Measure my Strangeness with Unripe Years: Female Desire and Sexual Abuse in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

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Reading Venus and Adonis is a conflicting experience. The language is beautiful and sensual, but the content leaves me squirming. The text is not necessarily inflammatory; it did not cause the uproar that Nabokov’s Lolita did, nor did it receive the scorn of Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Both texts bear similarities to Venus and Adonis. Lolita had a young object of desire and an unreliable, predatory narrator. The stories in Delta of Venus placed emphasis on female sexual drive and desire. When I began this essay, I wanted to look at the intersection between “sexy” and “disturbing” in literature, as I am very interested in erotic and obscene literature and their trajectory through history. I wanted to look at where exactly something crosses the line between “kinky” and “creepy.” However, in reading Venus and Adonis, I realized that there was a lot more to discuss than whether or not the poem holds coexisting sexuality and horror. When I first read the poem, I was in middle school and my copy has annotations like “awe” or “how romantic.” Upon reading it almost a decade later I found myself more disturbed than anything. I failed to see the romance, even in the eloquent writing. What I saw instead was a text that was beautiful, but that also maintained a discourse that is harmful to both men and women. First, I will address the issue of sexual violence that is prevalent in the work and persists even today. Then, I will address the representation of women and feminine characteristics and their negative repercussions.

 

 

He Thought to Kiss him and Hath Killed him So: Sexual violence in Venus and Adonis

            To begin the argumentative aspect of this paper, I will first look at the modern reader’s perspective. I’ve heard men studying literature say that Venus is “sexy,” or that Adonis is “lucky.” I’ve seen it compared to 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James, or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. I argue that there is nothing sexy about the dynamic between Venus and Adonis. Naturally, it’s difficult to discern what a reader may have thought about the text in the Elizabethan Era, but generally it appears to have been quite well received before falling to the wayside of Shakespeare’s other work.

In Venus and Adonis we see a woman seducing a young man or boy. Venus (and the poem’s narrator justify unwanted advances with love. The reason I argue that pedophilia is a part of the sexual violence is because Adonis declares that he is not of age: “Fair queen,’ quoth he, ‘ if any love you owe me,/ Measure my strangeness with my unripe years” (523-524) After coercing kisses from Adonis, Venus “takes all she can, not all she listeth.” (564) Venus takes from Adonis as much as he will let her, but she is unsatisfied. A few lines later,

“When he did frown, O, had she then gave over,

Such nectar from his lips she had not sucked.

Foul words and frowns must not repel a lover;

What though the rose have prickles, yet ’tis plucked:

Were beauty under twenty locks kept fast,

Yet love breaks through, and picks them all at last.” (571-576)

Essentially, this stanza says “If they say no, frown, swear at you, keep you away with locks, etc. ‘love’ will break through and they will love you and want you just as you love and want them.” This is an incredibly harmful idea that goes far beyond this poem. The idea that someone can force another person to love them, or that unrequited love will overcome all qualms is detrimental to men and women. What makes this even more problematic is the fact that it is still considered ‘sexy’ when it is so clear that this poem is about coercion and sexual abuse. Venus attempts to manipulate Adonis. When he says that he will hunt boar instead of seeing her again, she breaks down in tears, drawing him towards her:

“‘The boar!’ quoth she; whereat a sudden pale,

Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose,

Usurps her cheek; she trembles at his tale,

And on his neck her yoking arms she throws.” (589-592)

Venus can’t handle that Adonis is leaving her to hunt with his friends so she makes a scene and pulls him on top of her in her “anguish:”

“She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck,

He on her belly falls, she on her back.
Now is she in the very lists of love,
Her champion mounted for the hot encounter.
All is imaginary she doth prove;
He will not manage her, although he mount her” (593-598)

There are many instances of Adonis’ lack of consent in this poem, a significant one being:

“Her pleading hath deserved a greater fee;

She’s Love, she loves, and yet she is not loved.

‘ Fie, fie,’ he says, ‘ you crush me; let me go;

You have no reason to withhold me so.’” (609-612)

These lines are heart wrenching, because Venus’ conviction and Adonis’ unhappiness are so clear. The narrator focuses on Venus’ experience, creating sympathy for her, and with the refrain of how beautiful and perfect Adonis is, the poem justifies her actions and advances towards Adonis. Her rape and abuse is excusable because he is beautiful and she cannot help herself. The irony of this is how perfectly it encapsulates the concept of victim blaming that is at the forefront of sexual discourse in modern times. Venus and Adonis can be looked at as a cautionary tale for all people with a desire for another. What makes this idea of victim-blaming interesting is that in the Elizabethan era, and up until the 20th century, really, rape was commonplace (not that it doesn’t remain commonplace still). Furthermore, the gender reversal of the rape scenario heightens it; if raping women was acceptable, what would Elizabethans say about a man being raped by a woman? Even now, many refuse to accept that a man or boy CAN be raped or sexually abused, particularly by women. Was Shakespeare incredibly ahead of his time? I hope so, but I am doubtful. The idea of victim-blaming and rape is take to the utmost extreme when Venus discovers Adonis’ body: “If he did see his face, why then I know/ He thought to kiss him, and hath killed him so.” (1109-1110)

Essentially, Venus does not blame the boar for killing Adonis. She blames Adonis’ beauty; for who could resist attempting to kiss him, even a boar? When trying to kiss Adonis, the boar must have killed him by accident. This is a metaphor for the relationship between Venus and Adonis; she drove him away and by trying to secure sex and affection, hurt him. But who can blame her- he’s so cute!

