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Venus and Adonis

Venus and Adonis

Hundred Word Summary

Venus worships the handsome Adonis – but he prefers to go hunting.  He believes he is too young to love, so even when she faints – and he revives her with a kiss – she cannot tempt him.

Tomorrow he will hunt wild boar, and she has a vision of him gored to death, and begs him to hunt safer prey.

Next day, hearing the hounds howling ominously, she comes across his body gored, grey and lifeless, a huge gash in his side.

From the soil fertilised by his blood a flower has grown, which she plucks and places between her breasts.


Table of Contents


“Venus and Adonis” was written in the plague year of 1593, when the theatres were closed.  For Shakespeare the timing was unhelpful, since he was just beginning to build a reputation as a playwright, with around six early plays to his name.  But while his company headed out of London in search of work elsewhere, Shakespeare remained behind to explore the possibilities of narrative verse.

This poem tells the story of Venus the goddess of love and her infatuation with Adonis, a handsome youth more drawn to hunting than romance.  In its detail it is graphic and evocative, telling of their encounter, at times discursive – for example on the place of jealousy in love – at others remarkably frank, if not explicit.  The poem was a huge success, and made Shakespeare a household name, his poem particularly revered among undergraduates at the universities, drawn perhaps to the poem’s vivid erotic detail.

Stage by Stage

Lines 1 – 96

Drawn to his beauty, Venus tempts Adonis from hunting to spending time on the art of love. 

Adonis’s appeal is less that he is stimulating company than that he is physically beautiful.

Venus forcibly dismounts the reluctant young man from his hunting steed.

He lies side by side with her, though he remains “coy”.

Lines 97 – 174

Venus is frustrated that Adonis seems unwilling to engage with her in an erotic encounter.

She suggests to him that with his beauty he has a kind of responsibility to reproduce.

Lines 175 – 240

Venus steps up her attempts to persuade Adonis to make love to her.

Her attempts at persuasion adopt a faintly menacing air, questioning whether he is his mother’s son.

She compares her body to a park and invites him to roam there.

She even suggests he may like to “Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains are”. 

Lines 241 – 408

Adonis is not persuaded by Venus’s overtures, and heads towards his horse.

But the horse suddenly catches sight of a “jennet”, and races off after her, abandoning his master. 

Now that his horse has disappeared, Adonis seems more open to Venus’s charms. 

Venus spells out the lesson to be learnt from the horse, part metaphor, part example.

Lines 409 – 582

Adonis says he is too young to love – arguing that to love too early is a bad idea.

Venus says that any one of her senses would be enough to fall in love with him.

Adonis is once again about to reject her when she faints, and it is his duty to revive her.

Venus begs Adonis for further kisses to complete her recovery.

A farewell kiss becomes something more passionate until he begs to be allowed to leave.

Lines 583 – 708

Adonis reveals that he will be hunting for wild boar on the following day.

Venus attempts to drag him down but she cannot detain him further.

Venus foresees Adonis death if he hunts the boar.

She encourages him to hunt the hare instead and remain safely on his horse.

Lines 708 – 852

Adonis makes to leave, and Venus implores him to fall in love and reproduce the species.

Adonis argues that love only brings misery and unhappiness.

Adonis distinguishes between love and lust, and wishes he hadn’t listened to Venus’s conversation.

Venus chases after Adonis but loses her way and is abandoned alone for the night.

Lines 853 – 1024

Venus is drawn to the place where the hounds are howling a chilling bark.

But she comes across the wild boar with its mouth covered in blood.

Confused and panicking, Venus berates Death whilst fearing that Adonis has been killed.

In her panic she hears a huntsman far off and this raises her hopes that Adonis is still alive.

The narrator reflects that it is often hard to know what to believe when you’re in love.

Venus’s hopes revive that Adonis may have survived.

Lines 1025 – 1194

But then Venus sees his body, gored and bleeding, and her eyes retreat and her mind is scrambled.

Venus reflects that the boar must have been trying to kiss Adonis, and killed him accidentally.

Now she orders that, as her love was tainted by sorrow, in future love will bring pain as well as joy.

In future, love will prove complex and ambiguous: “It shall be fickle, false and full of fraud”.

She picks the flower that grows from his blood on the ground and places it between her breasts.


Thinking aloud

“Venus and Adonis”, as the title suggests, is a dialogue for two characters, with a narrator to guide the reader through the developing events.  There are many examples in Shakespeare’s plays of dialogue between two lovers: the first encounter between Romeo and Juliet, for example, in 1.5, or the rather more fractious conversations between Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”.  Given its format, it is quite possible to imagine this poem being staged, and in fact it has been successfully performed for the public in recent years.

