During his lifetime Shakespeare’s fame as a poet equaled and perhaps outstripped his fame as a playwright. His most popular poem was Venus and Adonis. It was reprinted nine times in his lifetime, and there are more surviving references to Venus and Adonis than to any of Shakespeare’s plays. The poem was most likely written in 1592, when London’s theaters were closed due to an outbreak of plague, and was first published in 1593. The poem, which Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, retells an ancient Mediterranean myth about a beautiful boy, Adonis, who has no interest in love or sex. He spends all his time hunting instead. Venus, the goddess of sexual love, falls in love with Adonis at first sight, and spends most of the poem trying to seduce him, or at least to prevent him from leaving. At the end of the poem, Adonis is killed by a boar while hunting, and Venus transforms his body into a flower as a way of remembering him.
Shakespeare took the story of Venus and Adonis from an epic poem called Metamorphoses, by the Roman writer Ovid. Many poets in Renaissance Europe borrowed stories from Ovid, and by the time Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis the Ovid-inspired narrative poem was a popular genre in England. Like Metamorphoses, Shakespeare’s poem focuses on the uncontrollable power of sexual desire. Venus takes upon herself the role of aggressive seducer, which in Elizabethan England was reserved for male lovers. Adonis speaks only eighty-eight of the poem’s eleven hundred lines, and when he does speak, he tries to convince Venus he’s too young to love her, and is only interested in hunting: “I know not love,' quoth he, 'nor will not know it, / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it.” Venus seems to not care about the age difference or Adonis’s indifference. Because she is a goddess, she is able to pick Adonis up and tuck him under her arm, and she physically restrains him when he tries to leave. Adonis protests that Venus doesn’t love him, but is just overcome with lust. The effect is comic, but Venus’s aggressive sexuality also challenges conventional Elizabethan ideas about gender.
The style of Venus and Adonis is erotic and highly visual. A great deal of the poem is given over to descriptions of the characters’ bodies and the natural world. These descriptions are sensual and lush. The colors red and white appear over and over again. A lover’s skin is a “whiter hue than white”; Adonis’s mouth is a “ruby-colour’d portal”; his face is caught “’Twixt crimson shame, and anger ashy pale”; Venus has “wax-red lips.” The red-and-white motif foreshadows the white tusks of the boar which will spill Adonis’s red blood, as well as “his pale cheeks and the blood / Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.”
The visual style of Venus and Adonis helps to underline that it’s a poem primarily about physical beauty. When Adonis turns into a flower at the end of the poem, Venus picks him from the ground and tucks him into her breast, to keep him close to her always. This transformation of Adonis from a hunter into a flower completes the idea of Venus as the active, powerful character in the poem, while Adonis plays the passive role.