Venus and Adonis (Shakespeare poem)

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Title page of the first quarto (1593)

Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem by William Shakespeare published in 1593, the same year that Christopher Marlowe published Hero and Leander and Thomas Nashe published The Choice of Valentines, all three classic erotic poems. It is probably Shakespeare's first publication.

The poem tells the story of Venus, who is Goddess of Love, and her attempted seduction of Adonis, an extremely handsome young man, who would rather go hunting. The poem is dramatic, pastoral, and at times erotic, comic, tragic, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. It contains discourses on the nature of love, and many brilliantly described observations of nature.

It is written in a verse form known as sesta rima, which is a quatrain followed by a couplet. The sesta rima form was also used by Edmund Spenser and Thomas Lodge. The rhyme scheme is ABABCC.

It was published originally as a quarto pamphlet and published with great care. It was probably printed using Shakespeare's fair copy. The printer was Richard Field, who also, along with Shakespeare, was from Stratford. Venus and Adonis appeared in print before any of Shakespeare's plays were published, but not before some of his plays had been acted on stage. It has a lot in common with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Love's Labour's Lost. It was written when the London theatres were all closed for a time due to the plague.

The poem begins with a dedication to Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, in which he admits the poems contains "unpolished lines."

The poem is inspired by and based on stories in the Metamorphoses, which is a poem written by the Latin poet, Ovid (43 BC – AD 17/18). Ovid's much briefer version of the Venus and Adonis story occurs in Book ten of his Metamorphoses. Other stories of the Metamorphoses that are considered sources, but to a lesser degree, are the tales of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Narcissus, and Pygmalion.

The poem was extremely popular, and was reprinted fifteen times before 1640. It is surprising that so few of the original quartos have survived.[1][2][3]


Adonis is a young man renowned for his incredible beauty. However, he is not interested at all in love; he only wants to go hunting. Venus is the goddess of love. When she sees Adonis, she falls in love with him, and comes down to earth, where she encounters him setting out on a hunt. She desires him to get off his horse, and speak to her. Adonis doesn’t want to talk to any woman, not even a goddess. So she forces him. She lays down beside him, gazes at him, and talks of love. She craves a kiss, he wants to leave and go hunting. He manages to get away, and he goes to get his horse.

At that moment his horse becomes enamored of another horse, who at first resists, but soon the two animals gallop off together. Which keeps Adonis from going hunting. Venus approaches him, and continues to speak to him of love. He listens for a bit, then turns away scornfully. This pains her, and she faints. Afraid he might have killed her, Adonis kneels beside her, strokes and kisses her. Venus recovers and requests one last kiss. He begrudgingly gives in.

Venus wants to see him again, Adonis tells her that he can’t tomorrow, because he's going to hunt the wild boar. Venus has a vision, and warns him that if he does so, he will be killed by a boar. She then flings herself on him and tackles him to the ground. He gets away from her, and lectures her on the topic of lust versus love. He then leaves, and she cries.

The next morning Venus is roaming the woods searching for Adonis. She hears dogs and hunters in the distance. Thinking of her vision that he will be killed by a boar, she is afraid, and hurries to catch up with the hunt. She comes across a hunting dog that's severely injured. Then she finds the dead body of Adonis. He has been killed by a wild boar. Venus is devastated. Because this happened to her, then for all of humankind where ever there is love, there will always be suspicion, fear, and sadness. Adonis’ body has grown cold and pale. His blood gives color to the plants all around him. A flower grows from the soil beneath him. It is white and purple, like blood on Adonis’ flesh. Venus, bereft, leaves the Earth to hide her sadness where the gods live.[4]


"Hard-favour'd tyrant, ugly, meagre, lean,
Hateful divorce of love," thus chides she Death,
''Grim-grinning ghost, earth's worm, what dost thou mean
To stifle beauty and to steal his breath,
Who when he liv'd, his breath and beauty set
Gloss on the rose, smell to the violet?''
  • A theatrical adaptation, William Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis, with an original score and songs by Christopher Reiner, was performed by Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood, California, for five weeks in August and September 2006. LA Weekly described it: "six women, clothed in black, recite the poem while weaving around the stage in a sensual, interpretive dance".[7]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fifth Edition. Oxford University Press (1985). ISBN 978-0198661306.
  2. ^ Kolin, Philip C. Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays. Routledge (2013). ISBN 9781136744310
  3. ^ Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare: Early Comedies, Poems, Romeo and Juliet. Columbia University Press (1957). ISBN 9780231088916 Page 162
  4. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Woudhuysen, H. R. eds. Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Poems: Third Series. Arden Shakespeare. (28 September 2007) ISBN 978-1903436875
  5. ^ "Why is the RSC staging Venus and Adonis with marionettes?". the Guardian. 
  6. ^ Venus and Adonis at the [Boston Metro Opera] Archived 1 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Review by Stephanie Lysaght in LA Weekly, 31 August 2006.


  • Caldecott, Harry Stratford: Our English Homer; or, the Bacon-Shakespeare Controversy (Johannesburg Times, 1895).
  • Gurr, Andrew: The Shakespearean Stage: 1574–1642 (Cambridge, 1992).
  • Halliday, F. E.: A Shakespeare Companion: 1564–1964. (Penguin, 1964).

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