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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 85-102

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Shakespeare's Eager Adonis

Lauren Shohet

In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, when Venus solicits Adonis, he famously turns away. Venus entreats:

"Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed,
And rein his proud head to the saddle-bow;
If thou wilt deign this favor, for thy meed
A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know." 1

Adonis rebuffs her, because "Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn" (line 4). The critical tradition has discussed in great detail Adonis's refusal to love. 2 But, importantly, this line does not begin with a refusal. Rather, it introduces Adonis with a positive predicate: he "loves" hunting. Moreover, the "but" that conjoins his predilection for hunting with his antipathy to love has dialectical overtones: Adonis would seem to scorn "love" more as an alternative to the hunt than as an independent proposition.

The two characters thus articulate distinct forms of "love" that present competing models of desire. Furthermore, the poem provocatively interrelates models of desire and language. In the stanza cited above, if Adonis alights, Venus will reward him with "'a thousand honey secrets.'" Not only does Venus promise the linguistic reward of "'secrets'" for erotic surrender, but her proposal of "'honey secrets'" as "'meed'" ("reward," punning on "mead" [honey liquor]) also intertwines these linguistic treats with the honeyed sexual "'secrets'" also on offer ("'honey'" denoting moreover sexual bliss). 3 And while Adonis straightforwardly "loves" hunting, he does not simply "scorn" Venus--as grammatical parallelism would have him do--but rather "laugh[s] to scorn" her [End Page 85] (my emphasis). Metrical contingency aside, this doubled verb adds a layer of complexity to Adonis's response to "love." Whereas hunting elicits an unmediated affective response ("hunting he loved"), the poem's evocation of eros emphasizes the mode through which Adonis (unlike Venus) distinctively expresses his response of affective withdrawal.

Such intersections of desire and discourse have been remarked in various literary contexts--commentators include Michel de Montaigne and Michel Foucault--and have occasioned innumerable provocative analyses in criticism of the last two decades. Relatively less explored in Shakespeare studies have been the questions of whether different kinds of desire require different poetics, and whether, conversely, different modes of discourse produce different kinds of desire. 4 I propose that we might fruitfully read Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis as addressing just these questions: as considering multiple and competing discourses of desire, and exploring how different poetic and erotic modes might inflect one another.

Previous criticism of Venus and Adonis certainly has remarked on the poem's engagement with love on the one hand and language on the other. But most scholarship on Venus and Adonis focuses either on questions of desire and subjectivity or on issues of language and representation. 5 More significantly, the limited number of analyses that bring these areas together tend to take only one of the two categories as a complex and multiple field. In considering the poem's "taxonomy of desire," for example, Catherine Belsey argues that the poem innovatively distinguishes between the concepts of love and lust. But while her focus on the difference between these terms has discursive implications, Belsey's interest lies in contrasting modes of desire, not modes of representation. Similarly, Heather Dubrow connects Venus's "linguistic" and "psychological" "habits," but relies on a unified notion of "language itself,"whereas I would propose that the poem encompasses multiple and competing notions of what language is. 6 In one further example, James Schiffer remarks (in passing) that the poem illustrates the interdependence of economies of language and desire in Lacanian analysis ("Venus' prophecy-curse also reminds us of the relationship throughout the poem between language and desire"),but Schiffer distinguishes neither among kinds of desire (as Belsey does) nor kinds of language. 7

In this essay, by contrast, I want to focus particularly on the range of disagreements between Venus and Adonis--sexual, linguistic, and representational--to explore how these contrasting [End Page 86] views come together into distinct (if asymmetrically articulated...


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