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 contemporary 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 it was first published in 1593. Venus and Adonis was published with a dedication to the Earl of Southampton in which Shakespeare promised to follow up this light-hearted and erotic poem with a “graver labor.” This almost certainly refers to The Rape of Lucrece, which was published a year later, in 1594, and which was also dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. The Rape of Lucrece was almost as popular as the earlier poem, going through at least six editions in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The poem is a “graver labor” than Venus and Adonis because it is neither humorous nor erotic, and it tackles troubling moral and political themes. However, like Venus and Adonis, Lucrece is also interested in the uncontrollable power of desire. Both poems were written in iambic pentameter.
Venus and Adonis retells an ancient Mediterranean myth about a beautiful boy, Adonis, who has no interest in love or sex and 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 to remember him. Venus and Adonis is primarily an erotic poem that focuses on the uncontrollable power of sexual desire. Venus plays the role of aggressive seducer, which in Elizabethan England was reserved for male lovers. Adonis only speaks a fraction of the poem’s 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 Adonis’s indifference, and because she is a goddess, she has the physical capacity to restrain him easily. The effect is comic, but Venus’s aggressive sexuality challenges conventional Elizabethan ideas about gender.
The Rape of Lucrece retells a story from Roman history that was well-known in Shakespeare’s England. Many authors had composed versions of this story before Shakespeare, including the Roman writers Ovid and Livy, and the medieval English poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. Shakespeare was probably familiar with all these versions. In the poem, Lucrece is the wife of the Roman nobleman Collatine. After Collatine boasts about his wife’s beauty and faithfulness in front of another Roman noble, the king’s son, Tarquin, travels to Lucrece’s house and rapes her. Afterward Lucrece sends her family a message telling them what happened, but not naming her attacker. Collatine returns home, where Lucrece tells him who raped her, then commits suicide. The story of Lucrece was particularly important to the Romans because her suicide led directly to the banishment of the royal family and the establishment of the Roman Republic by Collatine’s friend, Lucius Junius Brutus, whose ancestor, Marcus Junius Brutus, would play a significant role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This anti-monarchical significance made Lucrece a potentially risky story to tell in Elizabethan England.