“Venus and Adonis” & “The Rape of Lucrece,” from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

My Copy: 9780199267170

I paired these two poems in one post because they weren’t that long and it took me a bit longer to make sure I got the gist of them. I was lost in the language again, though the stories are relatively straight-forward. It’s how the subjects are treated that’s so different.

The poems were also written in the time of major plagues hitting London, and theaters all over the city were closed for several years. Obviously, the man needed to make a living and shower dedications on one of his patrons, the 4th Earl of Southampton, and these poems were one of the results.

Apparently, they were rather popular in the first few years, but after Shakespeare’s death were mostly forgotten. I’ll give a simple synopsis and let you know what I thought:

***

Venus and Adonis is all about the most beautiful man in the world, Adonis, and how Venus, the goddess of love, falls for him and tries to seduce him. The bitter and comedic part about all this is that Adonis is reminiscent of a modern stereotypical “guy”: not interested in love but wanting to do whatever he wants to do and is denied at the moment (which is hunting with the guys). Venus is throwing herself at him, showering him with praises and wanting kisses. They have a bit of a fling, but he’s really tired of her advances and spends the whole time insisting love isn’t his thing. He’s portrayed as more bashful than arrogant, a youth who just wants what he wants when he wants it, and love’s just not something he’s concerned about right now.

When Venus has a mare tempt his stallion away, it frustrates him because he and his friends were going to go hunt boar, the most dangerous animal in the forests. Venus is afraid he’ll be killed and does all she can to deter him. Well, doesn’t work, and I’ll let you figure out the rest.

This poem is one of the first items directly credited to Shakespeare in his time. At first I had trouble getting into it, but it was relatively easy to follow. I’m not the biggest fan of most forms of mythology, largely because I just find it dismaying to see gods and goddesses acting like spoiled bratty children all the time. Venus is pathetic in her pursuit of a young man who wants nothing to do with her–or perhaps it was a secret challenge, to see if she could get the mortal capitulate against his initial feelings.

I’ve looked at a few theories about this poem for clarification and think that there’s something to the push-and-pull of love. In this case, Venus wants what’s physically right in front of her, but can’t have, and Adonis wants something far away and spurns what’s right in front of him. They’re operating on totally different wavelengths, even though I’m sure they’d be the most perfect-looking couple ala Roman myth.

And I admit, when it came to the back and forth about love an it’s importance, and such, just gender-swap the speech-making and it feels a bit like this 80s fantasy scene (after Val gets bopped in the face with the dust of broken hearts–hee hee):

But at the same time, it’s the pacing of the story. Yes, it takes far too much time to get to the action beyond pretty words. However, when Adonis finally leaves for his hunt, there is a lot of time spent by Venus looking for him, finding the evidence of what must’ve happened during it, and then Adonis himself.

Dunno how many people would really want to read this one. If you’re a sucker for love, I suppose it’s worth a shot, and does have some good quotes, some good lines. I suppose the whole gods and mortals as couples thing has just colored me against the ideas presented.

***

The Rape of Lucrece has a basis in fact, the story of a virtuous married woman in Rome when the territory was ruled by the Tarquin kings, and her defilement and death helped lead to casting out the kings and establishing the consuls, and therefore, the republic. The actions of one of the king’s sons, Lucius, was seen as a step too far in the tyranny of rulers and why, even to Julius Caesar’s time, there was fear of the word “king” and Romans couldn’t handle the thought of ever going back to a king.

The story isn’t like one of the plays, where there are magnificent battles or anything. It’s mostly about the very night Lucius went after Lucrece in her home while her husband was at the king’s campground near Ardea, where the army was fighting. Most of the first part of the poem is all about Lucius’ thoughts, what had gone through his mind as he was in her house, and then when he decided to act on his desires. When she finally awakens (around line 450) she’s startled and upset, wanting to know why he would barge in on her like this. He demands she submit to him or else he’ll kill her and set her up to be made an adulterer by putting a slave’s body in the bed with her, and set himself up to be the avenger on behalf of his friend (and her husband). She tries to reason with him but he basically shuts her up and does what he wants.

He leaves, supposedly with some remorse and she’s in agony, upset, and writes to her husband and family to get to the house as fast as they can as Lucius leaves the home. This part becomes mostly her thoughts and emotions, and how she imagines every male eye on her knows about her shame, and waits for her husband, father, and other family friends come. The story and actions prompt the military leaders and family friends to turn against the Tarquins and the poem ends with these figures wanting to get even.

What is not said is these men in the poem are the ones who will be responsible for the founding of the Roman republic. Shakespeare probably assumed most would have a passing knowledge of Roman history and just be able to leave it at that.

I was a little disturbed to read this particular play, especially with the stories of sexual harassment and violence that have cropped up in our society over the years. It’s a bit dismaying to know that women all over and in many times have had this same problem of shame and coercion or victim blaming, no matter their station in life and culture. Lucrece was afraid of being shamed as an adulteress, but also shamed to submit to spare her reputation from the false narrative Lucius would cococt. Her husband who loved her dearly, Collatine, probably would have believed her to be wronged, but with reputation being such a big deal in the ancient world, that likely would’ve done nobody any favors.

I thought it was interesting in a way, and I think I’ll read this one a few more times when I’m in a better mind to receive it. As a woman (and trained historian), it’s hard for me to not try to understand things from Lucrece’s perspective and wonder what else could have been done to stop those events. Collatine’s bragging of his wife’s virtues was probably one of them, but how was anybody to know this would trigger Lucius’ lust?

I think this would’ve been a great stage play, really (without being graphic), but I agree with the editors of this book that this play helped Shakespeare tweak his writing about the ancient world and rulers. It’s pretty emotional, whether you read his or her thoughts during the poem.

And now, some notable quotes (some you may recognize):

He saith she is immodest, blames her miss;

What follows more she murders with a kiss.

Venus and Adonis, lines 53-54

Dismiss your vows, your feigned tears, your flatt’ry;

For where a heart is hard they make no batt’ry.

Venus and Adonis, lines 425-26

Now is he come unto the chamber door

That shuts him from the heaven of his thought,

Which with a yielding latch, and with no more,

Hath barred him from the blessed thing he sought.

So from himself impiety hath wrought

That for his prey to pray he doth begin,

As if the heavens should countenance his sin.

The Rape of Lucrece, lines 337-343

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