The poem describes the resourceful attempts made by Venus to persuade the handsome Adonis to become her lover.  In this respect – with gender roles reversed – “Venus and Adonis” recalls many other poems of the period, in which the speaker (normally male) sets out to persuade the reluctant female to share his life – or bed.  Examples include “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” by Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593); “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674); and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 78).  “To his Mistress Going to Bed” by John Donne (1572 – 1631) is discussed below.

The narrative itself comes originally from Greek myth.  Venus (or Aphrodite, her Greek equivalent) was forced to share the handsome Adonis with Persephone, queen of the Underworld.  This somewhat unstable arrangement comes to an end when (as in Shakespeare’s poem) the young man is gored by a wild boar while hunting, and dies in Aphrodite’s arms.  In Shakespeare’s version of the myth, there is of course no sharing of Adonis and no love-making (not for the want of trying on Venus’s part).  Moreover, Adonis is dead by the time she finds him.

Shakespeare’s version of the story may perhaps be seen as an ironical version of the events made famous by the saint whose memory is celebrated on Shakespeare’s birthday.  In the story of St George, there is once again a beautiful woman and a savage wild animal.  But in “Venus and Adonis” every detail is inverted: the wild animal triumphs; the heroic male is killed; the beautiful woman has no need of rescue: a straightforward inversion of events with which Shakespeare would have been familiar.

Venus advances a number of different reasons why Adonis should make love to her.  The first will be familiar to readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Venus tells Adonis that he has a special responsibility to reproduce the species because he is young and beautiful: “Make use of time, let not advantage slip,” she tells him.   “Beauty within itself should not be wasted. / Fair flowers that are not gathered in their prime / Rot and consume themselves in little time” (lines 129 – 132).  The first line of the first sonnet puts the same point: “From fairest creatures we desire increase,” runs the argument, “That thereby beauty’s rose might never die, / But as the riper should by time decease, / His tender heir might bear his memory.”  Those who are most favoured by nature, the argument runs, have most responsibility to reproduce the species and maintain their genes.

Later in the poem, Venus advances a similar argument when she suggests that reproducing the species bestows a kind of immortality: “By law of nature thou art bound to breed,” she tells Adonis, “That thine may live when thou thyself art dead; / And so in spite of death thou dost survive, / In that thy likeness still is left alive” (lines 169 – 172).  Much later, she suggests that to be childless is a kind of immoral act: “Therefore, despite of fruitless chastity,” she says, “Love-lacking vestals and self-loving nuns, / That on the Earth would breed a scarcity / And barren dearth of daughters and of sons, / Be prodigal” (lines 751 – 5).  In other words, there is a kind of moral responsibility to reproduce the species.  But none of these persuasive gestures is enough to move Adonis, or to displace hunting as his preferred pastime.

In line 259, tired of listening to Venus’s arguments, Adonis decides to leave.  But at that moment, his horse (or “courser”) is attracted to a female horse (or “jennet”) nearby, described by the narrator as “lusty, young and proud”.  The courser, drawn by the prospect of love-making, surrenders to its instincts, “Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he” (line 264).  This symbolic moment serves to underline the point that in the matter of reproducing the species, nature provides its own logic and momentum.

This connection of humans to nature is repeatedly reinforced throughout the poem through the use of animal metaphors.  The most common type is birds.  In line 55, Venus is compared to an eagle, and in line 1027, to a falcon; in line 67, Adonis, lying in Venus’s arms, is compared to a bird trapped in a net; in line 86, he is compared to a divedapper (or water bird); in line 366, lovers are compared to “silver doves”; and lines 560 – 2 provide three similes for Adonis: a “wild bird tamed”, a roe and a difficult child.

The reference to the “roe” in line 561 is a further reminder that there are numerous animal metaphors throughout the poem.  Once again, the aim is to establish a connection between the human world and the animal.  In line 875, for example, Venus, searching for Adonis, is compared to a “doe” keen to find her calf; and when she discovers him gored and bleeding, her eyes retreat from the scene like a snail hiding in its “shelly cave” (line 1033).

Other metaphors reference nature more generally and once again serve to reinforce the point that humans are part of the natural order: in line 184, Adonis’s unhappy expression is described as resembling “misty vapours when they blot the sky”; in line 354, his cheek is compared to “fallen snow”; and in line 527, Adonis describes himself as an unripe plum, “sour to taste”.

Perhaps the most arresting image in the poem is the metaphor Venus employs to describe her own body: “I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer,” she tells Adonis.  “Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale; / Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry, / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.” Her body is a landscape, where he may wander at his will. 

