Myth and Mythology in English Literature. Shakespeare's Gender Representation and Role-Reversal in "Venus and Adonis"

Term Paper, 2011

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Venus
2.1 Venus' Physical Appearance
2.2 Venus' Aspirations

3. Adonis
3.1 Adonis' Physical Appearance
3.2 Adonis' Refusal

4. The Boar and Adonis' Metamorphosis

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography
6.1 Books
6.2 Internet Publications

1. Introduction

William Shakespeare is and has always been one of the most read authors of all times. His stories, books, plays and even poems have been discussed and analysed several times and still play an important role in our society as new interpretations and adaptions surface on a daily basis. Pupils still have to read his plays in school and more and more movie and theatre productions seem to find their way into the world of Broadway and Hollywood. However, with today's impact of multimedia technology on society and applied arts a great amount of people forget to look deeper into the real meaning and the controversial issues that Shakespeare dealt with and tried to portray in his written work. Therefore, there has been the development of gender studies and queer theory that tries to have a closer look at Shakespeare and his use of sexual intentions: “So much sex is readily apparent in Shakespeare [...] [and] every play is shot with sexual puns.” (Wells 1).

One of Shakespeare's best known and most dealt with publications, in regard to gender studies, is his poem Venus and Adonis from 1593, which marks his first published work ever and incorporates two of the best known figures of Greek mythology that were first dealt with in Ovid's Metamorphoses (cf. Shakespeare 125). However, when it comes to their character traits and their course of action, one can notice that both of them adopt attributes from the opposite sex leading to a confusion in terms of gender roles. Both Venus and Adonis slip into the opposite sex when it comes to their physical appearance as well as to their actions and both of them make it quite clear that the poem does not deal with a story of real love, but with unrequited lust instead. In order to show this, this term paper in hand tries to analyse the main protagonists of the poem Venus and Adonis by focusing on their physical appearance as well as on their behaviour towards one another. Furthermore, the slight differences between the original myth itself by Ovid and Shakespeare's altered version will be taken into account in order to show the meaning and to highlight the functions of Shakespeare's version. Finally, this term paper will focus on two highly important symbols which would be the boar and ultimately Adonis' metamorphosis since both have an important meaning in regard to the portrayal of Venus, the Goddess of Love and her object of desire, Adonis.

2. Venus

2.1 Venus' Physical Appearance

''She's love, she loves, and yet she is not lov'd.'' (qtd. in Shakespeare 125). This quotation describes best the given situation in Shakespeare's version of the often recited mythological story. Being the Goddess of Love it is self-evident that Venus' beauty and loveliness is also portrayed within Shakespeare's poem, however, she receives some male attributes that make her seem more masculine than Adonis and make her appearance seem like the one of a man. Nonetheless, it is inevitable to mention that Venus' magnificence also gets transferred to the reader:

Were I hard-favoured, foul, or wrinkled-old,
Ill-nurtured, crooked, churlish, harsh in voice,
O' er worn, despisèd, rheumatic, and cold,
Thick-sighted, barren, lean, and lacking juice,
Then mightst thou pause, for then I were not for thee.
But having no defects, why dost abhor me? (Shakespeare 133-138)

One of the greatest powers that a Goddess of Love might have is the power to seduce other men in the wink of an eye. A highly important feature of this gift is the physical appearance. As the quotation above tries to indicate, Venus is stunningly beautiful as she numerates the unattractive features that she is missing. She is portrayed as a young and delicate woman with no deformations, no defects and no flaws, which makes it even harder for her to understand why she is being rejected by the one object she desires the most. Hence, she is willing to even go further by presenting her in the proper light and by praising her ever growing beauty to Adonis:

Thou canst not see one wrinkle in my brow.
Mine eyes are grey, and bright, and quick in turning. My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow.
My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning. (Shakespeare 139-142)

It seems as Venus' beauty knows no limits. She is the perfect physical representation of a woman that should not have any problems getting the man she is aiming for. Nevertheless, if one takes a closer look at the poem and its lines themselves, one notices that the whole poem of Venus and Adonis does not give much detailed information about individual features of Venus' looks. There is no mention of her hair, her face or other certain elements that would create a stereotypical image of a beautiful woman. On the contrary, however, Shakespeare provides the reader a more explicit description of Venus' appearance “in different terms, and she appears, for instance as a woman with “soft flesh” and a “smooth moist hand”.” (Velasco 298).

