Shakespeare multi-tasking

Throughout Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare is doing two things at once, and therein lies the poem’s genius. He must, with the very same turns of phrase, annoy Adonis and enthrall the reader. For, as Venus pursues Adonis, attempts to persuade him to love her, she goes again and again over the same ground, succeeding merely in wearying her unwilling target. As Adonis puts it:

“Nay, then,” quoth Adon, “you will fall again
Into your idle overhandled theme;
The kiss I gave you is bestowed in vain,
And all in vain you strive against the stream;
For by this black-faced night, desire’s foul nurse,
Your treatise makes me like you worse and worse.” (769-74)

And indeed, Venus is overhandling her theme. The trick that Shakespeare must manage is to represent this without himself overhandling his theme. That he succeeds in this makes for the success of the poem. Venus’ unending outpouring is indeed wearying, but beautifully so, peppered with turns of phrase befitting her divinity.

Thus Shakespeare multi-tasks at a global level. So also more locally. I shall highlight only a single instance. After the boar has killed Adonis, and as Venus first sees his dead body,

No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf or weed,
But stole his blood and seemed with him to bleed. (1055-56)

Just earlier, Venus herself has attempted to exculpate herself (for having libeled Death) by pointing out that “Grief hath two tongues” (1007). She might equally have said, “Grief hath two eyes,” for here Shakespeare brilliantly captures her double sight. Simultaneously she accuses the world (“no flower was nigh… / but stole his blood”), finding it complicit in Adonis’ death, and sees it as full of sympathy for her love and her grief (“seemed with him to bleed”). In this moment of silent double vision, Venus – until now not exactly a sympathetic figure – most earns my charity.

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