Being So Enraged, Desire Doth Lend Her Force: Venus and Adonis and Obscene Female Desire

I have established that Venus and Adonis is a problematic work based on its representation of unwanted sexual advances. On the surface it seems as though Venus’ obvious sexual desire is “revolutionary” and feminist; emblematic of female agency prevailing over male desire. In her essay, “Ovid and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: A Study of Sexual Role-Reversal” Beatriz Soubriet Velasco states that Shakespeare created a female character that doesn’t conform to Elizabethan standards:

“Shakespeare does not follow Petrarch in his female characterization and moves away from him. Venus’ beauty is described with great sensuality and Shakespeare does not pay much attention to the traditional commonplaces of hair, teeth, lips and face to describe his Venus. Instead, he prefers to talk about her in different terms, and she appears, for instance, as a woman with “ soft flesh” and a “ smooth moist hand “ . On the other hand, Shakespeare completes Venus’ characterization by providing her with unusual qualities for a young lady in love, as it is the active role in the game of love, usually given to men. It is the female character who persuades Adonis and desperately tries to obtain his natural response to love, becoming trapped in her own desire and love sentiments.” (Velasco 298)

To contrast Venus’ more abrupt love, Adonis is portrayed as “ a sweet and delicate lover, […] constituting the characteristics more of a woman suffering from love than those of a man.” (Velasco 298) Even though there is a gender subversion, it creates animosity towards the female. Venus becomes an amoral lover, as highlighted by L.E. Pearson:

“Venus is shown as the destructive agent of sensual love; Adonis, as reason in love. The one sullies whatever it touches; the other honors it and makes it beautiful. The one is false and evil; the other is all truth, all good. Reason in love, truth, beauty—these are the weapons with which lust must be met, or the ideals of man must go down in defeat before the appetites. Thus it is that when Adonis is killed, beauty is killed, and the world is left in black chaos, for beauty, the soul of matter, unites all parts of creation with the great God of beauty.” (Hamilton 1)

Though Venus is able to express her desire and sexuality unlike many women in literature, a popular reading, as describer by A. C. Hamilton, is that rather than “establishing a tradition of erotic mythological poetry”, Venus and Adonis is “written against lust.” (Hamilton 1) If a reader is to search “Venus and Adonis Quotes” on the internet, they will find endless click-bait articles about love and passion; in fragments, the poem is emblematic of higher love and beauty, but when read in its entirety (or even summarized in its entirety), the more that the sinister and problematic undertones come to light. In Hamilton and Pearson’s analysis that the poem comes from a moral standpoint, exposing lust as the enemy; women become the immoral, lustful enemy. (Especially women who embrace sexual desire and agency) According to Velasco, “Adonis is forced to look like a girl, whereas Venus’ aggressiveness in love is described in a grotesque way.” (Velasco 299) Through this interpretation of the central figures of the poem we can discern that Adonis acts like a woman, therefore he is weak and bashful; Venus acts like a man therefore she is an immoral woman. All hints of femininity in this poem become negative; Adonis is lesser for acting feminine, Venus is a brash, harsh woman. If the poem is about morality and against lust, where is the chivalrous, strong man in the relationship? Elizabethan ideals are not upheld in this coupling. The male is not masculine, the female is not feminine, and the immorality still comes from the female. Every possible way of looking at womanhood in the relationship of Venus and Adonis is negative and casting her as the villain. This notion pervades even today. In the popular CW Television Series, Supernatural, the main characters (“heroes”) are men. All of the women (who are not dead) are demons, witches, ghosts, etc. They represent immorality and corruption, just as Venus does. (Pless 2013)

The idea of this masculine desire pervades throughout the discourse surrounding Venus, to the point of militaristic language: “Dismiss your vows, your feigned tears, your flattery/ for where a heart is hard they make no battery.” (425-426) Later, Venus is described in her passion as subhuman, animalistic:

“And having felt the sweetness of the spoil,

With blindfold fury she begins to forage;

Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,

And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,

Planting oblivion, beating reason back,

Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack.” (553-558)

Hamilton’s argument that Venus is meant to represent immorality and the sin of lust is strengthened by the above quote. Hamilton states that “Adonis’ rejection of love is absolute,” making the case that there is an underlying morality railing against women more viable. (5)

 

Is Venus and Adonis subversive? Of course! I like to think that Shakespeare wrote this with the intention of making readers think twice about issues of representation and issues of sexual violence. However, the author is not the text and people will not read authorial intent. Thus, I argue that the work explores and subverts gender and sexual violence, but not in a way that successfully argues for more progressive thinking. As a feminist, I believe the ideas represented in this poem are equally harmful to men and women. And, most importantly, the poem is not sexy. It contains a lot of sensuality and sexuality, but I seriously question anyone who is turned on by this strange tale.

 

References

Chapin, Andrea. “6 Reasons Why ‘Venus And Adonis’ By William Shakespeare Is One Of The Sexiest Poems Ever.” Web log post. Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Davies, M., J. Gilston, and P. Rogers. “Examining the Relationship Between Male Rape Myth Acceptance, Female Rape Myth Acceptance, Victim Blame, Homophobia, Gender Roles, and Ambivalent Sexism.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 27.14 (2012): 2807-823. SAGE. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Hamilton, A. C. “Venus and Adonis.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 1.1 (1961): 1-15. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Pless, Deborah. “Supernatural Is Sexist And Misogynistic. But It Doesn’t Have To Be.” Web log post. Kiss My Wonder Woman. N.p., 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. Venus and Adonis. Ed. R. Ellis Roberts, Horace Walter Bray, and Eugene S. Flamm. Harrow Weald: Printed by R.A. Maynard & H.W. Bray at the Raven, 1931. Print.

Velasco, Beatriz Soubriet. “Ovid and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: A Study of Sexual-role Reversal.” Choice Reviews Online 38.03 (2000): n. pag. Spanish and Portuguese Society for Renaissance Studies. SEDERI, 1996. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

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