis, like all first attempts, the poet being unsure of himself, but indeed more passionate and abundant in force, holds a special place in the works of Shakespeare; and as anyone trying the first secrets of imagination, he found more sense in the events of his own life while reading them in the tales of those long past.

Douglas Thornton

**All quotes come from William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis.

Published at The Society of Classical Poets


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