As mentioned before, however, Shakespeare did not follow Ovid's version of the story to one hundred percent and that is why Venus receives some more attributes in Shakespeare's version that launched the discussion within gender studies. The endearing and flawless physical appearance of Venus gets overshadowed by some of her more manly qualities:

Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,
Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh, and bone, Shaking her wings devouring all in haste
Till either gorge be stuffed or prey be gone [...]. (Shakespeare 55-58)

Venus' physical appearance within the poem itself is rather described by her actions and other comparisons made by Shakespeare than by an actual description of her looks. As one can see in the provided quotation above, it is Venus' sexual lust and fury that give her the visual aspects of an eagle, which emphasizes her deliberate use of violence in order to attain her target. Throughout the whole poem the reader can clearly see that Venus is superior to Adonis as far as her strength and her physical force is concerned. She ''murders with a kiss'' (Shakespeare 54) and is the only one who defeated the ''god of fight'' (Shakespeare 98), as she is capable of taking on men. Venus is described as a very determined and focused goddess, who pursues her own wishes and does not stop until she gets what she wants.

“Shakespeare completes Venus' [...] [physical appearance] by providing her with unusual qualities for a young lady in love, as [...] the active role in the game of love [is] usually given to men.” (Velasco 298). Therefore, it is important to have a closer look at Venus' actions and her aspirations after Adonis in order to have a better understanding of her true nature and to complement the image of her physical appearance in the reader's mind.

2.2 Venus' Aspirations

“Most of the poem's twelve hundred lines are hers, in the form of direct speech; in contrast, Adonis speaks only eighty-eight lines.” (Kahn 38). This quotation underlines Venus' character and attributes one can find in the poem. However, it is highly important to mention that this fact only results from Shakespeare's altered version of the myth, in which Adonis totally refuses Venus' demands. Due to this fact, Venus receives a great amount of male character traits that set her apart from Ovid's version and the reader only gets to know her character “through the demands [and aspirations] she makes on Adonis” (Kahn 38).

As already mentioned in chapter 2.1, the use of violence and physical force by Venus immediately strikes the eye of the reader. It seems as Venus turns into a hunter that desperately wants to prey upon her aim, Adonis:

With this, she seizeth on his sweating palm,
The precedent of pith and livelihood,
And, trembling in her passion, calls it balm -
Earth's sovereign salve to do a goddess good. Being so enraged, desire both lend her force
Courageously to pluck him from his horse. (Shakespeare 25-30)

Once again, Shakespeare emphasizes Venus' physical strength and superiority. She is able to pluck Adonis from his horse, which also underlines the manly picture of Venus being a rampant and “immodest” (Shakespeare 53) Goddess of Love. However, Shakespeare goes even further by picturing Venus as a dangerous force: “Here come and sit where never serpent hisses; // And being sat, I'll smother thee with kisses [...].” (Shakespeare 17-18). Venus' active part in the accurately described love game is shown through her “lustful language” (Shakespeare 47) and behaviour, which seems to be life-threatening: “[...] What follows more she murders with a kiss.” (Shakespeare 54).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Myth and Mythology in English Literature. Shakespeare's Gender Representation and Role-Reversal in "Venus and Adonis"
University of Augsburg  (Institut für Englische Sprachwissenschaft)
Myth and Mythology in English Literature
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Shakespeare Venus Adonis English Literature Term Paper Poem Role Reversal Gender
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Daniel Laux (Author), 2011, Myth and Mythology in English Literature. Shakespeare's Gender Representation and Role-Reversal in "Venus and Adonis", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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