A similar metaphor is employed by Shakespeare’s near-contemporary, John Donne (1572 – 1631), in his poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, mentioned above.  In this poem, he enjoins his lover to “Licence my roving hands, and let them go, / Before, behind, between, above, below. / O my America! my new-found-land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d”.  Here the lover’s body is a continent, newly-discovered and laden with rich promise.  This was, after all, the Age of Exploration and Discovery.

In Classical mythology, Venus’s functions cover a lot of the ground explored in this poem: sexuality, desire, reproduction, fertility and so forth.  But her chief function is love, and in “Venus and Adonis” Shakespeare has several points to make about this subject.  First, he has something to say about the destructive power of jealousy, which Venus describes (in line 449 – 50) as “that sour unwelcome guest” given to “stealing in [to] disturb the feast”. Later (lines 649 – 654), “disturbing Jealousy” is said to be responsible for giving “false alarms” and for “Distemp’ring gentle Love” – that is, creating disorder.  These themes return a decade later when he writes “Othello” (1604).

Second, Shakespeare is witty but dismissive when he denounces the conversation of lovers as somewhat tedious: “Their copious stories,” he says, “oftentimes begun, / End without audience and are never done” (lines 845 – 6).   Later (lines 985 – 90), a more serious consideration emerges – that love is a somewhat unbalancing experience: “O hard-believing Love, how strange it seems / Not to believe and yet too credulous!” The reflections are the narrator’s, they refer directly to the anxious Venus as she searches for Adonis, but once again one is drawn back to the example of Othello and the faith he invests in Iago.

The final insight into love serves as a kind of conclusion to the poem as a whole, and its impact is powerful.  Venus reflects on her experience of love, and it has been mournful.  Now in thirty lines (1135 – 64) she prophesies that love will in future bring great unhappiness and distress.  Suspicion, deceit, confusion, anxiety, conflict – these are among the by-products to be expected of this emotion: “Sith [since] in his prime Death doth my love destroy, / They that love best their loves shall not enjoy”.  Again, one thinks of Othello – and more specifically, of Desdemona.



Venus: insistent, resourceful, patient, assertive, inventive – it is hard not to warm to this passionate character, and that is appropriate after all.  But she is given deeper qualities too: of foresight (she foretells Adonis’s fate) and of insight – her prophecy that love will be an ambiguous experience for humankind serves as a formidable conclusion to the poem.  And at the close, she is a touch sentimental, picking the flower that grows in the blood and dust to wear, intimately.

Adonis: thoughtful in his insight in distinguishing between love and lust, and cautious in his reluctance to engage with Venus, he is perhaps an unlikely huntsman.  Nonetheless he adopts the braver pursuit of the boar over the hare, and pays the price.  He is not short of self-knowledge (“Remove your siege from my unyielding heart,” he begs her), and depending on one’s perspective may be regarded as resolute – or stubborn.

Quick Quiz

  1. Give the name of the lover whose charms Venus claims to have enjoyed in the past.
  2. What does Venus do with the flower she finds growing in soil fertilised by Adonis’s blood?
  3. What does Adonis’s courser destroy when it goes in pursuit of the female horse?
  4. What does Venus see on the wild boar’s mouth when she encounters it the following day?
  5. What name is given for the female horse that distracts Adonis’s courser?
  6. Which animal does Venus suggest Adonis should hunt instead of the wild boar?
  7. What metaphor for her body does Venus use when she invites Adonis to make love to her?
  8. How does Adonis help Venus to recover when she faints?
  9. Which sound raises Venus’s hopes on the second morning that Adonis is still alive?
  10. To whom is the poem dedicated?
  1. Mars
  2. Puts it between her breasts
  3. Its reins
  4. Blood
  5. A jennet
  6. A hare
  7. A park
  8. He kisses her
  9. A huntsman’s call
  10. Earl of Southampton

Last Word

“Venus and Adonis” is not widely read today.  Perhaps it should be.  In Shakespeare’s day it was his most famous work and the most famous by any writer of the age – better known than any of his plays.  The 1593 edition was printed by Richard Field, a London printer who also hailed from Stratford: only one copy of this printing survives – the first print run has been read, as Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd says, “literally to disintegration”. 

Modern readers of Shakespeare’s works may be surprised to find that he wrote narrative poems of this kind – but given its importance to his reputation in his lifetime, it is perhaps surprising that he didn’t write more – apart from The Rape of Lucrece the following year. A photograph of the only surviving copy of the original print run may be found here.

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